Galapagos Plastic Free

Understanding ocean plastics

A physicist’s odyssey through puzzling paperwork

By Nieske Vergunst

To help park rangers on the Galapagos Islands clean up plastic that washes up on shore, Stefanie Ypma (postdoc at IMAU) uses floating sensors called ‘drifters’ to create a model of the complicated ocean currents in and around the archipelago. But getting those drifters into the ocean turned out to be anunexpectedly difficult project in itself.

“In a sense, it all started because of the corona pandemic. Originally, the plan was to take the drifters to the Galapagos Islands in the autumn of 2020 and to release them in the ocean ourselves. During summer 2020 it became clear that that wasn’t going to happen. So, we started to arrange things from afar”

Escape room

“The plan was to have the drifters shipped directly from the manufacturer to the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF), the organisation that supports research on and around the islands. We’d send the drifters as a donation to the CDF, and they’d help put them to sea. But the process of writing an accompanying letter for customs was almost like an escape room, where every time I finished a step of the process, it turned out there were more steps after that.

After managing to get the right text for the letter, I found out that it needed to be legalised, whatever that meant. After being shuttled from pillar to post for a while, I got Anton Pijpers to sign the letter. Then, I got help from the Embassy Services to arrange the legalisation via the Dutch Chamber of Commerce, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Embassy of Ecuador.”


“Mailing the physical letter was quite scary, considering the amount of work it had taken me to get everything right. And the saga wasn’t even finished there. I had a track & trace code which I checked constantly, and suddenly it said the addressee wasn’t available, so the letter would be returned to the nearest mail depot. I called the CDF right away – and it turned out the number had been disconnected! That was another puzzle, but in the end, we did manage to get the letter delivered to the right person. Now it’s just a matter of waiting for everything to be finalised.”

“When I became a physicist, I hadn’t expected to become an expert in customs law as well.”


“When I became a physicist, I hadn’t expected to become an expert in customs law as well. But in a sense, it’s also how research works: you try something, you encounter a setback, and then you try something else. The moral of the story: be on top of things constantly and always call to check every step of the way. And don’t get frustrated – see it as a puzzle. I hope that by the time you’re reading this, the drifters are already doing their work in the ocean.”