Posted by: Miriam Goldstein | August 4, 2010

Hunting for plastic with the SSV Seamans

We were able to sail under the Golden Gate Bridge. We looked very, very pretty if I do say so myself.

Hello internets! I am back from a month of sailing from Hawaii to California on the tall ship SSV Robert C. Seamans. The Seamans is run by the Sea Education Association, where undergraduate and high school students can learn oceanography, maritime history, and seamanship aboard one of two gorgeous tall ships, one in the Atlantic, one in the Pacific. (The Southern Fried Scientist is an alumnus – anyone else out there?). The SEA vessels are well-equipped for research (PDF) with all the standard tools of oceanography – CTD, ADCP, winch & hydraulic J-frame, and so on – though it definitely is more challenging to maneuver under sail than by burning tons and tons of diesel fuel.

I was on board as a visiting researcher, continuing my work on the impact of plastic debris on zooplankton in the North Pacific Central Gyre. I did as many plankton tows as time allowed at the surface of the water, filtered lots of seawater to look for plastic particles too small to be caught by the net, and tested live zooplankton to see if they were ingesting plastic. I don’t know what the results are yet – in order to make the most of my time at sea, I just preserved samples as fast as possible, and will go through them now that I am back at the lab. (Also, looking in a microscope at sea makes me hurl.)

Doing a plankton tow off the SSV Seamans. That's me in the purple jacket. Roberto Meléndez took this photo from way up the foremast.

I was totally off the grid while at sea, so instead of trying to capture the full experience, I’m going to do a couple of posts on selected awesome moments and fantastic critters. If you want to know more, just ask in the comments – I can answer there or as an additional post. You can also check out SEA’s excellent Plastic blog for more on science under sail.

Awesome Moment #1

The cruise track was great for my work – we had to sail right through the north-center section of the gyre – but not so great for sailing. After we lost the trade winds north of Hawaii, we experienced very little wind until we got into the westerlies not far from California. I’m used to motoring around and it didn’t bother me much, but of course a tall ship is meant to sail, so the sailors (students as well as staff) all pined away for the wind.

It was flat, glassy calm for about two weeks, forcing us to motor along. Photo by Wei Xin.

The lack of wind did produce one glorious, wonderful moment – SWIM CALL! Swimming is strictly forbidden in the US research fleet due to a tragic incident with a white shark, so I’d never been swimming in the open sea before. (No, I was not worried about sharks. We had people acting as lookouts, visibility was amazing, and shark attacks are vanishingly, vanishingly rare.)

Conditions had to be exactly right to assure everyone’s safety, but we were lucky and the captain decided that the flat calm sea and lack of shark sightings meant that we’d be able to swim. Here I am paddling about, nothing between me and the giant isopods of the abyssal plain except 4000 meters of water.

Swimming in the middle of the Pacific. It was GLORIOUS. Photo by Roberto J. Meléndez.

I managed to borrow a mask & snorkel to hunt for jellies. I didn’t find any (though one of the other scientists did), but I did see single-celled acanthareans floating about, feeding with long pseudopods. It was incredibly cool to see these organisms alive and happy – it’s easy to forget that what we see catch in a net and store dead in a jar is very, very different than what exists in the ocean.


[cross-posted at Deep Sea News]

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  1. The swimming looks like an amazing experience!! I would have LOVED to do that.



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