Posted by: Alison Cawood | August 10, 2009

SEAPLEX Day 9 Part 1

The intensive sampling within the gyre is continuing, and all seems to be going well.  Our first blog post today comes from Matt Durham, the resident technician (ResTech) on the New Horizon.  Doing science at sea requires not only talented scientists, but a dedicated and talented crew.   Matt is part of the ship’s crew, and it is his job coordinate activities between the scientists and the ship’s crew, as well as oversee the deployment and retrieval of any oceanographic equipment that goes over the side of the ship.

Matt writes:

Nearly one thousand miles from land in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the scenery is surprisingly dynamic. There are no mountains, or forests, or canyons to look at (at least not above the surface of the water), but the simple and endlessly blue backdrop of the sea really accentuates the changes in weather and the movement of the sun and the clouds. Days end with the fiery sun sinking slowly into the sea only to reveal the full red moon in the east, casting an eerie glow as it rises through the clouds. The starry nights melt brilliantly into morning as the sun quickly returns. Wind blows and waves form, constantly reshaping the water around us. The deep blue contours of the rolling ocean add an inescapable rhythm to even the most familiar activities. This is the world that we have all entered and are now living in aboard the R/V New Horizon.

My name is Matt Durham, and I am the resident marine technician, or ResTech, aboard the ship for this cruise. I have worked for Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego for just about two years and really enjoy my job. I have seen thousands of miles of open ocean around the world; in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans, and also deep into the ice pack of the Bering Sea. My job on the boat is to act as a sort of liaison between the ship’s crew (the boat drivers and engineers) and the science party. I also oversee the science operations to ensure that we accomplish the goals of our current mission in a safe and efficient manner. I work closely with the chief scientist (on this cruise that is Scripps graduate student researcher Miriam Goldstein) and the ship’s captain prior to ever leaving port to ensure that the ship is prepared to meet the scientific objectives of the cruise. Then we work together to load all of the necessary science gear and secure it to the ship to withstand the constant motion of the ocean. Momentum out here can be quite a dangerous thing, especially with heavy equipment that could normally just be set on the ground back on land. Out at sea, when the boat rocks, gravity takes over and anything that is not secured can move and cause injuries or damage to the equipment. It is easy in calm weather to forget to tie things down after they are used, and this can be a problem when the seas start to pick up. We also have to pay attention to the movement of the ship as we deploy our sampling equipment. We use “tag lines” tied to the equipment to help steady the load as it is lowered into or recovered from the sea.

This has been an interesting cruise for me. I spend a good amount of my time in, on, and around the ocean. Living most of my life on the coast of Southern California I have grown up surfing, diving, kayaking, and just generally enjoying the Pacific Ocean. Now working on research vessels, I see a lot of great work being done to explore and learn more about the oceanic environment. But this is the first time that I have been a part of a cruise that is looking to quantify the problem that has arisen from plastic pollution in the ocean. Yesterday, we started our first intensive sampling station in the gyre, and I am very interested to learn what the scientists on board are able to determine from the samples that are collected.

Durham-bongo-8-9-09Matt Durham, Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego
resident marine technician, assists in the retrieval of bongo nets.
Durham coordinates shipboard activities between the science team and
New Horizon’s crew.

Rope-crabs-8-8-09 (Large)_JimDiverse biological communities including crabs, pelagic barnacles, sea
anemones, and hydroids inhabit a piece of rope debris.  Photo courtesy of Jim Leichter.

BucketinBucket-8-9-09_JimDuring SEAPLEX’s first gyre sampling station, crew members retrieved a
large piece of debris, thought to be remnants of a plastic bucket.

google-squid-007 (Large)During intensive sampling, the mid-water trawl collected a variety of
interesting organisms, including this transparent squid.


  1. how is the weather over there??

    • They have some winds and some sea swell, but so far the science hasn’t been impacted.

  2. That transparent squid…WOW! What else can I say!

  3. would it have the same effect if people were to accidentally eat plastic too ?

    • The same things could happen to people. Depending on the size and shape of the piece of plastic, it could pass through the digestive system or become lodged in the digestive tract. If it were to become lodged, it would have to be surgically removed so that nutrients and water could continue to pass through the digestive system.


  4. The more I see of the results, the more I despair over the prospect of cleanup / recovery of the plastic debris without harming the organisms which are colonizing and living in the debris. I know in industry we used electrostatics to separate plastic debris – impossible in an ocean environment, and filtering seems non-viable as well since it would catch both the debris and living organisms. Any thoughts on this, and how it might be “cleaned up”? And any theories on how this debris may be contributing to more organisms rather than less due to the increased availability of “nesting” and egg laying sites, and what the potential impact of increased populations of these organisms may have?
    The finds thus far have been VERY interesting, and I look forward to what you team determines and feels the impacts of the “trash gyres” in the oceans have, including any theories (both official and unofficial) which may be bandied about regarding cleanup and impacts.

    • I have no idea how to clean up the plastics, but applied science isn’t really my area. Hopefully, there are engineers out there who can come up with ingenious ways to go about it.

      As far as the biology goes, I do have some ideas. It is entirely possible that population structures are being influence by the plastic. There is very little natural substrate in the middle of the ocean, so organisms that rely on it are not very abundant. With an increase in available substrate, it is entirely possible that those populations will increase. This is definitely thought to be the case in coastal areas where fouling communities are found. There is also some concern that the plastic substrate could act as a transport method for invasive species. If long lived coastal species are attached to the plastics, not only are they being transported into the middle of the ocean where they do not belong, but there is also a greater chance for transporting them to other coastal areas where they do not belong.


  5. Its Just Amazing What You Guys Find! :] Im Glad You Guys Are Doing This And Letting People Know About Whats Happening Out There…

  6. […] flying fish-eyed view of the gyre. Doug Woodring from Project Kaisei, Mario Aguilera from Scripps, Matt Durham the resident technician, and I (I’m Miriam, the chief scientist) got our dip nets and our coolers […]

  7. […] 2nd PLACE –Along the currents. Drift plankton and trash alike. Our New Horizon. — Matt Durham […]



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