Life in Salt: An Interview with Dr. Marcus Eriksen: Marine, Junk Raft Sailor, Anti-Plastics Crusader and Founder of 5 Gyres Institute

by Owen James Burke


Eriksen, Up to His Ears in Floating Detritus of the Modern World.
(Photo: Algalita Marine Research Blog)

Dr. Marcus Erikson came home after a tour in the 1991 Gulf War and returned to school to earn his PhD in Science Education from the University of Southern California. Just months after that, he built a raft and drifted down the Mississippi River, an experience he chronicled in his book, My River Home.

Further curiosity led him to build a 30′ raft of 15,000 water bottles, using a Cessna airplane fuselage as a cabin. He set sail aboard his plasticine contraption  from Los Angeles, California en route to Ala Wai Harbor, Oahu, Hawaii in 2008. Along with Joel Paschal, another “eco-mariner,” the pair sailed 2,600 miles over the course 88 days, attracting enormous attention to his then startup organization, The 5 Gyres Institute. Since, Erikson has sailed well over 35,000 miles through all 5 of the subtropical gyres, places where ocean currents meet and form a large vortex. This vortex pulls in and collects anything and everything that the currents gather along the way, including plastics and other floating debris.

Now, as the executive director and co-founder of the 5 Gyres Institute, Eriksen is dedicated to studying the five massive subtropical gyres with the goal of reducing and ultimately eliminating the scourge of plastic pollution in our oceans, all in the name of research, education and adventure. We caught up with him after he and a crew sailed up from Bermuda into the Arctic in search of more garbage. “Unfortunately,” he says, “we found it.”

What are your earliest, fondest memories of the water?

I grew up in Louisiana only and spent my youth catching snakes and turtles in the swamp, then in Mississippi helping my stepfather in his fishing business. We ran gill nets and crab traps. When I was 15 I had 1 alligator as a pet, 11 snakes and 96 turtles. One important lesson I learned is how to treat animals. After the turtles and snakes began to suffer and die in my captivity, I let them all free and stopped catching animals and instead spent my time watching them.

Did being a Marine influence you to start thinking about the problem of ocean plastics?

In the Gulf War I saw trash, and plenty of it. The burning [oil] wells made it obvious what our nation is willing to do to secure access to petroleum reserves of other countries. It’s simply wrong to do that. Fossil fuels become plastic, and we spend plenty of time, money and human lives to get it.

Did your raft trip down the Mississippi prepare you for your ocean raft expedition? What was the most important thing you learned from the experience? 

The river trip gave me the confidence to build an ocean-going raft. I know what bottles can and can’t do. By the time I built the JUNKraft, I had built and sailed 8 different plastic bottle boats. So, hopping on a ‘real’ sailboat to cross an ocean to do our gyre research was a piece of cake, not the sailing part, but the confidence to be at sea for days/weeks/months with everything you would ever need in the boat with you.

Did being in and around the sea help you to put the Gulf War behind you – or to heal in any way?

Being at sea is healing in the sense that you’re connected to what’s happening in the ocean at all times and that get’s you out of your head. You’ve got to get out of your head – those intrusive thoughts that can be debilitating – and put your mind into what the ocean is doing. You have to, otherwise big mistakes can happen. What happens to vets is that they sometimes sit around, while their minds are in the desert war. Sailing makes you be present in the world happening now.

Describe one of your favorite ocean moments.

Sitting on the JUNKraft after two months drifting, while a storm passes over me at 2am. I’m outside steering and I’m soaked. In the clouds ahead of me the moon created a moonbow in shades of grey. Pretty cool.

manta-798 (Large)

A Net Custom Built to Catch Plastic.
(Photo: 5 Gyres and Sergio Izquierdo, Courtesy of Marcus Eriksen)

What’s the worst experience you can recall having at sea?

Hurricanes. Being at sea when you can only close up the hatch and ride it out. The sea likes to toss you around.

