Picture this, it’s a clear summer day by the lake with calm waters and a light breeze, perfect conditions to go on a weekend sail — I was fortunate enough to do exactly that this past August on Lake Ontario.

I was taking part in eXXpedition Great Lakes, the world’s largest simultaneous water sampling project for microplastics. Sadly (but not surprisingly) these microscopic bits of plastic are found not just in our oceans but also in lakes and streams, and the goal of our adventure was to raise awareness of their presence. The expedition aligns with the microplastics work underway in the Ocean Pollution Research Program at Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre, and I was curious to learn about the issue in freshwater too.

The women behind our weekend adventure, Jennifer Pate and Elaine McKinnon, first met in 2014 during an eXXpedition sail across the Atlantic. As the only two Canadians on board they knew it was up to them to bring eXXpedition to their own backyard. Jennifer explains, “Learning that we had a higher density of microplastics here in the Great Lakes than in any of the Subtropical Oceanic Gyres, we knew we had to plan a mass engagement day to help everyone to move quickly from being a part of the problem, to being a significant part of the solution.”


Water samples were taken from the lake and sent for lab analysis. Photo credit: Meaghan Ogilvie

A diverse group of environmental professionals, researchers, students, artists, and writers all sharing a common concern for the health and livelihood of our Great Lakes, gathered in Toronto harbour. While it was a perfect day for a sail, we also had important work to do taking water samples that would later be analyzed for microplastics.

We collected samples in two different ways:

  1. Water samples were collected in 1L bottles for Adventurers & Scientists for Conservation as part of their Global Microplastics Initiative. The samples collected are now being analyzed in their lab and will be part of one of the most geographically diverse data set on microplastic pollution.
  2. We used a Manta trawl that is dragged behind the boat and designed to collect surface debris in a fine mesh net. Results from these samples will be used to help raise further awareness on the microplastics issue.

The Manta trawl skimmed the water surface to connect tiny particles in a fine mesh net. Photo credit: Bill Turner

The best and most inspiring part of the day was right at the end when we had a collective brainstorm in order to come up with real solutions. Ideas ranged from hosting shoreline cleanups, promoting sharing economies, avoiding single-use plastics like straws, developing a new school curriculum and working with different industries to find more sustainable alternatives. The conversation didn’t end there, we started off the day as a group of strangers and ended it with new friendships and renewed motivation to get out there and find ways to tackle the issue of microplastics and improve the health of our oceans, lakes and streams.


What the Manta trawl brought up wasn’t pretty. Here’s a closer look, can you see the tiny fragments? Photo credit: Meaghan Ogilvie

Aquablog by Susan Debreceni, outreach specialist, Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup.

To stay up to date with Jennifer and Elaine’s plans, keep an eye on Love Your Greats, their initiative to inspire real change for the future health of the North American Great Lakes. The Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, presented by Loblaw Companies Limited and supported by Ricoh Canada and YVR, is a joint conservation initiative of the Vancouver Aquarium and WWF-Canada. Find out more and start your own cleanup at www.shorelinecleanup.ca

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