SEA Currents: Corwith Cramer
April 28, 2018
The Daily Life of a Plastic Plucker
26o 26.7’N, 068o 20.9’ W
Course & Speed
90o T / 5.4 knots
Four lowers (forestays’l, jib, mainstays’l, mains’l)
Overcast, strong and steady winds
After days of stifling temperatures, lazy winds, and glassy seas, Cramer and her crew had an exciting reality check and change of pace last night. Scattered, localized rainstorms merged together around 2000 yesterday (not on my watch!) and resulted in squall conditions overnight, with pouring rain, major swells, and pushy winds. Led by the ever-intrepid B and C watches, who clipped in and foulie-d up during the night and dawn shifts, we rode through the storm, racking up miles under the powerful winds. The motors are off today; the skies have cleared to a mercifully shady overcast grey that nearly matches the steely blue of the ocean. Frequent whitecaps fleck the waves and break up the surface, making what can be a startlingly expansive 360 degree plane of water a bit more alive and playful. We're pacing along on a broad reach to the southerly winds, trying to cover as much ground as we can east towards Bermuda before the trade winds start to kick back in.
I have started to forget what it's like to not live in a space where the walls don't lean in to say hello once in a while or where you can lean over the table without covering your dining mates with the contents of their, and everyone else's, dinner plates. The Corwith Cramer is opening up a bit for its inhabitants, and is beginning to feel as comfortable and lived-in as a tall ship packed to the brim with students, staff, and scientific gear can
be. Unfortunately with the breaking-in process of getting used to life at sea comes the unwanted consequence of messes, dirt and grime.
In response to this reality, we took part in Field Day, our first significant departure from the 18-hour monotony of life on watch. With no fields to be found other than a passing raft of Sargassum, we settled for what the crew told us would be the next best thing to a nice game of kickball or whatever it is we used to do with that weird parachute in PE class; we cleaned the entire ship. Life at sea isn't all the red beanies (or stocking caps I guess, Mom) and pirate shanties it's cracked up to be, but the break in routine was oddly welcome despite keeping my pre-dawn watch nap time to a severe minimum. The mates and scientists also did a phenomenal time keeping the occasion lighthearted and as fun as cleaning a tall ship can be, complete with costumes and hastily-rehearsed acting.
Our deck watches have become much quicker and less overwhelming. Now that we know our lines and some typical sail handling maneuvers a bit better, there's much more time for more learning more technical skills like celestial navigation or sometimes just getting to know the members of our watches better as we do our daily tasks. Science watches have been fairly similar. We're starting to move into greater leadership roles on the science deck and in lab, helping to plan the day's samples and deployments, organize the data, crunch the numbers, and manage a ship's worth of cutting-edge scientific gear. I got the chance to call the commands on a wire deployment today, directing the crew on deck through one of the more technical scientific operations we perform and one that is most vital to the microbial community work my research group and I are doing.
With our move into the South Sargasso Sea, the lab has been hectic. Our regular half hour neuston tows, which typically sample about a one meter by one nautical mile strip of the ocean surface, have been turning up upwards of 1000 fragments of Sargassum, which we get the distinct and hand-staining pleasure of identifying, counting, and weighing one by one. The only thing more overwhelming and, at times, demoralizing than the amount of Sargassum we have been finding is the amount of tiny shards and fibers of plastics that pile up with it. When we first pull in the neuston boom, we can begin to identify the glassy leptocephali larvae, bulbous Sargassum toadfish, and aquamarine copepods, and the chunky volume of Sargassum we've inevitably pulled up. But tragedy hits when the sample gets into the lab for processing, as we begin to pull out and count each tiny piece of plastic with tweezers for collection in SEA Semester's long term datasets. One neuston tow brought in more than 1500 pieces of plastic, clinging to the Sargassum and floating amidst the zooplankton.
On such a small vessel, I find myself feeling very isolated out on the open ocean. I was earnestly surprised for a second when Captain had to step out for a daily satellite call with the office, forgetting that we had any ability to still communicate with the outside world. I find myself facing that reality in a very sobering way each time we pull up a sampling bucket that invariably has a higher diversity of plastic colors, shapes, and types
than macro-organisms in the aquatic desert of the Sargasso Sea. I'll freely admit that I would appreciate a reminder of home or at least shore, but slowly degrading shards of litter are not exactly what I had in mind. The Sargasso Sea is a region that has captivated adventurers and scientists alike since before Columbus as a place of mystery, adventure, and discovery. At the same time, though, it's always in flux- clumps of Sargassum drift and live and die on the currents, storms spring up, wind patterns change. The plastic we've put here and in other gyres in the ocean is more eternal; it's unclear if it will ever truly leave the environment, leaving it to lazily circulate through this ecosystem- precariously poised within an oceanic desert- for long after its short term usability for the people who put it here. If a place is defined by not only geographic location but by an
element of time and extensive duration, then the ubiquity of plastic is changing the Sargasso Sea from its traditional definition as a wild, incomprehensible, and natural place to a place inundated in and shaped by human influence.
I hope that this doesn't give off the wrong impression- I love life at sea. It's incredible to know that we're breaking new ground in our scientific understanding of this ecosystem. Just scratching the surface of learning to sail a tall ship has buoyed my sense of adventure higher than even the squall swells last night. I was absolutely giddy yesterday about how cool it was shooting my first sun line with the sextant; I almost had to beg Ryan, A Watch's mate, to let me go do the math to see how I did. I have just found myself appalled and somewhat motivated knowing how much of an impact people have had even so far out to sea. Keep in mind what you're consuming, y'all. Find a reusable water bottle or maybe a mason jar. Get yourself a tote bag. Make friends with your local baker or something; it'll be fun! I want to come back here someday and not see any of our plastic mixed in here too.
Fair winds and clean seas,
- Geoffrey Gill
P.S. Mom- I've been keeping up with the folk tunes on the ship. Dad- I'm still not a lawyer yet. Proud to carry the Gill family marine bio trend out to sea. Mary Ann- I hope the new apartment is much cozier than my little bunk here, but I think I've got you beat on location.