On the JUNKraft, the worse moment was day three when we were sinking. The caps on the bottles were twisting off, so we lost a foot of draft in one night. My wife rented a boat and with a volunteer crew she found us at sea and brought us glue to seal the caps back on. We kept going. I saw her 3 months later.

Out of all of your voyages into the gyres, what’s been the most shocking thing you’ve found?

A fishing boat from the Japan 2011 tsunami. It was crushed in half and bobbing vertically. We also saw a boot laced up to the top float by, but didn’t stop for it. All of the stuff we saw on the voyage from Tokyo to Hawaii reminded me of the human cost in that disaster. 16,000 people died.


In the Open Ocean, Plastic Literally Becomes Part of the Food Chain. That Means We’re Eating it too…
5 Gyres and Sergio Izquierdo, Courtesy of Marcus Eriksen)

And the least shocking, or most common sighting?

Microplastics are everywhere. If you trawl in the North Pacific gyre for an hour you’ll get a handful of colorful, rice-grain size particulate of plastic. Globally, we estimate over 270,000 metric tons of plastic are in the world’s oceans from over 5 trillion particles, of which most are microplastic.

Yet despite all he’s seen, Eriksen maintains a positive outlook. And while he believes that ocean array plastic cleanup devices like those of Boyan Slat’s are essentially futile, he does suggest a possible solution through a strategy that doesn’t involve recovering plastics from the sea so much as it does preventing them from getting there in the first place.

What do you see as the most realistic solution to the problem of ocean plastics?

EPR: Extended Producer Responsibility. If you’re going to make anything out of plastic, you need to build a plan for recovery into it. The current model, which relies on tax-payer funded waste management and recycle programs for all plastics, including the thousands of products that are not designed for recycling, doesn’t work anymore. What we need is something like a blanket recovery rate for mixed, dry clean plastic. Something like a nickel per pound for all plastics. Let industry subsidize this. You wouldn’t need cleanups.

You’ve expressed that you’re an “open-minded skeptic” where projects like Boyan Slat’s Ocean Cleanup Array are concerned, and have pointed out some fallacies with the approach. It certainly makes sense that prevention is the best solution – but do you think there’s any way that the plastic already in the gyres could actually be cleaned up?

I’m nearly done getting a paper published on the mass of plastics in the world’s oceans. It’s around 270,000 metric tons worldwide. That’s a lot, but only .2% of the world’s (entire) annual production in 2012. What’s happening to the stuff out there is that it’s washing ashore on islands, sinking to the sea floor, becoming microplastics that organisms eat, biodegrading and photodegrading. The point is, why spend millions to clean up the gyres when they are kicking the stuff out fairly quickly? Of course, it cycles through marine life first, which is bad. I urged Boyan Slat to focus on inland solutions, or product alternatives for the throw-aways. Here’s one idea I like – a waterwheel that can pull 50,000 pounds of trash of the water in a day.


Eriksen, Paying His Knowledge Forward.
5 Gyres and Sergio Izquierdo, Courtesy of Marcus Eriksen)

Can you tell us a few of your favorite – or most useful – books of the sea?

I just read Magellan’s biography, Magellan. Fascinating. But Adrift, by Steven Callahan is the winner. I used his list of emergency supplies to provision my JUNKraft.

What else are you working on?

I invent hi-speed trawls for scooping microplastic from the sea surface at up to 8 knots of speed. This is 3x faster than traditional manta trawls. I’m in the process of applying for a patent.

What can you tell us about your latest expedition?

We just traveled from Bermuda to Iceland aboard the 72ft. Sea Dragon, a very capable ship. We were looking for microplastic on the sea surface in the subpolar gyre near Iceland. Unfortunately, we found it.

Shot 2

(Photo: 5 Gyres and Sergio Izquierdo, Courtesy of Marcus Eriksen)

Follow Marcus Eriksen and 5 Gyres at and on Twitter @5gyres

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