It was back in 1997, when Captain Charles Moore was sailing from Hawaii back to California, that he came across a swirling vortex of rubbish in the North Pacific Gyre.

Now known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and the symbol of the marine environment’s threatened condition, Charles returned two years later to study the accumulation of debris and publish a scientific paper on his team’s findings. 

This summer Algalita Marine Research and Education completed its eighth expedition to the accumulation zone, about 1,000 miles offshore. Over the course of a month, Charles and his small crew of researchers collected water samples and assessed the impact pollution is having on ocean life.

Much has changed since then. “Our phone didn’t really ring unless it was one of our board members,” recalled Marieta Francis, now Algalita’s executive director. “Now, a lot of people know about the serious issue of marine debris.”

This heightened awareness is due, in part, to Algalita’s research expeditions and educational outreach, which illustrate how every individual can be part of the solution to the escalating, and increasingly complex, challenge of rubbish in the world's waterways.

“We’re like the mouse that roared,” added Bill Francis, Algalita’s Secretary. “Our message seems to resonate with people. We provide access to information so individuals and organizations can make good decisions for the future.”

Algalita’s peer-reviewed findings are first presented to the environmental community but are open to the public. “Our goal is awareness, so we share our research willingly and thoroughly so people can integrate it into their own research and put a proper perspective on the problem,” said Bill, who represents Algalita on Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas Alliance, of which Coca-Cola is a founding member.

the Alguita
Algalita researchers take water samples during their recent month-long expedition, where they also observed the impact marine debris is having on ocean species.

Part of the Alliance’s focus, he said, is mitigating the primary sources of marine debris by finding ways to integrate environmental, political and industrial structures and policies worldwide. Bill noted that debris found in the Pacific Gyre is a microcosm of a global issue, adding that four other gyres in oceans around the world also clogged with refuse, too.

the Alguita
Alguita, a 50-ft. oceanographic research vessel captained by Algalita founder Charles Moore, recently completed its 8th expedition to the area known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Recruiting Citizen Scientists

Algalita is in the process of compiling a database of samples collected over the last 15 years. Soon, students and scientific organisations will be able to visit Algalita’s website to pull up maps, run data queries and search for trends. The organisation is also developing a mobile app that will give everyone the opportunity to add to its expanding body of research.

“People out on canoes who see debris will be able to take a photo on their phone and send it to us so we can monitor what’s happening everywhere, not just in middle of the Pacific Ocean,” Marieta said. “We want to get people involved and empower them to become citizen scientists.”

This approach aligns with the mission of Ocean Conservancy’s 2014 International Coastal Cleanup, the largest single-day volunteer effort benefiting the marine environment. Last year, nearly 650,000 volunteers in 92 countries picked up more than 12.3 million pounds of rubbish along coastlines and waterways.

“The scope of what we’re trying to do is huge,” Bill said, “but if we’re ever going to solve the problem, we’ve got to think globally and act locally.”