How to Poison 65 Million Square Miles of Ocean

The Pacific Ocean is very, very big. Huge. Enormous. Especially when you are crossing it in a 23-foot rowboat at an average speed of 2 miles per hour.

Our usual way of looking at the world does a great disservice to the Pacific. We cut it half, and fling those two halves to the left and right extremities of the map. But go into Google Earth and turn the globe around until you are looking at the Pacific. You'll see a little wafer of North America in the top right corner, and a sliver of Australia in the bottom left, and 25,000 tiny islands scattered as if by a giant's hand. Apart from that it is blue, all blue. A whole lot of nothing.

Except that it isn't. This neglected back-side of the earth is a 65 million square mile life-support system, without which life on this planet would not be possible. Covering nearly one-third of the Earth's surface, the Pacific is larger than the total land area of the world. Over 60% of the world's fish catch comes from the Pacific. I tried to find out how many individual fish might be in the ocean, but precise data is lacking. The top ranked reply to my Googled question was "a crap load", which is probably as good an answer as any.

The sad thing is that the ocean now also contains a crap-load of plastic too. An estimated 3.5 million tons of trash swirl around in the North Pacific Gyre. My 99-day row from San Francisco to Hawaii took me past the outer edges of this massive eddy, and on a calm day I could see a thin soup of tiny plastic pieces suspended throughout the water column. Closer to the centre of the gyre, plastic outweighs plankton by a ratio of 6 to 1.

The world produces around 200 billion pounds of plastic per year, of which about 10 percent ends up in the ocean. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is just the visible part of the problem. 70% of the plastic eventually sinks to the ocean floor, where it interferes with the dynamic, life-sustaining exchange of gases between the sea bed and the water. (source: Greenpeace).

Mind-bogglingly big as the Pacific is, we have managed to trash it - literally.

This fact was brought home to me during one of the more surreal dinner parties I have ever enjoyed. A few weeks after departing from the Golden Gate Bridge my rowboat's watermaker had succumbed to the wet, salty conditions of the ocean, and I had been living off my water reserves. But I was going to run out before I reached Hawaii.

Fortunately for me, against all odds on this enormous ocean, there was another slow-moving craft converging on my course. Over the course of 2 or 3 days we coordinated by satellite phone, and eventually rendezvoused a few hundred miles east of Hawaii. The guys of the JUNK Raft were sailing from Long Beach, California, to Oahu, to raise awareness about plastic pollution in the oceans. To emphasise the point, they had made their whole boat out of discarded waterbottles - 15,000 of them - lashed together into pontoons. It was the craziest looking vessel I'd ever seen (think Mad Max meets Kon Tiki), but a very welcome sight, for these guys were all that stood between me and death by dehydration.

The JUNK guys - also known as the Hunks on the Junk (and after nearly 100 days of not seeing another human being they looked pretty hunky to me) - were running out of food, and I was running out of water, so we did a trade: my food for their water. Then Joel hopped overboard and speared a big mahi-mahi, which he cooked up with spices and only-slightly-rancid butter, and rarely have I enjoyed a meal more.

Fortunately our fish was better than the one in the photograph, which they'd caught a few weeks before. When they opened it up they found that its stomach was full of pieces of plastic. The health implications are clear; plastic is not an inert substance. Digestive juices release the toxic chemicals from the plastic into the flesh of the fish that ate it, then that fish in turn gets eaten, and the toxins accumulate all the way up the food chain until arrives on our dinner plates.

We used to think that the world was too big for us to seriously impact it. For much of our existence this was true. Our waste was biodegradable and there were only a billion or so of us. Now there are nearly 7 billion, producing non-biodegradable trash in unprecedented quantities. Whichever way you cut it, this cannot be sustainable. We live on a finite planet, where there is no "away". If we keep extracting all the good stuff out of the Earth, reconfiguring it into toxic substances, and dumping it out into our air, soil, and oceans, we can be sure that it will come back and bite us.

We're not talking about saving the world. We're talking about saving humankind. We are amazing, creative, innovative creatures (when we're not busy being arrogant and stupid), and I'd like to see us survive in a world that is rich in beauty, bounty, and biodiversity.

So let's get our act together. Before it's too late.