Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Garen's Research

Garen took measurements to collect his data at least once a day. I assisted him in lowering down various instruments like the Light Meter pictured below. He came out here to find out if the plastic fragments were effecting the number of phytoplankton in the gyre. 

Phytoplankton are micro-organisms that make up the base of the marine food web. It would not be a good sign if their numbers (that have been going down about 40% since the 1950's) were dropping because of the plastic pollutants. 

If you look at my shirt, you will see the TEAM MARINE logo. T.M. are an eco-action club at Santa Monica High School in California where we live. In fact, one of last year's team house/cat-sat for us while we were away. In any case, they are kick ass leaders in the community who have reached out to millions of people over the last few years. 

Garen and I kept thinking that their coach Ben Kay, who also has a masters in Marine Biology, would love being out there with us. 

A HUGE thank you to Team Marine for donating to our trip. I was really touched that they passed the hat to donate to our efforts. 

This is the Light Meter. Although it looks like it would light up itself, it actually measures the levels of light through that bulb. We lowered it to 15 yards, stopping at 10 and 5 yards on the way up to take a reading. 

Here's Garen's explanation for using the Light Meter and a brief list of other controls that he put in place:

"We were measuring the rate of light attenuation (lowering as a function of depth) at different places, to see if any change in phytoplankton concentration occured because of plastic micro-pollutants versus some other factor.  Other controls we considered included temperature, salinity, pH, and various nutrients including Nitrate, Nitrite, Ammonia, Phosphate, and Silicate."

Another finding. This one was useful. Amazing how it floated right by in tact. We actually had to do a little maneuvering, and I think I lost a net trying to reach for it, but it came aboard for the trip after not too much effort. 

One of the high-lights of my entire ocean crossing was jumping into a calm sea that day. 
I asked Garen how deep he thought it was. 

"13,000 feet maybe?"

13,000 FEET! OF WATER!! 

I stared down with my eyes open, not minding the salty sting. I haven't been able to fully wrap my head around being in water that deep, and maybe I never will. It was the true definition of mind blowing. 

Monday, May 30, 2011

Sunset in the South Pacific Gyre

Looking at the expansiveness of the sea and sky for days on end did something to my brainwaves. It's almost anti-stimulation, meaning that my mind was allowed to unwind, take a breather, and felt free to roam. 

Being sea sick was a giant pain in the ass but also a blessing in disguise. It meant that I spent most of my day on the deck of the boat. I took care of what was right in front of me. I focused on the moment without the distractions of reading books or typing on my computer. My life online was on hold and there was nothing I could do about it. 

The fresh perspective that time away gave me is priceless.

Jeff processed many a Manta Trawl sample. 

All of the plastic fragments, bits of blobular-life forms, and other sea creatures gathered in this mesh sock when you pulled the trawl out of the water. 

Another gift of this experience were seeing sunsets night after night. 

There really aren't always adequate words to describe life on the boat as we crossed most of the South Pacific. Just writing that last sentence seems dream-like to me. Inserting the phrase, "a picture tells a thousand words" feels like I've said enough.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The middle-ish of the South Pacific Gyre

Another morning closer to the center of the South Pacific Gyre. Our watch is very musical. Well, Charlie and Ben are talented in that way. We're lucky that they are. 

Our routine is fairly simple. We stand watch, we trawl, we process the sample, we cook, we sleep, we do it again. But wait! What in the world could we all be huddled around to look at?

We pull in an old fishing buoy that has become a floating marine eco-system sustaining crabs, gooseneck barnacles and probably a lot more than we see out of the water on our boat deck.

Sure, there the rope is probably made from nylon (plastic) and the buoy that is buried under all that life is most likely styrofoam, but now it is home to creatures floating through what could be termed the "blue desert" of the ocean. 

So when no one considers chucking it back in because now the flotsam has partially transformed into a very useful object, I feel sorry for the critters. The crabs that get pulled away first float down into the water out of sight 

I ask Garen, "Can they swim?" 
He says, "Some of them are swimming crabs."
But swim to where? Chile?

Over the next several hours I am aware that the Gooseneck Barnacles are drying out completely. The smaller ones flake off onto the deck to be swept over during someones 8-2pm shift. 

The buoy comes along for the ride. Its final destination - a landfill in either Easter Island or Tahiti. What do we do with all of the modern detritus that looses it's function in the world and "floats" around on land and in the sea? 

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Early April sometime...

The sight of Charlie behind the wheel always made me feel better. He was on my watch for the first half of the trip across and was responsible for teaching me how to steer the boat. One of my favorite aspects of this expedition was getting to know people who I would normally not cross paths with in my everyday life. 

