Good morning, ocean science!

(A Cautionary Tale)

I have been taking an Oceanography class this term (Science of the Sea, Dr. Floyd McCoy, U. Hawaii Windward Community College). I have been enjoying it immensely, amazed at how little I actually knew about the ocean even though I have lived next to it for over 30 years. Now I know a little bit more, just enough to make an early morning walk on the beach yesterday a different experience.

Sophie and I started our walk before sunup – the sky was just starting to lose its blackness.


As the waves lapped the shore, I could not help but think about the processes we had just been learning about in class.  It was like a pop quiz in my head:  why are these waves behaving as they are?  Why is the tide so low? And as I walked I tried to answer those questions.

It got light quickly, as is usual in these latitudes, and with the light the wind came up.  Aha!  A brisk sea breeze caused by the temperature difference between the air over land and sea.  With the wind, the waves picked up a bit.  I could see squalls suddenly forming off shore.  Every one of these processes working exactly as we learned.  The pop quiz went on: why are the waves bending? what happens when they come together? move apart?

By now, it was almost fully light.  I looked down and there it was. The last lesson from my oceanography class, most obvious of all:  a thin line of plastic debris stretched uninterrupted from one end of the beach to the other.

Midway - plastic debris

Plastic is really useful. It is lightweight, strong, durable, and cheap.1

It is lightweight, so it floats and concentrates at the surface.

It is strong, so it entangles marine organisms.

It is durable, so most plastic just keeps breaking into smaller and smaller floating pieces.2

It is cheap, so we mass produce it, much of it for one-time use.

Most of the plastic in the ocean comes from careless handling of plastic on land. Dumping of plastic in the ocean is forbidden by international law, and while there is still some, dumping is not the major source of plastic debris in the ocean.  Most plastic enters the ocean through runoff. Water that runs down storm drains goes directly to lakes, rivers or the ocean, carrying our plastic litter with it.

What can you do to help?

  • Handle your plastic properly (reuse, recycle, reduce).

  • Try to avoid purchasing anything that includes one-time use plastic (very difficult given today’s packaging, but do what you can). Avoiding plastic grocery bags is a good place to start.

  • Participate in beach clean-ups – these are remarkably effective at a local level, and if enough are done, can have a global impact.

  • Educate yourself and others about the importance of protecting our oceans. NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency) has created the Marine Debris Program that provides a great place to start that education (

Lessons Learned

My walk on the beach taught me two things.

  • Studying something is not the same as experiencing it. The scientific data read on the pages of my textbook1 bothered me, of course, but when I looked down and saw that line of plastic, it just about broke my heart. Scientific facts experienced in a way that affects us emotionally give us understanding and perspective.

  • Scientific knowledge has a profound affect on how we see the world around us. I have walked that beach many times, but because of my oceanography class, I saw it this time with new understanding of the forces that created it and that continue to sculpt it. Though invisible to the eye, I could still “see” the multitude of life in and under the sand and the water. Forces such as the gravity of the sun and moon which make the tides or the energy-generating storms hundreds or thousand of miles off-shore that created the waves were “visible” in the light of my new-found knowledge.

This is exactly what we want to do for Science Camps of America campers: give them the scientific knowledge to SEE and the experience to UNDERSTAND.

Additional resources:
NOAA Marine Debris Program
Environmental Protection Agency Marine Debris Website
Plastic Debris Rivers to Sea

1Trujillo, A. P., & Thurman, H. V. (2011). Essentials of Oceanography (Tenth Edition). Prentice Hall.

2New research reported by National Geographic indicates that some plastics do in fact break down faster than previously thought; unfortunately, as they do they leach extremely harmful toxins.

2 thoughts on “Good morning, ocean science!

  1. Exactly! That is what learning is all about. It is not enough to have the information in our heads in a vaguely theoretical construct but be able to apply that knowledge in novel contexts and in a practical manner. We have to notice something and “see” in an active way. By giving people (any size and any age.. – thus relating to the comment above) opportunities to use both academic and practical knowledge to deal with an issue, you are helping them see the relevance of the theoretical knowledge (and why it is important to have or how to get it) and how it can be applied in a real situation that impacts their lives.

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