This Oakville woman is studying microplastics in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

An Oakville, Ont., woman is sailing to the world’s largest floating garbage dump to study the impact of thousands of tonnes of plastic on a changing ocean environment and its marine life.

Karine Therrien is one of an all-female team of 14 researchers and volunteers setting out from Oahu, Hawaii

Karine Therrien is taking part in a three-week voyage from Oahu, Hawaii to Vancouver, sailing through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to collect microplastic samples. (Karine Therrien/GoFundMe)

An Oakville, Ont., woman is sailing to the world's largest floating garbage dump to study the impact of thousands of tonnes of plastic on a changing ocean environment and its marine life.

Karine Therrien is one of an all-female team of 14 volunteers and researchers casting off from Oahu, Hawaii on Saturday to collect and examine microplastic waste samples as part of a global initiative called eXXpedition. 

"I will not get a tan. I will not be on holiday," Therrien said. 

eXXpedition is a global initiative that offers all-female scientific sailing expeditions. The three-week voyage, the organization's 10th, will travel through the densest areas of garbage in the north Pacific Ocean, commonly referred to as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Confetti-sized flecks

Around the world, ocean currents form circular areas called gyres — the centre of which are calm. It's here where debris can get trapped, as in the north Pacific Ocean.

"It brings big accumulations of plastics," she explained.

Large plastic pieces can break down into confetti-sized flecks, also known as microplastics, in these still areas. The garbage is almost invisible, measuring less than 0.5 centimetres in diameter, and can cause damage to animals that swallow it either accidentally or mistaking it for food, Therrien explained.

There are more than 79,000 tonnes of ocean plastic in a 1.6 million square kilometre area of the north Pacific Ocean, a 2015 study by the Ocean Cleanup Foundation found. (Courtesy of Chloe Dubois)

A study by the Ocean Cleanup Foundation estimates there is more than 79,000 tonnes of plastic in a 1.6 million square kilometre area of the north Pacific Ocean. 

"We want to study the impact it will have on ecosystems, but also on human health because the problem is when plastic breaks down into smaller fragments it becomes a bit like a sponge for materials and toxic substances in the water," said Therrien. 

Some experts suggest the smaller plastic particles — which fish could mistake for plankton — may absorb potentially harmful chemicals swirling in the waters and enter our food chain.

"We're doing this now to bring more data and to go further with the research," she said. 

"There is the desire to push the conversation forward."  

With files from Philippe de Montigny