Plastic Horizons: An all-women crew sets sail to uncover the state of plastic pollution in BC’s Salish Sea

words & photos :: Nikkey Dawn

The official motto of the province of British Columbia is: Splendor sine occasu, a latin phrase that translates to “Splendor without Diminishment.” But these days, just how undiminished is our natural splendor? With so much of the coastline hidden behind the fortress of the Coast Mountains and rimmed by dense, near-impenetrable rainforest, I’ve always thought the BC coast to be well defended against human impact. This “untouched” coastline of my imagination became a comfort I’d return to often after hearing about each new old-growth logging operation, mining disaster, LNG project or pipeline. 

As I stood on the western beach of C`išaa (Benson Island, part of BC’s celebrated Broken Group in Pacific Rim National Park), this mental security blanket was ripped away for good. Wind-sculpted Sitka trees crowd the water’s edge, unable to do anything but bear witness to the siege of global consumer waste washing ashore. This secluded, ancient landmass has weathered all kinds of storms, but never one quite like the onslaught of styrofoam, bottle caps, single-use flossers, bottles, sandals, discarded fishing gear and more. And that’s only what I can see and pick up—who knows how many billions of microplastics have been wave-pounded into this rocky shoreline? 

Laura Leiva (right) and Bimadoshak Pucan using water to collect and jar the nanoplastic air samples.

The same ocean currents that carry vital nutrients to sustain life on this planet now also carry pollutants with the power to destroy it. Ocean advocate and skipper Emily Penn knows this all too well and she’s the reason 14 of us have embarked on this sailing/research voyage. Penn’s years spent crossing oceans has given her a front row seat to the growing plastic problem. After reading about microplastics showing up in marine life, she began to wonder about their effects on human health. Penn got tested, and discovered her body contained 29 of 32 banned toxins, many of which are endocrine disruptors linked to reproductive, developmental,  immune, and neurological issues. She also learned that not only do most women unknowingly carry these toxins in their own bodies, they can also pass them down to the next generation. 

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Astonished, Penn co-founded eXXpedition—a series of women-led research voyages focusing on microplastics and a mission to make the unseen seen. This goal extends to shining a light on women thriving in traditionally male-dominated fields such as STEM, photography, sailing and exploration. Hand-picked by Penn, our crew on this voyage hails from five different countries and has the skills to conduct the science, work on solutions, and tell the story. She calls us change makers.

The same ocean currents that carry vital nutrients to sustain life on this planet now also carry pollutants with the power to destroy it.

Our crew is led by two onboard scientists, Dr. Imogen Napper from the UK and marine biologist, Laura Leiva from Honduras. Imiy, as we call her, studies microplastic sources and break-up rates. Leiva specializes in the bioaccumulation and biomagnification of plastics in marine life. We board the Sea Dragon in Vancouver and begin our eight-day journey by sampling the Strait of Georgia for microplastics.

Our weapon of choice for this goal is the unwieldy Manta Trawler (named so for resembling the ray). Once deployed in the ocean, the “wings” keep it bobbing along the surface as the “mouth”, a half-metre opening in the metal, filters sea water into a fine net sleeve that trails behind to catch debris. Each trawl lasts 30 minutes, then we raise the Manta out of the water and empty the sleeve contents through a three-layered sieve. Inorganic material is plucked out and transferred into vials marked with the date and coordinates for later examination. All samples including sediment and air will be shipped off to scientists who’ve requested them to support their studies.

 

The first Strait of Georgia vial contains 10 or so (visible to the naked eye) brightly coloured plastics of different shapes and sizes. There’s one long thread, a synthetic microfibre (shed from polyester, nylon, rayon and other synthetic clothing every time they go through the wash). I’d recently learned from Dr. Peter Ross, president of research at Ocean Wise, that the Vancouver waste water treatment plant filters approximately 98 per cent of synthetic microparticles, but a staggering 30 billion still make it out to sea every year. The reality of this stat hits me as the confetti-like pieces swirl around the vial in my hand. Unconsciously, I’d shaken it like a snow globe as if that would somehow make them disappear.

