Monday, July 23, 2012

When the Media Pays Attention-We Have the World's Attention

Art educating science in French mag

Because of social media, more and more everyday people are becoming aware how we can become better stewards of the earth. It's not like we are being nice as much as it is "getting it," that what we do to the planet we inevitably do to ourselves, our children and grandchildren. Over use of plastics, made from chemicals, gets into our soil, our animals that we eat, and also causes premature death through entanglement and ingestion. As many as 55 different species are negatively impacted by plastic pollution. Extinction rates are on the rise due to pollution and since we need to eat and drink of the same water and foods, we might be on that endangered list some day. But not if we can help it and we can. Through art, science, outreach, education, Texting, blogging, Facebooking, and Tweeting we can educate each other on what works for a sustainable planet and what doesn't.
Endangered Platypus killed by plastic ring

Evidence land animals eat plastic
Plastics are so ubiquitous that it's now invaded the natural world beyond ingestion and entanglement. Birds are using the materials for nests (See video below) and some birds that feed on the water surface actually feed plastics to their chicks. Others, like sea turtles confuse plastic film materials like packaging and bags for food. 

Turtle eating plastic became entangled in it.
These are just a few quick reasons why we need to figure out a different resource other than toxic petroleum and natural gas to make our products. Something that is durable yet doesn't last in the environment for 400-1000 years, especially when we are only using it once.

I'm going to be on the radio today if you want to take a listen. Or, listen to the podcast of the show as soon as it airs July 28th and 29th. It will posted on

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Kila preparing CTD 
The last student I interviewed while on our  N. Atlantic voyage was Kila Pickering.  Kila attends Princeton University and is also on the swim team.  He's an All American in many ways, check out his bio.  Kila and I talked about the types of research preformed this voyage, from the deep-water casts collecting water 4,700 meters deep for Dr. Michael Gonzior, to retrieving the OFP traps and redeploying them for Dr. Maureen Conte, to collecting surface samples collecting Sargassum, biota, and plastics.  One thing we agreed on, they all took a lot of time.  Sometimes it gets down right boring waiting for the instruments to be released then retrieved again.  Kila is pre-med and we concluded that "Science is time and labor intensive like surgery, but it isn't something you want to rush.  The consequences could be disastrous."  The CTD and OFP instruments weigh thousands of pounds, one wrong move could badly injure someone or at the very least destroy the instrument.  It is not much different than the pressure of being a surgeon.

Preparing sediment traps
When asked what he valued most from the experiences, he said above all, nothing compares to hands on experience.  This cruise allowed him to experience several types of research, from seeing how carbon cycling is sampled from the CTD casts, seeing the sediment collected from the OFP traps, and getting a look at how plastic is found out in the open ocean.  Kila is a mellow guy, not one to get too excited about anything but did share that he was most surprised by the plastics found in the Sargassum where many different species of marine life live.  Kila strongly urges students to try to find these types of opportunities that can never be explained in a textbook.

Kila and Angela Tomasini sort plastic from Sargassum

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Sea Life Amid Lifeless Plastic

Shane Antonition, a recent Bermuda high school graduate and youngest member of the cruise, is bound for the University of Waterloo, Canada this fall to study Environmental Engineering.   Shane had a rough start on our North Atlantic cruise dealing with the rocking and rolling of the ship, partly due to the rough sea state, but according to Shane, it’s also because of the ship’s design.  The RV Atlantic Explorer, once a tugboat, was fitted with two more decks causing it to be slightly top heavy.  Shane’s engineering mind figured this out early on and given the chance, would reconfigure the weight distribution by using lighter materials, perhaps, making it more fuel-efficient as well.  Though I have to admit, I like the rock-n-roll.

