Volvo Ocean Race Research Finds Microplastics In Remote Areas

February 13, 2018 by  
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Published on February 12th, 2018
by Steve Hanley


February 12th, 2018 by

The Volvo Ocean Race is one of the most grueling sporting contests in the world. The teams race a total of 46,000 miles over a period of 9 months. Each leg is roughly 6,000 miles long and takes up to 3 weeks to complete — three weeks in which the sailors often get by on a few hours of sleep a day and eat reconstituted freeze dried food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. For a brief introduction to what they experience out on the water, where wind speeds can exceed 50 miles per hour, check out the video below.


The theme of this year’s race is raising awareness of about the massive amounts of plastic debris that is floating in the ocean’s of the world. Leaving Hong Kong last week, one team got its keel tangled up with some plastic sheeting and had to sail backward briefly to get rid of it. One of the seven teams in the competition is called Turn The Tide On Plastic and is sponsored by the Mirpuri Foundation, a nonprofit foundation based in Portugal that is deeply involved in ocean plastic research.

Microplastics Found In Remote Areas

The course this year included a stopover in Cape Town, South Africa before heading across the South Indian Ocean to Melbourne, Australia. Turn The Tide On Plastic used special equipment along the way to take samples of the ocean water it was travelling through. When it reached Melbourne, those samples were flown to the Geomar Helmholtz Center for Ocean Research located in Kiel, Germany. There they were analyzed.

Researcher Sören Gutekunst reports the samples taken from the South Indian Ocean — an area of the world that is devoid of most human activity, showed 42 particles of plastic per cubic meter — an unexpectedly high number given the remoteness of the area.

“Data on microplastics has not been taken from this extremely remote area before and what we found was relatively high levels,” Gutekunst tells The Guardian. “There are places in the ocean which are not being observed and that is why it is so special for us to be doing this. It is amazing that we have the opportunity and this could lead to much further knowledge about what is happening with microplastics in the ocean.”

Other samples collected during the race showed the highest microplastic levels around Europe’s north Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts, ranging from 180 to 307 particles per cubic meter. High levels were also recorded off the coast of Cape Town — 152 per cubic meter — and the Australian coast — 115 particles per cubic meter.

Plastics Found 6 Miles Down In The Marianas Trench

Perhaps the most startling news about contamination in the ocean was reported a year ago by researchers at the University of Newcastle in the UK. Small crustaceans that live at the bottom of the Marianas Trench in the Pacific Ocean — the deepest part of the ocean known —  were harvested by a robotic underwater research vessel. They were found to have 50 times more toxic chemicals in their bodies than crabs that live in polluted waterways in China..

“We still think of the deep ocean as being this remote and pristine realm, safe from human impact, but our research shows that, sadly, this could not be further from the truth,” said Alan Jamieson, who led the research. “The fact that we found such extraordinary levels of these pollutants really brings home the long term, devastating impact that mankind is having on the planet.”

Some people, many of whom are now employed in the Trump administration, pooh pooh such concerns. They believe the earth, the atmosphere, and the oceans are so enormous that no amount of human activity could possible have an effect on them. They are wrong. Using the planet we live on as a communal cesspool is simply arrogant and unbelievably stupid. The fact that corporations have been doing so for so long in the pursuit of profits is criminally negligent. Cleaning up the mess humanity has made will take centuries and hundreds of trillions of dollars. But the implications of not doing so are simply unthinkable.




About the Author

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Rhode Island. You can follow him on Google + and on Twitter.

Researcher Compares Garbage Patch In Pacific Ocean To Floating ‘Landfill’

August 15, 2014 by  
Filed under Plastic

LONG BEACH ( — A massive patch of garbage floating in the ocean between California and Hawaii continues to grow and have an adverse impact on the ecosystem, researchers announced Friday.

KNX 1070’s Bob Brill reports Capt. Charles Moore and his research team are returning to their home base in Long Beach after nearly two months at sea studying the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”.

Researchers Compare Garbage Patch In Pacific Ocean To Floating ‘Landfill’

Moore was part of a crew of scientists assembled by the Algalita Marine Research Institute who lived for 30 days in July amid the debris to evaluate long-term trends and changes in the Gyre by merging data collected over the past 15 years with new 2014 data.

But after spending nearly two months at sea studying to display samples of plastic pollution and to transfer fish samples to area research labs for testing to determine the extent of toxic infiltration into the ecosystem, Moore said the garbage patch appears to be getting worse.

