Protecting Our Oceans: One Leg at a Time

Galapagos Islands
July 2020 | Words by Stefanie Penn Spear | Photos by Stefanie Spear, Dr. Winnie Courtene-Jones, and Millie Webb

This year’s theme for World Oceans Day — “Together We Can Protect Our Home” — resonated deeply with me. Our collective voice has the power to shift perceptions, pass policies and change corporate behavior to solve the world’s ocean plastics crisis. The theme also plays well for the coming of Plastic Free July, a global movement that helps millions of people be part of the solution to plastic pollution.

For more than 30 years, I’ve been working to unite the voices of the grassroots environmental movement — pushing a cohesive message to encourage the masses, elected officials and corporations to move the needle on the most important issues impacting people and the planet.

This effort has taken me many places, most recently sailing the South Pacific from Panama City, Panama, to the Galapagos Islands as one of 10 guest crew on leg 6 of eXXpedition, an all-women sailing Round the World voyage to raise awareness and explore solutions to the devastating environmental and health impacts of single-use plastics.

eXXpedition – led by ocean advocate and skipper Emily Penn – is sailing the S.V. TravelEdge 38,000 nautical miles over the next three years, totaling 31 voyages and enabling 300 women to go to sea as hands-on crew to experience the challenges we face from single-use plastics while contributing to cutting-edge scientific research and solutions-based thinking.

eXXpedition map

eXXpedition map showing the route of the Round the World voyage

We performed 2-3 Manta trawl experiments each day and analyzed the plastic fragments that accumulated in the “sock.” During one of our sampling sessions, we counted 40 plastic fragments!

During our eight days at sea, we participated in two types of citizen science, one that skimmed the surface water and the other that analyzed subsurface water. Each day we threw a Manta trawl off the side of the boat to skim the ocean surface for 30 minutes. We performed 2-3 Manta trawl experiments each day and analyzed the plastic fragments that accumulated in the “sock.” During one of our sampling sessions, we counted 40 plastic fragments!

Manta trawl

The Manta trawl skimming the surface of the South Pacific Ocean. Photo credit: Stefanie Spear.

Plastic fragments

Plastic fragments found via the Manta trawl. Photo credit: Stefanie Spear

The NISKIN bottle was used to study subsurface waters. We did two NISKIN bottle experiments each day. Once the water was collected, we filtered the water through a pad that will be analyzed in Dr. Winnie Courtene-Jones’ lab at the University of Plymouth in the UK.

In addition to collecting this data, we honed our sailing skills, cooked lots of meals, cleaned the boat and discussed ways to tackle the problems of single-use plastics. A marque moment of the sail was when we crossed the equator and performed the traditional Court of Neptune ceremony led by Captain Anna Strang, transforming us from Slimy Pollywogs into Trusty Shellbacks.

After sailing nearly 1,000 nautical miles, we anchored in the bay of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno at San Cristobal Island and were greeted by thousands of sea lions. Many of us had the chance to spend the next week exploring what’s known as one of the most biologically diverse places in the world. I had the chance to snorkel and scuba dive to see the wonders below the sea including sea turtles, hammerhead sharks, eels, sea lions, giant manta rays, and countless schools of fish. On land, I saw tortoises, iguanas, blue-footed and red-footed boobies, and more. I especially appreciated the Galapagos’ sustainable tourism standards and meeting the locals, some of the most authentic people I’ve ever met. It was truly spectacular. A great bucket list destination.

If all that wasn’t enough, I now have nine seasters for life. I assumed all the women would get along and bond, but what I wasn’t prepared for was feeling such a deep connection so quickly. I attribute it to being off grid and having the opportunity to connect at a level we rarely experience in today’s fast-paced, technology-ridden world.

NISKIN bottle

Just before dropping the NISKIN bottle into the ocean to capture subsurface water. Photo credit: Stefanie Spear

The all women crew of the eXXpedition

My seasters. Photo credit: Millie Webb

Sharks and Fish
Sea Lions

eXXpedition renewed my hope for the future. I believe we will reach a tipping point where people will wake up and elected officials will rally worldwide to pass policies to reduce single-use plastics. 

Hopefully that day will come soon since plastic production is set to quadruple by 2050, humans ingest nearly 2,000 particles of plastic a week, and plastics emit greenhouse gases from cradle to grave contributing significantly to climate change.

How will we get there? It will come from the efforts of people and organizations leading the charge for change. In the plastics arena that includes the collaborative efforts of #BreakFreeFromPlastics, a global movement of more than 8,000 organizations and individual supporters demanding massive reductions in single-use plastics. A few of my favorite groups involved are 5 Gyres, Surfrider Foundation and Greenpeace USA

Want to join the movement? Learn more here. Want to take the Plastic Free July challenge? Click here. Because, remember, "Together We Can Protect Our Home."

Stefanie Penn Spear works with people and organizations leading the charge for change. She has more than 30 years experience as an entrepreneur and leader in the grassroots environmental movement with a special focus on communications + marketing. She is the founder of EcoWatch, Expedite Renewable Energy and Stellar Consulting. When Stefanie is not working, she’s likely paddleboarding her beloved Lake Erie or some other body of water. Follow Stefanie on Twitter at @StefanieSpear and Instagram at cle.sup.

Sea Turtle