Empty the tanks with education

I talk a lot about the impact of plastic on the ocean and in our lives but there are many other issues of ocean health that are important and pressing. The conservation of marine wildlife and their habitats is an issue that I’d like to take some time writing about as well.


As a biologist and especially as a whale biologist the topic of whales and dolphins (cetaceans) in captivity often comes up a lot. The species that I study (humpback whales) aren’t kept in captivity so I’m perhaps not as invested as others. None the less, it’s difficult to not form an opinion and I’m of opinion that cetaceans should not be kept in captivity due to their high intelligence, social structures, and their history in captivity.

Captive populations can and do hugely benefit science, conservation, and education. Species survival plans which maintain genetic viability of captive populations are protecting species from extinction, but these can only be effective when habitat is protected along side genetics and when the end game is to reintroduce species into their native habitat. Many zoos and aquariums that are a part of these schemes do so wonderfully and are an important part of conservation success. They also go the important extra step to educate visitors about these species and the importance of their conservation and in the context of captive populations.

The recent announcement by Sea World that they plan to end their orca breeding program has been met with equal amounts of elation and suspicion by many of the ocean minded folk that I follow through social media.Sea World has not bred it’s killer whales (orca and killer whale are both correct terms and can be used interchangeably) with the end game of protecting genetic diversity and reintroduction to wild populations. In most cases they have interbred between different subspecies and eco-types which would have naturally different habitats, prey types, and social structures and by and large captive orcas can not be reintroduced to wild populations. Sea World bred its killer whales because it viewed them as money making commodities, and that in my opinion is the exact wrong reason to keep any wild animal in captivity.

The second issue in the cetacean captivity debate is education. I work as whale watch naturalist and I try incredibly hard to ensure that my passengers not only understand and value the animals that they’re seeing but also their context within the wider ecosystem and the threats wildlife and the marine environment face. Anytime you view an animal, in captivity or in the wild, and don’t leave with that understanding is a missed opportunity.

Last summer I was in Baltimore for a conference and I decided to take a break and visit the National Aquarium which was just a short walk away. I’ve always felt that change in the captive cetacean display industry was going to come from within the industry so I had been excited to hear that the National Aquarium had made the decision to end their dolphin shows and were actively thinking about the retirement and future of the dolphins in their care. The National Aquarium has a lot more going for it than just its captive cetaceans, it’s a wonderful aquarium with some interesting and engaging displays showing a number of different ecosystems from around the world. A highlight by far is the rooftop glass cladded hothouses displaying Amazonian and Australian freshwater habitats.

The dolphin exhibit is an entirely different wing of the aquarium and initially I was going to skip it. As I took the stairs down from the Amazon exhibit I overheard a woman with her small son ask an educator about the dolphin show. The educator was quick to correct her that is was a training session and was focused on educational topics and NOT a show. Far from being offended the woman actually was much more interested after hearing that it was educational. I thought that was an encouraging sign of public opinion, so I decided to have look. The training wasn’t happening when I got there so instead I walked around the underwater viewing area and despite the goal to be educational I was disappointed by the lack of educational material. If I was an uninformed visitor to this exhibit I would have come away with no understanding of this species in the context of global dolphin species, no understanding of issues facing cetaceans in the wild, and no understanding of the issues of cetaceans in captivity.

There’s no denying the welfare and moral concerns around keeping whales and dolphins, particularly orcas, in captivity however there’s also no denying that there are whales and dolphins in captivity and will continue to be for some time. Institutes that display them should commit to retirement of their current animals, the discontinuation of breeding programs, and the phasing out of these displays altogether and the public should demand this but while these animals remain on display you should be able to visit and leave with an understanding of these animals both in the context of captivity and in the wild and feeling of wonderment and responsibility to protect them and their habitats.


Cooked, a plastic perspective

Recently I have been watching a four part documentary on Netflix called Cooked based on the book by food author, Michael Pollan. It’s a fascinating look not just at the chemistry and history of cooked food but also the place cooking and food holds in society. Anyone who knows me, especially my crew mates on board Sea Dragon, knows that I’m not a fan of cooking. I’m an unimaginative cook, an uninspired one and I have a general disinterest in food apart from the immediate need to fuel my body and stay alive. Like anyone I can appreciate a tasty well cooked meal but a cheese sandwich will do just as well. So like many people who are disinclined to cook whether its due to a lack of ability, time, or interest I often turn to pre-prepared and convenience foods to stave off the hunger pains.

