Post thesis voyage

Friday, March 1, 2013

Kristen Mitchell, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Waterloo

A few weeks before finishing my PhD thesis I received an email asking me: “Do you long to sail on the open ocean one more time?  Do you have fond memories of bow watch, gimbaled tables, and picking plastic out of neuston net samples?  Are you looking for something adventurous to do this fall?” My answer was: “Yes! Get me out from behind this computer!” I decided to fill out the volunteer form and see what would happen.

Nine years previously I had decided to spend the first semester of my 3rd year at Eckerd College doing a Sea Education Association (SEA) Semester. The semester started in Woods Hole, Massachusetts where we spent six weeks living with our soon to be shipmates, learned about oceanography, nautical science, and maritime history on the small SEA campus.
Washing the deck on morning watch.

Washing the deck on morning watch. This was done daily unless there were science deployments happening.

After finishing our classes in Woods Hole, we made our way to San Diego, California the home port of the Robert C. Seamans which we would board for a six week voyage to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. When we arrived at the dock, we were shown to our bunks aboard the ship which would be the sum total of our personal space and assigned to our watches, A, B and C. I was assigned to C watch. The watches would follow what is known as the Swedish watch system. Each group would stand one watch and then be off for two watches. The day was broken down into five parts beginning with the morning watch starting at 0700 and continuing to 1300, afternoon watch followed from 1300 to 1900, the evening watch started the shorter watches from 1900 to 2300, mid-watch from 2300 to 0300 and finally dawn watch from 0300 to 0700. The first days aboard were spent getting over seasickness, adjusting to the 24-hour clock and the watch schedule. While we were adjusting we were also supposed to be learning how to sail a 134-foot sailboat without crashing it or losing anyone overboard.
Person knitting on the quarter-deck.

Knitting on the quarter-deck. This was a skill I picked up on my first SEA cruise. Singing, drawing, reading and board gamers are among the ways to pass the time when you are not on watch.

As we became accustomed to this unique living and working arrangement we stood watch, ate up to six meals a day depending on how badly we wanted to sleep, talked endlessly about the toilets on board and did some truly fantastic oceanographic fieldwork. Each of us completed an oceanographic research project. One of our more interesting oceanographic studies was to track ocean currents by dropping messages in glass bottles into the ocean. We theoretically learned how to navigate by the stars, but personally all I really learned about celestial navigation was that I was lucky there was also a GPS on board. In class on the quarter deck, most often led by our peers, we learned how our food was refrigerated, how our water was made, and how our waste was handled. Fun activities were just as abundant as the academic ones; there were birthday parties, a Halloween party which included a ghost ship. We also looked forward to Sundays known as ‘field day’ which mainly consisted of the entire crew cleaning the ship from top to bottom. This doesn’t sound like it would be fun but the few hours spent cleaning are accompanied by music which otherwise was only provided by shipmates.
Two crew members during Dawn clean-up.

Dawn clean-up. Every day after standing the dawn watch the off-going watch would clean the entire ship below decks.

As we reached Mexico our cruise ended by my SEA semester experiences have not. I made friends on board that I still have today. I will never forget what the stars look like on a clear night at sea or what the sun coming over the horizon looks like on bow watch at dawn. Four years after our trip to Mexico ended I received an email from our chief scientist informing me that my message in a bottle was found by someone named Kayo Sugitani on the Japanese island of Irimote after 1277 days at sea and a 12, 677 km journey from where I dropped it overboard off the coast of Mexico.
This past fall, within weeks of the first time I boarded the Robert C. Seamans, I was again bound for San Diego to board the ship again. The initial response to the call for volunteers for the Plastics as SEA: North Pacific voyage was so great that we were asked to submit a secondary application detailing why we wanted to participate in the cruise. Twenty eight people were selected as volunteer crew members from nearly 200 respondents. This meant that we were signing up to be active crew members as we had been as college students, except we were all older than we had been the first time around. Some of us only a few years older and others decades older than we had been on our original SEA voyages. Those of us who had become scientists also volunteered for special projects that would be conducted while aboard. At the dock the boarding was much the same, we met the professional crew which consisted of three mates, three assistant scientists, two stewards, two engineers and the chief scientist and the captain. We were again shown to our bunks, but this time we had to meet all of our shipmates for the first time. Some of us were lucky and we knew one or two of our fellow volunteers. One of the volunteer crew members had been an assistant scientist on my student cruise. The rest were all new faces and names to learn. Within six weeks we managed to become not only shipmates but also friends. This trip was different because it wasn’t a ship full of college students. There were scientists, grad students, doctors, lawyers, stay-at-home moms, retirees, and educators aboard. We were a crew of adults with jobs and families and pets and just one common experience; being on a SEA cruise before.
Spoon-full of plastic from a net sample.

Plastic from a net sample. All the pieces were hand counted by crew members.

We also had a common oceanography project this time around: to collect, and quantify the amount of plastics in the North Pacific Ocean. This was done using 3 types of nets to sample the surface ocean. The neuston net is the most basic with a rectangular opening a net and a cod end which holds all the material in but lets the water pass through, a manta net which is similar to the neuston net but it has ‘wings’ to stabilize it on the surface, and a MOCNESS net (multiple open-close net sensing system) which has multiple nets that could take individual samples every 5 meters down to 15 meters below the surface of the ocean. We also used a variety of boat hooks, dip nets and lines in clever ways to snag the big plastic pieces from the ship. We spent lots of time staring into nets to count plastic pieces that were almost too small to see much less count, by hand. On October 16, 2012 one thirty minute neuston tow covering approximately one nautical mile took 37 hours of continuous counting, passing from one watch to the next, yielded 24, 213 pieces of plastic, most of which were smaller in size than your fingernail. We also documented suspected tsunami debris visually from the quarter deck of the ship. One of the scientists on board documented plastic pieces from the foredeck for up to eight hours a day. We passed buoys, plastic film, shoes, a volley ball, lots of plastic bottles, three tires, most of the hull of a small boat and a refrigerator with food still inside of it.

This refrigerator floated by one day and is likely debris from the 2011 tsunami in Japan.

This refrigerator floated by one day and is likely debris from the 2011 tsunami in Japan. There was still food inside the refrigerator, which we managed to take out and bring on board.

As our journey ended in Hawaii, we all began our journeys home to our respective jobs, families, and lives. It was hard to say good bye to new friends, but before we parted ways we all agreed to share our journey and what we had learned about plastics in our oceans with as many people as possible. If you wish to learn more about our journey, check out the Plastics at SEA webpage which has videos, photos and our expedition journal.

Hull of a small boat, possibly tsunami debris from Japan.

Hull of a small boat, possibly tsunami debris from Japan.

Dolphins greeting ship crew.

Dolphins greeted us as we awoke anchored in Kealakekua Bay in Hawaii.