How A Surfboard Washing Up 1,600kms Away Raises Serious Concerns Over Ocean Plastics

Tony Butt

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Updated 25d ago

Ed's note: Remember a few weeks ago when we brought you news of how a surfboard, lost to the whims of the ocean after a horror wipeout, ended up mostly intact about 1,600 kms away? It was a thrill, including some great insight from Mr Tony Butt about the hows and whys that happened, which you can read right here. But, as readers pointed out, there were two boards involved in the equation -- and the other prized whip has just been found. While that is remarkable in itself, it does pose the wider question; what else is travelling at speed along the tops of our waters? What else is making its way up coastlines and into ecosystems. How can we as nomads and ocean-goers do more to help? Tony runs it down again.

Cape Town big-wave surfer Odd Persson lost his board on August 7, and much to everyone's surprise, it has just been found more than 1,600 km away.

Dougal Patterson had set adrift his and Odd Persson’s boards go while rescuing Odd from an angry Sunset Reef. Dougal’s board was found over 400km away after drifting up the west coast of South Africa for three weeks; but Odd’s board had disappeared for good.

Or so it seemed. Until a few days ago. Unbelievably, the board has just been found at a place called Meob Bay on a remote and inaccessible stretch of desert coastline in Namibia. The board had drifted a distance of over 1,600km over a period of three months.

Dougal's board on its own mini adventure. Oh to see the things this board has seen.

Dougal's board on its own mini adventure. Oh to see the things this board has seen.

Remarkable, you might think. Well, yes, the fact that the board was actually found – and in one piece – is truly astonishing. But the distance it travelled is not particularly unusual; plastic that finds its way into the sea regularly lands up on coastlines many thousands of kilometres away, or just ends up swirling around in oceanic gyres forever.

On the sea surface, any floating object is at the mercy of the ocean currents and winds. The currents and winds evolved to function as part of the living planet, transporting ‘useful stuff’ like heat energy, organic nutrients and marine animals from one part of the globe to the other. They also transport stuff that is not quite so essential, like plastic trash.

The power of the currents to transport plastic objects was demonstrated in a famous accident which turned into an experiment. In January 1992, over 28,000 plastic bath toys washed off a ship in the North Pacific. The power of the currents to transport plastic objects was demonstrated in a famous accident which turned into an experiment

The consignment contained red beavers, green frogs, blue turtles and, of course, yellow ducks. The plight of the animals was famously studied by oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, who not only monitored their landfall over the next decade or so, but also predicted their movements using a computer model of ocean surface currents.

Ten months later, in November 1992, the animals began to wash up on the coast of Alaska, about 3,000km from their starting point. Four years later, in 1996, more landed further south in Washington State. Ebbesmeyer predicted that many of them would have also travelled up into the Arctic and become trapped in the ice. There where they would remain for about five or six years, gradually drifting from the North Pacific into the North Atlantic. The prediction was verified when, between 2000 and 2003, more toys were washed ashore on the eastern seaboard of North America. Ten months later, in November 1992, the animals began to wash up on the coast of Alaska, about 3,000km from their starting point

It was also hypothesised that a huge number of the animals would continue drifting around the North Pacific, caught up in the Gyres. The Gyres are vast circulating areas of water containing the major surface currents of the world. The toys would have been caught up in the North Pacific Subpolar and Subtropical Gyres, and many of them would have ended up in an area in the northeast corner of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre – which I’m sure you have heard of – called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It is one of six places around the world where most of our plastic trash ends up.

Trajectory of floating plastic animals.

Trajectory of floating plastic animals.

Plastic doesn’t degrade. It just breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces as it drifts around the planet. Some will end up on coastlines, but most will end up as a soup of tiny particles circulating in the gyres, continually being ingested by marine animals.

Miraculously, Dougal’s and Odd’s surfboards were recovered relatively soon after they were lost. The most likely thing would have been for them to end up as a million fragments circulating around some gyre. In a few years’ time, after working its way up the food chain, a part of Odd’s board might have even ended up in your stomach.

If you want to visualise for yourself how plastic is transported around the world’s oceans, Eric van Sebille and colleagues from the University of New South Wales have developed a simulation model. They have an interactive website (HERE), where you can use the model to ‘spill’ plastic into the sea at any point around the world’s oceans and see where it goes over the next ten years.

In summary, plastic pollution in the ocean is a really serious problem. The terms ‘long-term’ and ‘far-reaching’ are not really adequate. The fact that plastic never goes away and the fact that the ocean currents transport it all over the globe, suggest ‘eternal’ and ‘infinite’ to be more appropriate. If we find a way to stop the accumulation of plastic soon enough, we might just be able to save the oceans.