Between September 26 and October 7 2016, The Ocean Cleanup conducted a series of reconnaissance flights across the Great Pacific Garbage Patch: the Aerial Expedition. The objective of the mission was to accurately quantify the ocean’s biggest and most harmful debris, discarded fishing gear called ghost nets. Determining the amount of this large debris is the final stage of mapping the ocean plastic problem.


Cleaning the Great Pacific Garbage Patch requires us to understand its dimension. Quantifying and characterizing the plastic the patch contains is essential to determine the design of cleanup systems, the logistics of hauling plastic back to shore, the methods to recycle plastic and the cleanup's economics.

We started answering this question in 2015, when we launched the Mega Expedition. With a fleet of about 30 vessels, we produced the first high-resolution map of the infamous plastic accumulation zone, situated halfway between Hawaii and California.

Conventionally, ocean plastic is quantified using small, one meter-wide trawls, meaning only a very small portion of the size spectrum was measured. The larger pieces of plastic become, the rarer (by count) they become. Therefore a larger area needs to be covered to accurately quantify large debris. Hence, during the 2015 Mega Expedition, we used very large nets to also be able to measure larger pieces of plastic. This was successful for debris of up to about a meter in size, but we knew ocean garbage can be much larger. Hence, we conducted the Aerial Expedition to find out more.

Ocean Force One

The aim of the Aerial Expedition was to accurately measure the biggest and most harmful debris in the ocean. This could be achieved by covering an area larger than was done during the Mega Expedition. This was the first-ever aerial survey of an ocean garbage patch. The Aerial Expedition’s findings is combined with the data we collected on the Mega Expedition, resulting in a study we expect to publish in 2017.


With a flight crew of 10 researchers, 3 sensor technicians and 7 navigation personnel, The Ocean Cleanup’s Aerial Expedition used a combination of experienced human observers and advanced sensors to count the debris. The C-130 Hercules aircraft, named Ocean Force One (following a Twitter suggestion), flew at a low speed (140 knots) and low altitude (400m) while mapping the area. Advanced sensors helped convert the count from the visual survey to a weight estimate by registering the size of the objects detected.

A selection of large objects observed in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch during the Aerial Expedition

The combined results from these expeditions helps us to develop our cleanup technology. The pilot is scheduled to be deployed in 2017.

Relive the Aerial Expedition - Aftermovie