Thursday, February 7, 2008

It’s a plankton eat plankton world

Our noon position: 36 02.186 North, 157 41.790 West

As we've said before, the ocean is always changing – gentle and mild one moment, raging the next - today was no exception. We began the day crawling along at 3-4 knots in a still, glassy sea, looking over our weather faxes and wondering when we’d catch the winds we’ve been chasing. By late afternoon we were screaming along at 9-10 knots, waves washing over the bow, and – and our Genoa halyard snapped. Oops. Here’s a picture of Herb, our ship doctor and veteran sailor, holding the busted halyard and shaking his head. Herb’s account of what happened:

“We were sailing with both our Main and Genoa sails up, when a “squall” (a little storm) caught up with us from behind. The winds increased, and our Genoa Halyard (the rope we use to haul our sail up to the top of the mast) broke right at the top – it was kinda crazy! ” Fortunately, we were able to get right back on track. Everyone put on their harnesses and lifejackets - waves and winds battering our boat – and after about an hour of hoisting, pulling, and shouting, we were underway again.

The other bit of excitement today was pulling up a very unusual, funky sample; unlike anything we’ve seen on this trip. For the last week or so, our sample descriptions have been so similar you all could probably write them yourselves: “a colorful plastic soup filled with debris fragments and an assortment of fascinating marine creatures.”

Today, we pulled up something entirely different – a MASS of purplish, gooey matter – this was the zooplankton we talked about a few days ago. Normally, we wash off our collection tubes and pour our samples out into a small glass bowl, to poke around a bit for interesting critters before storing them in a pint jar with formalin. But today’s sample was so abnormally large, we had to pour it in two big bowls, and store it in a jug. Above there is a picture of Captain Moore preparing the sample – you can see some of this zooplankton mass in the white bowl.

Why the huge change? We’d passed through an area called the Transition Zone Chlorophyll Front (TZCF), an area of the ocean where tons of phytoplankton thrive at the surface. These are the photosynthesizers mentioned earlier – tiny little plants that convert sunlight into energy for other creatures. Think of the TZCF as a huge, mobile marine grazing area, attracting a host of other creatures looking to feed. We noticed it when the water temperature reached 19 degrees celcius. The phytoplankton flourish here because there are many nutrients available, due to converging currents. And the zooplankton flock here to feast on the phytoplankton. It’s a plankton eat plankton world…

So today, we were trawling in the middle of this massive oceanic restaurant, which explains the bucket full of lavender Jell-O we pulled up. We did see some plastic fragments – a bottle cap and a few shards – but it was tough to see anything through the thick zooplankton layer.

We also noticed a flock of Albatross trailing our boat – not the usual 2 – 4, but more in the range of 10-12. It was interesting to note that other species are attracted to this biologically rich area…and all the more disappointing to find our trash in what should be these creatures natural feeding zone.

Tomorrow we will likely press on without stopping to sample. So we’ll have more time to answer any of your questions – we always love hearing from you!

Aloha and mil gracias from the Captain and Crew of ORV Alguita!


Clif said...

When I was a kid in school I read about baleen whales that filter the water for food. I would think that they, of all creatures, should be collectors of debris in the water. When whales beach or are killed, have the contents of their stomachs been examined for the kind of thing that you are finding? If the innards of seabirds can contain bottle caps, I can only imagine what a whale might ingest.

Hermanita de Anna said...

Hola crew. A group of Lennox Middle School students are doing their science project on your research! LOVED getting your e-mail Banan - a reply in the works. Keep up the good work!

lcander said...

What a fantastic couple of days you have had lately. I'm envious!
2 questions:
Why is the zooplankton mass gooey? AND what types of organisms are in it, mostly protistans?

Sr. Chief said...

Your findings are amazing to read about. I can hardly wait to hear about the analysis of your findings when you get in. You did not finish your story about the halyard. Do you have a spare and was it rigged and who went up the mast to run it through the sheeve?

Deter said...

Hi Guys,

Can't get over that albatross carcass being filled with plastic. It is somewhat reminiscent of the entombed found in Pompeii, where all that remains is that which led to their demise. Cheers, and keep away from that Mako...we all have an inner fish...and it doesn't want to get eaten!


Anonymous said...

Apart from checking that no companies throw plastics to the ocean (and fine the ones who do), do you think it's possible to use huge ships to recolect the plastics and clean a bit the ocean?

Thanks for bringing to us this interesting topic

From Spain :-)

Kaisa said...

Was the mass of zooplankton still alive? Did you throw them back in the ocean after you studied them?

West Lafayette High School
Grade 9