The second episode of Cooked explores just that, the fact that Americans and many people throughout the world are cooking less and depending on pre-prepared and processed food. This is a holdover from World War 2 when food producers introduced and heavily promoted processed foods that had been developed to feed the troops. As I thought about this, especially in relation to my own cooking habits or lack thereof I realized that this dependence on processed food directly corresponds to our dependence on plastic. As a society we have moved away from whole foods, away from foods that come in their own skins, shells, and husks to easy and quick foods that need to be packaged in plastic to keep them fresh and ready to eat at a moment’s notice.

One thing that I get asked all the time is how we can reduce our plastic impact. My answer is often the same: reduce your own plastic use. Bring your refillable water bottle. Bring your cloth shopping bags. Carry reusable straws and utensils. All the things we hear over and over again. But now here’s a new one: Cook more. One piece of advice the episode gave was to eat whatever you like so long as you make it yourself. The point being that you’ll end up eating much more nutritious foods using good whole ingredients as well as gaining experience and confidence in the kitchen. But what you’ll probably also end up doing is relying less on those packaged processed foods and buying more of those foods packaged in their own skins, shells, and husks. One thing I’ve often noticed is that reducing our plastic impact often means taking time. It often means pausing in our hectic lives to drink our coffee from the mug at the coffee shop rather than taking it to go. It means taking the time to cook a meal or prepare a lunch that can be taken with us. In doing these things we might not only be helping the environment, but we might ultimately be helping ourselves to live more fully and mindfully in the moment.

Plastics & Pollution From Dakar to Recife: Meeting the Locals

December 2, 2015

It has been six days since we arrived in Recife. Two days later, the 28th we said goodbye to Sea Dragon. The day following our arrival we immediately checked into the Port Authority and Customs, all together with our passports in hand which took a few hours.  For most ports usually the captain alone makes this trip with the vessel’s documentation and passports but Recife is definitely not boat friendly and has little infrastructure for visiting yachts. After our science talk which entailed giving Diana a lock of our hair to be analysed for mercury, and cleaning Sea Dragon we departed. Our new pad was a lovely rented house in Olinda, a smaller town just north of Recife 7 miles.  We were eager to relax, take longer showers and eat the foods we so missed.

Most of the Ascension team have left these past two days.  More women have arrived for the Amazon trip and filling in the beds of the others . The last four days a few of us have completely immersed ourselves in Brazilian culture. There is the samba & forro music which they have started practising for carnival in Feb. The tapioca sweet and savoury foods are delicious. Tapioca flour, or manioc flour is made from a woody shrub known as cassava, manioc or yuca, a native shrub of South America. The dried & shredded meat called carne desfiada is also a yummy dish.

We managed to have a day at a lovely beach 1.5 hours south, two talks at local schools , beach clean-up yesterday, diving today and tomorrow a presentation by Diana and Emily Penn at the University. I have now collapsed on a couch to write my last blog to finish what I started exactly four weeks ago November 3rd.

A big thanks to Justin Bloom, Founder of Suncoast Waterkeeper in Sarasota, Florida who gave me a contact in Dakar that I was able to interview.

Mbaake Seck is the Executive Director of Hann Baykeeper. In 2006 he joined the Waterkeeper Alliance but started to fight pollution in 1998. He mentioned during that time people did not take him seriously. They do now. Mbaake

recently won a National Award for his efforts. The Hann Baykeepers are a local group who clean the beach and are working to fight the pollution in the bay.

Our meeting took place at the very beach Sea Dragon was anchored off and sad to say it was one of the most polluted beaches I have ever seen. We, Diana, Christine and I did not have to walk very far before we first smelled and then saw a stream of plastic and garbage.

Mbaake told us there was also raw sewage in the stream that emptied into the bay which is about 13 miles long with Dakar and 4  very large towns along it.  80% of all the factories in Senegal are next to it which was no surprise when he said at times there is a mile long of dead fish on the beach and people have various types of problems from swimming in the bay. (skin, diarrhoea, coughing). The good news is the European Union will be spending 68 million to clean the bay. I am now curious what these factories are making and who are buying the products!

I was hoping the shores of Recife would be much better. I was lucky to talk with Eldon Archibald who was the first person who greeted us on the boat inquiring if we had any waste, garbage or engine lubricants that we wanted to dispose of.  Eldon, although from Guyana works  for North Oil, a marine recycling  company in Recife. Eventually he was able to help the crew on Sea Dragon deliver diesel. We saw over 10 red jerry cans lined up on the deck of Sea Dragon as we rode past on the dive boat today.  As I recall when we left Dakar they bought 1000 litres so I can only guess there were many trips back and forth with those jerry cans! The crew, Imogen, Emily and Holly have been working ever since we left to prepare for the next trip.

