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Sometimes the object spotted in the water is a snarled fishing line. Or a buoy. Or something that might once have been the lid to an ice box. Not once - not yet at least - has it been a clue.
Anticipation has repeatedly turned into frustration in the search for signs of Malaysia Airlines MH370 as objects spotted from planes in a new search area west of Australia have turned out to be garbage. Not only is the trash a time-wasting distraction for air and sea crews searching for debris from the Malaysia Airlines flight that vanished March 8, it also points to wider problems in the world's oceans.
''The ocean is like a plastic soup, bulked up with the croutons of these larger items,'' said Los Angeles captain Charles Moore, an environmental advocate credited with bringing attention to an ocean gyre between Hawaii and California known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which by some accounts is about the size of Texas.
The world's oceans have four more of these flotsam-collecting vortexes, Moore said, and the searchers, in an area about 1,850 kilometers (1,150 miles) west of Perth, have stumbled onto the eastern edge of a gyre in the Indian Ocean.
''It's like a toilet bowl that swirls but doesn't flush,'' said Moore.
The garbage patches are nothing like a typical city dump. In fact, most of the trash can't even be seen: It's composed of tiny bits of plastic bobbing just below the surface.
The larger items in these gyres also tend to be plastic and are often fishing-related, Moore said. Though, he added, he has come across light bulbs, a toilet seat, and, bobbing off the California coast, a refrigerator, complete with defrosted orange juice.
Seattle oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer has been studying the phenomena of ocean debris for years. He said there are smaller collections of garbage that collect within the gyres.
''If you go into a house you'll find dust bunnies,'' he said. ''The ocean has a mass of dust bunnies, each moving about 10 miles a day.''
Ebbesmeyer said he's fascinated by what happens to the trash that spews from the hundreds of shipping containers lost overboard from