Moore, who has studied the debris patch known as the Pacific Gyre for over 15 years, said the amount of pollution in the North Pacific Ocean has grown exponentially from plastic and trash washed into the sea by tsunamis, storms and other disasters.

“My mind is blown,” said Moore. “It’s like an landfill got inundated with water and all the stuff in the landfill started floating.”

As many as hundreds of miles of concentrated floating plastic in the North Pacific is visible to the naked eye, according to Moore.

The vast majority of the garbage usually hits well north and south of Southern California because of natural barriers such as wind and currents, but plastics could alter endocrine systems that are vital to the health of both fish and humans, said Moore.

“Enlarged and discolored livers in the fish, we’re looking at hormone disruption, the kind of things that we see in fish that are impacted by plastics in rivers,” Moore said. “We already know that many fish that are male have been feminized living downstream from places where there are chemical pollutants.”

Scientists say the primary risk with synthetic plastic debris is it can be easily confused with natural food due to its small sizes and lower-than-seawater density.

Moore and his crew are scheduled to dock at Alamitos Bay Landing in Long Beach around 4 p.m., according to officials.

Plane Search Raises Questions About Sea of Floating Junk

March 30, 2014 by  
Filed under Plastic


HT malaysia map search plane ml 140328 16x9 608 Plane Search Raises Questions About Sea of Floating Junk

The search area for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has been shifted nearly 700 miles northeast, March 28, 2014. (Australian Maritime Safety Authority)

The search for debris from missing Malaysia Airlines flight 370 has not turned up any evidence of a crash, but it has trained the world’s gaze on thousands of pieces of junk floating on the ocean’s surface.

Much of that debris could be made up of plastics, old appliances or parts of homes that have washed away from fragile communities, and cargo containers from ships, according to ocean advocacy group One World One Ocean.

Check out some of the facts about what’s really floating in our oceans:

The Pacific Garbage Patches: The most heavily-researched and well-known example of plastic pollution in the ocean is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, made up of some 3.5 million tons of plastic beverage bottles, grocery bags, and plastic goods that have been pushed together by water currents that circulate between the west coast of North America and the east coast of China and Russia.

The Five Ocean Gyres: Pollutions can easily get caught in one of the five “gyres” of the ocean: the northern and southern Atlantic gyres, the Indian Ocean gyre, and the northern and southern Pacific gyres. The term describes water that moves in a circular, rotational current over a vast space in the ocean, pulling in stray plastics as it moves until they collide and merge with one another.  Because these gyres are trafficked heavily by cargo ships, the garbage patches contain large objects that have gone overboard from ships, including entire cargo containers.

Indian Ocean’s Plastic Problem: Researchers only began focusing on plastic pollution in the Indian Ocean in recent years, and in 2010 discovered garbage patches much like the famous Pacific Garbage Patch, according to Coastal Cares, another clean ocean advocacy group.

Plastic Breaks Down: As the garbage floats into the gyres it is broken down by salt and UV rays and begins releasing chemical properties into the water that then enter the food system, according to the Scripps Institute at the University of California San Diego. The plastics also fall into smaller pieces that can make them difficult to clean up.

Plastic Bag Bans Are Not Enough

November 11, 2013 by  
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By Ashley Verhines

Plastic bag bans are not enough to save the oceans from a growing tide of plastic pollution. Local efforts are crucial, but a concerted global approach is necessary, say the authors of a new report from the UCLA School of Law’s Emmett Center on Climate Change and the Environment and UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.

The report, “Stemming the Tide of Plastic Marine Litter: A Global Action Agenda,” lays out the sources and impacts of marine litter–all human-generated, artificial, often petroleum-based, solid materials that are discarded or lost in the ocean and remain there–and it recommends domestic and global policy recommendations to combat the scourge.

Ultimately, the authors conclude, a global treaty likely will be required to stop the estimated 20 million tons of plastic bags, food packaging, balloons, and other plastic debris that enter the oceans annually. With a 5 percent increase in non-biodegradable plastic production each year, the world’s oceans are filling at a rate that is wreaking devastating effects on marine wildlife, coastal economies, fisheries, and human health. Degraded coral reefs, damaged vessels, lost tourism, diminished fishery revenues and other symptoms of plastic-littered marine ecosystems equate to billions of dollars of losses worldwide each year.

Current policies fail to fully address the problem as many of the main sources of the litter fall outside the jurisdiction of any single nation and existing international agreements lack enforceable standards.

