Still Tracking Trash


All good books come to an end. But more often than not, the stories inside them continue …

This week the ocean research vessel Alguita, known to Tracking Trash readers for its pioneering investigation of plastic debris in the North Pacific Ocean, set sail on a new mission. For the next six months, Captain Charles Moore and his crew will be sampling plastic in the South Pacific Ocean, and studying the effect this plastic has on the world’s lantern fish.

Thanks to Algalita Marine Research Education’s Ship2Shore program, classrooms with an interest in this story can follow the new expedition closely, receiving weekly blog updates, photos, and videos. They can also interact directly with Captain and crew by posing questions through the blog. Getting started is as easy as sending an email to [email protected] and asking for a Ship2Shore blog user name and password.

Please click here for more information.

And please join me in wishing fair winds and safe travels to the Alguita and her entire crew.

On Tracking Trash and Making Art

“Science tells us how the world really is. And how things really work. The one thing you don’t have time and space for in science, though, is to express how that feels to you.”  ~ Carl Safina

And so Carl and a team of scientists, artists, and conservationists took a trip through parts of Alaska, to see for themselves what humankind’s plastic trash problem looks like. To consider how it makes them feel. They created this video, which will surely leave you thinking harder about plastic fly swatters in the shape of football helmets and bears that raise families on remote beaches and the surprising ways that art and science can work together. Totally worth twenty minutes of your day…

I appreciate and admire the conservation message in this film. (As the author of Tracking Trash, how could I not?) But I was equally enthralled by the way it celebrates that place where science and art meet and reach out to the world. I sincerely hope the creativity born of the journey will make its way to where I live sometime soon. For now, I’ll ponder its messages from afar.

Edited to add: I’m not sure why the YouTube link won’t embed properly, but here’s a link to the YouTube site where you can watch the video.

15FXZ: Journey of a Ghost Net



Do you remember what a ghost net is? Here’s the definition from the book’s glossary: lost or discarded fishing nets that continue to drift at sea, threatening marine animals and coral reefs.

Do you also remember Tim Veenstra? He’s the Alaskan pilot who helped launch a debris tagging program so that he could keep an eye on the biggest ghost nets found in the ocean. Tim and his colleagues asked seafarers to carry GPS-equipped tags on board their vessels and to attach these tags to any large debris they came across but were unable to remove from the ocean. Tim would then track movement of the debris and, if necessary, dispatch a ship to pull it out of the sea.

Tim recently sent me the story of one GhostNet tag. 15FXZ (cute name, no?) was attached to a large piece of debris in the Pacific Ocean on April 2, 2008 and has been sending its location to Tim’s computer twice each day ever since. On March 22, 2013, however, 15FXZ abruptly stopped sending location updates. Tim’s not sure what happened to the tag, but it appears its journey is over. “The buoy (and debris if still attached) has been through numerous storms, sun soaked days and adventures we can only imagine,” Tim says. He sent the photo above showing the ocean path over which those five years of adventures took place.

If 15FXZ is heard from again, Tim will let us know. In the meantime, I can’t help but imagine those adventures …

On Dolphins and Ocean Trash

© Betty Jenewin
© Betty Jenewin

Last week, Erica Zappy, the editor of my ‘Scientists in the Field’ books at Houghton Mifflin sent me and author Pamela S. Turner, a link to this video of a dolphin in distress approaching divers in Hawaii, apparently for help. “What to you guys make of this?” she asked.

Pam is an experienced scuba diver, and has just written a new SITF book, THE DOLPHINS OF SHARK BAY. This is what she had to say about the video.

I’ve written a book about ocean trash, and so my thoughts got a bit preachy. But I stand by them. How can the average at-home viewer do anything for that poor dolphin? By changing the way you think about plastic, by making tough decisions about when to use it. By getting real, refusing that plastic straw, and drinking your restaurant soda directly from a glass.

In a beautiful coincidence, I had an email over the weekend from a woman I’d never met, but who is doing work I admire. Sara Bayles has taken the ocean plastic issue into her own hands. Literally. For 365 non-consecutive days, twenty minutes at a time, she has cleaned thousands of pounds of trash off the beach near her home. And she has inspired people around the world to start doing the same thing. Visit Sara’s blog and her website and you are very likely to be inspired, too. In Sara’s words: “One person makes a difference. That one person is you. Together we are an unstoppable solution.

Amen to that.

(A word on the photo: My friend Betty Jenewin took this photo on Grayland Beach in California when I was writing and researching TRACKING TRASH.)

Convenience Will Kill You

I’ve been working with the fine folks at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on an enhanced digital edition of my first book, Tracking Trash. One of my jobs has been to scour the digital world for content that might enhance a young reader’s experience of the book. This week, I’ve been particularly interested in finding video footage that explores what we can do–you, me, the world–to address the issue of marine pollution. (Answer: REFUSE, REDUCE, REUSE, and RECYCLE plastic. But mostly: REFUSE) I’ve found some great material, and I can’t wait to see how it all comes together in the final product.

