A Better Way for 1 Ocean Clean Up: Mary Crowley of Ocean Voyages Institute

Ocean Voyages Institute Mary Crawley team expedition

Photo courtesy Ocean Voyages Institute (OVI). Mary Crowley is lower row, middle.

Ocean clean up article and interview by Akeem Purcell

Mary Crowley (Sausalito, California) is founder and CEO of Ocean Voyages Institute (OVI). Established in 1979 as a non-profit public charity, among the entity’s goals are preserving the maritime arts and sciences, island cultures and ocean clean up and the environment.

Since 2009, her team has been removing plastics from the Pacific Ocean. While there are more and more organizations touting the significant volumes of plastic debris that their teams can pull from the ocean, rivers and waterways, Crawley and crew prefer to take a more humble approach.

OVI is able to achieve a far higher rate of ROI per expedition. In 2020, a small crew extracted 340,000 pounds (170 tons) of ocean clean up plastics from the Pacific. Its port of departure from Hawai’i significantly reduces distance to travel to and from plastic patches.

Further, to this date, their Pacific Gyre expeditions have relied on wind-powered (sail), not fossil fuel, ships. Plus, with more years in the ocean clean up game than most, the team has many years experience developing and refinings proprietary plastic tracking methods and technologies.

Tackling Ocean Clean Up and More

What was your motivation for working in the marine space?

I grew up in Chicago, on Lake Michigan. I had a great interest in sailing from the time I was about four years old and onwards. My grandfather had a 26-foot sailboat, and my family has pictures of me at age four holding the tiller and steering. I grew up spending my summers around boats. By the time I was 12 years old, I had read all the books in the library about people sailing around the world. I wanted to explore the ocean world myself. When I finished college I moved to Sausalito and taught sailing, did long distance boat deliveries, and was staff on a couple of school ship programs; one ship was a 300-foot Norwegian three-masted Barque.

I have to say, your professional background sounds like quite an adventure. I’m impressed you were able to find your passion at such a young age. What advice do you have for others about finding their passion in life?

I care a lot about our world and ocean clean up. It is the belief of many scientists and people that a healthy ocean is the key to a healthy planet. Right now, our ocean ecosystem many serious issues. It is a really important time to be caring for our planet. If I could have a wish, it would be for people all over the world to be more educated about the importance of caring for our ocean and each other. Education, caring for humanity, and caring for our planet are urgent activities. Many don’t know how important the ocean is; it creates oxygen for two out of three breaths we take.

What advice do you have for those who want to restore the health of the ocean?

Everyone can find ways to help our ocean. We all have the power to make a difference. Consider living a lifestyle that would reduce throw-away plastics. Some carry around a pouch of forks, spoons and knives made from bamboo so that they won’t need to use plastic utensils. Consider carrying a reusable water bottle instead of drinking from single use plastic bottles. There are ways to go plastic-free and assist with ocean clean up.

Any changes people make to avoid throw-away plastics will influence neighbors and family. Every ocean clean up is important. Whether you are clearing beaches or a neighborhood park—any location where garbage is gathering is a good site to fix. Plastics are light and they tend to be blown around by the wind and can end up in rivers, lakes and oceans.

What motivated you to get involved with ocean cleanup / removing plastic from the ocean?

From my years sailing, and the experiences of my fellow sailors, we all had so many observations of plastics in our global ocean. Plastics do not belong there–they kill birds and ocean life. The more I read about plastics, the more I wanted to take action. A lot of times there would be articles written saying things like, “there are large amounts of plastics mid-ocean in the gyres, but it is impossible to remove them.

They are too far away and it is difficult to access.” I knew that the maritime industry and people such as myself could remove this debris. We humans have placed the plastics there, so we have the responsibility to remove this toxic plastic. When you are a sailor, the middle of the ocean is a place you go, a place you work, a place that you care about.

Some individuals feel we need to first focus on preventing plastics from entering our ocean, then go do ocean clean up the garbage. I think we have too many plastics now, and we cannot wait: plastics are destroying reefs, turtles, whales, dolphins, fish and birds. By filming and photographing, we can show people the magnitude of the issue and hope to inspire change. Good stewardship is vital. We cannot let our ocean be used as a garbage pail.

What’s the process in which plastics are collected?

When we are collecting plastics we are very careful to not include ocean life. Our catch typically mostly contains ghostnets. When remove these from the water, we shake each and study to make sure there are no live creatures within; most often we only find skeletons of things like swordfish, turtles and other creatures. We also go out in small boats to pick up consumer debris such as buckets, laundry detergent bottles, etc.

Many types of debris get entangled in the net. It is our promise that everything collected will be reused, upcycled, or re-purposed. Nothing will go into the landfills or back into the ocean.

Our big project is raising money to build two sailing cargo ships specially designed to efficiently remove ocean plastics. By using wind power as major source of energy, as opposed to fossil fuels, we keep efforts more economically viable and environmentally friendly. When sailing cargo ships are used, cost is 40% less than using motorized ships. Individuals interested in being part of the building of these new ships (slated for use in the North Pacific Gyre summer throughout the Pacific Islands and Central America) may email info@oceanvoyagesinstitute.org and assist ocean clean up.

We currently hold the record for having removed the most plastic from the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone. With two sailing ships operating year-round, we can greatly increase our capacity, and address this problem even more vigorously.

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