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Latest Expedition Journal

October 20:  Day 18

Posted by Zora McGinnis

Life as an "Other Other"

When I began the application process for this expedition, I had visions of my student trip and I began to reminisce about sail handling in squalls, hours spent contemplating life as lookout under the stars, a constant cycle of watches, disrupted sleep, and circulation between the lab, deck, galley and engine room.  I was excited.  I still had all this in mind when I proposed a personal research project for my master’s degree to take place during the cruise.  Luckily the science team organizing the trip quickly realized I was biting off more than I could chew.  There really was no way I could do my project and be expected to fulfill all my duties as a watch stander.  They shuffled things around so that I could be on deck observing during daylight hours and I was designated an “Other”, not standing watch and not part of the professional crew.

Now I am in constant project mode, not exactly what I had envisioned, but I am pushing through it.  As a part of my project for my master’s program at Hawaii Pacific University, I am conducting visual surveys for floating macroplastics (large plastic visible from the deck of the ship).  I do as many visual surveys as I can during daylight hours with my GPS, range finder (a tool I use to approximate the distance of a floating object), and binoculars at my side.  At times I get a break because we are hove-to (stopped) or moving so slowly that the same pieces cycle around me and there isn’t much point to counting.  I map our track through the water, dropping digital waypoints every time I spot something floating.  I record its color, estimated size, distance from the track line of our ship, as well as the time I spot it and its coordinates.  In the end, I hope to be able to estimate the amount of macroplastic our boat has passed during our cruise.  So far I’ve counted 791 objects large enough to be seen from deck (in calm weather I can see things less than 2 cm in size if they’re drifting near the boat) and the number is rising by the hour.

In tandem with this project, I am examining any fish I can get my hands on for plastic ingestion.  We are trailing fishing gear for the larger species like tuna, collecting myctophids and other small fish in the neuston tows, and attempting to find flying fish to collect with the dipnet.  Most of the dissection I am saving for the lab on land, but the few we have examined have turned up empty.  I hope to be able to compare the location and stomach contents of these fish with the plastics count to see if heavy concentrations of surface plastic correlate with plastics in the fish gut.  At the same time, I’m collecting samples for several collaborations.  These include a diet study involving stable isotopes in fish tissues, persistent organic pollutants (chemicals associated with plastic) in lower trophic species, and genetics work for flying fish.  Some of my visual data will be shared with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) who are currently modeling tsunami debris dispersal.
 
In the end I’m hoping to tie all of this work together using statistics.  I want to be able to correlate the amount of plastics I record with the concentration of plastic collected in the neuston net.  I expect that the microplastics from the neuston tows and macroplastics that I am observing will be closely related.  I also hypothesize that the numbers of plastic pieces I observe in fish will have a similar relationship with highly concentrated areas of plastics.  This information could prove useful for estimating the overall health of fish stocks in known high-density areas if plastic are affecting the health of prey fish, large commercial species, or their consumers higher up the food chain.

When I am not doing visual surveys, I am catching up on data entry.  One blessing about being an Other” is that I get relatively normal sleep as opposed to those on watch.  I did not have to face the pressure of the line chase (a game we play to see how well we know our nautical lines on the ship) but as a result, what little sail handling I’ve done has felt clumsy.  I don’t get to be assistant steward or engineer for a day.  It has been pretty strange not being a watch stander but instead being an “Other”—a title usually reserved for the engineers, stewards, and masters of the deck and lab.  But the six of us on board—Jon, Sabrina, and Matt from the media team; Pat, the education coordinator; Greg, the research assistant; and myself fall outside of this group, so Shelby, our steward, dubbed us the “Other Others”, and the name stuck.

I miss standing dawn watch and seeing the sun rise, I miss hauling on lines, and I miss doing deployments.  It’s a unique bonding experience sharing the trials and victories every watch brings to my shipmates; this time around, I am not really part of it.  It can get rather lonely at my solitary post on the bow.  But the things I have witnessed in my 45 hours of observation have been incredible.  I have seen albatross hunting, petrels circling the boat, flying fish skimming over the waves.  I watched a mahi mahi swim lazily beside us on a calm morning.  I have been the first to spot much of the larger debris we have documented or brought on board to study further.

It did not take long for A watch, who I muster with for emergency drills, to kindly adopt me.  They make music on the forward deck boxes, offer to bring me drinks, run errands for me when I’m stuck mid-transect, and notify me when the all-important morning snack arrives on deck.  They have forgiven my absence during dawn clean-ups and dish washing sessions.  Shipmates from the other watches regularly check in with me to find out my counts and to see if I’m retaining my sanity.  They have volunteered to help in any way they can, whether it’s to forgo sleep in order to help out at the so-far-unsuccessful midnight “flying fish flying circus,” or volunteer to give moral support when I finally brave climbing aloft.  I don’t think they realize how much I appreciate them.  I’m incredibly lucky to be sailing with such a talented, interesting, and funny crew.  Though by design, I must face the endless hours at staring into an unfortunately not-so-empty ocean solo, I could not be doing this without my shipboard family.