The beach clean-up was a success but there was so much more garbage that we didn’t have time to pick up. We concentrated on the bigger items. There is still so much the Brazilians need to learn. One is to use garbage bins.

There were no factories or raw sewage that I saw, but the beaches were full of litter as you can see in the pictures. As in Senegal many people throw trash on the ground and in the water. The beach clean-up was organized with local Brazilians who study at the University.

The eXXpedition team and about 10 of the students met at the beach with our bags and gloves. We spent over an hour picking up garbage on the crowded beach. It was mostly plastic!

On the waters edge there was a Christmas assortment of colors of micro plastics. It is unfortunate that poorer countries culturally do not see disposing of garbage on the ground and in the sea a problem but the attitude is changing. Taking the video at the beach clean-up I saw children helping out putting garbage in the bags. We were lucky to have Rachel who is a member on the Amazon trip who speaks fluent Portugese to translate what the locals were saying. She also talked with a man who works for the city who drives the garbage truck and picks up the trash.

beach clean recife_003

Unfortunately I am not able to upload the video at this time or the interview with Mbaake Seck or Eldon Archibald since the internet here at the house is very poor.

Like Mbaake  in Dakar, the locals in Recife all point out that it will be the children who need to be educated about protecting where they live and who will break the cycle taking better care of their environment.

By Simone Machamer

Land A’Hoy!

Land Ahoy

10.30am, Tuesday 24 November. Land has been sighted.

Heather has won the game – first one to spot land doesn’t have to help with the dinghy. To put this into context, sherking dinghy duties is the ultimate prize today and something to be very smug about. Re-erecting the dinghy has been a job both Holly and I have been dreading since we dismantled the thing on Day 1, a 4 hour long Dakar sweat fest often described as a bigger ‘low’ than Locustgate. With “it WILL fit in the bag, it’s been done before” still ringing in our ears, we embarked on the task of piecing it back together along with several other very unenthusiastic crew members (Heather looking on from the comfort of the cockpit) as this would be the trusty vessel which would ferry us all from Sea Dragon to our treasured land.

Personally, I’d rather stay on the boat, turn around and go back to Dakar than to take on that dinghy again but judging by the excitement of the other crew members at the sight of land, that wasn’t an option.

I would love to say Brazil looked glorious spread out in front of us as we made our way towards her like intrepid travellers but the truth is Recife looked like a concrete jungle, towering up out of the horizon, a horizon that up and until now has been an endless extension of our blissful bubble that we have been living in. Connected to the outside world by a couple of emails, if that, our existence has been basic and simple, a trait of the trip I have relished and shall miss. Each day activity options are simple; on watch, asleep, on ‘domestic duty’, eating, at Science school, doing laundry or hanging out. That’s it.

This simplicity has faded out the noise of modern life, focused the mind on the tasks in hand and allowed us to be truly present, albeit with a healthy amount of day-dreaming. Last night, as the sun set on our beloved horizon, dolphins came and reminded us of the beauty of where we are, playfully ducking, diving, jumping a nd even attempting to ‘walk’ on the water. As I’m writing this blog, ‘Dolphin alert’ has just been shouted by Heather (she’s really on her game today!) as a group of bottlenose dolphins have come to check us out, once again reminding us why it is so important to protect our ocean and the magical marine life inhabiting it.

There are mixed emotions on board regarding our arrival into Recife. The proximity to steak, pop, French fries, burgers, cocktails, ice cold beer, men and probably more than anything, normal water that hasn’t been purified to an inch of its life is slightly overwhelming. Amanda for one, is struggling to contain her excitement even plucking her eyebrows to mark occasion. These mouth watering luxuries have been discussed, craved and fantasized over at length during pretty much every watch session so to finally have them in our sights makes the end of our trip very apparent. Mobile phones are now switched on and calls have been made to families, parents and ‘dates’, again, signs that strongly indicate we are re-entering the real world.

Our blissful bubble has been popped, returning home is just around the corner, a realization that fills me with sadness, not excitement. Leaving this group of women who have been my family for the past three weeks is not something I am looking forward. Don’t get me wrong, temporarily disengaging and going for a run alone and in silence once on land is extremely appealing, but leaving this group permanently, is not something that fills me with joy. Amanda described meeting our group as having gained sisters, mothers and aunties. I can second that. The preconceptions of an all female group were unfortunately expected but in hindsight are odd. Women are wise, they suffer no fools. Newly named eXXpedition Ascension Atlantic crew has successfully created a fun, honest, caring and inspirational environment to be in and one that I shall look back on fondly.

