ESR microplastics expert Dr Olga Pantos recently set sail from Milford Sound on a week-long scientific voyage to understand just how prevalent microplastics are in even the most remote areas of Aotearoa.
Olga was accompanied on the voyage by Hayden Masterson, a master's student based at ESR's Christchurch Science Centre. They were joined by scientists from Nelson's Cawthron Institute, the University of Otago, Algalita South Pacific and Blue Cradle Foundation, who were studying the prevalence of invasive pests in Fiordland.
"Being spring, the weather was less than perfect as MV Strannik set sail from Milford Sound. But being able to call into the fjords meant we weren't too exposed to the roughest weather – save for the endless pouring rain! The weather improved before we knew it.
"There aren't many places more spectacular on earth than Fiordland and we weren't disappointed during our voyage. We were so fortunate to see seals, common bottlenose dolphins, penguins and even humpback whales," says Olga.
What wasn't a privilege for Olga and the team was the realisation just how widespread microplastics are in our natural environment.
"It really hit home when we saw plastic in water samples we trawled. To see human-made plastics floating freely in one of the most remote places in Aotearoa was a bitter pill to swallow – especially when you realise it's probably just the tip of the iceberg and the water itself is likely to be enriched with invisible microplastics."
Olga and Hayden will be analysing the samples they collected over the next few weeks to determine how much microplastics the water contains.
"It's gutting to think all those animals we saw could be ingesting plastic from the water in which they live.
"The term 'microplastics' is a misnomer that downplays just how seriously plastic waste can harm the environment. In fact, it's the small size that makes microplastics so hard to deal with and is why they can now be found in virtually every part of our planet – including Fiordland.
"The fragile state of our environment is front and centre with the COP 26 conference under way in Glasgow. But it's up to each of us to move away from just talking about protecting the environment to rolling up our sleeves and taking action – for the sake of the whales, the dolphins, the seals and the countless other species whose way of life is jeopardised when the natural environment is undermined.
"This also includes humans," says Olga.