James Devoy on conducting citizen science on a yacht and why it is something anyone taking on a passage can engage with

The notion of conducting scientific research or citizen science on a yacht can sound intimidating. It conjures up images of experts in white coats, working in clinical laboratories. The idea that the average sailor can carry out meaningful experiments on a conventional yacht, without special equipment or giving up all their precious sailing time, might seem far-fetched.

However, with so many ‘citizen science’ projects appealing for volunteer sailors to help them gather data there are an increasing number of opportunities to embrace your inner marine biologist.

Given the relative difficulty of getting out to sea for any length of time and the enormous size of the world’s oceans it’s easy to see why marine scientists face particular challenges in collecting sufficient data, but this is where bluewater sailors may be able to help.

Changes in the ocean can have enormous effects on land, from weather patterns to food production to travel. When famed sailor and ARC founder Jimmy Cornell set out to update his book Cornell’s Ocean Atlas he was shocked by the changes to currents in the ocean that had occurred even in his own lifetime. He was moved to add the following to the introduction of the 2nd edition: ‘Sailors are far more aware of what’s happening out in the oceans, and don’t question that change is taking place, [they] just simply deal with it. And anyone who doesn’t believe it’s happening should just go out and sail the Northwest Passage.’

Cornell’s work has long included mapping changes that are occurring to the ocean environment and climate. To this end he reached out to several scientific organisations, and on his 2014 Aventura IV expedition participated in the Secchi Disk Foundation’s study.

The Secchi Disk Foundation’s study is a long-term citizen science project which has just entered its 10th year. The programme studies the density of phytoplankton in the world’s oceans, which are essential to every part of sea life as well as our own on earth.

Seawater samples being collected in the South Pacific. Photo: Amory Ross/Lines to Hawaii

Phytoplankton is responsible for the photosynthesis process which produces oxygen. It was a paper released in Nature magazine 12 years ago that showed the microscopic marine life’s numbers had declined by 40% that spurred former research fellow of the Royal Society, Dr Richard Kirby, to found the Secchi Disk study.

Long term project

“Phytoplankton is the grass of the sea,” explains Dr Kirby. “Not only does it give us the oxygen we breathe, it feeds giant whales, it feeds the fish that feed birds and seals, and the polar bears that feed on the seals. It’s a linchpin of the world’s ecosystem.”

He says that citizen science has many advantages over standard research methods. “It’s very hard to find funding for large research projects, especially if you need to hire a research vessel to go to the deep ocean.

Documented seawater samples to check on plastics contamination. Photo: Amory Ross/Lines to Hawaii

“On top of that it’s hard to find funding to return to the same place. When applying for a grant people are always looking for something new, but for many sailors it is normal to return to the same places again and again and so it’s a great resource for collecting data on the change in the environment in that location. Sailors that regularly make transatlantic crossings, for example, are a great resource.”

Golden Globe Race competitor Susie Goodall took a Secchi disk with her when she was making a transatlantic crossing in preparation for the race. She recalls: “About halfway across from Antigua the water very dramatically changed colour and the readings went from 50-60m down to 20m in the space of a couple of days – I then had marine life with me again.”

Sailors can also provide a valuable opportunity for scientists to collect data from less visited regions. Jimmy Cornell sailed with his daughter, Doina, on his high latitudes Aventura IV expedition. Doina explained: “Having read up on the objectives of the Secchi project we knew it was important to get readings, to help build a larger database, and had talked to Dr Kirby about how important it is to get sailors to participate who’d be going to remote parts of the world no one else would be visiting.

“We also knew there hadn’t been readings in the Arctic at that point,” she said.

Other opportunities

While the Secchi Disk Foundation is still welcoming volunteers, there are a wealth of other projects also looking for help from citizen scientist sailors. Oliver Beardon runs Sail Britain, a project that offers the opportunity to conduct experiments at sea aboard the project’s own Sigma 41 yacht, including studying microplastic pollution and tracking marine mammals.

Boomed out net collecting microplastics samples. Photo: Sail Britain

“Sailors have a privileged access to the sea, and can therefore much more easily and economically facilitate the collection of oceanographic and environmental data than research teams who may have to charter vessels at great expense. We’re out there all the time!” Beardon explains.

“Everyone can get involved with learning more about the ocean. If you have a boat and would like to contribute to marine citizen science, making contact with a research partner or team who needs the data you can collect is useful.”

He’s right, many research institutes or universities we spoke to confirmed that they’d jump at the chance to have sailors help collect data for them, so reaching out to the marine science department of your local university can be a great starting point.