An all female boat, for me, has been the making of this trip not the downfall. The question for us all now, is, how do we take what we have learnt about ourselves, women, the ocean and our environment and put it to good use? To make sure we are not sucked back into a world of habit and ease. Tonight our science discussion will recap on how we can make positive changes in our own lives and what we can do to influence our local community to ensure the knowledge we have gained on this trip is translated into actions and lives on. Tune into my follow up blog tomorrow to find out what these are and see how you can help us transfer our learning’s from boat life into real life.

  • Jess


November 23, 2015

I want to describe ”watch”. A totally unnatural but necessary evil that advances the plot of sailing. It entails so many triumphal moments that I feel compelled to illuminate it in mind-numbing detail in order for all of us to understand this discipline; watch.

I asked about it on the first day, silly me, and the First Mate, Emily did say it was a good question. One that was not answered, I might add. Poor Emily she probably wanted to abandon ship. One should know what one is getting into.  So now from experience, let me say it is not natural, this thing called watch.

We are 14 on the Sea Dragon consisting of three watch teams continually rotating through three four hour watches, interspersed with two 2-hour watches over and over again until, sleep deprived, you feel that your face has fallen off. We 14 crewmates aboard the Sea Dragon have assigned bunks that if we were to figure square footage it is in the negative territory. Really each of us has 24 cubic feet of living/sleeping space. Christine’s middle bunk is smaller, she only has a foot between her face and Jess’s bottom. I have the bottom bunk. I’m sure age was factored in and I’m glad. Holly the second mate has the top bunk and has yet to put her foot in my face as she climbs in and out of bed at all hours of the day and night. I, when trying to get into bed as quietly as possible, have hit the bottom of her bunk, essentially kicking her in the butt. She is a good, patient girl. This information is relevant, stay with me.

It is now a million o’clock and I am in bed sound asleep. Someone from the  on-deck watch is tapping me softly saying my name. I respond that I’m up. I’m not. I grope for my watch clothes and gear; pants, top, fleece, life jacket, glasses, lip balm, hair comb, head lamp, water bottle, hat while standing on a piece of real estate the size of a small linen closet pitching about like a drunk. I don’t want to wake up Holly, Simone, Fiona,and Amanda because if I fall any which way I will share some part of their bed.

Dressed, I step over the bulkhead crashing side to side past my sleeping crewmates Sarah, Tegan and our Captain, Imogen, wondering if I have everything so I don’t have to crash my way back, simultaneously praying it isn’t raining.

Dazed and confused I climb the companionway and step into the cockpit. It is almost magic. I can’t wait for for the departing watch to leave. I find myself with my watch mates transported to a place which for me there are no words for. Stars, ocean, wind, boat they are part of it but there is also just being alive and grateful that I ended up in this exact spot at this exact moment with these exact people for all the right reasons is beautiful.

Here I am with my watchmates helming a 72-foot, 50-ton, ocean racing yacht in the middle of the South Atlantic in the dark. It’s just absurd. It’s watch.

  • by Heather Peters


November 22, 2015

There has been a lot of talk about survival lately. We have run out of eggs, a few bags of bread left and no more fresh fruits and vegetables. Emily had to round up and ration the remaining cans of fruit. She announced the other day the fruit cans will be divided during meal times so no more sneaking around in the middle of the night during our watches gulping down canned peaches and pears. Much to everyone´s amazement and shock, Katie walked in the galley the other morning with a lovely round succulant fresh orange that she had forgotten about that she stashed in her room. Although I was not a witness I’m sure it added to the longing of other foods and beverages I’ve heard discussed and will devour when we reach land; beer, ice-cream, fresh fruit and caperinas (hmmmmm think they mean Caiprinhas! Ed).

My thoughts of survival actually started the last sight of land, a small island just off the commercial port where we fueled called Goree Island. Millions of African slaves were held here before they crossed the Atlantic. Men, women, children and families  were all separated from each other before they were bound in chains, locked to the bottom of the ships hulls to be transported like cargo to Brazil and other ports.  We are sailing across the same route,  with the winds appropriately called the Southeast Trade Winds. It would have taken them longer to reach Recife having to go through the Doldrums without an engine, also known as the ITCA (Intertropical Convergence Zone) An estimate of around 4-5 weeks seems reasonable averaging 7 knots. Amanda, who had visited the island when she was on her Class Afloat voyage mentioned mixed race children lived on the island because of white men impregnating female slaves. They were actually treated better, more like whites than blacks. It was a positive remark but I quickly remembered the documentary I saw before I left about Brazilian slaves. More slaves where shipped to Brazil by far than N. America and treated far worse. Most white Brazilian slave owners had no families. They were more like outlaws in a lawless state. They castrated male slaves and when they were worked to death they shipped over more. Women slaves were known to try to abort their unborn babies because they knew life for them would be pure misery. As we headed west with the island on our stern I imagined how the slaves that did make it across survive. I guess most of them preferred to die as they did when they arrived to be sold to their inhumane masters.