For example, Charlie lives in a castle in Scotland, will be joining the Royal Army (who sails more than the British Navy...who knew), and plays the bagpipes. It's possible that I could have met him at another juncture but having this time together on the boat was super fun. As Bill put it, another crew member, Charlie was certainly our MVP. He knows how to sail well and his positive attitude is contagious. 

Oh, and he makes really killer brownies.

Garen is my "MVP" for life. Here he is getting ready to take his measurements. He started collecting data when they started trawling. I wish he was home right now as I write this so that I could give you a complete picture of what he did. I'll have to give it a shot on my own right now but I plan on designating more posts about his specific research in the near future. 

For now, I will say that this is what field science looks like on a cramped sail boat. You make do with what you have. Everyone does. Garen stored most of his instruments in a black plastic basket that used to hold apples until I dumped them into another box. We had yards and yards of line to send down to collect salinity levels, phytoplankton numbers, pH levels, temperature and other data that Garen later downloaded into a laptop in the galley. All of this line needed to be untangled daily no matter how clever we thought we were in sorting and tying it off the time before. Ah the glamour of environmental science. Actually, I know Garen wouldn't trade doing this kind of field work for the world. 

Our work always took the two of us and two more hands. Here is Jeff reading the light meter for us and recording those numbers into Garen's lab notebook.

As the manta trawl stayed out on one side of the boat for an hour every 60 miles (if my memory serves me correctly) we deployed this high-speed trawl out on the other side of the Sea Dragon all of the time. We would process the high-speed trawl sample at the same time as the manta and then send it back in for further collections. 

The wind continued to die down as we trawled closer toward the center of the gyre, forming a glassy, reflective mirror over the South Pacific that seemed to draw the sky and the sea closer together

Monday, May 23, 2011

March 31, 2011? or there about...

Welcome to the South Pacific Gyre. It is NOT an "island of trash." Although I think that the image that the "floating island of trash" conjures up in someone's head is useful, it is not the actuality. 

I am sure that there are other gyres (North Pacific, North Atlantic, South Atlantic, and Indian) may look more trashed to the naked eye, but it is my experience that for most of the trip across the South Pacific Gyre, this is what we saw.

And this does not make our findings less disturbing. In fact, it may make it more disturbing that right under the surface of the water in the middle of the largest ocean on the planet there lie flecks of plastic that one can troll for and fish out without much effort. 

Between trolls, Clive kept the musical theme of the crew going as he turned the cheap Chilean guitar that Ben bought before the trip into music. The musical talents of our 13 person crew follows:

Anna plays violin
Ben, Charlie, Clive play guitar
Charlie plays BAGPIPES!
Bill can sing

Every night of the trip after dinner someone presented the evening's entertainment. Many of my fellow crew mates showcased their musical talents. 

We crossed into the gyre and started to troll. We brought in the Manta Troll every 6 hours for weeks.

At first, we found very little or no plastic. Isn't that great? Then we got closer to the middle of the gyre. More photos of our findings in following posts......

But here is an example of one of our early trolls. Tiny jellies, and something called: 


"Velella is a genus of free-floating Hydrozoans that lives on the surface of the open ocean, worldwide, and is commonly known by the names by-the-wind sailorpurple saillittle sail, or simply Velella. The most common, and perhaps the only species encountered is Velella velella."

Velella are strange little beasties. There were also other unclassified gelatinous blobs floating along that not even Garen could name. I liked the tiny Man-O'-Wars. 

We sailed towards the middle of what could be thought of as the dessert of the ocean. Very little life exists out in the gyre. The water is 13,000 feet deep on average, the winds stagnant, the surface glassy and the research unknown.....

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Robinson Crusoe Island

Yes, there is a real island named "Robinson Crusoe" and google can even show you where it is. 

Garen's beard shows the passage of days since we have all lost track of the date. And does it matter? Not really. Not when you are on a boat. You have a few concrete variables determining your fate and none of them include the Gregorian calendar. Wind, weather and the waves they produce rule supreme out here. As Clive, our skipper, would say, "We'll get there when we get there." 

The sight of land, and for me, the possibility of stable ground under my underwhelming "sea legs" brought up a loud, internal WHOOPIE! roar that I quelled inside to keep up my cool exterior. Hardly. We are all excited to spot land. The first glimpse since leaving Chile roughly a week earlier. 

We jump into the dingy that Jeff carefully places alongside of Sea Dragon in small groups, heading to  the island named after the true story of the great Scotsman Alexander Selkirk. He inspired the book Robinson Crusoe. And the book inspired the locals to name their homeland after it. There is some debate as to which of the close islands in the Juan Fernandez Chain was the actual sight of Selkirk's marooning. But more on that later. 

