A crew of 25 scientists left the Bay Area this week on a boat headed toward a large vortex of floating plastic debris in the Pacific Ocean to study the impacts the trash is having on the marine environment and figure out the best ways to clean it up.

The mission, named Project Kaisei, is being organized by the Sausalito-based Ocean Voyages Institute, which also operates the 151-foot vessel called Kaisei that is taking the scientists to the marine debris.

The debris is located hundreds of miles away from the coastline in the North Pacific Gyre, a whirlpool of currents that travel in a clockwise direction, according to Ryan Yerkey, chief of operations for the project.

Yerkey said the Kaisei left from Point Richmond on Tuesday and stopped in Sausalito before heading out to sea with the hope of reaching the vortex in about five days. The voyage is expected to last until late August or early September.

He said the marine debris includes all sorts of buoyant objects like tires, dolls, bottles and other plastic objects that can also be broken down into smaller pieces due to exposure to the sun and other weather conditions.

Yerkey said part of the mission will be to estimate the size of the vortex. He said it could be up to 30 feet deep and another marine researcher has estimated it to be the size of Texas.

Yerkey said he has “watched this problem evolve over the past 25 years, and it’s been very saddening and also disconcerting. The type of marine debris has dramatically changed in the past 25 years with society’s use of disposable items.”

The crew of the Kaisei will be joined by another vessel that also received funding by the Ocean Voyages Institute. The New Horizon, run by members of the San Diego-based Scripps Institution of Oceanography, left from Southern California on Sunday.

Some members of the crews will be focusing on scientific sampling of the marine debris to determine its impact on the environment and organisms in the ocean, according to Yerkey.
“Science hasn’t really previously been done to illustrate the effects” of the debris, he said.
Yerkey said other members of the crew will also look at various harvesting and reclamation technology to “look at how best a future cleanup can be performed.”

The project has been funded by donations from around the world, according to Yerkey.
However, “people don’t have to open their pocketbooks to be a part of this,” he said.

Yerkey said people can have impacts by being responsible with how they dispose trash, try to recycle as much as possible, and by participating in events such as beach cleanups.

“With all the items that end up left on a beach or fall out of a truck, everything that washes out to sea compounds the issue,” he said. “We need to look at the way that our society and societies around the world can be educated about what’s going on out there.”

Video and photos from the voyage will be updated daily at www.projectkaisei.org.

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