Just below the ocean surface far offshore floats a huge patch of multicolored bits and squiggles that look for all the world like tiny bait fish. Sound familiar? It ought to. It's your garbage.
The debris is the remnants of discarded plastic bags, water bottles and bottle caps, fishing line, straws, balloons, beer cups, toothbrushes -- trash broken down by the sun and sea to crumbs.
Researchers on a recent cruise estimated that in spots, as many as a half-million pieces float per every square kilometer, about one-third of a square mile.
That's not even the most disturbing part. The researchers trawled nets in the mid-Atlantic beyond Bermuda, trying to find the easternmost point in a garbage patch they already knew covered a vast amount of the Sargasso Sea -- a 2 million-square-mile eddy in the middle of vast ocean currents circling Bermuda. They couldn't find it.
And at the easternmost point they trawled, they pulled in the highest concentration they have netted so far in 30 years of study.
For College of Charleston undergraduates Daniel Hodge and Coti Phillips, who interned on an earlier leg of that cruise as far as Bermuda, pulling in those nets was a wake-up call.
"I was expecting to see bottles, plastic bags. It was almost the perfect size for plankton, for small animals to be eating," Phillips said.
"Initially, it was a 'wow.' Even biodegradable stuff still gets out there. And it breaks down faster," Hodge said. The farther they went into the Sargasso Sea, the more they found, he said.
The patch is the East Coast's own out-of-sight, out-of-mind dump, a smaller version of the so called "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" of plastic particulates circulating in a massive eddy off the West Coast.
Nobody really knows what sort of impact the tiny debris might be having on the health of the ocean or marine life. But the hints aren't encouraging.
Bigger, recognizable pieces of plastic also circulate where the micro-plastic is found. The Sea Turtle Foundation estimates that 100,000 marine mammals and turtles and 1 million sea birds die every year from ingesting or becoming entangled in marine debris, including indigestible plastic that blocks stomachs.
In June 2009, a nursing pygmy sperm whale washed up on Sullivan's Island after swallowing a black plastic trash bag and dying of starvation. Her calf, also found stranded, couldn't live without her.
In 2010, a bio-technician pulled a latex balloon out of the throat of a struggling petrel. The bird died.
That's the stuff that's still big enough to see. Research has shown that plastic particles contain carcinogens that are accumulating in and weakening sea creatures, such as dolphin and loggerhead turtles.
"What we've seen is the small fish will eat the micro-plastic and as those fish are eaten by larger fish on up the food chain, the plastic persists from one animal to the next," said Wallace J. Nichols, California Academy of Sciences research associate, who has studied plastics in the Pacific.
The particles tend to accumulate in the huge, mid-ocean eddies like debris will build up in eddies against rocks in a stream, he said.
Wallace found micro-plastics in baby sea turtles. In the Southeast, the animals gravitate to the Sargasso Sea for food after they hatch.
The Atlantic patch was first identified in 1971. It hasn't yet made much difference in the manufacture design of plastic products or how we go about our business, Wallace said.
"The surprising thing is it's taken a while to reach mainstream conversation," he said. "The big picture is that I hope response times would improve between identifying and dealing with environmental concerns, rather than wait 40 years."
A poster representing the students' paper on the research was one of four from the college presented last week at the South Carolina Academy of Science annual meeting.
The Sea Education Association trip, sponsored by the college's Gulf Stream Oceanography program and South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium, wasn't one of your glamor cruises. The two served as crew as well as taking part in the research.
But for Phillips, a graduating senior, and Hodge, a rising junior, the two-week cruise aboard a sailing vessel was a first time trip in the deep ocean. The contrast between what they saw and what they found was disconcerting.
"Walking out on the deck at 11 at night, when the moon isn't out yet, and all the stars, it was a pretty awesome experience," Phillips said.
The plastic trash they collected in buckets comes to mind every time they see a disposable water bottle.
"I've definitely become a more conscious consumer," Phillips said. "With the way we consume plastics as a society, it's going to get worse and worse. It's going to get pretty bad out there if we don't stop it."
To learn more
For more information about the Sea Education Association, go to www.sea.edu. For more information about the College of Charleston's Gulf Stream Oceanography program, go to http://oceanica.cofc.edu/GUSTO.