Not very many people would be excited to be going on a garbage patch expedition.
But for Cynthia Matzke of Maui Meadows, it's an honor.
The 42-year-old marine biologist and lead naturalist at Trilogy Excursions departed Monday on a flight to the Marshall Islands. From there, she will embark on a three-week voyage to Japan. While on the high seas, she and other documentarians and scientists will study plastic pollution in the Pacific Ocean as well as the impacts of the 2011 Japan earthquake/tsunami.
Expedition ‘culmination of my life’s work so far’
"I am so excited," Matzke said via phone from Oahu on Sunday. "I feel in so many ways, it's the greatest honor. It's the culmination of my life's work so far, to be on this kind of boat and to be with these kinds of people doing these kinds of work."
The expedition has been organized by Algalita Marine Research Institute and the 5 Gyres Institute, nonprofit organizations that focus on research and increasing global awareness of plastic marine pollution. The expedition also is a collaboration with Pangaea Explorations, which offers adventure sailing to strengthen the health of marine life through exploration, conservation and education.
Matzke will be a crew member on Pangaea's Sea Dragon and will sail through the Western Garbage Patch, which sits east of Japan and west of Hawaii and where little research has been conducted on plastic marine pollution in the last 25 years, a news release said.
Due to ocean currents and other climatic conditions, millions of pounds of trash, mostly plastic, have accumulated in two areas of the Pacific Ocean rarely traversed by fishermen and other ships and referred to as "garbage patches," according to the website howstuffworks.com.
In addition to oceangoing duties on the metal monohull sailboat, including midnight watches, hoisting sails and preparing meals, Matzke will film and document the plastic pollution. At times, the crew will have a mesh net off the side of the boat collecting debris. The crew will analyze the debris with microscopes.
The plastics are a danger to ocean life. As plastics are exposed to the sun, they give off toxins, said Matzke. She added that algae may grow on the plastic, and birds and fish may consume the algae-covered plastic to their detriment.
She is concerned about various species from algae to fish colonizing the debris and mating en route to the Hawaiian Islands. Invasive species already could be seeding the northern Hawaiian Islands, she said.
"Since so many of our local species are endemic and special, we are vulnerable to new species that could have devastating effects on our unique biodiversity in Hawaii," she said.
In the patch may be material set adrift by the Japan tsunami. While there is some anxiety about the tsunami debris reaching the Hawaiian Islands, Matzke said she expects that the exploration will give the public more information about the debris and help the islands prepare and calm any fears that people may have.
But overall, Matzke said that marine debris has been a long-standing problem.
"We can't just go in and clean it all up. That's what is so dangerous," she said. "We need to stop putting it in there."
Matzke hopes that through her work and that of others, the public may stop polluting the oceans.
While in Tokyo, Matzke will attend and present her findings at a scientific symposium held at Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology on May 27.
There, she also will meet with her new crew that will sail from Japan to Maui on board the Sea Dragon.
Matzke also will spend time in South Korea doing a beach cleanup with schoolchildren and speaking to university students and residents.
She will be back on Maui by early July, when the Sea Dragon is expected to arrive at Maalaea Harbor. There are events being planned for her return.
Matzke is originally from Mercer Island, Wash., and has lived on Maui for 14 years. She is Trilogy's director of the Blue'aina Campaign in which Trilogy donates its boat and the crew donates its time to take passengers to clean up beaches and reefs around the island. The program also conducts fish surveys, takes water quality samples and receives donations through its volunteer work. Those funds are given to local nonprofit groups that the program features each month.
Matzke has a bachelor's degree in communications with a focus on journalism from California State University at Dominguez Hills. She also has a minor in marine biology specializing in cetacean field ecology through the School for Field Studies at Northeastern University.
During her marine biology studies, Matzke observed spotted dolphins in the Bahamas and orcas in the San Juan Islands. She also learned how to live off-the-grid without basic utilities, including electricity.
Matzke also continues to travel the world to conduct research. In October, she spent a month in Tahiti to document South Pacific humpback whales.
Matzke said she was invited on the trip by Algalita, one of the main organizers of the voyage. In eight weeks, she had to come up with more than $10,000 for the exploration.
She said Trilogy was her corporate sponsor, but friends, family and community members pitched in. She also held a fundraiser at Mala Wailea with a silent auction.
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at email@example.com.