The ocean is white and pink and purple and red and yellow and brown and green. After weeks at sea, the captain clambers up the mast of his yacht and scans the horizon with binoculars, rotating himself degree by degree until he has turned full circle.
‘This is it. I am here.’
There are nothing but plastic bottles, plastic bottles as far as he can see.
The yacht slides on, carving a V-shaped wake through the bottles as it goes. The captain turns to watch the gash – brief glimpses of a dirty blue – slowly filling in behind, erasing all traces of his passing.
He hugs the mast and shuts his eyes. He feels nothing, not even the wind.
The bottles clunk gently against one another, so softly he can hardly hear them.
Down on deck, he opens the freezer and takes out a miniature bottle of champagne. He pours the champagne into a plastic cup, which he raises towards the sky. He pauses, frowning, and thinks for a while.
‘Yes, this is it,’ he says finally. ‘Yes, I am here.’
He drinks the champagne in tiny sips, gazing at the bottle-covered ocean.
All the colours in the world are there, worn dull by the waves.
When the last drop of champagne is gone, he tosses the bottle over the side. Then he tosses the cup over too. Within seconds, he can no longer see them.
The yacht drifts on for an hour. Half a day. The ocean’s surface changes. The plastic bottles become interspersed with other items of debris: footballs, tangled carrier bags, crumbled hunks of polystyrene, flip-flops, bergs of packaging foam. The captain watches it slip by with a sense of awe. He spots flower pots, fragments of fishing crates, once the half-submerged torso of a doll. He wonders if the head is here too, and if so, whether the motion of the waves will ever push them back together.
The yacht drifts on. Its prow cuts a swathe through Tupperware boxes, lids, foil wrapping, crisp packets, objects he can’t identify. Always plastic bottles, in their hundreds and thousands. He squints overboard to read the names, or recognises brands from faded blocks of colour: Coca-Cola, Pepsi, 7-Up, Schweppes, Sunkist, Mountain Dew.
Occasionally something larger bumps against the hull: half a green plastic garden chair, a refrigerator door. They could have come from anywhere, from any land in the world.
Later, the captain goes below and heats a ready-meal in the microwave. He eats chicken chow-mien from a greasy plastic tub, and, after wiping it clean, tosses the tub over the side, along with its plastic fork.
The tub drops between an empty ice-cream carton, so faded he cannot make out the name, and a four-litre bottle that once contained mineral water.
How quickly things return to their own. It satisfies him, somehow.
Night falls over the plastic sea. The captain wraps up warm and sits on deck, watching the sunset with a bottle of wine and a packet of cigarettes. The ocean is calm, its gentle undulations spreading slow ripples through the trash, giving it almost the effect of breathing. The falling sun catches on pieces of foil and shards of bright PVC. Gradually all colour leaches from the scene, leaving only spots of white that appear to glow, as if holding the light, as everything else goes dark.
Alone on his yacht, it seems to the captain as if he’s never seen anything so lovely.
The horse latitudes are situated between thirty and thirty-five degrees on both sides of the equator. Wind and rain are uncommon there. The ocean is subdued. The captain has always enjoyed the name as much as the legend from which it sprung: that Spanish ships, becalmed for weeks on the glassy millpond sea, would be forced to throw their horses overboard when water supplies ran low.
Of course, it’s a dubious theory. But the name is apt. In the days before plastic was conceived of, the captain imagines an ocean of abandoned horses, bobbing gently up and down, their hooves sticking up towards the sky.
The North Pacific Gyre, through which the northern horse latitude runs, is located in the Pacific Ocean between the equator and fifty degrees north. A gyre is a vortex caused by a system of rotating ocean currents; in the case of the North Pacific, the currents that turn this vast wheel of water are the North Pacific Current, the California Current, the North Equatorial Current and the Kuroshio Current, which between them spin the ocean in a clockwise direction, channelling debris to a central point from which it cannot escape.
