Pacific plastics expedition

  • Marine Mammals
  • Other species
  • Rays & Skates
  • Sharks
  • Turtles
Years funded
  • 2014
  • Archived
Project type
  • Research

Ever heard of invisible plastic? Well our oceans are full of it. During a 63-day crossing, Matt and Nicole travelled from San Francisco to Yokohama to find out about micro plastic pollution in the Pacific.

Pacific plastics expedition

Matthew Rutherford

Project leader
About the project leader
In 2004 I bought my first sailboat for US$2,000. I knew nothing about sailing and learned the hard way, making numerous mistakes as I navigated from the Chesapeake Bay to the Florida Keys. I ripped my sails, ran hard aground and was hit by lightning and three hurricanes – all in the first six months. But this rough introduction to sailing only made my desire to learn grow stronger. By 2008 I had accumulated enough experience to sail solo across the Atlantic Ocean. I was alone at sea for 34 days, which felt like a long time back then. I...
Pacific plastics expedition

Nicole Trenholm

Project leader
PROJECT LOCATION : North Pacific Ocean
Related Blogs
By Matthew Rutherford, Nicole Trenholm, 4th August 2014
Ocean Research Project completes their trans-Pacific ocean plastic survey
Over the last five days of our expedition we were tracking a storm that looked as if it would hit us just as we were crossing the Kuroshio Current. Flowing past the southern coast of Japan, this very strong current is similar to the Gulf…
By Matthew Rutherford, Nicole Trenholm, 24th July 2014
Ocean Research Project heads for Japan with the wind in their sails
On day 50, having passed Wake Island, we sailed out of the easterly trade winds and into a windless void nearly 800 miles wide. We’d travelled west for 5,600 miles and now found ourselves at the end of the easterly trades; without them, things were…
By Matthew Rutherford, Nicole Trenholm, 12th June 2014
Ocean Research Project – Easterly Trade Winds
(Day 46) We have been enjoying sailing in the easterly trade winds with the wind and seas at our backs for the vast majority of the expedition. Unfortunately, a few days ago after passing Wake Island, we sailed out of the easterly trade winds and…
By Matthew Rutherford, Nicole Trenholm, 26th May 2014
Ocean Research Project experiences a powerful beauty within the immense desolation of the open ocean
After the first few days of headwinds we were becalmed. We motored sparingly as we only have 30 gallons of diesel for a 7 000 mile passage. I really don’t like being becalmed but you’re not always going to have wind at sea. Luckily we…
By Matthew Rutherford, Nicole Trenholm, 20th May 2014
The Open Pacific, an update from the Ocean Research Project
Day 23 California has had a drought this spring so it’s only fitting that the day it finally rains is the day we leave. Not just rain but a small low-pressure system, meaning winds. Nikki and I pulled away from the dock and were shadowed…
By Matthew Rutherford, Nicole Trenholm, 8th May 2014
Ocean Research Project explain microplastics to us.
What are microplastics? And how do they affect our oceans? Microplastics affect both humans and marine species. The clearest example of this can be seen with sea birds. Many different bird species spend most of their lives at sea and only come to land to…
By Matthew Rutherford, Nicole Trenholm, 8th May 2014
A background to the Ocean Research Project expedition
The Ocean; Out of Sight out of Mind… ? The earth’s oceans are one of our greatest resources, yet it falls under the jurisdiction of no single country. It is a vast no man’s land, spanning 70% of our planet, full of life, and ever…
Project details

Trans-Pacific Plastic Pollution Survey

Key objective

To collect scientific data to help researchers better understand the nature and extent of marine plastic debris. We will acquire a unique and extensive dataset spanning the Pacific Ocean. Data will be incorporated into predictive computer models and combined with research being completed by top scientists.

Why is this important

This project is the first trans-Pacific marine plastics survey. The data collected will fill a major gap in data about marine debris within the North Pacific Gyre and will also provide data from waters of the non-gyre current areas. The survey will allow experts to report on the nature and extent of oceanic pollution, the current and projected risks to marine species, and potential impacts to human health as a result of bioaccumulation of toxins on micro plastics. Research on marine plastic debris is a fairly new field and there is much to be discovered.
Typically this type of research is completed at a high cost using large expedition vessels, which can make long-range surveys restrictively expensive. This survey will be completed using a small sailing vessel with limited crew. A trans-Pacific survey, if completed by traditional means, would normally require upwards of $1.2-million to complete. The success of Ocean Research Project’s previous Atlantic expedition, and this Pacific expedition, will prove that high-value data can be gathered using small sailing vessels and limited crew. This paradigm shift for marine plastics research will result in larger datasets feeding into more refined predictive models, which produce estimates of the nature and extent of the marine plastics epidemic.


There are many unanswered questions about marine plastics. Are plastics truly floating in large quantities throughout our oceans? Is plastic sea debris a danger for marine species and human health? What is the role of bacteria on plastics at sea? These questions will be explored by the Ocean Research Project.
Through a literature review and consultation with experts, the Ocean Research Project has identified the areas most in need of research. These include areas in the North Atlantic (surveyed in 2013) and in the North Pacific Ocean (to be surveyed in 2014).
During the summer of 2013, Captain Matt Rutherford and Nicole Trenholm of the Ocean Research Project spent 80 days covering 6,500 nautical miles in order to collect plastic samples in the eastern extent of the North Atlantic gyre. Nicole subsequently measured and characterised the abundance of sea plastics in the samples taken during the Atlantic survey, and she will oversee the Pacific sample collection and processing for the current trip.

Aims & objectives

The aims and objectives of this project are to:

  • Take regular samples along the North Pacific survey route using an Avani net.
  • Provide educational outreach during and after the trip to selected classrooms via e-mail.
  • Deploy a tracking receiver to detect the behavior and migrations of marine species.