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Current position of the SSV Corwith Cramer. Click on the vessel to view position history. Use the layer tools, top right, to change the map style or to view data layers. Dates and times use GMT (Greenwich Mean Time).

SEA Currents: SSV Corwith Cramer

November 28, 2014

Plastic, plastic, and more plastic

Nick Dragone, A Watch, Marine Biological Laboratory

Colonization to Conservation in the Caribbean

Ship's Log

Noon Position
23° 04.0’ N X 39° 11.0’ W

Mid Atlantic Gyre

Ship Heading (degrees)
228° PCS

Ship Speed (knots)
6.0 knots (average)

Taffrail Log (nm)

Weather / Wind / Sail Plan (from 1300 Watch Change)
Wind NE x E at Force 4, 75% cloud cover. Sailing by and large with a single-reefed main, the main stays’l, the fore stays’l, and the fisherman.

Hello to all the readers of the C256 blog! This is Nick Dragone, one of the two visiting scientists on this= transatlantic crossing. I am onboard to work on a collaborative project studying the microbial communities living on marine plastic debris. After reading this blog post, I hope you will understand a little more about the collaborative ship-wide effort that is required every day to perform the research that I, Annie (my fellow visiting scientist), the students, and the faculty are conducting onboard.

It seems appropriate that I am writing the blog today, as we just collected 234 pieces of plastic in our neuston tow!  So far this voyage, we have not been finding much plastic at all, between 0-10 pieces per tow. To find 234 pieces was exciting. Well actually it was exciting and frustrating. It was exciting because my own research has been a little difficult to perform up until now, as I need plastic to carry out my procedure. It was frustrating because it means that we may be moving into an area of highly concentrated marine debris. 

For many years, the Sea Education Association has been monitoring the presence and distribution of this plastic debris in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. These marine plastics can be found throughout the world’s oceans but tend to concentrate in “gyres,” regions where currents and wind patterns converge. While it is easy to imagine a garbage dump in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, most of these plastic pieces are very small (

<5 cm) and float just below the surface of the water. From a ship, like the

Cramer, it may be impossible to see any of this debris at all. It is, however, possible to collect plastic from the surface of the ocean using a neuston net, a net that is towed across the surface of the ocean, which has been mentioned in previous blog posts. Sound simple? It is not. While the deployment of a net may not seem too difficult, it is actually a really cool effort that requires everyone onboard to work together in just the right way.

I have honestly never seen a scientific deployment that requires so much communication. Students in lab, supervised by an assistant scientist, set up, deploy, retrieve, process, and clean the nets. Those on deck have to keep the boat moving at 2 knots. Since the Cramer is a sailing vessel,  that typically means a large amount of sail handling is required to slow us down to 2 kts, and then speed us back up after the deployment is complete. This is all easier said than done.

Once the net is onboard, it takes many hours to process the entire sample. In lab every organism in the net gets counted, biomassed, and most are preserved for later work. All plastics are counted and measured for size. All pieces are kept in some way or another, either for SEA’s ongoing archives, for my work into microbial communities, for Annie’s research into harmful algal blooms, and for Jess work on the circulation of plastics on ocean currents.

Still doesn’t sound difficult? In a lab ashore this all would be very simple. However Cramer’s lab presents more of a challenge in one very important way.  You see, in a lab onshore the benches stay at one angle, and your equipment does not actively try to run away from you. Today, in 5 foot waves, it took me 5 minutes to pick up a piece of plastic with forceps because the piece was moving around in the bucket faster than many of the living organisms we also caught. A few days ago, while in 10 foot waves, I had a really hard time keeping my sample from spilling because it kept sliding away from me down the bench and because I kept falling over when the boat heeled over. Imagine how difficult college chemistry would have been if your lab was on a roller coaster, and you will have a pretty good picture of what we do. It has been a steep learning curve, adjusting to the wild ride that takes place in the Cramer lab every day, but I am spilling far fewer samples now than I was when we first set off.

Despite these complications, we persevere, adapt our procedures, and everything manages to work. More importantly I am having a whole lot of fun, and I am sure that everyone else is as well. A few final notes before I sign off. We saw two other ships today! As we are in the middle of the Atlantic this does not happen very often.  After almost two weeks with no sight of land, we are all managing to stay entertained. Finally, we are all very excited for Local Apparent Thanksgiving tomorrow! I am keeping my fingers crossed for Nina (our Steward) that the waves stay small tomorrow. While science on a boat in 10 foot waves is exciting, cooking Thanksgiving dinner in 10 foot waves is a miracle.

- Nick

Shoutouts: To family and friends back home, Happy Thanksgiving!! I hope you all are enjoying the holiday and I will see you over Christmas! Those in New England, enjoy the weather and snow. Bianca and Abby, I hope we are still on for skiing in Jan, super excited for it!!


Leave a public comment for students and crew to read when they reach their next port and have access to the internet!

#1. Posted by Dragone on December 03, 2014

Enjoyed the blog! Please keep them coming!



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