First, let's get to land. I wonder what immigration has to say about this guy?!

Clive Cosby, our skipper, watches as we head for shore. Clive, it turns out, knows our ship very well. He raced one identical to it in the Global Challenge Race a few years back. The Global Challenge sends its sailors around the world AGAINST the wind. The trip lasts about ten months...if all of the stars align for you.

The island gets deliveries of goods from the Chilean Armada (or Navy but Armada is such a cool word) every few months. We watched the locals count bags of dog food, boxes of oranges, and all the rest of the goodies that will exist until they are gone. 

The goods came ashore wrapped on wooden pelts with plastic film. Lots and lots of plastic film. Some of which blew idly about while the islanders inspected their shipment. I threw a clump into the back of a local pickup with us as Garen, Dale (our first mate), Jeff (our first mate jr.) and I drove to a local house for fresh fish purchasing, and a tour of his home. 

His home was picked up, split apart and sat back down by the tsunami that came in after last years' earth shattering quake in Chile. Most of the waterfront is being rebuilt as I take this picture. Their tourist industry here was wiped out by the wave from which they had no warning. Hotels, schools, homes and shops used to dot the shore where now there are concrete foundations poured and local men stacking back the cement bricks to start again. 

I think about Japan and wonder what the news is from the Fukushima Daiichi Nucleur Power Plant that may still be melting down. Being cut off from outside news is a luxary and a burden. I send them good thoughts, hoping that they have stopped the destruction. 

This picture is to say that the disposal of plastic water bottles, and styrofoam is a world-wide problem. Does the ease in which we use up these products end up in their thoughtless distribution?

Robinson Crusoe island is a beautiful place. But beautiful, "exotic" islands are not exempt from the consumption of "disposable" products. 

Would someone coming to the city of Santa Monica, CA where I live include a picture of a local flowering bush below the plastic detritus littering the sand on our beach after a solid rainy day? We have A LOT more people. But we share the common problem. 

How to integrate the modern material of plastic into our lives, stores, and communities without degrading our environment?

I should have written more notes about the inside of this man's house. I've forgotten his name! Unfortunately, I wasn't doing a lot of writing, or typing at the time. Such activities were more easily pursued by my sturdier sea-legged crew. However, I did have a camera. All the work you see in the following pictures was burned into the wooden walls by hand and then painted over. 

Alexander Selkirk. The story, as I understand it, is that he was on a HMS ship from England that he found less than sea-worthy. He didn't like the cruel, intolerant nature of its captain and argued about the captain's incompetence to his face. Selkirk then asked to be let off on the island. 

The captain complied. They sailed away without him as Alexander Selkirk waved his arms at the last minute, shouting to come back, that he had changed his mind. The story goes that they heard him, and did not turn back. 

Lucky for him that they didn't. The ship sank. And Alexander spent 4 years and some days roaming the hills, hobbling goats so that he could catch them easier, building a shelter, and loosing his ability to speak. When the next ship arrived that rescued him, he looked like a wild man in a loin cloth, beard hair hiding much of his face, and mute....for awhile anyway. 

The Spanish claimed the Juan Fernandez Island chain of which Robinson Crusoe is a part. Their rusted shut cannons still cover many waterfronts dotting the coastline of Chile and its surrounding islands. Whether or not Selkirk inhabited this one or the next island that we would sail past that is named for him is not as important as the story of this man that blankets the entire region. 

After a few hours weaving up and down the streets, and feeling solid ground sway beneath my feet I prepared to re-board the Sea Dragon. 

How had these men managed to sail away from their homelands for years at a time with no guarantee that they would return home? 
Many didn't. 
And Alexander, what went through his mind as he watched his captain pull away? 

The Sea Dragon was safely anchored in front of me. 
And I had a motorized dinghy waiting to take me there. 

Friday, May 20, 2011

At least March 27th

It was  right after lunch on the first day that I went to "lie down" and did not come back up to see the bright, beautiful day from my bunk for about 3 days. I should formally apologize to Garen here. I killed his hat by filling it with....lunch. He came down to check on me. I asked for his hat. He looked confused and well, the rest of the time I managed to have plastic bags at my disposal. 

I have never been so happy to be gripping one of those. In fact, it is very hard to escape plastic packaging on a boat when you need to store food for long periods of time. 

Turns out, there had been a whole lot of life going on while I was rolling around in my bunk. Enough meals to wash the dish towels...enough shifts without my help that I really owed Ben and Charlie (my shift mates) a few snacks at 4 a.m. to make up for it. 

