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Latest Expedition Journal

October 13:  Day 11

Pretty Cool Stuff that We’re Super Excited About

I have set out with pen in hand to describe the people who are part of Team Plastics.  On the surface we are more different than alike, but we are bound together by our common experiences at SEA, some recent and some decades old, but all still vivid in our memories. In addition, we carry knives, all the time, everywhere.  And we have found that fashion rules don’t apply at sea.  When we head on deck at 0300 for dawn watch, anything goes if it will keep us warm and dry.

Otherwise, we are a diverse group of scientists, artists, teachers, a doctor, lawyer and a couple stay-at-home moms.  We have a recently returned Peace Corps volunteer among us, a former dog sledder, a grandmother who discovered she loved to climb rigging, then left her desk job of 28 years, acquired tasteful tattoos and became an expert seaman and first mate.  How can this group of 38 people, most of whom had never met before but who are quickly becoming very fond of each other, be described? 

I was walking through the salon on a recent evening with this question running through my mind.  Dinner was over, tables were cleared, and off-watch crew had mustered to talk, play music and write in journals.  There was the answer in a smile, a great big, ear-to-ear smile.  It was the kind of smile that radiates excitement, enthusiasm and pure joy, and Greg Boyd, SEA research assistant, was wearing it.  Next to Greg was the source of his joy, a Petri dish with glow-in-the-dark bacteria.  He cultured the bacteria from a fecal pellet found in the rectum of a yellow-fin tuna that had been caught, studied and eaten.  Apparently, this isn’t just any bioluminescent bacteria but may have important scientific implications.  The Petri dish culture now holds a place of honor, dangling underneath the disco ball in science lab for all to admire.

The bacteria discovery is exciting, but it is the smile that connects the people who make up Team Plastics.  My shipmates have terrific, enthusiastic, gung-ho attitudes.  Conversations are peppered with “awesome,” “pretty amazing” and “epic.”  They have a palpable curiosity, a hunger for knowledge and an unabashed appreciation of the world.

I asked Madelyn Soldner-Sullivan from C Watch about her favorite things.  The list is very long.  It includes surfing, survival skills, machetes and pretty dresses, but tops on Madelyn’s list is learning new things.  Tom Klodenski is chief engineer aboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans.  If he’s not deep in the belly of the ship maintaining the engine, generators, watermakers or refrigeration system, he’s probably on deck playing really good banjo.  He loves his job, he told me, because, “you can learn as much as you want.”  He says he has the chance to take time and learn in a way that makes sense.  Tom is eager to discuss refrigeration with anyone interested.  Jonathan Waterman, our photographer and journalist, says, “I love searching for beauty through the lens.”  He finds beauty where others wouldn’t think to look—the fuzzy leg warmers of a sailor, two coffee mugs talking to each other, synchronized squeegeeing of floors on Saturday cleanup or field day.  “It’s a great quest,” he told me, “to find a photo that will make people smile.”

Also on Team Plastics is head steward and recent college graduate, Shelby Mann, aka Cookie. She’s up for any culinary challenge.  A request for cookies in the shape of copepods (tiny, shrimp-like animals that are a common catch in our neuston tows)?  No problem!  Pita bread and bagels back to back?  “It’s ambitious, but I’m up for the challenge!” Cookie says she “loves making food because it makes people so happy.”

We have Pat Keoughan who recently retired after 40 years of teaching.  She brings out smiles on board as the sole member of the pepper-grinder rhythm section in jam sessions, or at the wheel of the Seamans:  “It’s such a lovely day to be at the helm!”  Pat is fielding questions about this expedition from school children around the country.  She loves the thrill of teaching, the eureka moments (The sun is a star??!!).  Pat says, with some sadness, that kids used to have more wonder and curiosity.  She has seen this diminish, and she has seen kids get less enthusiastic about learning.  She hopes that this expedition helps inspire students and gets them excited about learning more about the world.

Team Plastics has every reason to be enthusiastic.  I asked Tyson Bottenus, who is a fisheries researcher, writer, sail instructor and seasonal pedicab driver, why he was always smiling.  He said he was just happy to be here.  We’re sailing in the middle of the Pacific Ocean amongst wonderful company.  We are learning new things.  We are contributing to the knowledge of plastics at sea and hope to be part of the solution.  We are part of a totally awesome, epic, scientific expedition.

There is a secret we’d like to share with kids who are following our blog—you don’t need to be part of an amazing expedition in a faraway place to get excited about life.  Kristen Mitchell found adventure on family camping trips growing up.  Now she has just finished her PhD dissertation on marine biogeochemical cycling of selenium isotopes.  Zora McGinnis mucked around in salt marshes and messed about in boats near her home in Nova Scotia when she was younger.  Now she is doing graduate research involving visual surveys of plastic in the gyre and plastic in the digestive systems of fish.  Chrissy Dykeman loved to explore the pond near her house when she was a child.  Chrissy’s mother was kind enough to let her fill the bathtub with purple loosestrife and the caterpillars that fed on it so she could watch them turn into moths.  She is now a Sea Education Association assistant scientist with a special fondness for zooplankton.  There are great discoveries to be made in your own backyard.  You just have to look for them.  Greg Boyd says of his bacteria discovery: “It’s pretty cool stuff and I’m super excited about it!”  Go ahead and find your own pretty cool discoveries.