Survival has a different meaning depending on who you ask. While looking at the endless sea day after day now, our 18th day I think of  Steven Callahan who spent 76 days in a liferaft. In his book Adrift Steven had to fight starving to death or being attacked by sharks or dorado fish that could puncture his life raft at any moment. He left the Canary Islands on his 21 foot sailboat called Napoleon Solo in the late 80s toward Antigua but was hit by an object 300 miles west of his departure and miraculously deployed his life raft before it sank. 1,800 miles he drifted eventually being found by fishermen near Guadeloupe. If it were not for his creativity, 2 solar stills to make fresh water from saltwater and a short spear gun he would have never survived.  From his experience Steven Callahan now works with survivors, a variety who all seem to share similar stories of mental and physical trauma. He also gave ideas about improving life rafts that we use today.

Last night the big question for our scientists was how long will the oceans last or sustain life as we know it? They do not know the answer. However there are other factors than just plastics harming the oceans. As Diana explained the prevailing hypothesis is that the ocean is being compromised from the bottom up and top down.  The top meaning the larger predators being wiped out, pressure on the middle groups such as overfishing and the bottom of the ocean having habitats destroyed. (trawling, sand and gravel extraction and marine construction to name a few)

What we do know is about environmental disasters in the past. One is called TBT, the anti-fouling paint used for hulls. It started in the 1970s when researchers first found, after being alerted by the commercial oyster fishery that the shells of oysters were growing so thick the oyster itself had no room to grow and were dying.  Next dog whelk males, basically a marine snail, developed reduced penis size. Both were linked to the chemical TBT but it took 30 years from research to implementation of the ban of the product. Enough time for companies to keep selling it and find another to replace it in ample time.

A current contaminate that we are more aware of is mercury that comes from coal power plants and artisanal gold mining operations.  The coal plants emit smoke containing mercury that finds its way into the surface water eventually leading to the oceans. The mercury bioaccumulates in the tissues of fish like tuna, sword, dolphins, whales and mammals that eat the fish such as polar bears. (Mercury bioaccumulates in tissues of marine organisms and biomagnifies up the food chain reaching high levels in top predators like Tuna, swordfish, kingfish, polar bears – Ed).

It is all about survival in the end, for us and the species we share this earth with.

Lets hope we find solutions and have an increase of people who share common values about our environment. For those who find solace in nature, protecting wilderness and our seas is essential.  Steven Callahan describes this very well in his book Adrift.

”The sea remains the world’s greatest wilderness. To my mind voyaging through wilderness, be they full of woods or waves is essential to the growth and maturity of the human spirit. It is in the wilderness that you find who you are. It is facing the challenges of the wilderness that the thickness of your wallet becomes irrelevant and your capabilities become the truer meaning of your value.”

  • Simone Machamer

Plastic in our bodies and plastic in our seas – Let’s get our heads out of the (plastic) sand