Shane said he was aware of plastic in the ocean, especially in the North Pacific gyre, but was not expecting the magnitude of what we found in the North Atlantic gyre.  He said, “It [the plastic sampling] was definitely an eye opener.  I didn’t realize it would be to that scale. Each of our trawls we only collected small amounts of plastic, but multiply that by the thousands of kilometer of ocean and we’ve got a big problem here.”
biological or  cellophane? 

spotted crab compared to plastic
For this year’s cruise, I decided to also focus on the marine biota in the surface-floating weed along with the plastics.  We were able to get quite a collection of living organisms using a 10-gallon fish tank.  Shane and I talked about how we were sometimes fooled by marine life that looks like plastic and, understandably, how easy it would be for their predators to mistake plastic for food.   Marine life like the clear creatures that look like cellophane, crabs with white specks on their bodies, and barnacles that look like plastic fragments to name a few.

Pulling young students into research experiences has the adage of bringing the parents in as well.   Shane’s mother works for the Bank of Bermuda, and though her bank is a huge financial backer, she has never been on the ship.  Because of Shane, she received her first tour hours before we left for the open sea.  By bringing parents in, it can come full circle when they provide info useful for research.  Shane’s father told us about Sargassum sea slugs.  In my many years of looking at Sargassum, I didn’t even know they existed. When Angela Tomasinna had one fall out of some Sargassum she was sorting, we put it in water and it instantly started jammin’ like a rock star.  I fell in love with this little creature – who knew slugs could be adorable! 

Beautiful Nudibranch the size of a dime
Looking out over the ocean, there is little indication of life other than an occasional flash of a fish, turtle, or marine mammal.  But what thrives below the surface is a world of precious species.  Some so small, you need a microscope to see, yet, provide every other breath we breathe.  But when chemicals, oil, and plastic (a combination of the two) get into this environment, they can destroy the sensitive balance that makes life possible.  This last cruise has, more than ever, encouraged me to continue bringing the ocean to those who do not have access.  I hope by doing so, people will fall in love with everything from the Sargassum slug on up to the sharks that keep the ocean in harmony.  As Jay Nichols once said, “We will protect the things we love.”

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Amazing Pictures from Just Below the Surface of the Sea

Anika on Aft Deck documenting OFP
 Guest post from Anika Aarons
The first time I heard about the Oceanic Flux Program (OFP) was when Dr. Maureen Conte came to give a lecture to my class while I participated in the Semester in Environmental Science (SES) program in Woods Hole, MA at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL). The lecture was mostly about the flux of organic matter in the ocean, from the surface to the deep and back, and concluded with a brief summary of Maureen’s OFP work in the Sargasso Sea. I was instantly enthralled and had a burning desire to find out more than what I had gained in a mere 15 minutes.
Consequently, I emailed Maureen to schedule a meeting to learn more about her research and get some possible ideas of research projects I could carry out in my last 5 weeks of the program using techniques similar to those of her OFP work. In my project, I extracted organic compounds from particulate organic matter (POM) – suspended particles, such as detritus, in the water column – and used this information to tell a story about the communities living in the water column, their environmental conditions and how they might be shaping it.
When completing my SES research, Maureen invited me to come work for the OFP program this summer and so here I am in the middle of the Atlantic getting to experience firsthand the science that hooked and held my attention in that SES lecture. I feel like I’m coming full circle now from my own SES project, tying in the basics that I learned to the big picture of long-term ocean climate changes. My job is trying to figure out what exciting events have been happening in the big blue Sargasso Sea and I love it.                   ****************************************************

Plastic in Sargassum
PLASTIC RESEARCH We have been performing surface samples morning, noon, and night over the past four days and each of the 13 samples collected have had about a handful of plastics.  It might not sound like much, but when quantifying the plastics collected from a meter-wide trawl that runs for approximately two nautical miles, times the two million square miles of the Sargasso Sea, the handfuls turn into metric tonnes.  These plastic fragments sprinkled over the surface of the ocean reek havoc on marine life.  According to a paper recently published in Marine Pollution Bulletin titled, “Seabirds Study Shows Plastic Pollution Reaching Surprising Levels Off Coast of Pacific Northwest,” 67 of the beached northern Fulmar birds necropsied, 92.5 percent of them had plastic in their stomachs.  In fact, one bird had 454 pieces of plastic in its gut.  Because this type bird only forages for food skimming the surface of the ocean, it is more apt to eat the plastics floating there like the types of plastics we find in our trawl. Not only birds accidentally ingest plastics but marine biota that live in or attracted to the free-floating Sargassum as well.

