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Scientists from Scripps Institution of Oceanography are 11 days into an unprecedented “plastics watching” expedition in the North Pacific Gyre. They say there’s a lot to see, and it’s not pretty.

They are seeing tons of litter from North America and Asia — including detergent bottles, milk crates, toothbrushes, bottles and buckets — that have been sucked into the gyre’s whirlpool.

“Last night we pulled out a large plastic tube with a whole accumulation of fish and crabs inside of it,” said Ph.D. student Jesse Powell, who took a few minutes from his sampling duties to speak with me by satellite phone today from the research vessel New Horizon, which is currently in an area 1,500 miles from the San Diego coast.

The area is called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, even though scientists say it’s more like a plastic stew. The Algalita Marine Research Foundation estimates the plastic-rich region is twice the size of the United States. The 28-member crew is sampling deeper than other oceanographic missions have to date, about 500 meters below the surface.

There’s also a whale watcher and bird observer on board, the latter looking at how the black-footed albatross and Cook’s petrel interact with manmade flotables. From other research, it’s known that mammals are mistaking plastics for food.

“The sea birds ingest a lot of plastic and you can find plastic throughout their gullet when they die on islands out in the Pacific,” said Powell from the New Horizon. “So plastic floating in the ocean is a definitely a bad thing for larger animals in this area.”

But the main focus of the mission — dubbed the Scripps Environmental Accumulation of Plastic Expedition — are smaller scraps not detectable by satellite, airplanes or sometimes even the naked eye. These micro-plastics, which are less than a couple millimeters long, could bind with pollutants like PCBs to create toxic pellets for fish, and possibly for people who eat them.

“We can we see lots of bits of plastics,” said Powell from the New Horizon. “It kind of looks like plastic confetti.”

Powell says he’s surprised by the volume of tiny plastics, which “photodegrade” into ever smaller pieces but never completely break down. On the “expedition’s blog, Powell wrote about a time humans thought they couldn’t possibly alter something so vast.

The cruise has easily disproved that theory. Doctoral students ultimately aim to answer who and what is being affected by plastic, which was invented less than 150 years ago, but is now rampant in one of the oldest ecosystem’s on earth.

It’s been the same for a long time,” said Miriam Goldstein, the expedition’s leader, just before the ship left. “It has low productivity so it’s like a desert, but deserts are real cool places with interesting animals that aren’t found anywhere else. So it would be really depressing to ruin this really cool place.”

Check back for more updates on the expedition.

— REBECCA TOLIN

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