“Plastic marine litter is a growing global environmental threat imposing major economic costs on industry and government. Marine plastic pollution slowly degrades and has spread to every corner of the world’s oceans from remote islands to the ocean floor. Voluntary half measures are not preventing the global devastating impacts to marine life, the economy and public health,” said report coauthor Mark Gold, associate director of UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. “Although there is no one panacea, we have identified the top ten plastic pollution prevention actions that can be implemented now to begin drastically reducing plastic marine litter.”

“Stemming the Tide of Plastic Marine Litter” reviews the current studies, policies and international agreements surrounding plastic marine litter, and proposes a “Top 10” list of recommended actions–actions the authors recommend implementing by 2025–to dramatically reduce current rates of plastic marine disposal.

Authors of the report call on the global community to develop a new international treaty and amend existing international and regional laws to include more aggressive monitoring and enforcement actions. This would include prompt banning of the most damaging and common types of plastic marine litter. The report also recommends the implementation of an “ocean friendly” certification program for all plastic products, better infrastructure for waste management, development and expansion of marine litter education and awareness, and establishment of funding sources for comprehensive clean-up efforts.

“Because global mismanagement of plastic is fueling the growing marine litter problem, policy responses are needed at all levels, from the international community of nations down to national and local communities,” said report coauthor Cara Horowitz, executive director of the Emmett Center on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA Law School. “We can act now to rapidly scale up effective policies and programs to address plastic marine litter. And hopefully, international collaboration to reduce plastic litter will lay a foundation for broader cooperation on other significant issues affecting the health of our oceans.”

“Stemming the Tide of Plastic Marine Litter: A Global Action Agenda” is the most recent Pritzker Environmental Law and Policy Brief, made possible through funding from the charitable Pritzker Group.

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UCLA Report: Top 10 Solutions to Global Ocean Plastic Pollution

November 11, 2013 by  
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Leila Monroe, Staff Attorney, Oceans Program, San Francisco

A new report released recently identifies the best solutions to tackle the urgent problem of an estimated 20 million tons of plastic litter entering the ocean each year. Plastic pollution is a daunting crisis for the marine environment, one that demands action.

With input from NRDC and other top ocean and waste experts, authors from UCLA School of Law’s Emmett Center on Climate Change and the Environment and UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability have jointly released a comprehensive Pritzker Environmental Law and Policy Brief: “Stemming the Tide of Plastic Marine Litter: A Global Action Agenda”. 

This report documents the devastating effects of plastic marine litter, detailing how plastic forms a large portion of our waste stream and typically does not biodegrade in the marine environment. Plastic marine litter has a wide range of adverse environmental and economic impacts, from wildlife deaths and degraded coral reefs to billions of dollars in cleanup costs (see NRDC’s report on the cost to California communities HERE), damage to vessels, and lost tourism and fisheries revenues. The brief calls on the global community to develop a new international treaty while also urging immediate action to implement regional and local solutions.

Report co-author Cara Horowitz, Executive Director of the Emmett Center on Climate Change and the Environment, expressed in the report’s release:

“Because global mismanagement of plastic is fueling the growing marine litter problem, policy responses are needed at all levels, from the international community of nations down to national and local communities. We can act now to rapidly scale up effective policies and programs to address plastic marine litter. And hopefully, international collaboration to reduce plastic litter will lay a foundation for broader cooperation on other significant issues affecting the health of our oceans.”

Among the Top-10 list of recommended solutions are priority actions that are already the focus for NRDC’s work to combat marine plastic pollution:

  • Extended producer-responsibility programs for plastic packaging;
  • Advancing domestic and local regulatory actions, such as bans of the most common and damaging types of plastic litter; and
  • Expanding the use of “zero-trash” Total Maximum Daily Loads or similar requirements in urban coastal watersheds. 

Other creative solutions in line with NRDC’s work are the creation of an “ocean friendly” certification program for plastic products and the introduction of a new international treaty with strong monitoring and enforcement mechanisms.

For more information on NRDC’s work to stop plastic pollution, follow us on Twitter @EndPlasticTrash and like us on And you can also get involved in our efforts to promoting solutions to keep our waterways, beaches and oceans plastic free by joining at

Trash in Ballona Creek LA, Stiv Wilson.jpg

Trash in Ballona Creek, California, by Stiv Wilson, 5 Gyres Institute.

