OceanGybe: A Journey Across Maps, Cultures and Garbage

Maps inspire me. Following the boundaries of the continents, tracing the fine ridges of the mountain ranges, and discovering the sinuous meanderings of the great rivers and currents, I spend hours dreaming of locations all over the world. If a picture tells a thousand words, then a map is the equivalent of a thousand pictures. Maps are our window into viewing our world, but are by themselves only a window.


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By Bryson Robertson

At some point, you have to fold the map along its crease lines, put it down, grab your jacket and go see for yourself what the world looks like. In 2007, three freshly graduated engineering students – my brother Ryan Robertson our friend Hugh Patterson and I – did just this, embarking on the OceanGybe research and outreach expedition in hopes of exploring the vast blue voids between the multi-coloured continents of our globe. Oceans cover 71 percent of our planet, yet they hardly register on a map. We wanted to sail to the small islands that punctuate those monochrome blue expanses and see for ourselves the real boundaries between land and sea. We wanted to sit down with the people, listen to their stories, absorb their knowledge, explore landscapes (both below and above the surface) and, mostly, search out some rideable waves.


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As surfers, we scoured maps of the global coastline looking for our own paradise – dreamy beaches, completely virgin and free of human impact, with empty, epic waves breaking just offshore. Unfortunately, we discovered such places no longer exist – it is almost impossible to find a beach that is free of human impact.

We sailed some 70,000 kilometres during the OceanGybe expedition, visited hundreds of islands and beaches, crossed all three of this planet’s major oceans and never found a single beach without a washed-up plastic drink bottle. On the small island of Cocos Keeling in the middle of the Indian Ocean, we collected 339 plastic sandals and 246 plastic drink bottles in just 100 metres of beach. Regardless of how far from major human population we ventured, the ubiquitous, almost indestructible, disposable plastic drink bottle had beat us there.

Maps often show our oceans with flat featureless blue tones. They don’t illustrate the underwater mountains (the world’s tallest) or mountain ranges (the longest), the biggest animals ever (the blue whale is bigger than any known dinosaur or living animal) or the fact that under and around those blue patches on the map plastic waste kills up to a million sea birds, 100,000 sea mammals and way-too-many-to-count fish each year.


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Our civilized world treats the ocean as a never-ending resource and dumping ground. The facts on overfishing are frightening. According to National Geographic magazine, 90 percent of large fish, which we love to consume, are seriously overfished and 70 percent of commercial fish stocks are exploited far beyond sustainable limits. In addition, for every pound of fish we extract globally, we replace it with three pounds of rubbish.  Yet few people care, perhaps because all this is illustrated with a blank, blue space on a map or the ocean is just something far below the airplane window.


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Plastic on Cocos Keeling Atoll. BRYSON ROBERTSON PHOTO

On the water, sailing home from Maui to British Columbia after 42 months of waves, adventure and littered beaches, we crossed the North Pacific Gyre. A gyre is an atmospheric phenomenon, a huge stable high pressure system with very little wind, calm seas, and beautiful weather.  The currents and winds which pushed our small boat towards home also make up the medium that moves millions of tonnes of plastic debris towards the gyre, now known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a monumental floating soup of plastic pieces which inhabit much of the northeast Pacific Ocean. Slowing sailing the gyre, very rarely was there a time when we could look out and not see a floating milk crate, fishing buoy, polystyrene cooler, or some other form of society’s trash. We spent 10 days in the gyre, taking water and plastic debris samples before hoisting the sails and pointing the bow northeast towards Vancouver Island. Dry land, hot showers, cold beer and empty waves motivated us forward.


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The OceanGybe Expedition spent 3.5 years afloat. DEAN AZIM PHOTO

Almost 1000 kilometres before making landfall on Vancouver Island, we watched a heavy fog bank roll over the eastern horizon and envelop the boat and crew.  With breaking waves washing over the entire boat and heavily shortened sail, we navigated through the cold, damp clouds by maps and instruments alone. Five days later, we could almost hear the waves breaking on the beaches, we could smell the damp, decomposing organics in the forests of home, but could still see nothing. Slowing our pace dramatically, we tentatively angled towards shore, searching in the greyness for any perceivable change.  Suddenly, we sailed out of our grey cocoon, into the bright sunshine and a flotilla of small fishing boats. Home at last,  now let’s find some surf.


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Welcome to Panama OceanGybe. DEAN AZIM PHOTO


The contrast between Hawaii and BC could not have been starker. We had traded mahi-mahi for salmon, dolphins for seals, palm trees for Douglas firs, and boardshorts for full wetsuits. Landing the dingy in a protected cove, our favourite Sitka surfboards in hand, we trekked off searching for waves on the other side of the headland.  After a couple of hours, we exited the forest and walked onto a desolate beach, complete with white sand, a clear mountain stream and waves that peaked at two inches high. Exploring, we discovered the same vision we had seen at hundreds of beaches around the world. The high-tide line was covered with plastic bottles, plastic fishing buoys, polystyrene bits and all sorts of other plastic human pollution.  Conducting a survey of the debris over a 100-metre stretch, we noted that much of the plastic had travelled even further than we had – it was from Japan, China, Taiwan, Korea, and numerous other countries thousands of ocean miles from where we were standing. Did the people who had disposed of this plastic pollution in the ocean realise how far it had travelled and how it was impacting our marine ecosystem on the other side of the world? And by the same token, do many Canadians realise how far and wide our dropped candy-wrapper or water bottle will travel?


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Following our maps and charts into numerous little coves and bays on the west coast of Vancouver Island over the next three weeks, we did finally manage to more than satiate our surf hunger.  We also collected fresh mussels at low tide, watched eagles soar above the treetops, and experienced the raw wilderness that makes so many of us proud to call BC home. Our convoluted coastline of bays, islands and headlands looks beautiful on the map but it is not until you step through the window and into the real world that you get a true feeling for the land. Perhaps we need to take another look at our maps, remove some town names and replace them with images of leaping salmon, misty treelines, and lumbering bears. Take those featureless-blue expanses and draw in blue whales, rogue waves and huge undersea mountain ranges to remind us of just how much more there is out there to explore, and protect.


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