November 20, 2015

During this journey I’ve strived to learn more about plastics, about the effects it can cause in the ocean, on marine life and our health.
Luckily we’ve got competence on board Sea Dragon; toxicologists and marine biologists who can answer most of my questions regarding chemicals and toxins. In addition I’ve been reading up on the history of plastic. I wanted to know how it all started, how this immortal material managed to conquer all the other materials and take over as the predominant consumer material in our lives that it has today.
I have also been wondering about our habits and what it will take to change them. How big and how visual must a problem be to make the masses turn? I believe this is the hardest question of them all.
Talking to Diana and Jan earlier today confirmed that there is something really wrong in our mindset when it comes to our willingness of giving up habits, or make just the little effort it may require to make the bigger change.
Charging us 5 English pence, or 1 Norwegian Krone, for a plastic bag in the local grocery store seems to make some of us bring our own reusable bags, which is super. But as Jan says: ”I don’t see how people want to change their habit for the sake of 5p, and not change their habit for the sake of the environment?”, after overhearing a woman accepting the plastic bag and actually pack away her reusable bag, after being told it was free.
The accumulative cost to the planet of making and disposing of plastics is so overwhelming that nobody even wants to think about it. Instead we bury our heads in the sand. Sand filled with plastics.
And Man created the plastic bag…
As I said, I’ve read up on history, and am inspired by the book Plastic Ocean by Charles Moore. Here is some of what I’ve learned:
The invention of plastic was a race and during the 1800’s many tried without succeeding, starting with materials found in nature and basically cooked them with chemicals. These proto-plastics were used to make products that were meant to last.
Leo Baekeland, Belgium cleverly made a new type of photographic paper, Velox, in 1893 that he sold for $1 million to Eastman Kodak. He used the money to build a lab, in which after years of trial and error, he produced a blend of carbolic acid, phenol and formaldehyde. Both toxic hydrocarbons. And presented products such as pipe stems, buttons, pens, and toasters. By the early 1920’s Baekeland’s factory produced nearly 9 million pounds of plastic annually and thus the ”age of plastics” had arrived.
Polyethylene (PE) is the dominant type of plastic, and was first invented in 1933 by two Englishmen; Gibson and Fawett. Today an estimated 80 million tons of polyethylene are produced annually. Most of it used in packaging.
Nylon was patented in 1937. A material often used in toothbrushes, and that actually replaced silk in parashoots and flight suits during the World War 2, not to mention rope.
The earliest commercial plastic product bottle was a PVC squeezable bottle designed in 1947 by Dr. Jules Montenier. Then the plastic film came along, providing a cheap, lighweight material to maintain food and keep perishables fresh during transportation.
No doubt plastic is an incredible material in terms of weight and it’s ability to be formed into any size and shape. Yet it puzzles me, why this is the primarily material used when making disposable products. A material that can take up to 450 years to degrade, and we use it to make products that are used for a couple of minutes..
Polyethylene, nylon and PVC are only some of the types of plastic that we use in our daily life. Others are PFAS, PET, BPA, CR-39.. a jungle of them, and for most of us without a chemistry background it is not easy to tell them apart and to navigate among the products on the shelf.

The plastics industry has succeeded in delinking plastics pollution from the material itself and the producers, and made plastic litter become a ”people problem”. A problem that scientists have known of since the early 80’s, but that has failed to reach out to general public with a clear voice.
Plastic is like an invasive species – it doesn’t go away but accumulates. Its presence on earth grows by 300 million tons each year, of which about 8 tons end up in the oceans.
When I was little I used to spend hours picking up tiny yellow shells from the sand and looking for small treasures on the beaches of Norway. Today I spend an equivalent amount of time picking up nurdles (pre-production plastic pellets), q-tips and small pieces of broken rope and fishing gear. Nothing fills me with more frustration, than knowing that I will probably never step on a plastic free beach ever again.

Pass on the message

The other day we were lucky to see over a hundred dolphins, suddenly surrounding us, playing alongside Sea Dragon as we cut through the waves. Dolphins must be one of the happiest species that exists jumping and playing tirelessly below the surface. Then they were gone, as sudden as they had appeared. And as I was sitting on the bow, watching the sun and the waves, as a plastic bottle drifted past…
We are thousands of miles away from the nearest Gyre, where the ocean currents collect microplastics and debris into a soup. Still, we find tiny flakes and particles of plastic in our manta trawl every day, and we’ve counted over 500 sights of various macro debris that we’ve logged in the Marine Debris Tracker-app.
As we enter our last week of our Atlantic Crossing voyage, it’s time to reflect on how we will carry on the message and give a clear voice to the ocean as we have become its ambassadors. A voice loud enough to get those heads out of the sand – the sand filled with plastics.”
by Christine Spiten, Engineer and robotic underwater drone builder!

The anticipation of Brazil

November 20, 2015

After the fickle conditions that dictated our journey south at the start of this adventure, it was a welcome relief to pick up the south easterly trade winds that offer us consistency as we sail on a beam reach towards Recife, Brazil.

Our sail plan changes just once a day as we drop the stay sail, engage the engine and deploy the manta trawl using the spinnaker pole and its associated lines. The trawl lasts half an hour before its contents are sorted and analysed by eye and then under the microscope in the saloon. Further water samples are then taken, filtered and preserved for future analysis before we re-hoist the stay sail and return to a compass course of 255 degrees for the South American coastline. The stable conditions mean that little else changes and the watch system rotates again and again as the full cycle of a day continuously evolves around us.

We are now well into our third week at sea and it’s interesting to watch the individual ways in which people cope with this unique situation. Suffice to say that sharing a confined space with 13 other women on a moving platform in the heat of the tropics for 3 weeks will never be a walk in the park.

The overall mission gives us a common goal which is fundamental to the success of any team dynamic but even our shared love of the ocean is overshadowed by some of the fatigue and frustrations that come with ocean sailing. For some coping with the pressures of this environment it is tears that offer a release valve for pent up thoughts and feelings. For others it is finding a precious moment alone or by becoming immersed in the daily tasks and chores onboard.

