marine debris

A view of marine debris from below, as fish or sea turtles might see it. (Photo: U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Are you at least 18 years old, capable of swimming 660 feet and concerned about plastic pollution in Earth's oceans? If so, the 5 Gyres Institute has a new online contest that may interest you.

While the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the most famous, it's just one of several ocean vortices, or gyres, whose currents pick up marine debris and amass it into giant, nebulous swirls of junk. These garbage patches mostly contain countless plastic specks that slowly crumble without decomposing, but they also lure larger detritus such as bags, bottles, lost fishing nets and shipping containers.

This can harm wildlife in a variety of ways. Sea turtles choke on plastic bags, seabirds fatally fill their stomachs with plastic scraps and marine mammals become hopelessly entangled in stray fishing lines. Even the tiniest bits of plastic are dangerous, absorbing toxins like mercury from water and tempting fish to eat them. As larger predators eat those fish, the toxins bioaccumulate up the food chain.

The 5 Gyres Institute is helping lead efforts to investigate this plastic plague, including a series of expeditions into Earth's five major subtropical ocean gyres to study what's out there and how it's affecting wildlife. The California-based group is also big on educating the public, since ocean pollution is a crowd-sourced problem that's difficult to prevent without widespread cooperation.

The new contest by 5 Gyres aims to address both missions: The group is requesting brief videos from members of the public, between 30 and 45 seconds long, explaining why they should be chosen to join its next research expedition. That expedition — a three-week sailing trip across the North Atlantic Ocean — will depart June 7 from Bermuda and end June 29 in Iceland. It will enter the North Atlantic Gyre as well as the Viking Gyre, two areas where marine debris has yet to be studied.

"The video doesn't need to be fancy, just a quick and sincere appeal to gather online votes," says Stiv Wilson, 5 Gyres' policy director. "Whoever gets the most votes wins a spot on the expedition plus airfare to Bermuda and back from Iceland. That's a prize worth $10,000."

All onboard meals as well as foul-weather gear will be provided for the winner — who must be at least 18 years old — but 5 Gyres is careful to warn this is "not a pleasure cruise."

"[T]he voyage is a 'hardcore sailing adventure' aboard 5 Gyres' partner vessel, the Sea Dragon, a working ship where crew will be expected to participate in every aspect of the expedition," the group explains in a statement. "This will include participating in plastic research, ship navigation and handling, and sharing of all onboard duties such as cooking and cleaning. No sailing experience is required but participants must be able to swim at least 200 meters."

5 Gyres will be accepting applications until 11:59 p.m. PDT on April 22, which is Earth Day (or 6:59 a.m. UTC on April 23). To submit your video or to vote for others, check out the contest homepage.

Russell McLendon is science editor at MNN. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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