A Counting Catharsis

It was anyone’s game by the time B Watch was stood-down that night. Noah Citron (the low-baller at 1,987 pieces) was close but not quite out. I was secretly rooting for Mike Gil (2,300 pieces). Mike was the only A Watcher in the pool, and the idea of him walking away with the entire bin of B Watch’s midnight snacks plus one vegan cupcake was more than a little entertaining. Being the only vegan in the pool, I wouldn’t be able to savor the victory snacks myself. I was, however, curious about the ship’s going-rate between baked goods and shower-day trades.

Let me back up. My name is Emilee Monson and I hail from Portland, Oregon. The reason I’m on this trip, aside from encouraging M*A*S*H style tomfoolery, is to help the public understand exactly what “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch” is, as well as what it is not. On shore I’m a museum educator at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI). I will be bringing back not just knowledge, but samples from the gyre that visitors will be able to hold in their hands.

Let’s face it; the so-called "Garbage Patch" is an abstract problem in an intangible location. I’m no more capable of bringing people out to experience the gyre than NASA is capable of getting people to Mars. What I can do is bring a little of the plastic remoteness back home with me.

Can you imagine actually holding a jar of artifacts from the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” in your hands? What about being able to compare that jar to the actual coordinates it was sampled from, as well as knowing the fingerprint of the types of plastic that are in it? We’ll be able to do that at OMSI when I get home.

Anyways, I was telling a story, wasn’t I?

It all started on deck with Kellie Jensen (3,207 pieces), Kim McCabe (3,004 pieces) and myself (2,500 pieces) staring at where the sun had been, when chief scientist Emelia DeForce (no bet) came looking for some extra eyes to help count the plastic from our latest significant neuston tow. We were 15 minutes away from dinner with watch to follow, but we agreed and counted a quick 105 pieces before heading to our paella and broccoli bellow.

“I heard it was another Windrow Tow,” mentioned Bart DiFiore (2,847 pieces) as he dished himself some buttered broccoli.

“Nah, probably only a few thousand pieces,” I replied going for the broccoli in oil.

“Want to bet on it?” Kim asked as she passed the Cholula sauce.

“Oh, you’re on!” I smiled as the entire table began to discuss what the stakes would be for our plastic counting pool.

Betting aboard was just a source of entertainment. Rarely do we bet commodities, and never currency. This keeps things interesting, but can sometimes be a creative challenge. We had already exhausted such penalties as having the losing party beep when backing up, or count like The Count from Sesame Street. Third assistant scientist Tommy Wootton (3,613 pieces—intentionally 1 piece more than Christa Choi’s bet of 3,612) had been beeping and ‘Aught-Aught-Aw’-ing for days without any wagers. We couldn’t all tuck in our shirts for a day, because Noah already wears his tucked in. Betting pools seem to need a bit more consensus than individual ones do. So scarce resources it was: our stakes would be our midnight snack.

That night all of the bets were written on the white board in the lab. As the watches turned over and the numbers of plastic grew the lower bets were crossed out. By morning, the final count was 4,677 pieces, leaving Tommy with the highest guess of 3,813 (1 more than Christa) and in possession of B Watch's entire snack bin, one snack from A Watch, and one vegan cupcake.

Sometimes making a game out of quantifying this plastic is the only way I can deal with it. Looking out at the water you can’t see any of the small pieces we catch in our nets. Most of the plastic we collect is tiny and mixed thoroughly with the marine life living under the water. The truth is, every net we tow out here catches plastic. Sometimes we hit a windrow and we’ll spend days counting one sample. Sometimes it’s just a few hundred pieces. Regardless, it shouldn’t be here.

There is nothing insignificant about what we’re finding; even if there’s no floating Great Pacific Garbage Island to put a flag on.

To find out more about Emilee’s work with the Sea Education Association (SEA), visit the Plastics at SEA: North Pacific Expedition website.

Photos courtesy of Jonathan Waterman

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