Exxpedition: Saving the Seas, One Voyage at a Time by Samantha Jakuboski, September 13 2018, 0 Comments

The waves crash, flowing back into the boundless ocean which rhythmically calls for their return. I watch as the sandpipers dance to the drum of these waves, swiftly trailing the path of the receding water and pecking their beaks into the sand to retrieve whatever small creatures the ocean has left them. As I walk barefoot along the shoreline, liberated at last from the stiff, leather confines of my ballet flats, I notice that my size 7 footprints are not the only ones left in the sand: washed up on the shore and intertwined with dried-up seaweed is a blue strand of plastic, an emblematic footprint of mankind carelessly leaving his mark (see picture above).

In our “The Plastic Invasion” and “There’s a Great Future in Plastics. Just Not the One We Thought” posts, Marcia Robbins writes about the problems with plastic consumption and waste in great detail. As a reminder, according to a 2017 Science Advances study published by Geyer et al, only 9% of plastics have been recycled between 1950 (when plastic production began to accelerate) and 2015, with 60% of all plastic amassing in landfills and the environment. Plastics do not degrade; rather, they break into smaller and smaller pieces called microplastics. In other words, they are here to stay. This little blue strand is evidence of that 60%, of the five trillion pieces of plastic floating in our oceans, of man’s plastic waste overflowing from the civilized world into that of the natural—of the synthetic invading the pure.

In an effort to explore and obtain a greater understanding of the plastics and chemicals in our ocean and the effects they have on human health, groups of women sail around the world each year on the 72-foot vessel Sea Dragon to raise awareness and conduct research. These all-female voyages, called Exxpedition (clever, right?), were launched in 2014 by Emily Penn and Lucy Gilliam. On each voyage, groups of 14 women are selected from diverse backgrounds. Recent crew members included filmmakers, designers, PhD students, marine scientists, photographers, journalists, an actress and a yoga instructor. With such a diverse crew on board, Exxpedition is able to leverage each individual’s skills to contribute to the journey—be it through filmmaking (see below for a documentary from the 2017 Around Britain trip), leading a morning yoga routine to start the day, or creating public art displays made of plastics to raise awareness of the debris found on shores and in the oceans.

Since the first trip around the Atlantic in 2014, Exxpedition voyages have explored the waters of Norway, the Amazon, the Caribbean, the Artic, the Great Lakes, Britain, and, most recently, in the summer of 2018, the North Pacific—home to the densest accumulation of plastics in the ocean, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Citizen Science

Throughout these month-long journeys, the crew is part of a massive citizen science campaign, collecting and analyzing plastics in the oceans and relaying their information and/or specimens to an assortment of institutional research projects back on shore. A sampling of research goals during the most recent North Pacific 2018 voyage include:

  • Using a Manta trawl (a net that looks like a manta ray), to collect and analyze microplastics in the water for the toxins on them and the microorganisms that live on them
  • Sampling water to analyze toxins, such as flame retardants, and toxins around microplastics
  • Sampling of air at head level to test for the presence of airborne microplastics
  • Collecting sediment to test for the presence and types of microplastics
  • Recording of debris in the ocean via an app called the Marine Debris Tracker (MDT)

As a biology major with an interest in the health sciences, I am inspired by the work of Exxpedition, and for my next few posts, I will explore the health effects of various toxins and chemicals found in plastics, such as phthalates and bisphenol A, that humans are exposed to every day. I hope that in doing so, I can help make the issue of pollution and waste more real and relatable to everyday life.

Author Bio: This past May, I graduated Barnard College with my Bachelor of Science in Biology. Strutting down the aisle of Rockefeller Center in my baby blue cap and gown, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of accomplishment, and three months later, as I sit on my couch writing this, I still do. The long, long nights studying in the library with my Ghirardelli Intense Dark Chocolate 72% cacao bars by my side, the thousands of questions I asked professors, and the hundreds of miles I ran in Riverside Park to clear my mind when I needed to decompress—they all paid off when I held that degree in my hand. As a woman who understands and experienced the rigor and demands of STEM, I appreciate Exxpedition’s mission of empowering women to travel the world, conduct research and make lasting and meaningful impacts in science.