What, exactly, is in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

January 23, 2013

Note: This is from the journal of Brian Kallen, a Healdsburg native who lives in Tahoe as a whitewater raft guide and sailor. Kallen helped steer his family’s Kelly-Peterson 44 from New Zealand to Richmond Bay, a journey that lasted four months and covered 5,000 nautical miles and took him right through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. His encounter left a lasting impression about the sheer mass of garbage out there that’s out of sight and out of mind for most people.


By Brian Kallen

Brian Kallen.

We left Hawaii cutting northeast, trying to run a gauntlet between heavy weather to the north that was forcing even the trans-Pacific container ships out of its way, and the north pacific high pressure zone somewhere to our east, which is an area of no wind.

We ended up too far east and the High moved in on us forcing us to motor steadily north looking for the wind about the same time as we hit the Pacific trash vortex.

One day I noticed something brown floating high in the water through the porthole where I stood in the galley. As it passed, I raced up on deck to confirm its existence, the sea being an extraordinarily empty place for the most part, and any break in routine worth the effort. During the passage from American Samoa to Hawaii we’d spotted maybe a half dozen ships, mostly trawlers, and some sea birds. Definitely nothing just floating at random. It didn’t really look like a coconut husk, which is what I assumed it to be initially, but it had drifted too far away to see clearly, so I simply made a mental note and went back down below.

The next day I saw two more things — pieces of plastic floating by in the waves like little white rafts. By the third day the sightings had become frequent. A bleached out red ball, a dish soap bottle, the base of a Coleman lantern, a lampshade covered in dull green molted sea growth, hovering an inch below the surface, upright and rocking slowly back and forth.

A few days later we were full on into a junkyard. Standing on the deck you could see chunks of trash floating by at any given time, and if you looked at the water next to the boat you could easily spot the prevalent little white flecks of bleached and degraded plastic floating at the top, each a mere millimeter or two across but a legion in their billions, composing the bulk of the trash in the Pacific trash vortex. Floating close to the surface too were also small gelatinous globs, most the size of grapes or smaller, slightly brown, and flecked with orange spots, some impregnated with bits of trash, others seeming to group together into blobs, all mixed in with the ubiquitous white flecks of plastic.

I had long before pulled my fishing line, despite seeing copious signs of bait fish, the idea of eating anything that was feeding on a mass of plastic not sounding particularly appealing.

The Garbage Patch is located within the North Pacific Gyre, one of the five major oceanic gyres.
The Garbage Patch is located within the North Pacific Gyre, one of the five major oceanic gyres.

Common among the trash were soap bottles, dish soap mainly, floating on the surface of the water here and there as gentle swells caressed them, the sun having bleached them bone white, decaying labels hanging off in leprous flakes, their composition made to contain their toxic contents now insuring their persistence in the elements.

At one point in the night we hit something, a clump of rope perhaps, and there was an audible ‘whump’ and the propeller began to vibrate and we had to shut it off. It was night, and there was nothing to be done except wait it out (there was no wind) and dive on it in the morning. Soon after sunrise, Dan went over the side but whatever it was had gone, and we set off as before, trekking ever north across the glassy sea.

The next day I stood watch on deck, watching the ponderous amounts of trash float by. That day, besides soap bottles, was a big fishing net day. Clumps the size of basket balls or comforters were almost always within sight, and at one point I had to run back from my place on the foredeck to steer around a mass of net and rope that had formed into an island about 15 feet in diameter.

Most of the trash was floating at or below the surface, meaning that I could only see that which was 50-100 feet from the boat, and only when it was calm. Fishing buoys were the exception, usually big orange balls that could be seen from a mile away, or on several occasions a glass float like a bubble bobbing along under the sun, floating along like beacons of the disposed filth, reminding me that even out to the horizon and beyond the trash was still there.

There were lots of birds out, not the big graceful albatross I was expecting but swept wing petrels and red tailed tropic birds stark white with black robbers masks across their eyes and grand white and red ornamental tail feathers that hung beneath them as they hovered, hunting, and then trailed behind as they dived after the flying fish close to the surface in the trash.

We passed 50 feet away from a small buoy one day and I could see on the surface dozens of tiny white bugs flitting around like tiny water skeeters, riding our bow wake, growing thick as we were next to the buoy, then thinning out as we pulled away until there were none to be seen.

We came into the vortex a few days after heading north from Hawaii, and were on it until after we turned east for the mainland U.S.. Even 200 miles off the California coast, bits and pieces of trash floated by, though whether coming from the vortex or going towards it I don’t know. All told though we spent almost two weeks moving through just the edge of the world’s largest and best concealed junkyard, trash concentrated as it might be in a disused parking lot in a bad part of town, strewn over millions of square miles, and that’s just what was on the water’s surface.

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Kallen did not capture any images of the trash he saw, but we found this interesting. Photographer Kim Preston staged some images of plastic in water to show, quite visibly, how marine animals mistake plastic as food. Read more from Brian Kallen’s journal.

About the Author

Alison Hawkes was a Bay Nature editor from 2011-2017. Before Bay Nature she worked in journalism for more than a decade as a former newspaper reporter turned radio producer turned web editor with each rendition bringing her closer to her dream of covering environmental issues. She co-founded Way Out West, a site dedicated to covering Bay Area environmental news.