The existence of the rubbish patch through which the captain is drifting now – wrapped up in his sleeping-bag, one arm dangling over the bunk, dreaming of nothing that he will recall – was theorised before it was observed.
Researchers studying oceanic currents predicted such an effect. It wasn’t until the closing years of the garbage-strewn twentieth century that a sailing ship, cutting through the subtropic high between Hawaii and California, entered an uncharted ocean of plastic that took a full week to traverse.
The area’s true size is unknown. Estimates range from three hundred thousand to almost six million square miles.
It seems unbelievable, in an age of aeroplanes and satellite images, that such a vast region of pollution could have remained unseen for so long. But these are seas seldom travelled. They lie thousands of miles from the nearest landmass, their emptiness unbroken by islands. They lie on no trade routes, shipping lanes or notable fishing grounds. This is an ocean en route to nowhere. A convenient vanishing zone for lost, unwanted things.
Also, all is not visible, not to the naked eye. There’s more to the patch than rafts of Pepsi bottles and atolls of Styrofoam. Mostly it consists of particles that have been ground by the action of the waves to a minute, multicoloured sand, partially suspended below the surface, in the upper neustonic and epipelagic layers of the water column. Plastic cannot biodegrade. Its tightly-bound polymers cannot unravel. It can only reduce and reduce, growing tinier with each passing year, from the miniscule to the molecular level, changing the composition of the sea.
Mankind’s first plastic, celluloid, was invented in 1855. The first entirely synthetic plastic was bakelite, fifty-two years later. This was followed by epoxy, polystyrene and polyvinyl chloride, polyethylene, polytetrafluoroethylene, polypropylene, polycarbonate, polymethyl methacrylate, melamine formaldehyde; nylon, Styrofoam, PVC, Teflon, Plexiglas, Perspex. The products were mated with themselves to develop ever-stronger bonds, polymers that could not be broken; resistant to heat, friction, crystallisation and biodegradation. The twentieth century was the plastic age, when human beings at last tore free from organic strictures.
The captain mumbles the names of the plastics. He recites them to the waves, watching the colours merge and bloom. Surely the very first particles are here, in the centre of the North Pacific Gyre. Ground to a microscopic dust. They have been here for a hundred years, waiting for man to catch up.
Going to the centre of the gyre is like travelling back in time. Back to the dead hub of everything, from which nothing can escape.
On his third day in the gyre, the captain sees a boat on the horizon. At first he thinks he is mistaken. But the boat comes closer. It’s a curious kind of boat, with a long, sharp prow like a canoe, and two fine grilles extending like wings from its port and starboard sides.
The boat is crewed by two men and a woman wearing red t-shirts displaying the logo of an oceanographic institute.
The captain watches them with amusement as they squint and stare.
‘What are you doing?’ asks one of the men when they are within talking distance.
‘Nothing. What are you doing?’ says the captain.
The man explains they have built this vessel as part of an investigation into pelagic plastic pollution in the North Pacific. He says this craft will pioneer a clean-up operation of vast proportions, to be shared between responsible nations, in which hundreds of thousands of tonnes of waste will be skimmed from the ocean’s surface.
The captain doesn’t say anything. He takes a Dairy Milk bar from his pocket and breaks off a square.
The woman continues from where the man left off. She tells the captain of their studies into the effect of plastic pollution on the surrounding ecosystem and marine wildlife. She opens a freezer-box on the deck and produces a sodden albatross, its throat tangled with nylon fibre, polystyrene wedged in its gullet. In parts of the North Pacific, she says, plastic micro-pellets outnumber zooplankton by a factor of seven. Plastic has crept into the food chain, is being ingested by everything from jellyfish to large mammals. No-one yet has the slightest idea what impact this might have.
The captain watches patiently as the woman displays her other exhibits: a triggerfish with three bottle caps in its belly, a guillemot full of foam.
When the researchers have finished speaking, he eats his last square of Dairy Milk. He lets the wrapper drift away in the breeze, where it comes to rest against a polyethylene milk jug.