Cool, interactive site shows you how ocean currents carry flotsam around the globe

September 3, 2013 by  
Filed under Secrets of the Ocean

Drop a message-in-a-bottle into the Gulf of Mexico, somewhere near New Orleans, and, 10 years later, your missive has a high likelihood of ending up near Cuba — or northern France. The website Adrift uses data from a global system of floating buoys to show you how ocean currents carry things like plastic debris around the planet.

Adrift Screenshot

Scientists study ‘plastisphere,’ its role in ocean

July 15, 2013 by  
Filed under Protecting Habitats

Scientists have probed the diversity of life in all sorts of ecosystems, from the insides of our guts to the sediments beneath the ocean floor. Now, a small group of Massachusetts scientists is eyeing a new frontier: the flotilla of tiny pieces of plastic adrift on ocean surf.

A new study describes the “plastisphere” — the microbial communities that hitch rides on the confetti-sized bits of plastic that litter ocean waters. The authors discovered a thriving, miniature world aboard the microplastic “reefs,” where communities of bacteria and other microbes create energy from sunlight, reproduce, and prey on one another.

Researchers at three Woods Hole-based institutions worked together to try to better understand what role these tiny bits of plastic play in the larger ocean ecosystem.

Among their discoveries, reported in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, is the surprising finding that the microbial communities are distinctly different from the ones in nearby ocean water.

And at least one kind of plastic was dominated by a member of a group of bacteria commonly associated with various diseases, including cholera. They could not tell exactly which species was present and plan to do further studies to try to hone in on its identity.

“The thing that impressed me the most is that it is a little world unto itself,” said Linda Amaral-Zettler, an associate scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory, a research institution based in Woods Hole. “How does it ultimately affect organisms eating it — and ultimately us? We eat shellfish and fish. . . . I think there’s a much broader issue here that’s come to our attention.”

Scientists took two cruises: one that set out eastward from Bermuda in 2010 and another that departed St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands and sailed to Woods Hole in 2012. They threw a net to skim the ocean’s surface and retrieve hundreds of tiny bits of plastic. They performed DNA analysis and used an electron microscope to analyze the life on the plastic, and used a kind of analysis called spectroscopy to figure out the chemical composition of the plastic.

The scientists hope that the study can begin to shed light on how plastic contributes to the ocean ecosystem. Plastic has particular properties that make it an interesting ocean substrate — microbes can stick to its surface, and it tends to originate and spend time in coastal waters where runoff and waste enter the ocean.

That, combined with the fact that it sticks around in the environment, means that it might be playing an ecologically significant role in ferrying bacteria around the ocean.

The scientists are now trying to understand exactly which pathogens dwell on sea plastic, and what role, if any, these microbes could play in marine and human health.

“Plastic is the major form of debris in the ocean,” said Erik Zettler, associate dean of the Sea Education Association, a nonprofit focused on ocean education based in Woods Hole and one of the authors of the paper.

“It has a very long lifespan, not like a piece of wood or a feather that degrades over months and disappears — plastic persists for years, perhaps decades.”

The researchers are also trying to find out how plastic caught in ocean currents gained its unexpected “plastisphere” in the first place. They are tethering bits of plastic in coastal waters to see what kinds of microbes take up residence on the surface of plastic.

Calif. plastic ocean debris bill dies in committee

May 25, 2013 by  
Filed under Protecting Habitats, Water Quality

A California bill that would have required manufacturers to figure out how to keep the most common plastic junk out of state waterways died in the state Assembly without a vote Friday.

Assembly Bill 521 was before the chamber’s Appropriations Committee, and the panel failed to act on it, effectively killing the legislation for the session. It had previously passed the Assembly Natural Resource Committee.

State Assemblyman Mark Stone, a D-Monterey Bay, one of the proposal’s sponsors, was disappointed by the outcome.

“Plastic pollution will continue to harm our oceans and coastline, so Assembly member Stone is committed to working on this problem,” said Arianna Smith, Stone’s legislative and communications director.

Once in the ocean, plastic takes ages to decompose. The manmade junk either collects into floating trash islands called “garbage patches,” or it breaks into smaller pieces that harm and kill sea creatures throughout the food chain.

It’s a complex problem with no easy fix, but some European countries have already implemented “extended producer responsibility” laws with some success.

AB521 would have required manufacturers to figure out how to reduce 95 percent of plastic pollution along the state’s coastline by 2024. It carried financial penalties for companies that did not comply: up to $10,000 per day for the worst violations.

Assemblyman Eric Linder, R-Corona, said during Friday’s Appropriations Committee meeting that he opposed the measure in part because it singled out one industry as the source of ocean pollution.