And of course, a BIG thank you to Garen for taking care of me while I was "under the weather."

Let me explain shifts. 
There were 13 people on the Sea Dragon. 
We were broken into 3 "watches" of 3-4 people who rotated through the following shifts:

8 AM - 2 PM - responsible for steering the boat, lunch and cleaning the bathrooms, walls and floors, bumping the tanks that hold the water from showers, and writing in the log book ever hour

2 PM - 8 PM - responsible for cleaning up after lunch, steering the boat, making dinner for the crew and writing in the log book ever hour

8 PM - 12 AM - responsible for cleaning up after dinner, steering the boat and writing in the log book every hour

12 AM - 4 AM -  steering the boat and writing in the log book every hour

4 AM - 8 AM -  steering the boat and writing in the log book every hour

Here is how you rotate through the shifts. 

8 AM - 2 PM - on watch 
2 PM - 8 PM - off watch
8 PM - 12 AM - off watch 
12 AM - 4 AM - on watch
4 AM - 8 AM - off watch
8 AM - 2 PM - off watch
2 PM - 8 PM - on watch 

and so on.....

What you do when you are "off watch" - sleep.

We sailed on toward the South Pacific Gyre while we got into the rhythm of life on the boat. Our daily schedule was as striped down as the blue horizon in front of us. Both beautiful, sparse and new to us.

I relished the view on top of the Sea Dragon....

from my new vantage point at the steering wheel. It felt good to pull my weight on watch. There were plenty of adventures waiting for us, but feeling my feet on the deck was the start of mine. 

Thursday, May 19, 2011

March 24 - Bon Voyage Valdivia

Hello to all of the people who may have been waiting patiently to read my account of our research expedition with 5 Gyres, and hello to anyone who may be finding The Daily Ocean for the first time. 
I will be rolling out my acocunt of our trip that started in Valdivia, Chile and ended in Papeete, Tahiti about two weeks ago. We have been home since last Saturday.

Due to my sea sickness on the boat, the limited internet access I came across time and again on our journey, and my desire to fully experience the landscape of our adventure, I decided to recount our tale for you in retrospect. I hope you look forward to following along. I know I am excited to tell the tale. Enjoy and please comment away if you have questions or the like. 


This is the boat docked behind us. Bano is the word in spanish for bathroom and cocina the word for kitchen. I had no idea now much I would miss a stable room for each as we boarded the Sea Dragon on a beautiful sunny morning in late March. 

Not to mention the fact that we had to climb aboard with a monster! The Bag Monster to be specific! Please go to Chico Bag's Facebook Page and show your support. They are being sued by the plastics industry and your show of support would mean a lot to them right now. More on this topic in a post all its own.

Another member of our intrepid crew was Ben Lear. He wrote a folk opera about "The Great Pacific Garbage Patch." You can catch a live show near you soon if you live in the LA or NYC area. I encourage you to check him out. He is a soulful performer with a voice like Ben Gibbard and Neil Young.

You may recognize this guy. He is my husband Garen Baghdasarian who committed the last 16 months to fundraising, grant writing, time-off-taking, and research brainstorming to join our voyage. I am forever grateful that we shared this experience together. 

Paula is from Argentinia and writes for Treehugger. She is beautiful, grounded, smart as hell, and one cool person. What fun to have her aboard!

I'll take you on a quick tour. 

As you carefully walk backwards down the stairs of the boat to go underneath....

you pass the "nav station" or navigational area which looked like the cockpit of a space shuttle to me for longer than I would like to admit. 

Here we have the galley where most sailors with their sea legs got to read, type on a computer, and generally hang out if not on watch.

This is the lab that Garen worked in after taking the readings and water samples he needed from the ocean. It also doubled as a food overflow storage area. Hey, with such limited space you have to get creative. 

Our bunk. But imagine it on an angle of about 45% to be more accurately represented. 

Garen, and my vote for "most valuable crew member" Charlie from Scotland as they put together Garen's CTD (measures data like salinity, temp. and ph) in the forpeat before it got buried in sails and such. 

2 bathrooms. 14 people. Constant movement. You do the imagining. 

I had no idea that I was not going to set foot for at least three days behind the stearing wheel of our 47 ton, steel hulled home due to sea sickness when we left port on that sunny day. And I had no idea that I would go from scared out of my mind to steer, to at times shockingly slack about the post of driver. One illustration of my hard earned level of comfort to come was that you could routinely find us stearing with our feet at dinner time if you were the shift on deck. 

More to come....and very soon!