Our oceans are changing and it’s not for the good. Arctic ice is melting. Fish populations are dying. Corals in the Caribbean are bleaching. These environmental problems are just the tip of the iceberg of what sailors and scientists aboard the 64-foot vessel S/V Ocean Watch are researching during an historic 25,000-mile clockwise circumnavigation of the North and South American continents called the “Around the Americas for Ocean Health” voyage.
The ship made a port stop in Puerto Rico in early November, docking at Pier 1 in Old San Juan and then at Club Nautico de San Juan.
“We’re gathering a variety of data as we sail,” said project scientist, Michael Reynolds, Ph.D., “and in port stops we talk with local scientists and community members, especially elders in the community. We’re particularly interested in what they remember from childhood and how this relates to changes in our climate and oceans that we see today.”
Ocean Watch set sail from Seattle on May 31 and became one of only a handful of small vessels in recorded history to transit the Northwest Passage and through the Bellot Strait without being stopped due to ice. The voyage cruised down the east coast of the U.S. and through the Caribbean in the fall.
“This marks the midway point in our voyage,” said veteran marine journalist, Herb McCormick, who is chronicling the voyage, shortly after arriving in Puerto Rico. “We’ve all come to appreciate how fragile our marine environment is. This voyage has enabled a great deal of scientific data gathering that would have been hard to conduct otherwise.”
During their stay, the crew of Ocean Watch met with scientists at the Department of Marine Sciences at the University of Puerto Rico and traveled to their facilities on the 22-acre island of Magueyes, off the southwestern coastal town of La Parguera.
Puerto Rico was one of 31 port stops on this incredible 13-month cruise. In port, educators from the vessels visited schools, scientists visited local colleagues, and an open house was staged so that the public could tour the vessel and learn about the projects geared to assess the ocean’s health.
“Sailors usually have a destination, but we have a destination and a fixed time table and that’s rare,” Reynolds said. “We also have a 64-foot research platform, rather than a 250-foot-plus vessel as is standard in oceanography, and limited space, power and manpower. There are just six of us onboard. Because of this, we can’t perform experiments in the usual sense, or it would take us five years or more to make this voyage. Instead, we are collecting what we call ‘data sets of opportunity’ or using our instruments to measure data when opportunities present themselves.”
This data will go to a number of scientists such as those from the Pacific Science Center, University of Washington Applied Physics Laboratory, MIT Sea Grant College Program and the NASA Student Cloud Observations On-Line program for analysis.
In the Caribbean and throughout the voyage, Reynolds said, “We’re taking measurements, for example, on air quality. We have a climate or weather station onboard. One of my research interests is new types of deep-sea coral and the health of coral reefs. We are studying aerosol plumes from the burning of forests in Africa and the Sahara dust and the suggestion that the settling of this dust is contributing to coral bleaching.”
Ocean acidity, or the amount of carbon dioxide in the water, is another type of data Ocean Watch is collecting. “There’s a small hole in the hull of our vessel that allows us to pump sea water through and measure it for CO2,” Reynolds said.
The increasing acidity of the ocean could make it more difficult for corals to grow, and increased incidences of coral diseases have been linked to ocean temperature. The health of coral reefs is linked to fish populations; loss of reef habitat means fewer fish.
“We’re canvassing jelly fish concentrations and asking locals about new developments in the jelly fish populations that they are seeing,” said Reynolds. “Jelly fish populations increase where there are declines in the fish population.”
The Around the America’s scientific team is also providing “ground truth” data to major governmental organizations. For example, Reynolds takes measurement of cloud densities from his ever-changing position at the same time as National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) satellites are overhead observing from outer space. In addition, his measurements of ocean acidity are transmitted in real time to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to create an even greater number of data points in their global data set.
“Very soon,” said Reynolds, “we should have a better story to tell about topics such as ocean acidity. In the meantime, the message I tell school kids when we visit is to ‘turn off the lights’. This lessens the use of electrical energy and production of CO2 that is ultimately harming our oceans and ocean life.”
The Around the Americas voyage is one of the programs of Sailors For the Sea, co-founded by David Rockefeller Jr. and the only ocean conservation program focused on sailors and boaters. The Boston, Massachusetts-based non-profit organization also runs the Clean Regattas program that the St. Maarten Heineken Regatta and BVI Spring Regatta participated in last year. For more information about the voyage, visit: www.aroundtheamericas.org.
Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands-based marine writer and registered dietitian.