38,000 Nautical Miles, 300 Women, 30 Legs, 2 Years: Around the World Studying the Impact Plastic is Having on Our Oceans and Human Health    www.eXXpedition.com

By Jeanine Behr Getz

Which is scarier, the thought of a first-time sailor at the helm of a 70-foot ketch or the amount of seen or the thought of all the unseen plastic proliferating our lands and waters?

For some – it maybe be the first, for many – it’s the latter!

Last January, I threw caution to the wind. Without knowing any other applicants, nor having sailing knowledge/experience nor a science background, I entered into an applicant pool of 10,000 women from around the world vying for 300 crew member positions to study the impact of plastics on our oceans and human health.

“But why?” I am often asked.

Because “I wanted to see for myself!”

Many of us read about plastic pollution, we have a child or friend chasing after us, reminding us to bring our own reusable bag, straw, bottle, utensil set and cup. We see the pictures of turtles, birds, and whales entangled in and feasting on plastic. During local clean ups, we see our beaches, parks, roads and waterways blanketed with plastics. Yet, there are still doubters out there. I wanted to see what the doubters weren’t seeing; maybe I had it all wrong. I went looking for answers to questions like: are micro-plastics and is plastic pollution all really real and global? Is research and scientific data collecting important? Do laws and changed personal behaviors have meaningful impacts? And do YOU count? Do I count?  Do WE count?

After my recent deployment on Leg 3 of eXXpedition my answers are: YES, YES, YES and hell YES!

eXXpedition is a not-for-profit organization, founded in 2014 in the UK. It runs all women sailing research expeditions to investigate the causes of and solutions to ocean plastic pollution. This voyage, Around the World eXXpedition’s tag line is “making the unseen seen.” eXXpedition believes all citizens are integral parts of science and solutions on this issue. They have chosen to purposefully set intentions for this 2 year voyage to empower women from around the world with diverse masteries, to work together, as well as individually at home, to elevate the number of unseen (underrepresented) women in STEM careers. They are also researching the unseen effects plastics are having on women’s health while continuing their mission to elevate the sense of urgency and to study and find solutions for the seen plastics and unseen micro-plastics in our oceans.

Leg 3, exploring Antigua, was my first choice Leg, of the 30, for three main reasons:

  • I had never sailed before and this was the shortest leg of all 30
  • I wanted to see if the plastic ban laws passed in Antigua had a positive impact on an island I have been visiting for 25 years
  • I wanted to learn more and be part of a global solutions-based think tank network, studying the science and contributing to the data collection that is feeding two major plastic and micro-plastic studies.

Oooops, there is a fourth reason, I wanted to be able to experience all the above and share whatever I learned with as many people I can.

The Sailing: Winching, coiling, night watch, tethering, bow, aft…helm!?! Having to stand, let alone walk, clip and unclip myself while under sail from the aft to the bow to help winch the Yankee sail, launch the manta trawl or coil the ropes for the main sail may sound like non events for some, but it was like learning a second language while balancing on a tightrope for me!

Every Leg of eXXpedition consists of:

  • 1 mission leader (she is on several legs at a time, then switches, then comes back on)
  • 1 captain (Anna! She is on for all 30 legs, for 2 years!)
  • 1 1stmate (also on for several legs then switches out)
  • 1 deck hand (is on for several legs then switches out)
  • 10 new guest crewmembers on each leg
  • Some Legs are 10 days, one is 20 days and ours was 5

Our Leg 3 guest crew was made up of 10 dynamic awe-inspiring women from 6 different countries, 8 very different professions, but found commonalities via our curiosity to learn, willingness to listen and share, propensity for grit and passion for improving current situations. Check out our Leg 3 posse.

Are you wondering how does one find out about eXXpedition and get selected? Most of us were told about it thru colleagues or saw posts about it on social media through professional and special interest networks. Many crew members were selected by their companies, industries, countries and universities to apply. We all went through several interviews, we had to submit a video about why we wanted to be a crew member, what we would bring to the eXXpedition and were asked to identify our “superpower,” fill out a lengthy application and finally there was a Skype interview with our mission leader. You think college applications are stressful…lol!

The Island of Antigua: What does an island do to combat disposable plastic waste? Burn it? Recycle it? Or just ignore it in the hope their residents and visitors wouldn’t mind swimming or sunbathing with them?