“I agree that cleaning up our oceans should be something that’s very, very important to us, but this bill places the burden of compliance directly on the producers instead of the violators, the people who are littering,” Linder said.

The regulation was just the latest California legislative attempt to address some of the world’s toughest environmental problems, often at the expense of private business, critics say.

The state’s large economy and population has already influenced automakers to produce cleaner burning cars, forced warning labels for toxic chemicals on a range of consumer products and put a price on heat-trapping carbon emissions from industrial sources.

“With nearly 40 million people in the state, what happens here matters whether it is cap-and-trade and renewable energy portfolio standards, solid waste reduction, water conservation,” said Mark Gold, associate director of the University of California, Los Angeles Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.

“What happens in California matters both nationally and globally,” he added.

Gold said legislation won’t solve the plastic pollution problem, but could have a wide-ranging effect. The failed proposal could have been the first significant legislation in the U.S. to try to reduce the amount of plastic junk in the ocean that makes up trash formations such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, known as the world’s largest landfill.

The plastic industry, California Chamber of Commerce and other business interests opposed the bill, saying they already fund recycling and other programs to reduce marine plastic pollution. Plus, they say, the bill asks manufacturers to develop new products or other ways to reduce trash, but it doesn’t say how.

Extended producer responsibility laws have already taken root in more than two dozen European countries.

In France, nearly 90 percent of consumer products are part of the “Green Dot” program, requiring manufacturers to pay into a program that recovers and recycles packaging materials. It has successfully influenced manufacturers there to cut down on packaging or use alternative materials.

Stone’s office said the assemblyman is unsure if he will reintroduce the bill next year. He is “weighing his options for how to continue to work to address this problem in the future,” Smith said.

Laura Olson contributed to this story from Sacramento.

19-Year-Old Develops Ocean Cleanup Array That Could Remove 7,250,000 Tons Of Plastic From the World’s Oceans Read more: 19-Year-Old Student Develops Ocean Cleanup Array That Could Remove 7,250,000 Tons Of Plastic From the World’s Oceans

May 25, 2013 by  
Filed under Protecting Habitats, Water Quality

Comments Off on 19-Year-Old Develops Ocean Cleanup Array That Could Remove 7,250,000 Tons Of Plastic From the World’s Oceans Read more: 19-Year-Old Student Develops Ocean Cleanup Array That Could Remove 7,250,000 Tons Of Plastic From the World’s Oceans

19-year-old Boyan Slat has unveiled plans to create an Ocean Cleanup Array that could remove 7,250,000 tons of plastic waste from the world’s oceans. The device consists of an anchored network of floating booms and processing platforms that could be dispatched to garbage patches around the world. Instead of moving through the ocean, the array would span the radius of a garbage patch, acting as a giant funnel. The angle of the booms would force plastic in the direction of the platforms, where it would be separated from plankton, filtered and stored for recycling.

At school, Boyan Slat launched a project that analyzed the size and amount of plastic particles in the ocean’s garbage patches. His final paper went on to win several prizes, including Best Technical Design 2012 at the Delft University of Technology. Boyan continued to develop his concept during the summer of 2012, and he revealed it several months later at TEDxDelft 2012.

Slat went on to found The Ocean Cleanup Foundation, a non-profit organization which is responsible for the development of his proposed technologies. His ingenious solution could potentially save hundreds of thousands of aquatic animals annually, and reduce pollutants (including PCB and DDT) from building up in the food chain. It could also save millions per year, both in clean-up costs, lost tourism and damage to marine vessels.

It is estimated that the clean-up process would take about five years, and it could greatly increase awareness about the world’s plastic garbage patches. On his site Slat says, “One of the problems with preventive work is that there isn’t any imagery of these ‘garbage patches’, because the debris is dispersed over millions of square kilometres. By placing our arrays however, it will accumulate along the booms, making it suddenly possible to actually visualize the oceanic garbage patches. We need to stress the importance of recycling, and reducing our consumption of plastic packaging.” To find out more about the project and to contribute, click here.

Read more: 19-Year-Old Student Develops Ocean Cleanup Array That Could Remove 7,250,000 Tons Of Plastic From the World’s Oceans | Inhabitat – Sustainable Design Innovation, Eco Architecture, Green Building

Into the Blue Serengeti

November 24, 2012 by  
Filed under Secrets of the Ocean

Blue whales are among the Pacific predators whose large-scale movements have been tracked. They dine on small crustaceans called krill, and, like some “nomadic” African lions, migrate to where their prey is seasonally abundant.

