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Mission Ocean: Microplastics in the Tobago Cays

by Mission Océan 12 Oct 2018 13:31 UTC

You may have read our previous article on the fantastic flora, fauna and sea life that we encountered during our visit to the Tobago Cays Marine Reserve; we really did love our visit, and returned a further two times as we cruised up and down the Grenadines. We will certainly go back there; we would love to take family and guests, and absolutely encourage you to do the same. This article is in no way designed to dissuade you from going to the Tobago Cays, but rather to show you that unfortunately plastic pollution – a bit like love – is all around us, and everywhere we go.

We'd taken the kayaks over to Petit Bateau for a picnic under the palm trees on our second day in the marine reserve. The island looked so idyllic from our transom as we dropped the anchor; white sand framed by a lush green hill, brilliant turquoise water. But as we searched for the perfect spot to settle down with our salads and hard-boiled eggs, brushing away dried seaweed and chasing little crabs, we were immediately struck, and quite horrified, by the amount of small, brightly coloured bits that we could see in the sand. The brilliant white beach of this protected island appeared to be covered in tiny pieces of plastic.

We returned later that day, once the heat had gone out of the sun, with our microplastics sampling kit, keen to understand more about what we were seeing. Our kit is very simple – we made it ourselves using things that we had on board, and based on techniques from an educational program in which we had been trained in Palma de Mallorca.

Some terminology for you: it is generally accepted, as we learnt at the oceanographic institute in the Balearics last year, that a microplastic particle is smaller than 5mm in diameter. A macroplastic is therefore a plastic piece that is over 5mm in size; these are the plastics that generally get spotted and picked up during beach cleans, for example. Some studies will differ in these definitions; however.

Our kit consists of a 1m x 1m quadrant, made using a bit of old rope that we had lying around our locker, a metal kitchen sieve and a bucket. We place the quadrant on the beach, and then remove small handfuls of sand from within it (to approx. 2.5cm depth). The sand is then sieved, and any material left in the sieve goes into the bucket. We remove any obvious large organic items, such as seaweed, shells or stones. We were especially mindful of this during our study of the Tobago Cays, as it is against the rules of the park to remove anything natural – including sand – from the islands or the sea bed there. We then sort the plastic pieces, and measure them using 5mm squared paper. If a piece fits inside one of the squares, it's a microplastic; if it doesn't, then it's a macro.

It is both fascinating and horrifying to watch as the sand drains away through the sieve, and the plastic particles begin to emerge. Usually, we would take samples from three or four locations on the beach (above, on and below the tide line, for example) in order to hypothesize as to whether the pollution has been introduced by beach-goers, or whether it has come from the sea. This time, we took just one sample from the small beach. And within this 1m x 1m square, this is what we found.

17 microplastics and 22 macroplastics were contained within that small volume of sand. This is the worst sample we have come across so far, and it was clear (due to discolouration and fragmentation) that almost everything we had found had come from the sea. The Tobago Cays look out into the wide expanse of the Atlantic Ocean; the anchorage is beautifully protected by the reef that surrounds it, and so the waters inside are calm, but beyond the reef lies the ocean, in all its power and glory. We are neither equipped nor qualified to analyse and understand where these plastics may have originated from, but – with the exception of the cigarette butt, sweet tube top, spray can button and toothpaste lid – the objects had obviously travelled a long way, with UV from the sun, waves, currents and salt all working to break them down into little pieces. This is how the "plastic soup" that fill the five ocean gyres is formed: large pieces of trash break up into smaller and smaller fragments due to horizontal and vertical currents, sunlight and other factors.

Some of the microplastics that we found were soft, reminiscent of polystyrene cups and burger boxes, for example – whereas some were hard. Probably manufactured in Asia, had they once been part of a product or packaging in Europe or Africa, before finding their way into the ocean? We have no way of knowing.

We found half a nurdle, which are plastic pellets used to manufacture all manner of hard plastic objects, from toys to furniture, bottle caps to car parts. In widely reported cases, huge containers transporting nurdles across the world have fallen into the oceans, spilling millions and millions of these beads into the waters. We had been challenged by one of the volunteers in Palma to find a "nurdle-free beach" somewhere; I'll let you know if we do.

Whilst we were in the Tobago Cays, we also picked up trash on two beaches, on Petit Bateau and on Jamesby. We found bottles, broken flipflops and even a syringe. But on the uninhabited island of Jamesby, we had the strangest and most upsetting of finds. A child had made two boats using pieces of plastic wrapping, corks and other picnic litter that he or she had obviously found on the beach. The boats were very detailed, with keels, a good attempt at rigging and lots of other details that we felt only the child of a cruising family could really know; it reminded us of some liveaboard friends whose children showed us amazing paper boats that they had made, with sails that they could raise and lower, and an anchor that they could drop or stow. And yet the child who had made those clever little boats on the beach on Jamesby had left them there, amongst the cigarette butts and beer bottles that some sunset picnicker had also decided to discard. This shocked us. Perhaps we are making too many assumptions, but we had a very hard time imagining any liveaboard child who would want to see that trash return to the ocean.

We photographed our findings and shared them on social media, receiving plenty of feedback from our followers. A few days later, we received a heartening public message from the Tourist Office of St Vincent & The Grenadines: "This is so unfortunate, we'll be reposting your findings in an effort to bring awareness to the issue. Our environment should be protected not polluted."

The pollution that we found in the Tobago Cays is not to do with the people of the Grenadines, their lifestyles or their waste management. The small particles have mainly come from afar, and the larger pieces of trash seem – let's be honest – to have been left there by careless cruisers and charter guests after a beer on the beach. Different projects and technologies are beginning to be put forward to try to clean microplastic particles from the oceans, and create barriers at river mouths to stop the flow from inland. None of these are yet in place, or even – in my humble opinion – particularly realistic, given the enormity of the task with which they are faced. Studies are emerging every day, showing plastic found in the Galapagos, in the Antarctic, on tiny islands inhabited only by seabirds... It is clear that we need to stop putting plastics into the sea, and we need to stop now. Why not start with all of us in the sailing community (and we know that many of you already have), doing our bit on board, at home or in the office, to stem the plastic tide?

Mission Ocean is proud to be supported by: Boero, Doyle Sails Palma, Rotary District 1730, Navigair, OctoMarine, Battery World Service, Victron Energy, Monaco Marine, Aquatabs, Spade Anchors, Plastimo, Furuno France, Pejout Marine Services, Lyvio, Storm Bird, Aethic, Corsica Yacht Services, Astrolabe Expeditions, Asociacion Ondine, AGL Marine, and Sail-Worldcruising.com

Mission Ocean is Laura Beard and Henrique Agostinho. Their three year plus mission is to share their love and respect for the ocean with others, through education and scientific research. Neither is a stranger to the water, so they have combined all their skills and passions in this bold, courageous and inspiring project. Sail-Worldcruising.com is delighted to be with them for the journey of their lifetime. You can also find out more on their Facebook page and Instagram account @missionocean06.

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