Marine sciences student sails into the ‘Garbage Patch’

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HPU graduate student Zora McGinnis records data during the Plastics at SEA: North Pacific Expedition 2012. It is a month-long scientific research expedition conducted by the Sea Education Association (SEA), dedicated to the study of the effects of plastic marine debris in the ocean ecosystem. (Photo Jon Waterman, courtesy of the Sea Education Association)

REPORT FROM HPU — A Hawai‘i Pacific University student has spent a month on a Pacific sea cruise. Sound cushy or luxurious? Not when she is examining firsthand the serious ecological problem of ocean debris.

HPU marine science graduate student Zora McGinnis is a crew member of the Sea Education Association’s Plastics at SEA expedition aboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans, a 134-foot brigantine-rigged sailing oceanographic research vessel.


McGinnis is among 38 scientists, sailors and students journeying from San Diego to Honolulu to explore the impact of plastic on the ocean ecosystem. This includes examining floating plastic concentrations in the region known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” They will also look for debris that may have been a result of the Japanese tsunami last year.

McGinnis, of Stonehurst, Nova Scotia, is focusing on marine debris in her graduate studies under HPU Assistant Professor of Oceanography David Hyrenbach, Ph.D. This is her second time on the expedition, but her first as an HPU student.

“Zora is perfectly suited for this expedition because of her experience working at sea and sailing on this vessel,” Hyrenbach said.

While the crew is focusing on marine debris in general, McGinnis is conducting her own research project, a visual plastic survey.

“I’m using a model that David and his former student perfected for marine debris that can correct for everything that I’m not seeing,” said McGinnis.

Halfway through the expedition, McGinnis had “fastidiously observed 1,030 pieces [of debris] ranging from small bits of Styrofoam to a Cookie Monster inner tube,” said Emelia DeForce, the expedition’s chief scientist. So far, the HPU student has exceeded more than 53 hours on her visual research.

“The methods we use to quantify the abundance of floating plastic are adopted from marine mammal survey methods,” explained Hyrenbach. “We determine how the type of object — size and color — and the ocean conditions — wind intensity and cloud cover — influence the observer’s ability to detect the floating debris. My previous graduate student, Andrew Titmus, used this method successfully in a previous cruise to the area of the ‘Garbage Patch.’”

McGinnis said while she enjoys being at sea, she is looking forward to returning to HPU, where she spends much of her time at the Oceanic Institute, a research affiliate of the university. She also works as a NOAA Pacific Islands Regional Office international fisheries marine policy intern.

She has already learned that Hawai‘i is full of opportunities for an ocean scientist.

“It’s been really exciting, so far,” she said. “I got certified to SCUBA dive about a year ago, and other than my certification dive, I hadn’t been out at all. As soon as I got here, within a week, I got to go diving and saw sea turtles and coral. We went snorkeling as a lab [in Hyrenbach’s class]. It was really awesome!”

Hyrenbach “has been really helpful,” she said. “I am here because [of him]. I couldn’t find any other graduate professors also doing [this kind of work on] marine debris.”

McGinnis hopes that her research can help people understand “how bad the problem is.”

“You’re out there, standing on deck, beautiful day. You look out and it’s pristine, and you’re about as far from anywhere as you can get. And all of a sudden, something big floats by.”

That doesn’t even count the “hundreds or thousands” of pieces of plastic that are barely even visible, McGinnis said. “That’s what’s out there, and it’s our fault. There’s nobody who can say plastic is occurring naturally in the ocean.”

College of Natural and Computational Sciences Interim Dean David Horgen, Ph.D., noted that McGinnis is among the recent students actively taking part in unique educational experiences at sea. He added that two graduate students — Andrea Kealoha and Jessica Hallenbeck — just spent a month on a NOAA research vessel, to examine ocean acidification in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands.

“It’s opportunities like these that allow us to establish key collaborations, such as our partnership with NOAA to assist in the long term management effort in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands,” Horgen said. “In doing so, we create valuable educational experiences for our students — like Andrea, Jessica and Zora — many of whom will become scientists who will lead future conservation research.”

See for photos and videos of the expedition. A journal entry from McGinnis during the expedition can be read at HPU’s Pelagic Ecology Lab is at






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