Doctors Nikolai Maximenko and Jan Haffner enter the Waikiki Yacht Club promptly at the appointed hour. Maximenko is tall, clean-cut, in dress khakis and a pressed Hawaiian shirt. His stride is long and purposeful, but he is tipped forward under the weight of a shoulder-strung briefcase bursting with papers. Haffner, equal in height, is in jeans and a t-shirt. He carries only a camera and an air of nonchalance.
I’ve been corresponding with these men since 2012 when Murre and I made our solo leap to Alaska. On that 26-day passage, I collected marine debris and noted debris locations for Maximenko’s Pacific Research Center. I made daily reports; sent hundreds of photos.
As debris hunters, Murre and I struck gold when we located a half-sunk, panga-type fishing boat pumping in the swell at around 31N. Its submerged portions streamed long fronds of seaweed around which swam a school of Dorado. I circled for twenty minutes panting with excitement. The photos I returned were published in Maximenko’s findings.
I’ve not met either man in person.
We smile our greetings and shake hands.
Then an uncomfortable pause as we face each other. “Where shall we begin?” I ask.
“Let us talk for a minute,” replies Maximenko.
Three hours later, the entire contents of Maximenko’s briefcase have been spread upon the table in the club dining room. Maps of North Pacific debris by relative concentration. Maps of average winds over the summer. NOAA weather maps. White papers on debris distribution since the Japanese Tsunami of 2011 pulled 1.5 million tons of material into the ocean.
The conversation ricochets like a stray bullet. My questions: how much plastic is there? How does it get into the ocean? Where is it most dense? If there is so much of it, why can’t it be found via satellite?
“Randall, it is a sad, stunning fact that we know more about Mars than we do ocean currents. We have a general idea of the characteristics of the top few feet of flow, but beyond that, we cannot predict.
“It still amazes me that people think there is an island of trash in the garbage patch, a solid structure that one could even walk on. This is false. The Pacific Gyre is vast and ever-changing. Plastics are not short of space in which to drift. In fact, the garbage patch is so dispersed we can’t see it clearly by satellite. One pixel of satellite imagery is 25 square kilometers. We can’t see the garbage patch from space.
“We know generally how much plastic is produced and how much of it moves into the landfill; the remainder should be in the ocean. But when we extrapolate from our marine finds, we can only account for a fraction of the remainder. Where does it go? We don’t know. We simply don’t know.
This is Maximenko’s refrain, “we don’t know.” But the conversation continues, and as Maximenko talks, one becomes aware that, in fact, there is much he does know. But the field in concern is three-fifths of the planet and still largely inaccessible. Questions are coming on faster than answers.
“For example,” says Maximenko, “we think that current should describe long, slow curves due to the Coriolis Effect. But right now I have a collection of drift buoys in the ITCZ, and what we find is that once out of the consistent force of wind, the buoys loop, large loops inside of which are nested loops. It is as if the buoys are moons rotating around an earth which is, itself, rotating around the sun.”
Map of relative debris concentrations in the Northeast Pacific. The black line from Hawaii to the mainland is a great circle route. If only the wind blew that way.
The satellite trackers arrive. In the parlance of oceanography, they are “drift buoys,” small, white spheres the size of soccer balls attached to long blue tethers and heavy, stainless steel clips. A magnet near the bottom, once removed, activates the device, which can send position messages for up to a year.
We test them, argue about their ability to withstand what the ocean can offer. “What qualifies as large enough drift for a drift buoy?” I ask. Maximenko becomes thoughtful. “Well, Randall,” he says, “they are very expensive. Think of them as Rolex watches.” More he will not say. Because we don’t know what I will find.
Evenings since my arrival have been, for someone of my inclination, maximally social. I’ve likely not talked so much since my San Francisco departure in October of last year. Thank you to my Honolulu hosts for being so gracious.
With Doctors Nikolai Maximenko and Jan Haffner (right of me) and my friend Bill Gallagher, in town from San Francisco (to my left). Freshly brewed beer for Randall, fresh salmon and fresh kale!
Dinner and conversation with Mary Spadaro, Figure 8 Virtual Voyager and frequent commenter who has cruised the Pacific in a Tahiti Ketch.
A couple beers (and then a couple more) with Tico Jarek, who works for WideOrbit, one of my generous sponsors.
The route home looks long and slow; lows are still dropping down from the north and leave in their wake days of calm.
But one cannot get home without departing.
By the time you read this Mo and I will be at sea once again.