A Santa Monica College biology professor and his wife are planning to travel across the South Pacific Ocean on an expedition to study the effects of plastic pollution on marine life.

Dr. Garen Baghdasarian and his wife Sara Bayles, an award-winning writer/blogger and environmental activist, will embark in March on a 5,000-mile crossing of the South Pacific to search for particles of plastic and study the effects of its pollution on marine life.

The pair is joining a leg of an expedition by The 5 Gyres Institute, a Santa Monica-based non-profit that is exploring the world’s oceans in what it considers the most exhaustive survey of marine plastic pollution ever done. The 5 Gyres refers to the five areas in the world’s major oceans where plastic items, carried by currents, appear to accumulate in large areas.

“I really truly believe that this is important work to do now,” says Baghdasarian, who is also chair of SMC’s Life Science Department. “I’m excited but at the same time I’m preparing myself to be devastated, to go out into the green pristine oceans and see these plastics.”

SMC is helping support Baghdasarian’s journey with about $9,000 in funding, including $5,000 from the SMC Foundation’s Chair of Excellence program, $3,500 from the SMC Global Citizenship Council and $500 in professional development funds, SMC spokesman Bruce Smith said. The professor also received a $5,000 Foundation “Margin of Excellence” grant for equipment, and he and his wife are working to raise several thousand dollars more to cover costs.

Baghdasarian said that on the 10-week trip from Valdivia, Chile to Tahiti, with a one-week layover on Easter Island, he will focus on the effects of plastic particulates on plankton, and how that is affecting the food chain. He explained that since 1950 – the year plastics started being manufactured – there has reportedly been a 40-percent drop in phytoplankton in oceans around the world.

He added that plastic does not biodegrade for hundreds and maybe thousands of years, and it can be ingested by marine animals. The expedition will take place on the Sea Dragon, a 72-foot research vessel.

Baghdasarian holds a Ph.D. from UCLA on the effects of global warming on coral bleaching. Bayles said she started conducting 20-minute beach clean-ups locally in Santa Monica in 2009 and has documented her findings on a blog.

Bayles, who said she has found almost 700 pounds of mostly plastic litter, was named a finalist for the 2010 Ocean Hero Award from Oceana. She will assist her husband in his research and will write, blog and take photos of the expedition.

“It is a bit scary to think that we will be sailing in some of the most isolated waters in the world, with the potential to end up in big storms, at times more than 1,300 miles from any major port or help,” Baghdasarian said. “On the other hand, I’m excited about the adventurous nature of being an explorer on a sailing expedition to discover the unknown and to play my part to help the environment.”

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