Photos by: Spencer Lowell

Studying the sea to make trash less toxic

The Tara sails the Mediterranean in search of plastics.

Google has approached sustainability as a core value since its founding. I try not to lose sight of how special that is. Our push toward 100 percent renewable energy and zero waste to landfill for our data center operations reflects our belief that global businesses can lead the way in improving people's lives and the health of the planet. This abiding commitment to the environment is key to the future that we're trying to build.

And we’re not the only ones. The Tara’s mission to educate and inspire innovation exemplifies the power of science to protect the natural world. Whether research happens in a windowless lab or on the high seas, better data is key to a better future for people and planet.

Kate Brandt, lead for sustainability, Google

The Tara is a scientific research vessel that travels the globe to study the threats to the world's great bodies of water. The Mediterranean Sea's beauty hides an unpleasant secret—a soup of microscopic plastics.

Scientist with petri dish Ocean particles

Scientists aboard the Tara took to the Mediterranean to understand the scope of the plastics problem in the belief that better data could inspire better solutions. Photographer Spencer Lowell spent nearly three weeks on the ship as its artist in residence, where he found that science can sometimes be both serious and sun-drenched.

This laboratory at sea is a next-generation version of Jacques Cousteau's Calypso. Scientists worked in labs both below and right on deck to collect data on the nearly invisible particles sullying the Mediterranean.

Man writing at table Instruments on table
Filtering in water bin

During its seven-month voyage, the Tara circumnavigated the Mediterranean from Tangier to Barcelona to Beirut—13 countries in all. The crew dropped nets more than 350 times to trawl for pollution and took some 2,300 samples. They found shards of plastic in all 2,300.

The Tara
Man sitting on mast Steering wheel
people swimming woman sitting on mast

Based in France, the Tara has traversed the world's oceans, from coral reefs to great polar ice shelves. Its team has a dual mission: to study the oceans and to educate citizens about the dangers these waters face. On its Mediterranean journey, about 12,000 people toured the Tara when it came into port.

Plastic takes a long time to biodegrade and in the process breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces that are still toxic. When the particles get small enough, zooplankton ingest them. From there, they can work their way up the food chain to humans.

Ocean life Ocean life
Ocean life Ocean life
Petri dish

Scientists are still analyzing the thousands of samples the Tara collected.

The plastics problem may seem daunting. But understanding its scope is key to informing and motivating change. The Tara team hopes the findings from its floating lab will encourage innovation to keep the world's oceans cleaner.

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