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Keepin' the Sea Free of Debris!

At-Sea Detection: A Big Success for Malolo II, and We Take Stock

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This morning dawned cold but calm. Allan, Stephanie, and the back of Amanda demonstrate the weather in the photo below. The seas were not half bad for viewing debris. While chatting with the UAS guys on the deck, our Chief Scientist, Kyle, saw 3 or 4 buoys before breakfast. Unfortunately, we didn’t see much more once we started up observations at 8am. Kelly commented that it felt like Groundhog Day – every morning we wake up sure that we’ll hit pay dirt, scan our eyes out, and come up with just a few buoys and plastic pieces. There’s an awful lot of ocean in between the debris!

After lunch, the small boats were launched and the Malolo II was ready to fly. Anticipation was high after yesterday’s somewhat disappointing showing, when an overheating controller part shortened all of the flights to about 10 minutes or less. Tim, Mike, and Curtis worked hard over night to rearrange the parts and got that problem cleared up. After just one short maiden flight yesterday, the Malolo II made two flights of about 50 minutes each. That was great news!

As the afternoon progressed, the winds picked up—between the swell and the whitecaps, we had a tough time picking out buoys and floats. The Big Eyes crew was trying to spot debris for the foursome in the Avon to pick up. We were able to point them to a couple buoys, but they had at least as much success just happening upon debris.

At one point, they threw a piece of net back into the water, radioed us on the flying bridge, and asked one of our most seasoned spotters, Amanda, if she could see it. No go. Without something like a float that sticks up above the water surface, most of us agree that the Big Eyes won’t be much help, particularly with moderate or big swells, whitecaps, and overcast skies. Kyle assures us that these sea conditions are better than usual in this area. If that’s the case, I can’t help thinking that we need to adjust our protocols.

I think we went into this cruise with a variety of expectations; some of us were thinking this was primarily a test, while others hoped or thought we were ready to do debris removal operations. The truth might lie somewhere in between. It’s a big ocean, and no one has done this before.

We have the DELI maps and the in situ oceanographic measures that we think will show us where debris should converge. How dense, how reliable, how patchy is that convergence? Evan, our oceanographer-in-residence, is working with the marine debris folks on devising measurements and ship’s routes to pin down the location of the convergent front.

We have the UAS with video feeds and anomaly detection software. How well will it work in its first large-scale test? There are a lot of on-the-fly modifications being made, and each day sees a major advance. Are five more days enough to really put the UAS into debris-spotting operations?

For the Big Eyes, we have an eager team, experienced leadership, and protocols borrowed from mammal observation cruises. How well do the protocols work for debris, which acts quite differently than mammals do? Allan, our leader, has tweaked our tally sheets almost daily and stayed up most of the night trying to determine where we’ve spotted the most debris and which set of “eyes” is most successful under various conditions of sea state and ship movement.

I think that with the open and creative minds of the various teams, we can make the most out of whatever the seas bring us for our remaining days—developing protocols, testing our ability to find debris with various methods, testing the oceanographic parameters’ ability to point us toward debris concentrations. The officers and crew of the SETTE have been flexible enough to allow us to modify the plans when they’re not working. Our cruise track was never written in stone—now it’s practically written in water, as we regroup and figure out a new approach to finding “pay dirt.” I’m excited to be working with a group that’s willing to improvise to get the most out of our time at sea. Of course, it wouldn’t hurt to come across a mother lode of nets, either.


Author: NOAA Marine Debris Program

The NOAA Marine Debris Program envisions the global ocean and its coasts, users, and inhabitants free from the impacts of marine debris. Our mission is to investigate and solve the problems that stem from marine debris, in order to protect and conserve our nation's marine environment, natural resources, industries, economy, and people.

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