Thursday, January 31, 2008

Day 10 – back on the bronco!

Our noon position: Latitude: 32 46.18 North, Longitude 170 03.41 West

It occurred to me last night that reveling in our good weather was a dangerous display of hubris, particularly with respect to something as unpredictable as the sea.

Skies are clear and sunny, but we were slamming along, receiving the ripples from a hurricane force low-pressure zone, far enough away for comfort, but noticeable nonetheless. Yesterday’s wildly celebratory mood has been considerably quieter, as crew retreated to their cabins, feeling the effects.

The afternoon lull was broken up by another sighting of a tangled rope mass. We dropped our drogue (an anchored buoy to mark our spot), and quickly lowered our sails as Joel and Jeff suited up with dive gear. Relocating piece of debris, with strong currents and winds blowing from all directions, has a needle in a haystick-like quality at times, but we managed to navigate back and find the floating culprit.

Though not as populated as our last rope mass, there was still a mini-ecosystem living underneath. The photo above shows a few pelagic fish hiding in the knots, and as we pulled the rope on board, dozens of fish and crabs came scuttling out. We scooped them up by hand and threw them in a mini aquarium, to observe and photograph before releasing them – here’s a close up of a crab. Can anyone out there ID this guy?

Plankton migration

Yesterday, we mentioned the huge difference between our samples from the morning and late afternoon/early evening. Our morning samples were mostly plastic fragments and some interesting ocean critters. The photo here shows one of our morning samples, with a mass of fish eggs entwined in some plastic fishing line. These eggs are a favorite food of the Black footed albatross and many of their boluses containing regurgitated fishing line can be found on Tern Island. Our evening sample resembled a gelatinous, orange-pink tinged mass, about the size of a baseball. This gooey mass is made up zooplankton, tiny, filter feeding organisms, coming up to the surface to feed.

During the day, millions of phytoplankton on the oceans surface convert solar energy into food, through photosynthesis. These Phytoplankton account for 98% of the oceans total biological productivity! As soon as the sun goes down, masses of zooplankton swim to the surface to feed on the phytoplankton, returning to the oceans depths at the first hint of sunrise.

This massive vertical migration happens across the entire ocean, every day -- the largest daily migration of any living organisms.

And now, to answer a few questions from the last few days...

First, there was some concern expressed about the location of fishing activities while in the vicinity of the Marine National Monument. Don't worry! Any fishing aboard the ORV Alguita has been well outside the boundaries of the NWHI-MNM. As a research vessel with a conservation ethic as its core, the Alguita respects all legal boundaries set by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and is well aware of the 50 nautical mile limit surrounding the Marine National Monument. We have on board Joel Paschal, a former NOAA marine debris removal diver very familiar with the NWHI-MNM and its legal boundaries, and made sure to verify the 50-mile limit with Joel. In any event, all of us on board were pleased to note that people were not only reading our blog, but paying attention to details, and responding immediately. Thank you for your concern, it is cool to see that people are so on it!

A concerned family member wanted to know if it’s safe for us to be eating fish out here in the midst of this plastic soup. An excellent question hermanita mia, and a great opportunity to bring up a few points: First, the truth is we don’t really know for sure. There hasn’t yet been enough research about chemicals from plastic’s potential impact on living organisms, i.e. do the pollutants attracted by plastic particles in turn migrate into the organisms consuming them?

I hear the question loud and clear however – all this discussion about the appalling amounts of debris were seeing here, followed up with daily recounts of our fresh fish feasts. We haven’t caught any fish in the gyre (the Ono and Mahi-Mahi were both en route) other than a couple small rudderfish lurking under rope debris, and a Kamikaze flying fish that landed itself on our bow the other morning. Both of these were very small fish – the smaller fish are generally much safer to eat from a human health perspective, due to a process called bioaccumulation: pollutants become increasingly more concentrated as they work their way up the food chain. So the bigger the fish, the more likelihood of it having eaten smaller, contaminated fish, and absorbing the sum total of their toxins. Which is why you hear about mercury warnings with big fish like Tuna or Swordfish. So as circuitous as that answer was, we’re probably way safer eating the small fish that we have out here than having sushi in Los Angeles.

Your safest bet: feast on minnows.

Jeff’s father wanted to know if we can post our projected course and/or way points. We rely on our daily weather faxes to plot our specific course – for example, the way the high has been compressed by the lows approaching from the east changed today’s course slightly .

Kent, we love your comments by the way! Great to have your support.

Were now 2566 nautical miles from home. Further away than when we began our journey back in Hilo…

Tomorrow looks like it’ll be smooth, calm, and perfect again – perhaps the day for our much talked of fiesta day, needed by crew and Captain alike!

Aloha from the Captain and crew of ORV Alguita!


Sr. Chief said...

Thanks for the feedback on how you plan your courses. I track your overall course progress on a small scale Pacific Ocean chart #530. Tell Jeff we got his e-mail and it made his Mom and I smile. The blog is great for us to stay connected, even if it is 3rd party. We can hardly wait to hear what you are finding and what the latest plans are. On a different note: Jeff will be proud that his "old man" managed to reformat his crashed laptop and get it back on line in one day. Jeff is still faster but; his "old man" still gets the job done. Your comments about the sea reminds me that the first lesson we taught Jeff about surfing was never turn your back on her. She gets cross when ignored or taken for granted. Stay safe out there.

Miriam Goldstein said...

Are you planning to do any sampling at night? It might be really interesting to look at gut contents in some of the bigger zooplankton predators (like myctophids) to see if plastic particles are going up the food chain and down to the deep sea.

: : Tim Harvey : : said...

Very educational, and engaging. I'm scanning the blog now for a better understanding of the costs and benefits of the FAD phenomenon. Clearly these are pernicious points at which plastics enter the food chain, as the fishing-line-laced albatross boluses attest, but insofar as they harbour life, could we not say that on the short term, some heaps of plastic debris actually stimulate biological productivity in the oceans? I suppose the answer is that the short term has very little significance in the greater scheme of oceanic time!

Great to know you're out there, Anna,and with such a great crew. Keep it up, all, and many thanks for doing this.