Out in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean, hundreds of kilometres from land, Captain Charles Moore stood at the bow of his 50-foot catamaran and looked toward the horizon. But instead of gliding along calm, sapphire-coloured waters glistening in the afternoon sun, his aluminum-hulled Alguita carved through a sea of shiny, modern-day refuse.
For days on end, it was plastic, plastic, everywhere.
That was nearly 11 years ago. Capt. Moore was returning to his home in Southern California from a sailing race in Hawaii.
With some time to spare that Aug. 3, 1997, he decided to take a slightly longer route home, one that would see him sail through a stretch of ocean historically avoided by even the most weathered sailors. The 26-million-square-kilometre area known as the North Pacific Gyre is essentially free of wind - a kind of ocean desert - and its slow-moving, clockwise vortex of water is nearly impossible to plow through.
What he discovered at the heart of the deep swirls were miles upon miles of water bottles, plastic tarpaulins, dolls and furniture that have been collecting there for as long as 60 years.
This plastic soup, with billions of tiny shards of the synthetic material floating just below the surface of the water, is estimated to span an area 1½ times the size of the continental United States.
Alarming new data collected during Capt. Moore's most recent voyage to the gyre's centre in February shows the girth of the so-called Eastern Garbage Patch "dramatically increasing."
The United Nations estimates that each square kilometre of ocean carries 13,000 pieces of debris, but this area in the north Pacific has something like 330,000 pieces per square kilometre.
Now, armed with proof that the plastic is making its way into the human food chain, experts warn the existence of the garbage patch and its far-reaching implications could be just as imminent as the worldwide food shortage and the effects of global warming.
What makes plastic so functional - its durability - is precisely what makes it so dangerous. It does not biodegrade, but rather cracks into smaller and smaller pieces as it is exposed to sunlight and thrashing waves.
Greenpeace estimates that one-fifth of the plastic is dumped off ships or accidentally lost off cargo boats (like the container headed to Tacoma, Wash., from Hong Kong in 1992 that spilled about 29,000 rubber ducks overboard, or the 61,000 pairs of Nike shoes that were knocked into the ocean in 1990).
The rest comes from land: the Asian Pacific Rim and North America. A plastic bottle discarded on the ground can easily make its way into a municipal water system, which ultimately leads to the ocean, said Capt. Moore, 60, who established the non-profit Algalita Marine Research Foundation.
For years, he and his crew theorized that the sea of plastic that lies between Hawaii and California was much more than just an eyesore and that fish may be ingesting broken-down bits, mistaking them for food.
Now, having just returned from a month-long voyage out to the gyre's so-called cemetery, Capt. Moore holds the evidence in his hands.
Hundreds of myctophids, or lantern fish, were collected during the excursion. All of them had dozens of bits of broken plastic in their stomachs. Some pieces were five millimetres in diameter, much too large to pass through the systems of the tiny creatures.
Lantern fish spend their days deep in the ocean, away from sunlight, and scurry to the surface at night to feed on plankton.
"They have to feed very quickly because they have to start their trip back down again," Capt. Moore said. "So they're gobbling up a lot of food, they're frantic and they're being fooled."
They are the most plentiful fish in the ocean, making up about 90 per cent of all deep-sea fish, he said. They are a major source of food for larger fish, such as tuna, and other marine creatures, including dolphins, whales and sharks.
With the amount of plastic in that part of the ocean outweighing plankton six to one, the effects have been deadly.