The dugout canoe does not know the depth of the water” (Umubindi ushira uvimye). So say the Hangaza, a group of more than 150,000 people who live along Lake Victoria, west of Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park. The proverb rings true: floating on the water won’t tell you what is going on below. Half a world away from Tanzania, along the United States West Coast, oceanographers are finding new ways of looking beneath research vessels that ply the Pacific. They’re getting a fish’s eye view of the deep by placing electronic tags on predators such as blue whales and California sea lions, yellowfin tuna and white sharks. As the data come in, their thoughts turn to the Serengeti.

Their project is called Tagging of Pacific Ocean Predators (TOPP). It focuses on certain areas of the Pacific, among them the California Current, an undersea river of water that flows south along the western coast of North America, beginning off British Columbia and ending near Baja California. The current supports large populations of whales and seabirds, and fuels important fisheries. Its productivity comes from an upwelling of cold subsurface waters, caused by prevailing northeasterly winds. The chilly waters ferry a steady supply of nutrients to the surface. The scientists are also studying an area called the North Pacific Transition Zone, the boundary between cold subarctic water and warm subtropical water, about halfway between Hawaii and Alaska. It’s a major trans-Pacific corridor for the movements of predators and prey.

Combined map shows movement patterns of twenty-two species documented by scientists collaborating in the TOPP (Tagging of Pacific Ocean Predators) project.

“These are the oceanic areas where food is most abundant,” says marine scientist Barbara A. Block of Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, California. “They’re the savanna grasslands of the sea.” Knowing where and when species migrate is critical information for managing and protecting ecosystems, says biologist Daniel P. Costa of the University of California, Santa Cruz. TOPP was launched in 2000 by Block and Costa along with Steven J. Bograd of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, Randall E. Kochevar of Stanford, and others. The project was part of the Census of Marine Life, a ten-year-long investigation of the diversity, distribution, and abundance of ocean species. TOPP became the world’s largest “biologging” (electronic tagging) study, involving more than seventy-five biologists, oceanographers, engineers, and computer scientists in eight countries. A decade of findings were reported in the journal Nature in June 2011. They reveal that the migrations of twenty-two marine species overlap.

“It’s been like looking across the entire African savanna,” says Block, “and trying to figure out: Where are the watering holes a zebra or a cheetah might frequent? Where are the fertile valleys? Where are the deserts that animals might avoid, and the migratory corridors species such as wildebeest use to travel from place to place?”

Block, Costa, and their colleagues use an array of technologies to track species and to record such environmental variables as water temperature, salinity, and depth. The TOPP project alone deployed 4,306 satellite-monitored tags, yielding a massive amount of data. Scientists spent two years synthesizing data sets. They discovered intersecting ocean hotspots and highways of life—and learned much about how marine conditions influence where animals hang out.

The results show that many migratory marine species, like animals on the Serengeti grasslands, return to the same regions each year, homing in with astonishing fidelity to the places where they were first tagged. “It’s akin to a student from London studying in far-off Rome and coming home each summer at the same moment—but doing it all in the dark without a map or compass, using only his or her internal sense of position and direction,” says Costa.

Leatherback sea turtle: Two populations have been observed, one whose females travel to lay eggs along beaches in the eastern Pacific, another that prefers western Pacific beaches.

Leatherback sea turtles, for example, travel huge distances between their nesting and feeding sites. In the Pacific Ocean, contingents from two populations of leatherbacks make their way each year to beaches along the eastern and western Pacific, respectively, to lay eggs. (An individual female will nest once every two or three years.) Helen Bailey of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science placed tracking devices on 135 leatherbacks’ shells. Leatherback turtles in the eastern Pacific were tagged at their nesting sites in Costa Rica and Mexico; western Pacific turtles were tagged at nesting sites in Indonesia and on their foraging grounds off the coast of California. The instruments transmitted satellite signals each time the turtles surfaced.

The results of Bailey’s study were published in the April 2012 issue of Ecological Applications. The western Pacific turtles traveled to feeding sites in the South China Sea, Indonesian seas, southeastern Australia, and the U.S. West Coast. “This wide dispersal,” says Bailey, “allows for a greater likelihood of finding food. It also means that the turtles are more vulnerable to being snagged unintentionally in fishing gear.”

