Allo Docteur, the Ocean is sick!

Breathe… Just breathe… You can breathe… Feel the bubbles tickling your cheeks, let the water guides you… Look around, you are not alone, they are watching, curiously amused by the way you look. Listen… Its calm and noisy… Can you hear any voices? No, this is the best part… You can’t talk either, they don’t speak your language. You have entered their home, observe the magic of your surrounding…This is the only moment of your day where you live the present, enjoy this spiritual moment, that moment that we like to feel with thoughts, words, sounds to keep ourselves in the future, in the past but never where we are… You are in the Ocean.

The ocean has been my office, my home for so many years that I can’t make a blog about the environment without insisting on the destruction we have started…
How many time have I come back up to the surface through a patch of plastics, this plastic that sinks to the bottom and creates new habitats for fish. Why fish have to live in a bottle or a lollies bag?

Lembeh, Sulawesi, Indonesia. Photo from the author of this blog.

For years we had no idea how far plastics had traveled around the planet. Unfortunately, plastic is everywhere, it is found in every single places on Earth, in the Himalayas, deep in the jungle, at the surface of the ocean, in sea ice, at bottom of the sea and even floating in orbit around the Earth. After being used, plastics make their way to the ocean, from direct dropping and dumping, losses in transport or by accident, and get carried around the planet at the mercy of currents and surface winds. The 5 Gyres Institute estimated that 5.25 trillion plastic particles weighing some 269,000 tons are floating on the surface of the sea today.

Do you remember the story with the plastic bath toys drifting in the North Pacific in 1992? This is a great illustration of what happens with currents.

Those toys, 28 000 yellow ducks, red beavers, green frogs and blue turtles, were on their journey from Hong Kong to the US to spend their entire life constrain in the soapy water of American bath tubs. One day they escaped. A ship container tumbled in the North Pacific in January 1992 and released those plastic in the ocean. Ten months later, toys were found in Alaska, four years later toys were still landing in the US in Washington State. The oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer monitored their landfall over the years, and used modelling to predict their migration. The prediction were that the escaping ducks, beavers, frogs and turtles would eventually arrived in the Arctic to visit the penguins. They did, in 2000-2003 more toys were washed on the eastern coast of North America.

Toys after 12 years adrift. Curtis Ebbesmeyer, The Beachcombers’s Alert.

Wastes can get trapped in large-scale vortices (gyres) that act as conveyor belts, collecting the floating plastic debris released from the continents and accumulating it into central convergence zones. There are 5 major gyres in the world, and when it comes to marine debris there is only one ocean, they travel all around the world.


While drifting on the surface, the sun breaks down these plastics into smaller and smaller pieces, through photodegradation. This is the only way plastic degrade until they become microplastics or nanoplastics. They never disappear, they just transform. Recently it has been found that 70% of plastics continue their journey to the bottom of the ocean as they break down.

So we could think, well that’s ok then, if they end up in the ocean or if they sink, we don’t see plastics anymore, the ocean is vast, deep, at the end who cares about that…

Well few issues here:

First, fish, mammal, birds or marine reptiles confuse macroplastics with food, we have all seen pictures on the internet of a turtle eating a plastic bag thinking it is a jellyfish or the pictures of dead birds full of plastics in their stomach.
Second, smaller organisms confuse microplastics with food too. A recent study has found that even corals eat microplastics, 21% of polyps analysed in the study had ingested at least one microplastic particle.

Laysan Albatros. Photo from Claire Fackler.

I just found a doco, “A Plastic Ocean”, they have some crazy shots about those birds and very interesting facts.
Plastics block digestive tract and prevents normal feeding, damage cells and tissues potentially leading to death. They die of starvation with a full stomach or because their intestines is ruptured…
Plastic can also be harmful with the chemicals associated with them, from the ingredients of the plastic material, byproducts of manufacturing and chemicals absorbed from the environment. Plastic is fantastic, isn’t it?