Antigua decided burning plastic wasn’t healthy, they learned that there is no after market for these types of plastics and they know that a clean, healthy, responsible island economy is dependent on clean waters, beaches and tourism.  They decided to stop waste before it starts. The Island banned plastic bags; straws and Styrofoam take-out containers in 2016. If you had visited the island before then, you may still be able to picture plastic bags snagged in trees, floating in a pasture of goats or straws and Styrofoam clamshells making their way into the crystal blue water or onto the white beaches

Three years later, residents are proud of their country’s position. They can be seen using their reusable bags without fanfare. It’s second nature. On one beach clean up, we went ashore and collected over 7 bags of marine debris. There were no straws, plastic bags or Styrofoam clamshells in our collection. We did collect plastic bottles and bottle caps along with other marine debris. On a local school visit to talk about eXXpedition, students were using reusable straws and bottles and we listened to this young generation’s understanding of why they and their island are healthier for banning plastic bags, straws and Styrofoam containers. Many of the residents we met on and off the water were committed to a more responsible Antigua, but recognized there is more work to be done at home and globally.

The Science:  If you are wowed by my new sailing acumen, just wait for the science I learned. eXXpedition is conducting land and sea research. “The research conducted during the mission has been designed to advance a better understanding of the plastics issue as a whole and to work with industry to pinpoint solutions and policy at a global level by addressing knowledge-gaps and delivering evidence to inform effective solutions.”

On land, our research was documented through collections and exploring waste management systems, and at sea, we sampled surface, subsurface water and sediment. Our boat had been used by the British Army for an expedition to Antarctica in 2001 and is equipped as a science expedition boat with data collection, research and recording equipment. My favorite piece of equipment was the FTIR machine. The FTIR machine can analyze the material composition of a type of plastic within minutes. The institutions associated with eXXpedition are renowned in the field of studying plastics and our oceans; their studies were created way in advance of the start of the 1stleg of eXXpedition in October 2019. We were careful to follow their specific protocols, and controls to obtain the most exact and consistent samples. An example of one such protocol was the manta trawl sampling. This collection is timed by minutes, nautical miles and longitude and latitude coordinates. We examined sargassum and other collected pieces, put them into carefully labeled containers, which were stored to be sent back to researchers at the many institutions and organizations associated with eXXpedition.

Here are a few of the research studies our data collections contributed to, for more click here:

  • Analyzing the global extent, abundance and plastic polymer types in surface waters by Winnie Courtene-Jones, University of Plymouth
  • Analysis of the composition and distribution of different plastic polymer types in the upper ocean by Winnie Courtene-Jones, University of Plymouth
  • Circular Assessment Protocol by Jenna Jambeck, University of Georgia

Here are a few of the tools we used to collect and analyze data:

The manta trawl is used for the surface sampling collection. “This data is important to determine locations of plastic accumulation and how these may change and can also be used to refine oceanographic models used to study marine plastics.”

The Niskin bottles are used to collect subsurface microplastics. “This is important research as it will have implications on understanding the global budgeting of plastics and developing effective solutions must take into account all plastics.”

The metal claw used to collect sediment samples. “We are testing the hypothesis that sediments are a ‘sink’ for microplastics and will perform analysis to determine the abundance and polymer composition in coastal sediments.”

With purposeful intent I enter many “out of my comfort zone” adventures. For the thrill? Yes. For the learning opportunity? Yes. For the opportunity to role model for my daughter and other young women? Always!  eXXpedition was my first “at sea” adventure and it has had an indelible impact on my life. It has reaffirmed my resolve to stop waste before it starts. It has validated my convictions that the changes we make on land impact our waters. No matter how small the effort, every decision, law, innovation makes a difference, it has opened my mind to new ideals I hadn’t thought about before and this eXXpedition Leg3 crew has refreshed my hope that we can correct our current course.

YOU count, I count, and together WE count!

Six things you can do:

  • Bring your own! Be part of the reusable revolution.
  • Organize a clean up – in your neighborhood, your local park or at the beach
  • Support the efforts of others trying to stop disposable waste before it starts. Join a local effort, speak at a meeting, call or write a letter to your legislators or thank a business making better choices by eating or shopping at their restaurant or store
  • Purchase personal care products that are labeled marine safe and products that come in plastic free packaging
  • Get involved in citizen science projects, monitoring water with Sound Waters, counting birds with Audubon or eliminating invasive species with your local land trust.
  • Innovate, be the next Bill Gates of plastic free packaging, create new businesses based on a circular economy

If you would like a presentation for your local group or further details about the eXXpedition mission and science, please contact me via email at Jeanine@kidsthinkbig.com

Follow Exxpedition on Instagram to view their virtual voyages going on during the Covid times.