The researchers stare at him from their boat.
‘Asshole,’ says the woman.
‘You expect to clean an ocean with a boat?’ says the captain, without any malice.
‘Come on, let’s go,’ says the woman. She slams the lid of her albatross box.
‘Even if you skim off a thousand tonnes, what will you do with it? Burn it? Bury it in the ground? I don’t understand.’
The woman ignores him. She puts on a baseball cap that matches the logo on her red t-shirt.
‘How long have you been out here?’ calls one of the men as their craft pulls away. ‘Where are you headed?’
The captain doesn’t answer him, but he shields his eyes to watch the boat go, growing gradually more indistinguishable, and finally raises his hand in a motionless salute.
That evening he smokes three cigarettes and drinks half a bottle of wine. He lies on his back on the deck and watches the daylight disappear. He makes noises, of varying pitches and depths. The stars are brilliant here.
The engine is silent. The sail is furled. The yacht rests, curlicued with foam. The captain spends his days on deck, reading old sailing magazines, observing small changes in the sky, making inventories and counting his rations. One day the rain begins falling lightly, and lasts for an hour or so. It seems to the captain that rain on the ocean is a waste of water.
He doesn’t have much need to eat, and he sleeps surprisingly little.
He has seen no other boats. He doesn’t expect to see them.
The captain has enough supplies, carefully stacked in the hold, to survive for over a year in the gyre, perhaps two if he is sparing. Assuming he eats just one meal a day, assuming he drinks exactly one half-litre bottle of water. The alcohol, chocolate and cigarettes will run out after six months or so, but he hopes that by that point, he won’t have the need.
He has also brought deep-sea fishing lines, hooks and nets and sinkers. The ocean contains fish of all shapes and sizes, even here, amongst so much waste. The fish will be saturated with plastic, infinitesimal nurdles.
He will ingest vinyl chloride and di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate, carcinogenic and mutagenic, substances banned by responsible nations. In this way, he will enter the food chain. He will arrive at its apex. The plastic sea will pass into him, changing his composition.
But for now he leaves the lines alone. It occurs to him that he packed no bait. He will have to bait his hooks with pieces of chicken chow-mien.
It is hard to tell, without instruments, whether the yacht is drifting on the waves or whether the ocean’s surface is changing, subtly shifting its patterns. The depths are far too great to drop anchor, but, without wind, he assumes he will simply remain where he is, slowly revolving around the same point. There are no other factors to act upon him now. He came here to go nowhere.
He has the image in his mind of the plastic ceaselessly spreading around him, expanding like a summer bloom of algae. Every scrap, every wrapper, every polystyrene coffee cup that finds a route from the land to the sea, from Japan to Mexico, is making its way towards him now, inevitably honing in. He sits at the centre of an orbit, dragging in lost things.
Sometimes, if the captain squints, if he has drunk a bottle of wine, if he has spent the night on deck, making noises at the stars, he sees things in the pattern of the seas. Amorphous pictures that break and blend, dotted masses of colour. Sometimes it looks like grazing flamingos, seen from an aeroplane through clouds. Sometimes it looks like thousands of faces, all the races of the world, crowds at a great political rally at which he is centre stage. Sometimes it looks like old film footage, slowly zooming into the grain. Sometimes it looks like a pointillist painting. Meadows of spring flowers.
He has been three months in the North Pacific Gyre. It doesn’t seem so long.
He has come to recognise familiar landmarks in the structure of the sea. An island of polyurethane foam. Tangled reefs of purple twine. Archipelagos of bottle caps.
He thinks about the horses long ago, pitched overboard like polystyrene cups. Bobbing gently up and down, their hooves sticking up towards the sky.
He has a ream of paper on deck, and he spends long hours making diagrams, charting the uncharted spaces of the ocean. Inventing names for things unnamed. Making maps of a strange new world.
Image: By Chris Jordan (via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters) / CC BY 2.0 - Albatross at Midway Atoll Refuge