The eastern Pacific leatherbacks have a different migration pattern, traveling south from nesting sites in Mexico and Costa Rica to the southeast Pacific. The turtles feed in offshore upwelling areas where their meals, almost exclusively jellyfish, are easy catches. “The limited feeding grounds of the east Pacific turtles make them vulnerable to changes that might occur in the abundance of jellyfish,” says Bailey. “Being caught in fishing gear also poses a greater risk to this population because it has a smaller range than western Pacific leatherbacks.” Entanglement in fishing gear is believed to be a major cause of death in leatherback sea turtles. James R. Spotila of Drexel University, a coauthor of the paper, notes that leatherback turtles are long-lived animals that take a long time to reach maturity. Because the species’ numbers are declining very fast, he considers it critical to take measures so they don’t go extinct. In the past thirty years, leatherback numbers in the eastern Pacific have dropped by 90 percent. Information on the turtles’ movements will help scientists determine where fishing should be limited at certain times of the year, says Bailey. A good precedent is a decision made in 2010 to close a swordfish and thresher shark fishery off California from mid-August to mid-November. That may have dramatically reduced incidental leatherback catches.

Water temperature is key to the seasonal migrations of many North Pacific Ocean species. That’s especially true in the marine ecosystem defined by the California Current, where whales, sharks, tuna, seals, seabirds, and turtles migrate each year. Like the African savanna, says Costa, the Pacific Ocean has a “Big Five”: he compares great white sharks to lions, bluefin tuna to leopards, blue whales to African elephants, leatherback sea turtles to black rhinos, and elephant seals to Cape buffaloes.

Scientists see parallels between migration patterns of prey, predators, and scavengers in East Africa’s Serengeti region and movements of species in the Pacific. Mapped here are (top left and right) zebra and wildebeest, (middle left and right) nomadic lion and hyena, and (bottom) vultures. Most lion prides occupy defended territories; nomadic lions, usually single males, tend to follow migrating herds while trying to avoid detection by resident males.

“The Serengeti is an ecosystem that’s synonymous with animal movements,” says ecologist Grant Hopcraft of the Frankfurt Zoological Society–Africa, headquartered in the Serengeti. “Each year more than one and a half million ungulates cross its plains.” Their seasonal migrations follow cyclic rains that lead to the growth of savanna grasses. Where grasses sprout up, ungulates such as wildebeest follow. Predators such as nomadic lions trail closely behind. (Although most lion prides occupy defended territories, nomadic lions, usually single males, tend to follow migrating herds while trying to avoid detection by resident males.) “The movements of marine species in the California Current are similar to those in the Serengeti,” says Hopcraft, “which raises the question: Why? Research at the population level suggests that it’s a changing food supply that drives animal migrations. But recent animal collaring [tracking] projects in the Serengeti show a huge amount of variation in individual species’ responses.”

There’s a lot more going on, Hopcraft believes, beneath the surface. “For the Serengeti—and the California Current—does an animal’s internal condition determine how it responds? Is it remembering previous routes and responding to the same cues? How will environmental change affect these great migrations of the land and the sea?”

Some predators spend their lives in the California Current, but others migrate long distances across the Pacific Ocean to reach the current’s abundant prey, including krill, sardines, anchovies, and squid. “Why a young bluefin tuna less than two years old wakes up in the light of the Japan Sea and decides to swim to Baja is unknown,” Block says. “But once it arrives, tagging data indicate that it lives there for years, taking advantage of the rich ‘forage’ along the coast.” Many species—including black-footed albatrosses, sooty shearwaters, bluefin tuna, and salmon sharks—migrate more than 1,200 miles from the western, central, or southern Pacific Ocean to reach the California Current’s rich food resources.

Farther off shore is the mysterious White Shark Café, as it’s known, an open-ocean winter and spring habitat for otherwise coastal great whites. The area, halfway between Baja California and Hawaii, hadn’t been a suspected shark hangout. But when scientists mapped data from satellite tags placed on 179 great white sharks between 2000 and 2008, they discovered that the sharks frequently travel to and loiter there. While at the café, they dive to depths of 1,000 feet as often as once every ten minutes, according to Salvador J. Jorgensen of Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station. He and colleagues published their results online in November 2009 in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Coming mostly from rookeries along the Pacific coast, the great whites take up to 100 days to arrive, traveling at about two knots. The study showed that the sharks adhere to a rigid route of migration across the sea, returning to exactly the same spot. Since both male and female sharks have been tracked to the café, an early hypothesis was that it could be the undersea equivalent of a trendy pickup bar. Further studies, however, revealed that juvenile sharks also make their way there.