Argonatus argon octopus
Last night, we ran a sample that netted 65 cm of Sargassum along with marine life far different from the day samples. When we dumped the sample into the sorting tub we noticed two beautiful Nautilus-like shells each connected to a small octopus among an array of other invertebrates.  It is difficult to stay on task plucking plastics when there are so many creatures we’ve never seen before swimming around in our sample. The only way to sort out the plastic fragments is to handpick through all of the weed.  It took five of us over an hour to sort - blurry-eyed by the time we shut the lab lights out at 1am.
Seahorse feeding off bottom of tank

Tonight the sea state settled down to a series of gentle ripples and from past experiences when the sea state flattens, more plastics tend to appear in our samples.   True to form, we had a record amount of plastic than the previous 12 samples.  But that wasn’t all we found, our trawl pulled in an 10 cm seahorse.  We’re giving the credit to Harry the seahorse whisperer.  Now the trick is to keep it alive so we can return it to the ocean when the ship stops at 0430 Sunday.  
Bill holding seabird on deck

Tomorrow we will be steaming back to Bermuda with plenty of stories to share about the ubiquitous plastics we collected, the amazing Sargassum fish, the octopi, the seahorse, and a bird that I saw fly into the CTD garage.  Bill found it on the floor and gently picked it up as it came-to.  It went from being confused, to frightened, to relaxing in Bill’s tender touch.  We snapped photos, then took it to the bow where it was dark so it wouldn’t get confused by the lights blaring on the aft deck. Bill opened his hand slowly as the sea bird composed itself before it sprang from his hand wings open and flew across the moonlit sky.  

This cruise started out with the focus on plastic pollution and ended with a greater appreciation for the marine life in the open sea.  It made me realize the delicate balance of life above and below the surface and that it is worth protecting.

Launching a Million Dollar Ocean Sampling Device

Yesterday we retrieved the sediment traps that have been tethered to the ocean floor for roughly four months.  This diagram illustrates the rigging.  There are a series of bottles located under the large yellow funnels.  The bottles are on a timer that advances each of the many empty bottles to the base of the funnel after a specified period of time.   This is the main reason we are out here.  Dr. Maureen Conte is the primary investigator of the Oceanic Flux Program (OFP) time-series and has been for over 30 years.  The sediments collected in these traps tell us about the influence of the ocean surface on the physical and biological processes over time scales of weeks to decades and how particles flux in the water column. This hydrography provides unprecedented opportunities to study the biology, chemistry, and ocean physics especially over a long period of time.  Why is it important? Because this study helps us understand the reprocessing of these particles, like carbon emissions, ocean acidification, or suspended plastics.  The OFP is the longest running open-ocean research of its kind dating back to 1978 and made possible through funding by the National Science Foundation (NSF).  Thank you NSF!

Anika Aarons and Angela Tomassina prepare sediment trap.
Today, we are 75 km SE of Bermuda.  We returned the sediment traps to the sea with fresh bottles.  Anika Aarons, a grad student at Mount Holyoke, assisted Maureen in the process.  But it took all deck hands and marine techs to launch these gigantic sinkable “rubber duckys” that require thousands of pounds of steel, galvanized line, glass spheres the size of beach balls, and waterproof instrumentation accompanied by a 2,400 lb. anchor. With all of this heavy machinery and equipment on the aft deck, hardhats are a necessity.  Anika will be ghost-blogging her experience working on the OFP later today and I will share what we found in our surface sampling late last night.  