Whatever the method of coping with daily life in this extreme environment the experience of one crew member can profoundly affect the overall dynamic and so it is the responsibility of the other members to make the conscious effort to buoy each other’s spirits. For many of these women, the true immensity of what they are undertaking will only become evident when they have the opportunity to reflect without distraction, that is when they reach the other end. I often tell my training crews that much of what we garner from these intense challenges is retrospective and this can be powerfully reassuring during some of the tougher personal moments.
As we draw closer to Brazil I am excited by the possibilities presented by our return to coastal waters. Each morning the unfortunate passengers that we discover on the deck such as flying fish and squid are dissected by Diana for scientific study and I can’t help but wonder what the South Atlantic may have in store for us next. The contents of the trawl has become more and more interesting as we slowly move towards leaving the pelagic behind us once again. The weather still doesn’t differentiate with daily sunshine giving warmth to the steady driving winds but the mood aboard Sea Dragon is gently changing.

The talk of new possibilities and excitement for the rhythm of Brazil is becoming more and more evident. The final chapter of the first leg of our adventure has begun and the passion is gently returning to each of us. During the course of the next few days as we make our final approach to Recife we will once again see the boat filled with the excitement and anticipation with which we began. This time however it will be accompanied by a huge dose of personal satisfaction and accomplishment for every one of the remarkable women on board.

-Emily Caruso, First mate on Sea Dragon

Science update

November 17, 2015

We’ve been collecting samples for a little over 10 days now. And although we recognize how unique this opportunity is to collect along a 2000+-mile transect from Africa to South America, there is no sugar-coating the pervasive feeling that the repetitive field sampling we are doing has lost its allure. Even we scientists can appreciate that the long hours under a hot tropical sun constantly trying to maintain position on a pitching sailboat while meticulously filtering liter after liter of sea water through tiny cylindrical cartridges to collect the drops in a steel bucket might get a bit boring after a while. Jan, Tegan and I attempt to inspire the crew to soldier on by telling tales of exciting scientific findings that, unknown to most of the lay public, were brought to light in much the same unglamorous way.

The pay-off for the crew’s labors will come in a few months when back in their laboratori es, Jan and Barbara analyze the dozens of filters we prepare containing plankton, microbes, and possibly endocrine disrupting chemicals.

Fortunately, we are encouraged by some instant gratification for our research efforts. Christine tracks the temperature, salinity, and pH levels which is changing slightly as we move west. Our daily deployment of the mantra trawl to ‘fish’ for microplastic (plastic pieces < 5 mm in size) along the surface of this remote part of the Atlantic Ocean has already provided important data points to the global databases tracking marine microplastic. We are averaging 1 piece of microplastic every couple of days. Most of the plastic we find is clear and difficult to distinguish from similarly appearing blobs of invertebrate egg masses.

We confirm it is plastic under a microscope — further laboratory analysis by Jenna Jambeck will tell us what kind of plastic. Sadly, filter-feeding fishes likely consume the plastic right along with the delectable bits they pursue.

Perhaps it is for the best that, in contrast to last year, our trawling nets are coming up with very few organisms. Other than the occasional crustacean, all we are seeing are a handful of baby fish or ichthyoplankton and fish eggs. This part of the ocean seems deserted. We wonder if the seeming lack of food at the bottom of the food chain explains why we are not seeing many dolphins or whales (or mahi mahi on the end of my fishing line!). Could we be passing through a large fish nursery area where the newly hatched baby fish are safe from predators? Lots of questions to pursue when we return to land.

The course we are sailing is hundreds of miles from either of the two large Atlantic garbage patches. It is our mission to determine the density of plastic in this unexplored region outside of these known zones where plastic collects in gyres or circulating currents. As expected, plastic density is low here, but not absent.

In addition to the occasional microplastic, we have observed over 500 pieces of floating plastic debris which we have documented with georeferencing in the Marine Debris app. Among the floating food and beverage containers and wrappers, we have also seen evidence of lost or abandoned fishing nets and floats. This trash is especially worrisome as it can entrap marine mammals and turtles leading to their death. According to the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission’s last published report, 136 marine species have been reported in entanglement incidents, including six species of sea turtles, 51 species of seabirds, and 32 species of marine mammals (Marine Mammal Commission 1999). Of the 120 marine mammal species listed as rare, threatened, or endangered 45% were reported to have interacted (ingestion and/or entanglement) with marine debris.

