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Mission Ocean – Citizen Science on board

by Mission Ocean 7 Jan 05:02 UTC
Dragging the plankton net behind Contigo © Mission Ocean

"There's plankton in the sink again."

"Sorry, sorry..." apologizes Henrique as he finishes rinsing and clearing away the petri dishes, test-tubes and pipettes that have become a common feature in our galley.

We are not scientists, and we have no scientific training beyond high school. But we are sailors, with a boat that will take us through the different oceans of the world. And throughout our three-year circumnavigation, on board our 42-foot catamaran Contigo, we have decided to participate in citizen science projects. The principle of citizen science is very simple – we carry out very basic experiments, using little or no equipment, gather data or samples and send them off to clever scientists who know how to interpret them.

It all began in front of a documentary in a friend's apartment in France. Flicking through the channels, we fell upon the cheerful face of French racing legend Philippe Poupon, who has been cruising for the last few years with his family aboard Fleur Australe. The aluminium hull of Poupon's ketch is equipped with sensors to test water temperature and salinity levels wherever they go, and the results are sent to a large research institute in France for analysis. We were instantly hooked – and inspired. This sort of simple project seemed to us a way to give a meaning to our trip, a chance to give something back to the oceans that would be our home, and also a opportunity to learn as we travel.

Initially, we aimed high, contacting France's biggest universities and research centres, offering to modify our boat and install whatever equipment they deemed useful. We were met with an almost unanimous silence, with only La Sorbonne replying. They requested that we raise 50,000 euros of funds to pay for instruments, after which they might just be interested in getting a PhD student to look at our data. It became apparent that we had severely underestimated the cost implications of what we had expected to be a relatively easy project. Dismayed, we began to abandon the idea all together.

But all was not lost, and the spark our citizen science project was rekindled by a chance find on Facebook: Astrolabe Expéditions, a non-profit group of oceanographers and marine biologists based in the North of France. This passionate, energetic group of freshly-qualified researchers recycle old laboratory equipment into packs to be used by sailors, to carry out exactly the kind of basic experiments we felt capable of achieving on board. The results are processed by the group, and then made public as open source data on the internet, thereby enabling the international scientific community to use them in projects and papers across the globe.

We immediately established a partnership with Astrolabe, before even finalizing the purchase of our boat, and offered them a space on the stand that we ran for 10 days at the Paris boat show in December 2016 to cement the deal.

The first piece of equipment we received from Astrolabe after our departure from our home port of Cannes was our plankton net, a very simple kit that is designed to be able to be easily reparable even in the most remote of locations. A piece of plastic pipe clips on to a conical net which is in turn stitched to a large metal ring, holding the mouth of the net open like a whale or a basking shark. A child's armband float keeps the ring near the surface, whilst a diving weight stops it from skipping out of the water over the waves. We drag the net behind Contigo for 15 minutes a day, at a speed of no more that 2 knots (quite hard – but not impossible – to do under sail), and then use pipettes and petri dishes to gather the jelly-like goop that remains in the tube.

This jelly contains samples of zooplankton (tiny beasties), phytoplankton (tiny plants) and ichytoplankton (fish larvae), which we are able to observe using a wonderfully simple invention: our low-tech microscope. Consisting of a plank of wood, a piece of Plexiglas, a spring and a magnifying lens, the low-tech microscope reveals an amazing miniscule underwater world, by placing a smartphone camera over the lens. This piece of kit is worth less than 10 euros, and enables us to take photos and videos of the samples, which we email to Astrolabe. In international waters, we carefully gather the jelly and suspend it in test-tubes of alcohol solution, ready to be sent off to the lab when we reach the next port.

We were not surprised to find samples of micro-plastic pollution floating in our plankton jelly, including micro-fibres from synthetic clothing and micro-beads from exfoliating scrubs. Whilst we would have preferred not to have seen this evidence of this kind of pollution, we were at least able to integrate the photos into our schools programme, providing children with concrete examples of the impact that mankind is having on our oceans today. We also take samples of plankton and our low-tech microscope, to show the children just how much life is contained in a few drops of water.

Plankton sampling is just an example of the many citizen science experiments that we now undertake on board. We have also established a link with the Balearic Islands Oceanographic Institute and their plastic pollution team in Palma de Mallorca, for whom we run a daily activity that we have come to call "Plastic Watch". This simple exercise consists of spending an hour a day on Contigo's bow, noting down all the floating objects that we see go by. The variety of our observations is absolutely outstanding, from the relatively predictable stray fishing buoys or floating polystyrene, to absurd items such as whole neon lamps and fiberglass gas cylinders, miles and miles offshore. Coupled with GPS readings, these observations allow the team in the Balearics to track the distribution of different types of floating waste across the globe. In time, and with a little training, we will associate these watches with photo-identification of cetaceans, which we will be able to do at the same time.

We admit it, on Contigo we are terrible fishermen. In over three months, and despite many bites, we have only succeeding in catching one single small bonita. But when we do catch fish, or buy locally fished ones, we open their stomachs to see if they have ingested anything man-made (read, micro-plastics). This data, including the species of fish, the location caught, and the size and colour of the plastics, are also sent to the Balearics for analysis.

Together with Astrolabe Expéditions, we are helping to develop further tools that can be dispatched on sailboats across the globe. These will include temperature and salinity sensors, and cradles with waterproof cameras on lines that can "dive" onto coral sites up to 100m deep to take photos and videos of different species, and their evolution (or deterioration) over time. We tested a prototype of the cradle during our first major research expeditions in Palma, and the results were better than any of us could have hoped.

So if you are planning a long cruise and you too fancy the opportunity to participate in the scientific community, and also learn a great deal about the oceans around you, then we wholeheartedly recommend giving citizen science a try. There are many associations, research groups and organisations across the globe who offer free kits to anyone willing to give up some of their cruising time to drag a net, drop a camera in the water or just look down at the oceans and tell them what you can see. We find that these activities break up the sometimes monotonous routine of a long sail, and we must be the only boat that gets excited when the wind dies ("Yay, 2 knots! Plankton sampling time!") And if you are sailing with kids, you'd be hard pushed to find a cheaper, easier way to learn about the seas together.

Mission Ocean is proud to be supported by: Boero, Doyle Sails Palma, Rotary District 1730, Navigair, Octomarine, Battery World Service, Victron Energy, Monaco Marine, Aquatabs, Spade Anchors, Plastimo, Furuno France, Pejout Marine Services, Lyvio, Storm Bird, Aethic, Astrolabe Expeditions, Asociacion Ondine, AGL Marine and Sail-Worldcruising.com

Mission Ocean is Laura Beard and Henrique Agostinho. Their three year plus mission is to share their love and respect for the ocean with others, through education and scientific research. Neither is a stranger to the water, so they have combined all their skills and passions in this bold, courageous and inspiring project. Sail-Worldcruising.com is delighted to be with them for the journey of their lifetime. You can also find out more on their Facebook page

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