The purpose of the deep dives is not yet known, with the great whites lingering, often for months, in what seems to be an oceanic “desert” where food is scarce. Michael L. Domeier of the Marine Conservation Science Institute in Fallbrook, California, hypothesizes that the predators are feeding not on fish but on giant squid. Sperm whales, which feed on giant squid, are sighted in that area. Tracking other species, such as tuna, may help explain how the shark café came to be. “We’re only beginning to understand what it means to have the equivalent of lions in the ocean wilderness off California,” says Block.

Tuna, sharks, and blue whales may be cued to seasonal changes in chlorophyll concentrations,” says Bograd. Chlorophyll indicates the presence of phytoplankton, the grasslands of the sea.

Marine scientists work with a lightly anesthetized male northern elephant seal. After using fast-acting epoxy to glue a telemetry tag to the hair on the animal’s head, they measure blubber thickness with an ultrasound device and collect blood samples.

Elephant seals, for example, are drawn to a particular oceanographic feature—a boundary zone between two large rotating currents, or gyres. Along this boundary, the cold nutrient-rich waters of the subpolar gyre in the north mix with the warmer waters of the subtropical gyre to the south, driving the growth of phytoplankton and supporting a veritable feast of marine life.

An oceanic surface feature linked with the boundary zone and caused by blooms of phytoplankton is visible on satellite images. It moves seasonally by as much as 600 miles, however. Some elephant seals don’t follow; they continue to target the deep boundary zone between the two gyres.

Using data from nearly 300 tagged animals, Costa showed that the elephant seals travel throughout the northeast Pacific Ocean on foraging trips in search of prey such as fish and squid. “For the first time, we can truly say that we know what elephant seals as a population are doing,” he says. The results were published in May 2012 in the journal PLoS ONE.

A small number of elephant seals search for food in coastal regions, pursuing bottom-dwelling prey along the continental shelf. Among these is a female that feeds near Vancouver Island. She holds the record for deepest recorded dive by an elephant seal: 5,765 feet, more than a mile down.

The scientists have also looked at the partitioning of habitats by closely related species. Certain species, for example, are attracted to particular water temperatures; these preferences correlate with physiological adaptations. “We can now predict when and where individual species are likely to be in a given ocean region, and begin to understand the factors that control where they go next,” says Costa. “It’s the basis of ecosystem-based management.”

Following on the heels of TOPP, the scientists have spawned a new effort to study the blue Serengeti. “Where are the hotspots needing immediate protection?” Block asks. “We’re conducting the ecosystem science that reveals who’s at watering holes like White Shark Café and, most importantly, why.”

The ocean sunfish, or common mola, is known to dine on jellyfish, but its diet may be far broader.

One new project, called WhaleWatch, is looking at how to reduce the number of whales entangled in fishing gear, by identifying the areas whales are most likely to visit. Satellite tags have been attached to gray whales and to three other whale species—blue, fin, and humpback—off the U.S. West Coast. WhaleWatch scientists such as Bailey are using satellite data and migration models of gray whales to identify high-risk areas for the whales, and to develop conservation policies for reducing ship strikes and entanglements.

Among whales, the gray is the West Coast species most often hit by ships and caught up in fishing gear. Gray whales are known for long migrations of more than 10,000 miles from their feeding grounds in the Bering Sea to breeding areas along the coast of Baja California, Mexico. WhaleWatch researchers are analyzing gray whale satellite tracks to determine where the hotspots are for these whales.

This June, no one needed satellite tracking to find whales in Monterey Bay, California. As many as 100 blue whales splashed around in plain sight there. Upwelling led to a bumper crop of krill, the whales’ favorite food, and attracted countless other marine species. “It’s been one of the best ‘lunch stops’ in the Pacific,” says Block. “We need to protect these areas, places where large pelagic predators—the cheetahs and lions of the sea—gather.”

There’s an Africa-like game park in the waters off the West Coast, she says. “It will take enormous vision to preserve this wild place. Without conservation of such ocean realms, the bluefin tunas and blue whales, whale sharks and great whites might not be there in future generations.”

Along the U.S. East Coast, humpback whales, also long-distance migrators, are frequently ensnared in fishing gear. This July, scientists at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies in Massachusetts freed a whale caught in fishing line wrapped around its mouth and head. The researchers are part of a team following satellite-tagged humpbacks in the Gulf of Maine.

The snagged whale is one often seen in local waters. A mark on its tail fluke is shaped like a giraffe, giving the humpback its name: Serengeti.