We ghosted out of the Chester River leaving behind another beautiful, secluded anchorage and amazing sunrise. There were about 8 knots of wind from behind pushing Base Camp, our 31’ sailboat, west as we sliced through small, sparkling ripples on the water. We barely saw the far shore almost 7 miles away, although the double spans of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge were in perfect view. I pushed the button to engage our autopilot, leaving the helm to fend for itself. I grabbed a collection bottle and walked to the bow of our sailboat, looking forward to my mission of gathering another sample of the bay's brackish water.
We are sailors and adventures, but we are also network engineers and textile designers who ply the bay’s waters mostly for fun and curiosity. However, since we spend a lot of time on the bay sailing efficiently under wind power to many different locations, we have transformed our 31’ sailboat into a zero-dollar cost research vessel that is able to collect water samples in otherwise hard-to-obtain locations. Scientists and researchers study our sample results without their exorbitant collection costs. The best part for us is that we have added purpose to our passion for sailing, which makes our outings more meaningful in many directions.
While sailing Base Camp, our original intent was not to be researchers or scientists, but our added interest developed and led us recently to team up with a non-profit organization called Adventure Scientists. This organization equips scientists and researchers with data collected from the outdoors that is crucial to unlocking solutions to the world's environmental challenges. My team combines sailing adventures, mostly on the Chesapeake Bay and occasionally beyond, with helping to study the alarming amounts of microplastics (plastic particles smaller than 5 millimeters in size) that are polluting our world’s oceans and tributaries.
While conducting our scientific research on Base Camp, we gather samples following strict procedures developed by Adventure Scientists. We rinse a 1-liter bottle numerous times, fill it up with our water sample, and seal it under water. This process aims to reduce outside contaminates which would skew the results. The clothing we wear during sampling must be taken into consideration too in order not to contaminate the samples. Additionally, we document our latitude/longitude, water temperature, current, wind direction, and several other pieces of data. We mail our samples and notes to a lab where the sample is filtered and analyzed microscopically to determine microplastic content. The lab also determines and documents the color of each piece of plastic. Our results are then added to a global public database along with over 100 other adventurers like us gathering samples from waterways all over the world. Currently, this online database of difficult-to-obtain data currently holds close to 1,800 water samples. And sadly, about 85% of the samples have contained microplastics.
Scientists confirm that these tiny plastic particles have been consistently found at alarmingly high levels worldwide. Our Chesapeake Bay results seem to be confirming these findings locally as well. Plastic pollutants are tiny and harmful to our environment in many ways. Poisonous chemicals and toxins in the waters adhere to microplastics. Then, aquatic wildlife often mistake microplastics for plankton and digests the particles. And the cycle continues as microplastics re-enter the human food chain by fish consumption. Not only are scientists finding fish stomachs full of plastics, but some of that plastic can end up in our own bodies.
Microplastics in our waterways poses a monumental clean-up challenge. Companies all over the world are studying and testing a variety of ideas to clean our oceans. Cities and college campuses in the United States are banning plastic bags and single-serving plastic water bottle sales. The movement is attracting attention and gradually more people are becoming aware of this important issue. We can all do our party to help with this issue. The opportunities to help out are endless. Here are just a few simple steps we can take:
. Inform the public and boating community of this issue
. Participate in a local beach debris clean up
. Read labels: Purchase items that do not contain microbeads
. Re-use and recycle every piece of plastic you possibly can.