NOAA's Marine Debris Blog

Keepin' the Sea Free of Debris!

At-Sea Detection: We Tag a Big One!

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Well, let’s just say last night was a challenge. I didn’t hear of anyone actually falling out of their bunk, but I was definitely wedged in. Not that I slept many minutes in a row, since the crash of the bow on a rising swell every 10 or so minutes sent the anchor that was apparently stowed right under my pillow clanging around its cubbyhole. The desk chair swiveled all night long, thankfully without noise. Others reported their pet peeve noises – a drawer that disengaged just a little with every roll, a chain on deck clanking, a curtain opening and closing. And no, the seas didn’t miraculously calm down when we awoke. In a continuing effort to convey the ship’s movement, I give you this pair of photos that show the light mast position relative to the horizon as the ship moves up and over a swell. I tried to get a shot of the spray going over the bow, but my patience was not as great as the chill in my fingers.

In an earlier post, before we really got going, I said we’d be on the Big Eyes for 12 hours a day. In reality, given the greenness of most of the crew, seasickness, and sea conditions, we’ve really been working 8am to 4pm with a break for lunch. Now, though, since the seas are too rough and the winds too high for aircraft or small boat operations, there’s nothing to do but look for trash from the flying bridge. These rough seas, as you may have guessed, are not ideal for observing either, but in these conditions, the observations are the most “real” output of the cruise, and this Big Eyes crew is not about to let down our chief scientist! Not to be outdone in the gung-ho contest, Kyle’s small boat crew wanted in on the glory of observing in gale-force winds, so Allan and Kelly pulled together a human puzzle of Big Eye observers, recorders, independent observers, and so on. We implemented it beautifully starting shortly after sunrise this morning—we wondered if this little sunbeam was shining on the mother of all ghostnets.

The morning went well – here a buoy, there a plastic fragment, there a shoe sole. Then, at 9:45am, Robyn spotted it. Would you have? (Hint, it’s in the far left of the photo. To be fair, the resolution on this Web page may render it even more challenging.) I came up 5 or 10 minutes later, and the ship was turning around to get a closer look. At that time we still weren’t sure what it was – netting? tarp? big sheet of plastic? As we got closer, we were able to see that it was a hawser (a thick, strong rope used for mooring, anchoring, or towing a boat). An announcement came across the speakers for all parties involved in small boat operations to meet somewhere. We looked at one another in wonder – were they going to launch a small boat in this maelstrom? (OK, not really a maelstrom, but we did have 25-knot winds and swells of 6-8 feet pretty much all day.) Turns out they were planning to snag the hawser and winch it in to a point where they could attach a satellite drifter buoy to it. The unanimous feeling was that this particular piece of debris would be more valuable staying in the water and telling us where it moves than on board in the pink container. A tracking buoy can communicate its location for an indefinite period of time; it’s powered by solar panels. Some of the buoys that have been deployed have been communicating over two years. We hope to learn a lot from this one. You can track it at; pull down the list of satellites and go to the bottom to 15FXZ, with a starting date of 4/02/08.

All observing stopped at 10:30, or rather, the effort changed from the water to the deck. Here are a small sampling of the zillions of shots I took (can you sense the excitement?). First up, the mass of hawser in the water as we got closer to it.

Next up, a piece being winched onto the deck.

On the deck in this closeup, you may be able to distinguish barnacles and algae “fouling” the line. The amount of fouling can indicate how long a piece of debris has been in the water. This was actually fairly light fouling. Here’s a shot of Frank and Doug attaching the buoy. At one point, a wave washed up to Doug’s knees; he didn’t even flinch. The lightweights on the Big Eyes crew were suitably impressed.

Finally, after being winched back in the water, the hawser drifted away with its buoy intact. Hooray!

We saw more debris throughout the day, but nothing to compare with this one. At the end of the day, with our days at sea dwindling, we decided to start heading back west toward 158 longitude and north a bit more to about 36 degrees. Tomorrow the CTD folks will do more casts, between 36 and 35 degrees, finishing off their long line of measurements along 158 degrees. We’ll be observing along with them, hoping to find some debris to tag as well. After tomorrow, we may head south to better weather to allow more testing and operations with the UAS. As for the Big Eyes crew, we may trade off higher likelihood of debris against a better chance of actually spotting it and having a chance to reach it in calmer seas. And as much as we’ve risen to the challenge of pitching and rolling on the flying bridge, we probably won’t complain about milder seas and milder temperatures.


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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