Faroe Islands – the hunt for dolphins and microplasticposted on January 09, 2020
After a comfortable 36 hour crossing, we could see the distinct sea cliffs of the Faroe Islands on the horizon. A spectacular landscape with steep sea-cliffs and strong currents makes it one of the premiere cruising destinations in the North Atlantic. The Faroe Islands is situated about half way between Norway and Iceland. The remote archipelago comprises 18 rocky islands, known for it´s stunning scenery and a population that still lives closely connected with nature.
We were initially joined by Dr. Marianne H. Rasmussen, University of Iceland's Research Center in Húsavík , a leading specialist in marine mammal research.
As a part of the Arctic Whale strategy, we work with the whales as marine ambassadors to tell the story of marine plastic pollution. Marianne joined us to look for one of the smaller members of the whale family, the Atlantic white-sided dolphin. It's quite an elusive whale, and its conservation status in the North Atlantic is unknown. We spent 3 days trying to locate the whales, but despite of venturing well offshore in calm weather, we were unsuccessful this time around. And so, it is with nature and wild animals. Often times you spend days and weeks without success, until it all changes in a moment, as we can read about in the next blog-post.
Our next target was one that can be found in all the oceans of the world, and that unfortunately requires little effort to find. Microplastic. Plastic enters the ocean in different in the form of larger items, such as plastic bottles, bags and just about any other visible plastic items we surround ourselves with. Less know is the influx of microplastic from clothing, cosmetics and even tooth paste. Microplastics are small particles of plastic less than 5mm in size.
Microplastic can also originate from larger pieces of plastic that break down through wear and tear in the ocean, such as a plastic bottle rolling amongst pebbles at a beach. In a similar way as a rock will be grinded down to sand. The microplastic will break down even further, into smaller components called nanoplastics (particles smaller than 100 nm). There are growing concerns related to how plastic pollution, namely in terms of toxicity of different types and sizes of nanoplastics (particles smaller than 100 nm) to marine organisms, either producers or consumers.
We know that plastic enters the oceans at an ever-growing rate, and that is poses a threat of entanglement for a wide array of ocean creatures, and when its mistaken for food and eaten by birds, whales and fish. It remains a big unknown to what extent micro and nanoplastic affects our oceans, and to what extent it accumulates in the food chain affecting whales and humans alike. We do know that many forms of plastic are toxic, and it’s not likely that the microplastic is beneficial to our oceans in any ways. Key to our expedition was shed light on the micro and nanoplastic, as well as if it accumulates in the food chain.
Our tool for finding microplastic was the manta trawl, which is a net system for sampling the surface of the ocean. It resembles the manta ray, with metal wings and a broad mouth. The sampling procedure consists of towing the trawl alongside the boat for 20 minutes. The trawl filters the water, and provides a sample containing organic debris, as well as microplastic. During the Arctic Whale expedition, we would use the trawl to collect samples all along the route in Norway, Shetland, Faroe Islands and Iceland.
We subsequently preserved the samples in alcohol, and we plan to get them analyzed early 2020. To properly determine what the plastic content, the organic matter needs to be removed at a laboratory. What we do know from similar sampling across the globe, is that microplastic is found throughout the oceans, from sea surface to the deepest crevice in the sea floor.
The next leg of our journey would be less comfortable, yet more rewarding with the project finally living up to its name. To be continued.
BEHIND THE SCENE