So if you are not convinced yet or you are not really empathic with marine life or with any form of life apart from the human life, if you don’t care about species evenness and richness but only about our species benefits, here comes the main argument… let see what plastics do to us…

Few processes to understand first:
One is called bioaccumulation, this happened when an organism absorbs a toxins or a substance at a faster rate than it can be eliminated and stocks this foreign element. It seems that bioaccumulation is increasing in aquatic habitats following the trends in plastic production. Surprise surprise…

The other one is called biomagnification, and this is when a toxin is passed on from prey to predator but the effect of the toxin increase as it goes up the food chain… You know the issue with ciguatera food poisoning? That’s what happens.

So basically, plastics and the toxins attached to it accumulate in marine organisms from the finest to the largest, from corals, mussels to large whales. A recent study on True’s beaked whales found that the particle composition was made 58% microsynthetic fiber in the stomach and 89% in the intestine. The polymers identified were 53% Rayon, 16% polyester, 10% acrylic, 6% polypropylene, and 4% other forms of polyethylene.  And we know those particles can escalate the food chain:

Bioaccumulation. Photo from the author of this blog.

So if we hand up with plastics in our body, what does it do? Good question.
The toxins attached to those plastics, how do they affect us? Good question.
Do they biomagnified when they arrive to our body? Good question.
Hydrophobic chemicals, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), dioxins, and DDT have been  shown  to  preferentially  sorb  to plastics  when  they  encounter them in the ocean. So what are exactly the effects of this accumulation of toxins for our bodies?
Ecotoxicologist Heather Leslie of VU University Amsterdam suggests that even without those chemical hitchhikers, the plastic particles themselves can induce immunotoxicological responses, alter gene expression, and cause cell death, among other adverse effects. In theory, all organs may be at risk following chronic exposure to nanopolymers, including the brain, testis and reproductive organs, prior to their eventual excretion in urine and faeces. Again the documentary, “A Plastic Ocean”, has some great information about the effects of plastics on our health.

Microplastics can transfer up the food chain where the effects are poorly understood. Studies are not necessary looking at the toxicological effects of plastics in organisms, only the future and more studies will tell us the impacts.

So in the meantime, why don’t we modify slightly our life style, use less plastic, refuse single use plastics like straws, cups, bottles, use only bioplastics, recycle, and pick up rubbish…

A feel good idea
You don’t know what to do today, you need some fresh air, need company, take one or two or more of your mates and go for a stroll on the beach, look at the ocean, smell the salty breeze and pick up some rubbish…

This is today pick up, 3 greensters, a happy dog, 2 h on a beach…

St Clair, Dunedin, New Zealand. Photo from the author of this blog.


Cole M, et al. Microplastic ingestion by zooplankton. Environ Sci Technol 47(12):6646–6655 (2013). doi: 10.1021/es400663f.

Eriksen M, et al. (2014). Plastic Pollution in the World’s Oceans: More than 5 Trillion Plastic Pieces Weighing over 250,000 Tons Afloat at Sea. PLoS ONE 9(12): e111913. doi:10.1371/ journal.pone.0111913

Galloway T. S. (2015). Micro- and Nano-plastics and Human Health. In Marine Anthropogenic Litter. Springer International Publishing, pp 343-366. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-16510-3_13.

Rochman, C.M., Hoh, E., Kurobe, T. & Teh, S.J. (2013). Ingested plastic transfers hazardous chemicals to fish and induces hepatic stress. Sci. Rep. 3, 3263. DOI:10.1038/srep03263 

Seltenrich, N. (2015). New link in the food chain? Marine plastic pollution and seafood safety. Environ. Health Persp. doi:  10.1289/ehp.123-A34


One thought on “Allo Docteur, the Ocean is sick!

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  1. L’humanité qui ne peut subsister sans ces beaux océans pleins de richesses, tant nourricières qu’environnementales, devrait se préoccuper comme une priorité de leur devenir.
    Ce dernier passe par la dénonciation pour une meilleure prise en compte et par des mesures draconiennes pour la suppression de ces plastics assassins qui , pour de petits conforts personnels tuent et salissent.
    Veillons à ne pas salir aussi nos consciences en restant aveugles inconscients et égocentriques .

    Liked by 2 people

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