Friday, July 6, 2012

Harry the Seahorse Whisperer

Harry Masters opening Nikin Bottles
Harry Masters is here helping Michael Gonzior prepare the Rosette CTD (Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth device) for a 4700 meter cast down into water that is thousands of years old. Water that will take centuries before it returns to the surface.  Michael is looking at the water disolved organic matter or profile.  Like fossils, water has distinct elements that can provide insight into the past.  In the photo you can see Harry opening up the Niskin bottles on the CTD wrapped around the circular frame like horses on a carousal.  The bottles will capture the ancient water.  The marine techs and deck hands will use an electronic winch to lower the CTD until it reaches the designated depth.  The bottles will then receive a signal to snap shut and the CTD will make its way back to the surface.  The entire process takes several hours because it travels about 15 meters a minute. 

Harry, born and raised in Bermuda, recently graduated from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill with a degree in Environmental Studies and Public Policy with a minor in Entrepreneurship.   This is his first open-ocean cruise on a research vessel and says he is loving every minute of it, from helping with the CTD to keeping the ever-growing collection of biota alive that we net from our surface sampling. 

Harry has grown particularly fond of a 6 cm Histrio histrio also called a frogfish or Sargassum fish. I have come to calling it “King Pin.”  Notice how its coloring mimics the Sargassum.  Another unique characteristic is the way it can use its fins like hands - grabbing on to the Sargassum as it perches in the weed waiting for food to swim by.  We have been able to observe the eating habits of many of the species due to the Sargassum ecosystem we have created in our 10-gallon fish tank, for exampe, crabs eat not only the abundant shrimp found in the Sargassum, but also eat each other.   But they are not the only ones cannibalistic.  Harry was trying to catch a smaller Histrio histrio for Maureen Conte for the purpose of studying the lipids in this species.  Harry ended up having to find another one to catch. When the little fish swam past King Pin it abruptly disappeared like a fly on the tip of a frog’s tongue.  Now we know, Histrio histrio also eat it’s own kind.  Because we have quite the collection, Harry managed to collect three for Maureen.  This has been a particularly good hands-on experience for the graduate who, toward the end of his undergraduate studies, became interested in Marine Biology.  During the last few months of college he worked in a lab studying the gene expression in diatoms under different iron conditions. 

Harry and I compared being on this ship like the life support in the Sargassum ecosystem.  Everyone has a role or purpose.  Each supports each other from the cooks preparing awesome food to the deck hands that make the science happen, to the captain and crew that get us where we need to be safely.  It is the science that provides the jobs and it the science that perpetuates better understanding of how we can be amiable stewards to the sensitive ecosystems we depend upon.

Recently, while hanging out at the beach with some friends, Harry looked down at something moving in beached Sargassum.  It was a 4” seahorse heaving for air.  He and his friend worked together to get it out to the reef.  Harry held it gently in his hand underwater, the seahorse wrapped its tail around his finger, and his friends towed Harry on his boogie board to the reef.   Science works the same way.   It begins by opening your eyes to the world around you and then asking a question like, “What is this?” and then attempting to find the answer.

Later we will show pictures of the plastic we are finding in our samples as well as the main event, the retreaval of the OFP mooring.  

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Getting Into It

Students sort plastics from Sargassum 
Today we shoved off from Bermuda into the deep blue sea - the Sargasso Sea to be exact and the only sea without land boarders.  The Portuguese name Sargasso so given by Christopher Columbus when he first encountered the free-floating weed and it made him think of miniature grapes.  The plant is very important to the North Atlantic marine life and today our students learned why.  

When we sample the open-ocean for plastics, we often times collect the Sargassum weed as well, and that's because they both can float and are impacted similarly by the same ocean dynamics.  So when the ocean is really rough, a lot of the Sargassum gets broken up and washed down into the water column as do the plastics.  When there is a convergence zone, the Sargassum will accumulate on the surface and ditto the plastics.  Usually this means that when there is a lot of Sargassum, we will find a lot of plastic.  But today, we were stumped.  Of the three samples we took, only the first one filled our sampling net.  The other two had very little weed in them yet both had more plastics than the first.

