The Vineyard Sound is known for its captivating shoreline as it leads boaters between Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard. With a beautiful 5 am sunrise on July 10, 2012 American Promise and the Rozalia Project crew set sail from Martha’s Vineyard to Providence, Rhode Island. After very little wind and 3 hours of motoring we found ourselves off of Cuttyhunk Island, which we recently discovered has been hit hard by marine debris washing up on the beaches.
Earlier that weekend, Pam, one of the great people we met at the Edgartown Yacht Club mentioned seeing a tremendous pile of marine debris that the locals have been collecting from their shorelines. This pile of garbage has been steadily growing, as there isn’t a clear way to get it off the island. The Cuttyhunk garbage pile was news to us, so we were paying attention as we approached that area on our passage.
With our on-going tideline research we have acutely trained our eyes to scan for large slicks of floating organic material. We call these slicks areas of accumulation, and we usually find them littered with inorganic material. It wasn’t long before we spotted a large slick with floating pieces of trash. As we approached the slick, we began noticing more and more garbage in the water. It wasn’t until the slick surrounded us that we realized how much trash was actually there. The amount of garbage was shocking, it knocked everyone off their feet.
We motored through the slick, all hands on deck, removing trash with anything we could find, dip nets, boat hooks and poles. We hoisted our intern, Marina, up the mast guiding us to large pieces off the horizon, such as a plastic 55-gallon drum labeled bait and a large plastic crate. After an hour and a half with 3 people grabbing trash from all areas of the boat, we made a significant dent in the amount of trash floating in the slick.
As we left the area, still grabbing trash floating by the boat, we began sorting what we removed. In the end we removed 244 pieces of trash, ranging from shoe insoles, burlap sacs, uneaten wrapped cucumbers and gloves. The most abundant items we found included 35 food wrappers, 23 pieces of Styrofoam, 22 balloons, 20 pieces of microplastic and 19 plastic bags. We were amazed at the sheer volume of garbage in the area.
You maybe asking yourself, why does trash accumulate like this in such high densities in such a huge ocean? In this case, it is due to the direction of the tide and, most importantly, the geology of the area. The law of physics states that water flows more quickly through small, narrow areas than it does through large, open areas. As water enters Vineyard Sound it speeds up through the narrow and shallow channel and slows down as the channel opens up into deeper water. The current associated with Vineyard Sound's ebb tide flushes water and floating debris down the channel southwest toward open water. As low tide transitions into slack, debris accumulates near the opening of the channel. As slack tide transitions into high tide, the accumulated debris is flushed back northeast through the channel, potentially adding more floating debris to the slick.
We can’t be sure how long our garbage patch had been accumulating. What we do know is that there is more work to be done in Vineyard Sound. We hope to return to the Sound with similar wind and tide conditions to see if a slick has re-formed and what has collected there. Our goal, as we encounter more of these slicks, is to get a good understanding of how and where slicks form so we can track them down and clean them up.