Rounding the southern tip of Vancouver Island, I’m immersed in recording nanoplastic samples and don’t notice the fog bank marching closer until the first brushes of cool air reach our port side. It hits and the light fractures as Sea Dragon suddenly straddles two dimensions: sunny and calm, wild and windy. Waves slam over the rails, announcing their dominion as the  ship crosses over this boundary. We’ve picked up speed to 35 knots and need to reef the mainsail, fast. Our captain’s voice rings out through the chaos conducting us all into place like an oceanic maestro. She is a woman who has crossed oceans, faced down pirates and danced with storms—when she speaks, we act. Satisfied with our positions, she starts winching. The sail cracks overhead, protesting every turn but it’s no match for her. Trimmed to reef 3, the Sea Dragon settles.

Sunset in the broken group. L to R: Sarah Michler, Ellise Chappel, Beccy Finlayson (filming).

By the next day, phyto- and zooplankton-rich waters have clogged the water filtration system and we no longer have a functioning shower. These small, translucent organisms are also filling up the sleeve of the Manta. We do our best to wash them back into the sea, knowing they are the building blocks of the food chain. With their size, it’s easy to see how microplastics can masquerade among them and be mistaken as edible. Something that has surprised Leiva in her studies is that copepods, members of the zooplankton, will actually eat microplastics themselves. “It’s scary because they are at the bottom levels of the food web and a food source for numerous fish and other crustaceans,” she says. “This highlights the potential for bioaccumulation and biomagnification of plastic.” When this happens, species at the top suffer. 

As we approach the tall tree-covered rocky outcroppings of the Broken Group islands in Barkley Sound, my crewmates jaws gape so low I’m afraid they’ll take on water. Anna Strang, the first mate, blasts the Jurassic Park theme song over the speakers. It feels right, this is the pinnacle of our voyage. 

In the morning we dingy over to C`išaa, where Hank Gus and Aaron Watts of the Tseshaht Nation Beach Keepers receive us in a traditional welcome of song and story. The steady beat of the drum—like a heart—weaves around us in the mist. We follow an overgrown path to the beach most vulnerable to debris. Tseshaht history on this island goes back tens of thousands of years. Their archaeological footprint consists entirely of natural, biodegradable sources. Who will find our facial wipes, ketchup bottles and straws in this remote place? What will they think?

Sailing south, styrofoam continues to haunt our samples. It’s a particularly concerning material because of how porous it is. Microplastics often act as an attractant to other pollutants like pesticides and PCBs, giving them a solid form to hold on to in water. Microplastics are one way these highly toxic chemicals enter the coastal food web—if you eat seafood, this is something to think about. Nanoplastics have also been found in the air we breathe, the food we eat and the water we drink.

We’re only at the beginning of understanding what this means for human health. Many of the ingredients that go into plastic ‘recipes’ have only been mass produced for the last 70 years or so. Until recently, few studies have been conducted on potential health effects. Various chemicals used in plastic production have been found to cause a wide range of health issues from ADHD to cancer—but because scientists can’t say plastic is a definitive root (due to individual factors such as lifestyle and genetic predisposition) phrases such as “linked to” and “can cause” must be used, essentially giving government and industry room for excuses.  

Looking over at the blue green layers of the mountains, I’m reminded we’re on the edge of the Pacific Rim, sailing over tectonic plates locked in an eternal battle of motion and direction. I can only hope our own battles on this coastline are resolved less violently. 

Under the microscope in the Victoria harbour we cannot find a single sample that’s totally free of plastic. Eight billion tons of plastic flows into the ocean every year. We can’t do much about what’s already in the ocean but we can stop the flow of it. 

Sailing down to Seattle, our eXXpedition crew workshops solutions: every individual has a voice they can use to advocate for change and at least one skill they can put towards solving the problem. All it takes is critical thinking, but we are running out of time. We must act soon, and together. 

On her way to Vancouver, Penn sailed through the Pacific Gyre, also known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This is where currents accumulate ocean plastic in the North Pacific region. For over a week, every time she looked over the side she saw what she describes as a “plastic soup”. The size and density of the plastics in the samples from the gyre dwarf our Salish Sea findings in comparison, for now. Should we do nothing, these vials represent our future. 

If that happens, there’ll be no more pretending at pristine. —ML

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