In the meantime, I thought I’d share a favorite video that didn’t make the cut. Plastic State of Mind is a must-see PSA from fimmaker Ben Zolno, featuring AshEL Eldridge and Jenni Perez, that I found through the Plastic Pollution Coalition video gallery. Warning: the tune and new lyrics are catchy. And spot on in the most uncomfortable way: “Skip the bag, the cup, and spork, dude. Convenience will kill you.”


Messages in Bottles

© Betty Jenewin

You can’t write about flotsam and jetsam without coming across a message in a bottle or two. When I was researching Tracking Trash, I came across quite a few, including the one pictured here. It was collected by beachcomber John Anderson near his Forks, Washington home and like all bottle messages, it has stories to tell. There are the personal stories, of course: who launched the bottle and why? who found the bottle and how? And then there are the stories of its oceanic movement: how far did the bottle drift between its launch and its discovery?

The possibilities in these stories thrill me.

Which is why I was so intrigued by news of a new ‘oldest message in a bottle’, as verified by the Guinness Book of World Records. There are ninety-eight years of stories in that bottle, launched in the North Sea on June 10, 1914 and found by a skipper in Scotland earlier this year. Here’s a bit of  its personal story, and here’s a look at some of the science.

Cool stuff, no?

Where Science Meets Adventure


Attention teachers and science lovers: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has launched a new website devoted entirely to the award-winning Scientists in the Field (SITF) series. These books for upper elementary and middle school students cover an impressive array of science topics, from honey bees and trash (my two entries in the series, pictured above) to sea horses, wild horses, manatees, tarantulas, anthropology, space exploration, and beyond. The new site includes an overview of the series, including every SITF title, and features sneak peeks from upcoming titles and updates from the authors.

What are you waiting for? Go check it out!

Center City Public Charter School

Photos courtesy of An Open Book Literacy Foundation

Last month, while in Washington, D.C. for the USA Science & Engineering Festival, I was invited to visit the Center City Public Charter School in Center Heights. Sponsored by An Open Book, my morning visit with Ms. Vanessa Elliott’s sixth grade science class was, in a word, spectacular. Ms. Elliott’s students were excited and inquisitive and completely jazzed by the concept of citizen science. And I was completely wowed by their enthusiasm.

The morning would have been a success no matter what, because Dara La Porte from An Open Book had prepared the school, and Ms. Elliott had prepared her students, and because these kids were so very open to rewriting the definition of a scientist. (You know, so that it included them.) But my supremely generous publishers, Henry Holt Books for Young Readers and Houghton Mifflin Children’s Books, pushed the event over the top by donating enough copies of Citizen Scientists and Tracking Trash that each student went home with a copy of their very own.

Do you know how cool that was? It was very cool. I thought so, and so did the students.

Sometimes in the rush to write and edit and perfect and promote and meet deadlines, I lose sight of what I am really trying to do with my work: share stories and ideas that thrill me with people who will be equally thrilled. I’d like to thank each and every student I met at CCPCS last month for reminding me of that. Happy exploring to all of you!

Cleanup! Cleanup! Everybody Cleanup!

ICC, Worcester, Massachusetts, 2007

If you’ve read my first book, TRACKING TRASH, you know that I’m a fan of the ocean cleanup extravaganza known as the International Coastal Cleanup (ICC). One day, hundreds of thousands of volunteers, millions of pounds of trash lifted from shores and deposited in safer places AND a twenty-five year record of every single item collected*. What’s not to love? Having participated in a few events myself, I know first-hand the impact they have on local beaches and the people who love them.

This year, The Ocean Conservancy is encouraging event organizers to take their work to the next level: clean up beaches, record the trash you find … and at the same time do everything you can to be sure you make as little impact on the planet as possible. No more Boxes of Joe on the sidelines, folks; bring your own coffee in a re-useable mug. I love it.

Participating in a planned ICC event is an excellent way to empower students who are aware of the ocean pollution issue. (TRACKING TRASH readers, for example.) Yes, there is a lot of trash in the ocean, but we can do something about it. We can clean it up, we can look carefully at what we find, and we can change our habits. You can participate alone, with your family, with a classroom of students or as part of a scout group. The options are endless, and the impact is real.

This year’s ICC is September 17, and you can find more information and an event near you at The Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup page.

For more information on ICC events happening in Massachusetts, where the festivities are spread out over a two month timeframe, visit the 2011 Coastsweep page.

* For 26 years, volunteers have counted all the debris collected on beaches around the world during ICC. Their results are compiled and published annually in The Ocean Conservancy’s State of the Ocean report. You can access the 2010 report from the ICC webpage linked above.