Angela Tomassini observing Sargassum biota

Angela Tomassini from Eckard College in St. Petersburg, FL, a visiting student at BIOS. She is a Marine Science major with a concentration in Biology, minoring in Environmental Studies and Spanish.  She chose to give up a birding trip she had planned in order to take this cruise to work with scientists.  She said she didn't expect to have the opportunity to observe marine biology since most of the science research on this cruise leans toward chemistry.  She was pleasantly surprised because it isn't just the weed and plastics that we find.  A myriad of marine life lives in the weed.  Thanks to JP Skinner, BIOS, who provided us with a fish tank, we could save some of the marine biota that  ends up in our samples.  By doing so, we were able to illustrate to the students the complexity of the Sargassum ecosystem that provides food for larger fish, birds, and sea turtles.  Angela recommends students take up any opportunity to participate in hands-on experiences.  She learned so much and it's only the first day!  But she does have one question and we're hoping someone respond to this blog, "Are the blue copepods bio luminescent?  

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Bermuda Brings Science, Students, and Sargassum Together

I arrived at Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences (BIOS) campus Sunday afternoon with two trunks of research supplies, a backpack full of camera gear, and a small bag of clothing.  Thankfully, fashion is not a requirement.  We, Michael Gonsior, Bill Cooper, and I, found Maureen Conte sitting on the BIOS campus porch overlooking the inlet where the RV Atlantic Explorer wades in the bright teal Bermudian waters.  The stately BIOS facility has been housing ocean researchers since 1903.  Dr. Conte is the lead scientist for the Ocean Flux Program (OFP), among the longest running research in the open-ocean and it’s because of her sharing precious ship-time we are able to do our third year of open-ocean sampling for plastic in the North Atlantic gyre.

Aerial photo of Sargassum mat by Erin Cummings
Monday we spent most of the day loading the ship with tons, literally, tons of instruments, lines, wires, buoys, and hardware that is necessary for the collection of sediment OFP seeks 3,500 meters deep.  When we were not loading the ship, we were preparing the manta trawl we use to do our surface sampling.  We had plenty of hands to help.  Maureen recruited one grad student, three undergrads, and one high school student to join in the five-day cruise.  Two of the students are from Bermuda, a rare opportunity for local students, in hopes to foster more local participation in the future.  I will be posting interviews with the students while out at sea. You'll hear firsthand about their open-ocean science experiences - lookout prime time "Reality TV."

Why all the camera gear?  Not only will I be interviewing the crew about the OFP and other types of research happening on this voyage, but we also hope to record Sargassum Natans unique to the Sargasso Sea, another area of interest for our plastic debris research.  Sargassum has it’s own ecosystem that we hope to film and photograph to illustrate the life that lives in the Sargassum along with plastic we find in it.  Plastics in the ocean have proven to cause both entanglement and ingestion issues.

Last month, Jason Andre, Sarah Malette, Julian Kehaya went for a three-day cruise with Captain Abram Lamertson and first mate Carolina Priester to videotape and photograph what lurks underneath the Sargassum 50 miles off North Carolina’s coast.  What we anticipated to find were fish that seek out the weed for cover and for food.   We found fish, but what we didn’t anticipate finding was the amount of plastic in the water column below the Sargassum.  In my years of researching marine plastics and the way it accumulates in Sargassum, I expected to find plastic intermingled in the weed lines known as windrows. What we found was the same ocean dynamics that caused the windrows of Sargassum to form on the surface also caused plastics to converge throughout the water column below the Sargassum.  Here is just a rough video of what Jason videotaped.
The significants of this footage is quantity of plastic film-like plastic such as food wraps and plastic bags parts, which look like one of sea turtles favorite foods, jellyfish.   Sargassum is where sea turtles go to feed. Yikes!  

Join the journey as I will be posting live from Sargasso Sea daily.