National Geographic Emerging Explorer Gregg Treinish founded Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, a nonprofit organization connecting outdoor adventurers with scientists in need of data from the field. He also organizes his own expeditions, contributing to research on wildlife-human interaction, fragmented habitats, and threatened species.
Quite frequently, I am asked about the idea of people greenwashing their expeditions in order to get sponsorship or to make it seem as if they care about the environment when in fact all they want is go to and play. Unfortunately, it happens a lot. People are traveling under the guise of “raising awareness” or under other even less tangible auspices.
There is no doubt these expeditions will continue indefinitely. But the truth is, I don’t care. It isn’t for me to judge or to try and dissuade these folks from making the choices they do, and hey, at least they are thinking about the changing climate and the threats natural areas are facing rather than ignoring the problem outright.
I believe that one of the main reasons people do this in the first place is that they do not know how they can actually make a difference. That is something I have personally struggled with my whole life too. How does one individual make a difference in the face of such enormous challenges?
Augustine Island volcano, the most active in Alaska. Photo by Steve Weileman.
For the past two years, ASC adventurers Steve Weileman and Ken Campbell have been pushing their limits in the outdoors. When the pair came to Adventures and Scientist for Conservation to help them identify some ways they could make their next expedition more meaningful, it was clear from the start they these guys genuinely wanted to make their experience about more than just pure adventure.
“In order to maximize our contribution to science, I contacted the staff at wondering if they had any projects that would benefit from our location and ability. They, in turn, put me in touch with Abby Barrows, Coastal Monitoring and Outreach Coordinator for the Marine Environmental Research Institute (MERI). One Skype conversation and a few emails later and we would be collecting water samples for Abby as part of her microplastics project.” – Steve Weileman
Steve and Ken journeyed this year to Augustine Island, a remote island located at the entrance to Cook Inlet and home to the most active volcano in Alaska. Aside from a few stray geologists, Augustine receives almost no visitors. Steve explains:
“The entire time we were on the island, 10 days in total, we didn’t see one other craft – pleasure or commercial. We had a VHF radio and even a EPRIB, but there just wasn’t anyone in the vicinity to respond.”
Kayaking around Augustine Island. Photo by Steve Weileman.
While exploring remote coastlines by kayaking through truly extreme conditions, they have exemplified what it is to think beyond themselves, volunteering to collect data along the way. I created ASC with exactly this type of adventure in mind. It takes a certain set of skills to reach these remote areas and likewise there is a tremendous opportunity, if not responsibility, to contribute to understanding and protecting them while visiting.
“I’ve never experienced the rapid onset of heavy wind as I did around Augustine Island. It was only our second day on the island when we assaulted by the wind. Trying to make our way through the rock garden, it went from dead calm to 40+ knots of wind in a span as little as 15 minutes. Get caught in these conditions while offshore, or on a lee shore with no landings available and the outcome would be truly grim. That’s why we planned our paddles for early morning regardless of the tide level. It was the only way to get any mileage done.” – Steve Weileman
During their journey, which was full of tremendous challenge, Steve and Ken collected samples that are currently being analyzed by Dr. Barrows and her team at MERI. By simply collecting one liter samples and recording some basic parameters about the conditions and locations from which they were sampling, the team leveraged their skills to provide much needed information that will directly contribute to marine management. Dr. Barrows explains the purpose behind the study:
“Plastic debris as an environmental concern dates from the 1970’s — in recent years the pieces smaller than 5mm, called microplastics are of increasing concern. The full impact of microplastic presence in the marine environment is far from understood. In 1997, staggering amounts of plastic were discovered in the Pacific Ocean. Plastic accumulation has also been documented in the North Atlantic. What is the impact of these plastics on the health of the marine ecosystem?”
Collecting water samples on Augustine Island. Photo by Ken Campbell.
Abby has asked ASC to find her volunteers to sample marine water in as many locations as possible around the globe with the goal of identifying the major sources of microplastics and determine their toxic potential. What is shocking is that, of the ocean water collected both by ASC athletes and others, more than 80% have been contaminated with microplastics.
80% of all the ocean water around the world has plastics in it. This means the dolphins you see, the fish you eat, the birds that eat the fish and all other life in the marine environment is being forced to deal with this problem.
Ann Luskey, a noted ocean activist, recently spoke to a group at MERI and explained that, “Whales get entangled in plastic fishing lines. Sea turtles mistake floating plastic bags for their favorite food—jelly fish—and suffocate when they try to eat it.” Microscopic plastic particles can be just as damaging.
The problem is likely one of the greatest threats the planet is facing, and Steve and Ken’s work is a small, yet important, step toward a solution. The more data we gather, the more leverage groups like 5Gyres, another ASC partner organization, and MERI have to pressure lawmakers to limit the use of plastics.Limiting plastics in the oceans is important. Make a change. You, the general public, can choose to ask for your water with no straw, to avoid using a plastic bag at the supermarket, or you can choose the products you buy with the packaging in mind.
Example of a microplastic contaminant. 100 um is 1/10,000th of a meter! Photo by Abby Barrows.
We have constantly been told by the volunteer athletes working with ASC that the mission of collecting data changes the overall experience of being outside. Suddenly things shift from the goal of just climbing a peak or traversing a range or kayaking across an ocean to collecting a better sample, one that perhaps no one else could collect. As Steve puts it:
“Overall [it was] a mentally and physically tough experience, but I can’t begin to describe the satisfaction I felt knowing that my efforts were making a difference in helping solve some of the tough issues facing our planet. By taking the time to collect the water samples, the sense of reward I felt was tenfold what I would have felt if I had been there just for the experience. Having participated with a program facilitated by Adventure and Scientist for Conservation, I can’t imagine not using my particular skills to help; anything else would seem selfish and hollow.”
Collecting data and observations on Augustine. Photo by Steve Weileman.
I’d like to note that Ken and Steve have been helping to track marine debris from the 2011 Japanese tsunami event for the last two years in addition to their work with ASC. They call it the Ikkatsu Project. According to Steve, “Ikkatsu roughly translates as ‘in this together’ and we felt this was appropriate as this event truly brings both cultures on either side of the Pacific together.”
Last year they travelled the Washington coast by kayak last year looking for tsunami debris and conducting marine surveys for NOAA and for which they produced the documentary Ikkatsu: The Roadless Coast.