Saturday, July 7, 2012

Amazing Pictures from Just Below the Surface of the Sea

Anika on Aft Deck documenting OFP
 Guest post from Anika Aarons
The first time I heard about the Oceanic Flux Program (OFP) was when Dr. Maureen Conte came to give a lecture to my class while I participated in the Semester in Environmental Science (SES) program in Woods Hole, MA at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL). The lecture was mostly about the flux of organic matter in the ocean, from the surface to the deep and back, and concluded with a brief summary of Maureen’s OFP work in the Sargasso Sea. I was instantly enthralled and had a burning desire to find out more than what I had gained in a mere 15 minutes.
Consequently, I emailed Maureen to schedule a meeting to learn more about her research and get some possible ideas of research projects I could carry out in my last 5 weeks of the program using techniques similar to those of her OFP work. In my project, I extracted organic compounds from particulate organic matter (POM) – suspended particles, such as detritus, in the water column – and used this information to tell a story about the communities living in the water column, their environmental conditions and how they might be shaping it.
When completing my SES research, Maureen invited me to come work for the OFP program this summer and so here I am in the middle of the Atlantic getting to experience firsthand the science that hooked and held my attention in that SES lecture. I feel like I’m coming full circle now from my own SES project, tying in the basics that I learned to the big picture of long-term ocean climate changes. My job is trying to figure out what exciting events have been happening in the big blue Sargasso Sea and I love it.                   ****************************************************

Plastic in Sargassum
PLASTIC RESEARCH We have been performing surface samples morning, noon, and night over the past four days and each of the 13 samples collected have had about a handful of plastics.  It might not sound like much, but when quantifying the plastics collected from a meter-wide trawl that runs for approximately two nautical miles, times the two million square miles of the Sargasso Sea, the handfuls turn into metric tonnes.  These plastic fragments sprinkled over the surface of the ocean reek havoc on marine life.  According to a paper recently published in Marine Pollution Bulletin titled, “Seabirds Study Shows Plastic Pollution Reaching Surprising Levels Off Coast of Pacific Northwest,” 67 of the beached northern Fulmar birds necropsied, 92.5 percent of them had plastic in their stomachs.  In fact, one bird had 454 pieces of plastic in its gut.  Because this type bird only forages for food skimming the surface of the ocean, it is more apt to eat the plastics floating there like the types of plastics we find in our trawl. Not only birds accidentally ingest plastics but marine biota that live in or attracted to the free-floating Sargassum as well.

Argonatus argon octopus
Last night, we ran a sample that netted 65 cm of Sargassum along with marine life far different from the day samples. When we dumped the sample into the sorting tub we noticed two beautiful Nautilus-like shells each connected to a small octopus among an array of other invertebrates.  It is difficult to stay on task plucking plastics when there are so many creatures we’ve never seen before swimming around in our sample. The only way to sort out the plastic fragments is to handpick through all of the weed.  It took five of us over an hour to sort - blurry-eyed by the time we shut the lab lights out at 1am.
Seahorse feeding off bottom of tank

Tonight the sea state settled down to a series of gentle ripples and from past experiences when the sea state flattens, more plastics tend to appear in our samples.   True to form, we had a record amount of plastic than the previous 12 samples.  But that wasn’t all we found, our trawl pulled in an 10 cm seahorse.  We’re giving the credit to Harry the seahorse whisperer.  Now the trick is to keep it alive so we can return it to the ocean when the ship stops at 0430 Sunday.  
Bill holding seabird on deck

Tomorrow we will be steaming back to Bermuda with plenty of stories to share about the ubiquitous plastics we collected, the amazing Sargassum fish, the octopi, the seahorse, and a bird that I saw fly into the CTD garage.  Bill found it on the floor and gently picked it up as it came-to.  It went from being confused, to frightened, to relaxing in Bill’s tender touch.  We snapped photos, then took it to the bow where it was dark so it wouldn’t get confused by the lights blaring on the aft deck. Bill opened his hand slowly as the sea bird composed itself before it sprang from his hand wings open and flew across the moonlit sky.  

This cruise started out with the focus on plastic pollution and ended with a greater appreciation for the marine life in the open sea.  It made me realize the delicate balance of life above and below the surface and that it is worth protecting.

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