Emily Penn: Marine Plastic Pollution

I first saw Emily speak at the Royal Geographical Society, where she enlightened a packed audience to the issues faced by remote Pacific island communities in a changing world. Now, we’re lucky enough to have an interview with Emily to hear about her ongoing research on board Sea Dragon, and the dangers posed by plastic debris accumulating in the world’s oceans.

Name: Emily Penn

Region: Oceans

Twitter: @emilypenn

Bio: Emily Penn is an oceans advocate, skipper and artist; a graduate of Cambridge University with a degree in Architecture; and Director of global organisation Pangaea Explorations. Emily is the youngest and only female recipient of Yachtmaster of the Year, awarded by HRH Princess Royal after rounding the planet on the record-breaking biofuelled boat, Earthrace; spending 6 months living on a tiny Tongan island organising the largest ever community led cleanup; and discovering previously unknown oceanic gyres – huge areas of marine plastic pollution accumulation.

Her organisation, Pangaea Explorations, specialises in enabling scientists, filmmakers and everyday people to explore the most remote parts of our planet to collect data on global issues and develop solutions to the challenges facing today’s society.

Your research is quite unusual, in that you’re constantly moving! Can you tell us more about your home at sea?

Sea Dragon is a 72ft (22m), 90,000lb displacement steel hulled sailing vessel built in the UK in 2000. She is one of 11 second generation yachts built for the Global Challenge Race – one of the longest, most demanding ocean voyages ever made with an upwind, west-about 32,000km circumnavigation. In her new role for Pangaea Exploration, the boat provides a superb platform of rugged capability, capacity and efficiency with a naturally low environmental footprint – perfect for the type of remote sailing expeditions now being done. As a research vessel Sea Dragon has lab space, dissecting microscope, surface net trawling capability, and working deck space.

Designed to thrive in the Southern Ocean and safely handle the world’s worst sailing conditions, these Global Challenge Race boats were also specifically set up for volunteer crew with limited sailing experience. You really don’t have to be an expert sailor to come onboard! (If you are interested in joining an expedition please see the website www.panexplore.com)

In geographical terms, since 2010 Sea Dragon has sailed almost 100,000 nautical miles – in the Atlantic Ocean, Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean.

Tell us more about your research, and what you have discovered about marine plastic pollution in the world’s oceans?

Sea Dragon has worked with 5 Gyres Institute, Algalita Marine Research Foundation, The Ocean Cleanup and other partners to document the amount of floating debris in the world’s oceans. We have known for over 20 years that plastic entered the ocean and was accumulating at sea.

The emerging picture is now more concerning than ever. Plastic debris from modern society is entering the ocean at prodigious rates, carrying with it all the threats of both physical and chemical pollution. The debris – toothbrushes, straws, toys, bags and unrefined pre-production pellets called “nurdles”- is accumulating all over the world’s beaches and in great concentrations at sea. In the oceans, the concentrations form in what are called “gyres” or the centres of great oceanic currents.

The scale of the problem is huge – one estimate is more than 70 million pounds of plastic are spread throughout the world’s gyres. Once floating in the ocean, plastic photo-degrades when UV light breaks it down into smaller pieces, but plastic does not biodegrade and go back into the natural cycle. So what’s in the ocean, or indeed in the world, is unfortunately here to stay.

ABOVE: Looking down on Sea Dragon from the mast.
"It’s estimated that a million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals die each year from getting tangled up in, and/or eating plastic. These include albatross, whales and seals."

What sort of problems does this oceanic plastic cause?

As examples of the hazards plastic presents: big pieces of plastic can cause a great deal of harm to wildlife.   It’s estimated that a million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals die each year from getting tangled up in, and/or eating plastic. These include albatross, whales and seals. Small bits of plastic get mistaken for food, and fish and other animals end up eating it. While not many incidences have been recorded of fish actually dying from eating plastic, what is of a higher concern is the chemical build up as toxics have the potential to ‘biomagnify’ up the food chain.

You’re interested in other aspects of oceans and pollution too?

Pangaea also carries out other environmental research and marine conservation expeditions around the globe studying other critical ocean-related issues e.g. climate change, studying the impacts of ocean acidification on coral reefs (see caribbeancorals.blogspot.co.uk – the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Anne Cohen lab group expedition), and studying toxics in the sea and the links with human health (see www.exxpedition.com – an all-women Atlantic expedition led by Dr Lucy Gilliam, November 2014).

LEFT: The crew of Sea Dragon hoisting a sail. RIGHT: The view from over the side.
"You will be miles away from land, so make sure you’ve got enough loo paper…!"

It must be fantastic to spend much of your time sailing the world’s oceans, can you tell us about the highlights and challenges you face?

A key highlight, that makes this work so interesting, has to be the extraordinary and diverse mix of people that I meet along the way, as well as some of the most incredibly remote places I’m lucky enough to visit.

In sailing there is something precious about moving at a slower ‘more human’ speed (compared to other forms of transport in the modern world). This, combined with the freedom one feels in open ocean, provides the perfect headspace for consolidation and preparation of other parts of life.

Sailing also forces you to live very much ‘in the moment’ as the environment changes and you have to react to it, often very quickly. This in itself links to my wider philosophy of finding out about the changes in our environment, our ‘life support system’ (the oceans), and reacting – to take action – to tackle the problems we face.

On the other hand a big challenge has to be working in an extremely confined space with a group of people who, at the start of the trip, you may not know well, and of course who may have very different views and/or habits than your own…. There is also the need to be very well-organised to function in this environment!

TOP: Sea Dragon making way. MIDDLE LEFT: Trawling for plastic pollution behind Sea Dragon. MIDDLE RIGHT: Spray over the bow. BOTTOM: Emily Penn and Dave Cornthwait studying the plastic debris after a trawl.

And lastly, could you share your advice for anyone dreaming of following in your footsteps?

1) Being on a boat – give it 110% when you are working in close proximity with others – you need a really positive attitude. You can imagine working in such a tightly constrained space requires tolerance, patience and understanding working with everyone else on board.

2) Plan carefully and make sure you have everything you need or can make do without it! You will be miles away from land, so make sure you’ve got enough loo paper…!

3) For the success of the research project and getting the message out, you need to share your enthusiasm and excitement with everyone you meet. I talk to everyone about my work…endlessly!

4) In terms of your own career aspiration, my advice would be to make sure you think about the big picture. It’s easy to get into action mode, but by setting the key goals and going for them other stepping stones will soon fall into place.

5) Finally, work out what you have to offer to a team – know yourself and your skills and then you can work out how best to contribute.

Thanks Emily!

2 thoughts on “Emily Penn: Marine Plastic Pollution

  1. Richard says:

    An important way to stop plastic getting into the sea (apart from stopping it at source) is obviously to try and trap it in the rivers before it gets into the sea. Need some creative ideas!

  2. Jessica says:

    Totally agree Richard. Heard Emily talking this evening along with some innovators involved with ending single use plastic but the amount left in the ‘gyres’ and other parts of the ocean needs very innovative thinking to get it back out! There is already so much in our oceans that leaving it there can’t be a good idea.

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