The importance of our daily tasks, as mundane and routine as they may have become, sinks into our individual and collective consciousness each evening during our after-dinner discussions. These lively talks led by a different crew member each night are energizing. Christine’s dreams of a pollution-finding robot on every hardware store shelf, Sarah’s real-life descriptions of community-level alternatives to our pre-packaged consumer goods, Katie’s poignant challenges with embracing a healthier diet and work life, and many other stories give us pause to reflect, ideas to implement, and ultimately hope to take back to our family, friends and communities. We still have 800 miles to go before Recife, Brazil and more data to collect. Stay tuned as we continue our adventures in science and sailing!

by Diana Papapoulis, Mission leader and Ecotoxicologist

The smallest things

November 16, 2015


I’ve gotten a little flack over the past few days for having a favourite plankton. However after sharing some of the most exciting and poignant facts about the ocean’s smallest creatures, I believe I had begun to turn opinion and there’s even talk of a fledgling Plankton Appreciation Society complete with enameled badges.

Globally plankton are vastly important. Phytoplankton (tiny seaweeds) undergo photosynthesis and produce two out of every three lungfuls of oxygen that you and I take! It doesn’t matter how many miles you live from the ocean; you are still dependent on the ocean and on plankton for one of the most basic needs of life – oxygen. A single type of phytoplankton, Prochlorococcus produces twenty percent, that’s one out of every five breaths, of oxygen in the world. Phytoplankton are able to produce these huge amounts of oxygen by occurring in huge numbers. When sunlight, temperature, and nutrients all align to produce seasonal blooms in temperate and polar waters, they are so vast as to be seen from space. Milky swirls seen in satellite photos of the UK and Europe are the result of cocoliphiphores, tiny phytoplankton that live in a box made of calcium carbonate, hence the whitish appearance. Equatorial waters are a bit of a desert when it comes to plankton life; the warm (very warm! 34°C) water and plentiful sunlight means that water ever nutrients becomes available is used up almost immediately but we’re still getting zooplankton (the little critters) like copepods and ostracods in our manta trawls. These form the basis of the marine food chain that sustains the dolphins and seabirds we so love to see hundreds of miles from land.
Right now you probably want to shout, “Yay for Plankton!!” and buy your official Plankton Appreciation Society membership. If not then my next bit of info might have you worrying a bit more about the amazing plankton. Since 1950 it`s been estimated that global plankton numbers have dropped by 40%. Changes in ocean chemistry: temperature, salinity, acidity are all hitting plankton hard. Increased acidity, known as ocean acidification, is an effect of the ocean absorbing more carbon dioxide due to increased levels in the atmosphere. A knock on effect of this is that there is less calcium carbonate available in seawater. Remember those cocoliphiphores living in their calcium carbonate boxes? Zooplankton eat plastic like so many other marine animals and may suffer similar impacts from the toxics present. The plastic also seems to impact the sinking of zooplankton poop. Usually this poop (however tiny) would help to recycle nutrients in the upper water column but when the zooplankton eat plastics this poop sinks faster and the important nutrients is lost to the deep ocean and won’t make it to the surface waters for hundreds if not thousands of years on the natural conveyor belt of ocean currents. These are just a small number of the hardships that the ocean’s smallest residents are facing but the fact is that to care about the ocean is to care about plankton.

Now I’m sure you want to know what my favourite plankton is and I encourage you to pick a favourite too. My favourite is a copepod called Calanus finmarchicus and it’s my favourite because it’s what makes the North Atlantic ecosystem go around. Copepods are zooplankton, the tiny creatures of the sea, the eaters of phytoplankton and other (usually smaller) zooplankton. Any tiny creature that is swept along on the ocean currents is plankton.

Everything from tiny larval fish to huge jellyfish are technically plankton. Calanus looks much like Plankton from Spongebob just less villainous and bright orange. It’s an important food source for iconic species such as Atlantic salmon and the North Atlantic right whale. C. finmarchicus also has a devastating relationship with water temperature. It can’t stand waters which are too warm and will shift northwards to cooler water. Its space in the ecosystem is taken by a closely related species C. helgolandicus. This is all fine and dandy but C. helgolandicus blooms at a different time than C. finmarchicus. Temperate marine ecosystems are perfectly balanced systems of resource availability across time and space.

Animals show up where and when peak food resources will be available and if that food is not available when it is needed it can lead to starvation and long term population declines. Calanus finmarchicus is my favourite plankton because it reminds us that the success of the entire ecosystem can lie with the smallest organism and is a flagship for just how fragile our ocean ecosystems are.

  • Tegan Mortimer, Resident Marine Biologist Ascension 2015.