Research vessel sailing through Japan debris field

HONOLULU ( HawaiiNewsNow) - The 72-foot steel hulled research vessel rocked alongside a dock at Kewalo basin. In a week the crew of the Sea Dragon will sail to the Marshall Islands to begin a round trip to Japan to study the debris field generated by the Japan tsunami on March 11, 2011.

"We know that an estimated twenty million tons of rubbish left Japan on that certain day," Sea Dragon program director Emily Penn said.

The vessel will carry scientists, film crews and environmentalists through the heart of the debris field. An estimated one to two million tons remain on the surface from the wall of waste sucked into the ocean.

Penn said the Sea Dragon crew will rely on computer models developed by University of Hawaii researchers to steer them to the debris. When they encounter it, they'll lower a trolling trap into the water.

"We have a mounted troll that gets pulled through the water, along the surface," Penn said. "That's going to be collecting surface samples that can then go back to the lab in California and be analyzed."

The Sea Dragon's research has taken it through several areas in the Pacific and the Indian Ocean, where rotating ocean currents trap castoff plastics and other pollutants. The crew trolled the surface on the sail from Mexico to Hawaii, collecting tiny plastic fragments and small pieces of fishing net.

On Saturday, Sea Dragon partnered with environmental organization Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii to clean up trash washed up at Kewalo. Sustainable is cataloguing what's already here, in anticipation of what's coming.

"The tsunami debris is not going to happen with a big tidal wave of trash. It's going to start coming in more and more. Unless we have a baseline, we won't know when it's truly coming up," co-founder Kahi Pacarro said.

Some tsunami debris has already arrived off the west coast of North America. Scientists predict it could begin showing up in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands by the end of the year, then impact the main Hawaiian islands and the mainland.

The debris field trip will be in two parts, a 23-day sail from the Marshall Islands to Tokyo, then a longer more intense leg from Tokyo to Maui.

"It's a long expedition, 32 days, that will be going through the heart of where we expect the accumulation of the tsunami debris currently is," Penn said.

Besides the tsunami study, the Sea Dragon will also conduct a survey on plastic pollutants in the ocean, including how they are ingested by ocean life.

"What is the rate of change of that plastic? How quickly is it breaking down from big pieces of debris into these tiny fragments?" Penn said.

The Sea Dragon works with international research partners. Passengers pay thousands of dollars for a seat on the scientific sails.

The tsunami debris expedition is sold out.

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