LIFE Onboard Sea Dragon
OGL scientist, Timery DeBoer, at the helm of Sea Dragon. Everyone aboard is part of the crew!
The 5-day voyage on the Sea Dragon was my first on a sailboat. That may seem odd for a marine biologist, but understand that I've spent most of my time studying coral reef critters located near shore, and participating in collection trips based from shore or small fishing boats. So for me, pretty much everything about the Sea Dragon was an opportunity to learn. Thankfully, Captain Eric Loss and First Mate Shanley McEntee were happy to teach! The first thing I learned was that everyone onboard is part of the crew. This means that we participated in all aspects of sailing the vessel, cleaning, cooking, and standing watch, all while continuing to do whatever science we had come onboard to do.
Sea Dragon at dock; the vessel is operated by Pangaea Exploration. (Top, right) Navigation instruments below deck. (Bottom, right) Small but comfortable sleeping quarters on board.
My first watch shift was from midnight to 4am that first night. Luckily, as a mother of 2 very young children, I am well-trained to work in rough conditions at odd hours of the night. On deck it was chilly and windy. Not to worry, the Sea Dragon
is equipped with excellent foul weather gear. Our 4-person watch crew donned their "foulies" and we headed on deck. The first order of business was to deploy a vertical plankton tow for Robbie Smith, Curator at the Bermuda Aquarium Museum & Zoo. Shanley asked me to ease off the line on the bow to get the gear into position off the side of the deck, but about 20 seconds on the bow was enough to send me running with seasickness. (Apparently I need about 24 hours onboard to get my sea legs.) Happily, I could still help from the more stable "snake pit" in the middle of Sea Dragon
. The plankton tow was a success and the rest of the watch passed quickly. The crew continued to rotate in 4 "on" / 8 "off" shifts to adjust sails, cook meals, clean the galley and heads, log our progress, and stand watch. By the end of our voyage, we were operating like a well-oiled machine.
See photos and videos of Sea Dragon on Pangaea Exploration's website
SCIENCE Onboard Sea Dragon
Our crew included a diverse group, interested in nearly every aspect of the Sargasso Sea from the wonderful organisms living there (seabirds, Sargassum crabs & fish, and plankton) to the not-so-wonderful plastic debris that also accumulates in the area. Below are just a few highlights from the group.
Carolynn Box was working for 5 Gyres Institute, a non-profit organization on a mission to end plastic pollution by researching and documenting its accumulation in the global ocean. The problem, as they define it, is that plastics are made to last forever and are designed to be thrown away. While some plastics are recycled and reused, the majority are buried in landfills or lost in the environment as pollution. Plastic never really disappears from the ocean; instead it breaks into smaller and smaller fragments that can be ingested by all sorts of marine organisms. Ocean circulation via currents, together with wind and the earth's rotation, creates "gyres", or slowly rotating whirlpools in which plastic debris accumulates. The Sargasso Sea with its unique biodiversity is located in the North Atlantic Gyre. Twice daily Carolynn wrestled a manta trawl into and out of the water as part of an effort to collect, categorize, and document plastic debris on our voyage. Read Carolynn's blog about the voyage.
(Top, Left) Manta trawl dragged at the surface to sample floating plastic debris. (Right) Carolynn Box and Captain Eric Loss examine the trawl bag. (Bottom, Left) Plastic fragments collected during a single trawl through the Sargasso Sea. (Photos from photographer and expedition participant Ian Macdonald-Smith)
University of Connecticut Ph.D. students Brandon Russell and Eric Heupel were onboard Sea Dragon for very different reasons. They collected broad spectrum images of Sargassum-associated crabs in an effort to understand how organisms camouflage themselves in this unique environment. Can you spot the crab hiding among the Sargassum in the photo below???
A Sargassum crab, Planes minutus, hidden among the Gulfweed (credit: Ian Macdonald-Smith).
Robbie Smith, Curator at the Bermuda Museum, Aquarium, and Zoo, served as Chief Scientist on the voyage. Under his direction the "crew" worked as a team to net patches of Sargassum using glorified pool nets while hanging off the side of Sea Dragon. (Don't worry mom, we were tethered to the boat.) Robbie sorted out and identified all critters to catalog and document Sargassum biodiversity with a sub-set preserved for genomic archival at Ocean Genome Legacy. In total, OGL scientists archived 259 tissue samples representing 74 near-shore and pelagic Sargassum-associated species. Combined with previous collection efforts in Bermuda, a total of 138 species from the Sargasso Sea are represented in the biorepository!
At left, Timery DeBoer (OGL) and Robbie Smith (BAMZ) sort out animals collected in a Sargassum clump, preserved at right (credit: Ian Macdonald-Smith).
Prior to the Sea Dragon Expedition, Dan Distel (OGL Director), Robbie O'Connor (OGL Researcher), and Wolfgang Sterrer (OGL Board Member) participated in several near-shore collections to broadly sample Bermuda's marine biodiversity. Wolfgang led each collection effort (top left photo below) and, yes, the water and sky really are that beautiful in Bermuda! Collecting on snorkel goes quickly; animals awaiting processing are temporarily sorted in buckets on ship with labels indicating their scientific name and other important information (bottom, left photo). Robbie O'Connor collected small tissue biopsies from each organism for later processing in OGL's laboratory, while Dan Distel carefully documented each specimen with multiple images. Genomic samples from this collection are already available through OGL's online catalog (Quick search: Bermuda).
|(Top) From left, Dan Distel, Steve Davis, Robbie O'Connor, Wolfgang Sterrer, and Lisa Greene prepare to get into the water with a quick briefing. (Bottom, left) Collected organisms temporarily await processing in buckets on ship. (Right) Robbie O'Connor prepares to collect a small tissue biopsy while Dan Distel takes specimen photos to serve as e-vouchers. (Photos: Ian Macdonald-Smith) |
Additional trip and research highlights will be posted on the Bermuda Alliance for the Sargasso Sea (BASS) website soon.