Susie Goodall and a Secchi disk. Photo: Secchi Disk Foundation

In 2013 Paul Bennett and his wife, Lani, set off to circumnavigate the world with their three daughters. While looking for engaging educational projects suitable for three teenagers they got involved with several citizen science volunteer programmes, which gave the Bennetts a great opportunity to learn about marine science. The family contacted local marine science organisations wherever they lay anchor, adapting their route accordingly:

“We target it,” explained Paul, “After the first [project] we looked for ways to integrate it. Citizen science opens up all sorts of opportunities tied to the location.”

The Bennetts have engaged in really hands-on citizen science projects all over the world, from tagging whale sharks in Cape Radd in South Africa to helping rebuild coral reefs and testing water quality in the Malacca Strait in Indonesia.

Cleo Bennett, the middle daughter, has just finished high school on the boat and is taking a gap year to stay on board. They are currently moored in South Africa and she continues to volunteer at the local aquarium. She says her experiences with citizen science had changed her perspective on the ocean: “I think we’ve seen more dead coral reefs than live ones. And dead coral reefs aren’t the same as bleached, you can rescue bleached coral reefs, dead ones aren’t coming back.”

The Bennetts not only continue to build opportunities for citizen science into the syllabus for their own children’s schooling, but started a business connecting online tutors with parents who want to teach their kids remotely and incorporate project and volunteer work.

“Raising three teens on a boat while sailing around the world has been challenging, especially when it comes to school. Cicero (cicerolearning.com), which is the company we just started to help boat schoolers like ourselves find and hire private teachers, does a lot of project-based learning programs, which often have a citizen science or volunteer aspect.”

First hand experience

In the 1960s marine biologist Scott Johnson was based in the Pacific’s Marshal Islands studying how biological activity affected the redistribution of radioactive particles left from nuclear testing in the 1940s and 1950s. He began documenting the local sea flora and fauna, but once internet connection became more widespread on the islands he was able to reach out to others to help.

Cleo and Jade Bennett collecting net samples on board Daphne II. Photo: Paul Bennett

What began as a simple website to share photos of colourful nudibranchs (otherwise known as sea slugs) quickly led to other contributors sharing their images and has now developed into a far more comprehensive study of local coral, sea slugs and all types of marine life than had been collected before. Similar projects include Redmap, which asks Austrlian water users to spot, log and map unusual sightings of marine species.

Johnson sees the changes sailors in the region have witnessed as a warning: “Excess carbon dioxide is acidifying the oceans, causing increasing problems for animals that require calcium for shells, coral skeletons, and the like. Increasing water temperature is having increasing effects on marine animal distribution and populations, as well as causing widespread damage to coral reefs through coral bleaching.

“I fear that the site might simply become a record of what used to be in the Marshall Islands, not what still is.”

One of the major barriers for marine scientists is the lack of time spent in the field. With the conflicting time demands of teaching, sourcing grants and funding, and supervising laboratory work, there’s often precious little opportunity for scientists to make first-hand observations. Hence, patterns or habits that might seem obvious to locals or cruising sailors in the region might never have actually been seen by a scientist. It is that shared knowledge that holds one of the greatest benefits for scientists.

Scott Johnson recalls meeting a marine biologist in the Pacific: “A visiting researcher was an expert on crown-of-thorns starfish, a species that eats coral and occasionally undergoes population blooms that damage coral reefs. In conversation over dinner he mentioned that no one really knew where the juvenile crown-of-thorns starfish were; the adults just seemed to appear on the reefs fully grown. Well, probably any interested amateur who’d spent time looking for nudibranchs or seashells could have told him the tiny starfish lived under rocks, where presumably they could avoid being eaten by fish.”

By bridging the gap between local knowledge and scientific research, bluewater sailors can help make real improvements in scientists’ understanding of the sea and climate change.

How to get involved with citizen science on a yacht

Below is a list of organisations with ongoing projects which sailors can get involved with:

Secchi Disk Foundation

Sail Britain

Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust

Kwajalein Underwater
Photographic record of marine life in the Marshall Islands.

Australian marine life mapping

Adventure Scientists
Citizen science projects including coral mapping in Mexico

Seakeepers’ SARAH initiative
Onboard kit to conduct experiments, plus hosting opportunities.

Plymouth Marine Laboratory
Numerous projects with a range of volunteer options.

Debris Tracker
App for tracking ocean plastics

Globe Observer
Mixing photography and satellite images to map weather patterns.

The National Ocean Service
Home of several marine citizen science projects running in the US.

Marine Biological Association
UK sea life and non-native species survey.

European Marine Board
Lots of activities and webinars.

Manta Trust
Taking photos of manta rays to identify migration patterns.

Just One Ocean
Includes a microplastics survey.

If you enjoyed this….

Yachting World is the world’s leading magazine for bluewater cruisers and offshore sailors. Every month we have inspirational adventures and practical features to help you realise your sailing dreams.
Build your knowledge with a subscription delivered to your door. See our latest offers and save at least 30% off the cover price.