It’s 8:30 in the morning, and I’m pushing a fire engine red trimaran kayak into the gulf of Ajaccio. There’s not a cloud in the sky, and the water is so still that our hulls are like a child’s fingers gliding across a perfectly frosted birthday cake.
As the CorSeaCare mission entered its second week, I volunteered to join the fifth leg of the trip. With almost no wind in our sails, we rely on our legs to pedal the dozen kilometers from the quiet Porticcio beach in Grosseto-Prugna to the crowded Trottel beach in Ajaccio’s city center.
My sailing buddy is Dylan Clamens, a 24-year-old masters student studying marine biology. It’s his first time sailing the trimaran by himself after spending the past week learning the ropes from more experienced members of the team. Sailing alongside us are two CorSeaCare veterans, Dorine and Simon. It’s Dorine’s 22nd birthday and she wants to spend it on the water.
Dylan tells me that on top of being a non-polluting mode of transportation, the trimarans are the identity of the CorSeaCare mission. They’re an icebreaker that helps open a dialogue with the public, as well as a literal vessel for conducting scientific research.
“This mission isn’t about collecting debris, we’re here primarily to collect data. And it’s this data that will help us fix problems in the Mediterranean at their source, to improve the way we function as a society,” Dylan says.
The mission of CorSeaCare, according to its creator Pierre-Ange Giudicelli, is simple: sharing a love for the Mediterranean Sea, and raising awareness of various problems it faces.
Every summer for the past five years, Pierre-Ange has gathered a team of student volunteers to sail around the island for a month collecting data and organizing public awareness campaigns along the way. This year there’s 8 of them, from different parts of France and one from Belgium, each with different backgrounds and interests.
That variety comes in handy when you consider the sheer breadth of projects the group undertakes. This year they’re collecting data on underwater noise pollution, invasive species and plastic pollution – both on the water’s surface and on land. They also organize workshops on the beach, where children can create figurines from plastic the group has collected from the sea.
“We ask them if they think it’s normal that this garbage ended up in the sea, and it becomes a sort of game where they get to give their opinion,” Pierre-Ange says. “Usually, they independently come to the conclusion that plastic pollution is a problem for the sea. Kids have an instinct.”
Back on the trimaran, Dylan demonstrates how the group conducts a pollution transect in open water. Using an app on his phone, he inputs the GPS coordinates of our starting point.
“We need to travel in a straight line for 20 minutes, and collect any plastic floating on the surface in between the two exterior hulls of the trimaran, which represents a distance of three meters (10 feet). After 20 minutes, I input the GPS coordinates of the end point and we categorize the debris.”
The suggestion that we do a transect came from Dorine on our sister boat, who noticed we were passing through a macroplastic accumulation zone.
Accumulation zones are patches of water where floating debris gathers, due to currents or wind or boat traffic. The concept of a seventh continent of floating waste is a communications shortcut to describe the worst of these accumulation zones, where huge concentrations of garbage obscure the water they’re floating in.
The accumulation zone we were sailing through looked nothing like the shocking images of the islands of waste you might have seen in the media. To be honest, I could hardly see the plastic they were talking about at all, which is part of the problem.
Macroplastic is a term to describe plastic that’s been broken down by salt water, into small pieces that are still visible with the naked eye.
“The only reason we can see them in the water right now is because there’s no wind,” Dylan says. “Focus on the small specks that are creating ripples on the surface.”
Some of the pieces were too small to even catch with our mesh net. So Dorine told us to just count the number of pieces that passed through the hulls. This data is precious to help researchers keep track of areas where plastic collects and what type of plastic is found in what area. By tracking the currents and wind patterns, scientists have a better idea of where this debris originated, which can then help policymakers craft preventive solutions.
The idea that scientific data is the basis of societal change is the bedrock of a new wave of environmental organizations. Mare Vivu has found a like-minded partner for this edition of CorSeaCare in a new group called Nacomed, eco-sailors that teach volunteers the ins and outs of sailing while using their marine mobility to conduct scientific research.
Our trimarans met up with their sailboat Yaka as it was lowering a massive net into the water to collect samples of microplastics. Called a Manta net for its resemblance to the filter feeding ray, the ultra-fine mesh catches microscopic bits of plastic that are invisible to the naked eye.
“Organizing scientific studies at sea is a long and complicated procedure for a lot of research centers, especially on a large scale like Corsica’s coastline,” says Nacomed’s head of scientific projects Pauline Panchairi. “Our advantage is our sailboat regularly navigates around the island, allowing us to take samples over a truly unprecedented distance and time.”
Their current study focuses on collecting and classifying microplastics by size and composition to try to determine their origin. Pauline says the data they’re collecting points to a large amount of microplastics that originated from what she calls “everyday life”.
“Scientific sampling shouldn’t be dissociated from the desire to find concrete solutions,” she says. “By identifying these microplastics we realize a lot of them originate from everyday objects, and there are already solutions to reducing and eliminating this kind of waste before it hits the sea.”
This data eventually makes it up to the people who are running the show, governments and policymakers who have the power to change rules and regulations. But that, Pauline says, is the long game.
In the short-term, the goal is to flood the shores with offshore data, to transmit the information they’ve collected through their research and to show the public that solutions exist on an individual level. This is the responsibility every seafaring and sea-loving person has, according to Nacomed.
If their hypothesis holds, they believe this chain of information will help stem the flow of plastic pollution at the source.