Most of the brown gunk in this image is natural. It's sargassum algae, which gives the North Atlantic Gyre its other name: Sargasso Sea. But the white flecks researchers are reaching for are chunks of plastic floating near the surface.
One Fish, Two fish, Red Fish, Shoe fish
Trash on the bottom of the ocean used to be out of sight and out of mind, but a project by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) brought images of deep sea dumps to the surface. The MBARI team observed more than 1,500 pieces of trash on the seafloor from Vancouver Island to the Gulf of California, and as far west as the Hawaiian Islands.
Oceanic life sometimes made the best of this bad situation by colonizing the garbage. For example, this young rockfish is a shoe-in for survival and adaptation at 472 meters (1,548 feet) deep in San Gabriel Canyon, off Southern California.
Seafloor Social Network
Other young rockfish swim around discarded fishing equipment on the floor of Monterey Canyon off the coast of California. Luckily for them, the net isn't working. While some marine life may be able to adapt to human garbage, oceanic trash can trap animals, release toxins, smother plants and have other negative effects.
Boxing Day for Crabs
An octopus coils and crabs crawl over a metal box 2,432 meters (7979 feet) deep in Monterey Canyon.
This shipping container was discovered by MBARI four months after it fell off the merchant vessel Med Taipei during a storm in February of 2004. The container was just one of the estimated 10,000 shipping containers lost overboard every year.
Drums in the Deep
A wanna-be Sebastian the Crab, from Disney's the Little Mermaid, may be planning to turn this drum into a percussion instrument for a calypso band under the sea. The 55-gallon drum lies 2,892 meters (9,488 feet) deep in outer Monterey Canyon.
Even fragile garbage like this old cardboard can become part of the ocean floor ecosystem if it isn't handled with care. However, the crabs may be grouchy that cardboard covers their habitat 3,950 meters deep, offshore of Point Conception, Santa Barbara County, California.
A sea anemone (top) and sea cucumber (right) gained traction on the surface of this tire submerged 868 meters (2,850 feet) beneath the waves in Monterey Canyon.
The ubiquitous Coca Cola logo can be found even 1,200 meters deep in Monterey Canyon.
Classic Fish Pun
This old shoe is in pretty bad shape, but it seems to still have its sole...or is that a flounder (upper left)?
It's in the Water
The slogan of Olympia beer, “It's the water,” can barely be read on this old can. In this case, lots and lots of water.
Someone didn't turn in this soda bottle for a deposit. Instead, deep in the sea, brittle stars creep around the bottle on Davidson Seamount, 60 miles offshore of California and 1,727 meters (5,666 feet) below the ocean surface. "The most frustrating thing for me is that most of the material we saw—glass, metal, paper, plastic—could be recycled," said Kyra Schlining, lead author of the MBARI study published in Deep-Sea Research, in a press release.
The Long Black Veil
A gorgonian coral wears a veil of black plastic 2,115 meters (almost 7,000 feet) deep in Astoria Canyon, off the coast of Oregon. The veil could become a death shroud if the plastic were to completely cover the coral and block coral polyps from feeding.
Dr. Pepper's slogan could be modified to, “Would you like to be a polluter too?” for this can submerged 1,529 meters deep on Axial Seamount, off the Pacific Northwest's coast. The nearby brittle stars probably can't tell the difference between Dr. Pepper detritus and Mr. Pibb pollution.
Microscopic creatures could be helping reduce marine garbage on the ocean surface, not only by "eating" plastics but by causing tiny pieces to sink to the seafloor, Australian researchers said Thursday.
The plastic-dwellers appear to be biodegrading the millions of tonnes of debris floating on waters worldwide, according to oceanographers at the University of Western Australia.
They analysed more than 1,000 images of material drifting along Australia's coast in a study published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE.
The study is the first to document the biological communities living on the tiny particles of debris known as microplastics, and recorded many new types of microbe and invertebrate for the first time.
"Plastic biodegradation seems to happen at sea," oceanographer Julia Reisser said.
"I am excited about this because the 'plastic-eating' microbes could provide solutions for better waste disposal practices on land."
Scientists have warned that microplastics -- particles smaller than five millimetres (0.2 of an inch) -- are threatening to alter the open ocean's natural environment.
The United Nations Environment Programme estimated in 2012 that around 13,000 pieces of microplastic litter were found in every square kilometre of sea, with the North Pacific most badly affected.
While there has been previous research on microbes eating plastic at landfills, Reisser said her research found early indications that their marine counterparts could be just as effective on ocean garbage.
"If you use terrestrial microbes, you need fresh water to grow them and the process can be very expensive," she told AFP.
"But if you find marine microbes, they are growing in saltwater and that might be a cheaper way (to reduce landfills)."
Reisser said the research showed diatoms -- tiny algae that were the most commonly found microbe living on the microplastics -- were using the little pieces as a "boat" to move around on the surface of the ocean.
As more and more diatoms -- which are made of silica -- gathered on a plastic piece, they appeared to make it sink to the bottom of the ocean floor, she said.
The actions of the microbes could explain why the amount of plastic floating on the seas has not been expanding as fast as scientists expected, Reisser added.
But the researchers also found evidence of possible tiny bite marks on the microplastics, raising concerns that other small organisms could be consuming toxins found in the litter.
"It seems we have tiny animals grazing on these plastic inhabitants -- but we are not sure if this is good or bad," Reisser said.
"That's a hazard that we are very worried about, but we need far more research to see how big this problem is."