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“Disenchanted”: Easter Island – A Paradise Devastated by Plastic Pollution

Arrived on the legendary Easter Island (Chile) on May 20th, the R4WO scientific teams have proceeded onto the first scientific surveys in the South Pacific Garbage Patch on the coasts of the island devastated by plastic waste. At the same time, they have also continued with different sociological studies undertaken until now with local populations. 

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The famous island, located in the South Pacific Garbage Patch suffers a lot from plastic pollution © Peter Charaf / Race for Water 2015

 

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Debris on Ovahe Beach © Peter Charaf / Race for Water 2015

In 1997, the oceanographer Charles Moore discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This zone of relative inertia, created by oceanic currents in which trash accumulates and creates a polluted zone, became the most famous of the 5 existing trash vortexes on the planet. Often compared to a “7th continent”, these garbage patches actually look more like a plastic soup, where debris of different size accumulates. This debris can travel long distances and for years before gathering in the middle of the gyres. For example, trash that entered Japanese waters after the 2011 tsunami now finds itself off the Canadian shores. Describing his discovery, Charles Moore later wrote:

“As I gazed from the deck at the surface of what ought to have been a pristine ocean, I was confronted, as far as the eye could see, with the sight of plastic. It seemed unbelievable, but I never found a clear spot. In the week it took to cross the subtropical high, no matter what time of day I looked, plastic debris was floating everywhere: bottles, bottle caps, wrappers, fragments”

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The R4WO sailing towards Easter Island © Peter Charaf / Race for Water 2015

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the most famous trash gyre and the one that has been studied the most; however, there are other existing patches. The trash vortex in the South Pacific is lesser known than other vortexes, particularly because of its great distance from the coast. That distance is also one reason why we have little scientific data about it. However, its extent seems to be very significant, according to estimates. Due to the lack of data and potential significance, the R4WO team determined it was critical to sail there to assess the situation.

The scientific teams discovered beaches covered with debris.  After painstaking collection work on the beaches of Ovahe and Anakena, the R4WO was able to sample an impressive number of meso-debris and macro-debris, as Frédéric Sciacca, Scientific Advisor of the expedition, outlines:

Beach sampling on Ovahe © Peter Charaf / Race for Water 2015

“It is desperate to see as much plastic waste on the beaches of this remote paradise. The samplings have been particularly strenuous on this stopover, the constitution of quadrats and analyzing them has been long and extremely laborious, as the quantities of waste there were significant. We have been especially shocked during our visit to the famous Tongariki site, where the Moais are erected: at the feet of the 15 majestic statues was a beach littered with macro-debris!”

At the same time, imagery obtained of the affected beaches by the eBee drone has allowed the development of interactive high-definition maps, which should enable the reported results to be cross-checked. Its use has also allowed the exploration of beaches which were until now inaccessible as they are too steep. In addition to these different analysis and sampling activities, the R4WO has also seized the opportunity during this stopover to continue its sociological study. Through meetings with authorities, fishing associations and local populations, a visit of a recycling factory, awareness-raising activities and discussions with young people on the island, the onshore team has taken advantage of every opportunity to leave the island with a maximum amount of useful information and items for its expedition. Everything has been organized with the support of the Swiss Embassy in Chile, as well as Kakaka Here Henua, a local organisation that fights for cleaner beaches.

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Beach sampling on Anakena © Peter Charaf / Race for Water 2015

The “MOD70 Race for Water” trimaran and the crew are setting off today for Hawaii, the next big stopover on the trip. This stopover is particularly promising because of scheduled meetings with the scientific community and the island’s authorities which have an unparalleled expertise in the field of marine pollution, as the archipelago suffers from it for many years. En route for Honolulu, the R4WO will stop in Palmyra, the second scientific stopover of the South Pacific gyre.

The R4WO scientific and sociological approaches are leading to one goal: to understand the current situation of global marine pollution. This first step will then provide essential data and answers for the Race for Water foundation to come up with viable solutions for the future. The latter has already started studying potential solutions and preparing the Planet Solar boat, which it received back in April this year, for future missions focusing on the issue of plastic pollution.

Click here to read more about the observations of the R4WO on Easter Island and follow the Race for Water Odyssey live here!