By-the-Wind Sailors

Years ago, I sat on a beach in Maremma, Italy, sifting the sand through my fingers -- marveling at the multitude of colors. It was ancient mountains reduced to sediment and ferried to the beach. It was terra cotta roof slates and brightly hued ceramic tiles from the Amalfi coast, transformed by salt, wind, and waves into freckles of color in the palm of my hand. I brought a small amount of sand home in a jar, but the magic was lost in transit. Today, I am not confronted with the remnants of beautiful medieval cities here on this western shore in Oregon. There is no lovely evocative name for what crunches beneath my feet: plastic. Carried by currents, it accumulates at the water's edge.

Some scientists have started calling the ocean plastic soup. Beyond the horizon exists a floating gyre, called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by some; others name it the Pacific Trash Vortex. It's much larger than Texas and has cousins of similar size in the Atlantic and Indian oceans. They are composed mostly of plastic, which floats and flows with the currents, converging where they meet. Ultraviolet light and the ocean environment cause the substance to break down and infiltrate ocean creatures and habitats in ways we have yet to fully understand.

The World Economic Forum says that by 2050, plastic in the ocean will outweigh, pound-for-pound, all aquatic creatures combined. I worry and wonder: where will we go when the ocean no longer offers a home and solace for even the smallest of living things?

From a distance, it looks as if the beach is covered in litter -- like raucous partygoers retreated with the tide, leaving the cleanup for someone else. Intermingled with bits of brightly colored plastic, a closer inspection reveals that the curvy line extending for as far as I can see is a mass stranding of tiny little organisms called Velella velella.

Like the Portuguese man-of-war, but smaller, these hydroids live in large colonies out in the open ocean, drifting en masse along the surface of the water, much like those amorphous plastic gyres, but living. Protected by a deep blue pigment that acts as natural sunscreen, the critters flood the U.S. Coast Guard with false hazard reports during those springs when folks mistake the floating, giant blue blob heading toward the beach for an oil spill.

They are also called by-the-wind sailors – nicknamed for the tiny sail-like fin on top of the flat disc that forms the organism's body. One oceanographer says that the angle of the sail is determined by where the velella grows in relation to land, so that it can tack away from shores. Out in the open water, wind gently propels the critters along the ocean’s surface, but spring and early summer winds, especially during El Niño years, blanket coastlines with millions of these wayward sailors.

Velella are always floating, for lack of a more accurate expression, face down with short sticky tentacles that enable them to catch and feed on other pelagic organisms. When there is no food readily available, the sailors use photosynthesis to grow algae, which their jellyfish-like offspring consume. I can’t help but think about perspective and what it might be like to have the ocean below you as your world-view – like an astronaut floating in lower Earth orbit looking down on this ever-changing terrain. It might be all right if one weren’t at the mercy of such powerful forces like wind, ocean storms, and human carelessness.

While we look up and away from Earth, toward Jupiter and Mars, toward the very margins of all that we know, I hope we continue to explore the great unknown that is our ocean, and look for ways to check our carelessness before it's too late.

Jenny Woodman is a science writer and Writing Club coordinator for Earthzine. Follow her on Twitter: @JennyWoodman

Image Credits: Jenny Woodman

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