Sea Dragon Reunion















I spent a happy past weekend helping out with Algalita special events at the Ocean Institute in Dana Point. In addition to extra big display tables and a lecture and book signing by Charlie, the Sea Dragon and crew were docked for tours.

After seven months apart, I weave through buildings with the tall mast as my guide, approaching the boat with excitement and slight trepidation. Would the Sea Dragon look the same? Would the crew remember me from the July expedition? Would stepping aboard bring back the nausea?

And there she is, all white-clean and shiny from a winter of refurbishments. A brand new mainsail replaces the one splitting at the seams last summer, the shiny paint on the now-white hull not yet chipped by sampling equipment hand-hauled on and off deck in open seas.

I descend into the cabin (facing forward, swinging from the deck rather than safely backwards as directed of course), and it feels like the same friendly boat with new clothes. There’s some fancy wood shelving, brand-new seat cushions, and everything moveable stowed clean out of sight. I admire the new electrical system, especially the individual sockets for charging laptops in each bunk space. But the second I see ‘my’ bunk there’s a tiny flashback to the first rough days of the expedition, a mini wave of nausea. Or maybe it was just skipper Dale sneaking up behind me to rock my shoulders while chanting “woooeeeeweeeeooo.”

This was a test. The visit held the answer to a question I keep asking myself: would I do it again despite the first rough days, the close quarters with people that start as strangers, weeks without land in sight?

YES! Absolutely. If only I had funding.

If you’d like to join the Algalita-Sea Dragon families on the science adventure of a lifetime, a few guest crew spaces remain for both the Western Pacific Garbage Patch and Tsunami Debris Field expeditions coming up this May.

Leeks in the Lab

As I type up my field notes, I am constantly reminded of the challenges of conducting scientific research on a sailboat designed for racing. Take the following conversation, in which I attempt to procure ingredients for a giant pot of lentil soup:

“Hey Hank, are there any more leeks?”

“I think there’s still some in the cooler.”

“Which one is that?”

“Here.” [Hands me three slightly yellowed leeks]

Seems like a pretty unremarkable exchange. Except that Hank was our resident marine biologist postodc, hard at work processing samples in the ‘lab.’ Imagine, for comparison, a university cafeteria cook walking into the biology lab asking for onions. So why I am troubling Hank with my legume improvement project? The ‘lab,’ you see, was a requisitioned bunk with barely enough room for a single person to stand on the cabin floor. And this tiny space was also home to the cooler, bread machine, and freezer (where Hank rested his laptop when using the microscope). Where other research vessels reportedly have lab spaces bigger than our entire boat, on the Sea Dragon leeks become benchmates with drying samples and digital microscopes. Questions about the location of vegetables are only part of what I can only assume were some pretty strange circumstances for laboratory research, even on a boat. Not long into the expedition, Hank realized that using his digital microscope alongside the hardworking bread maker would trip the breaker on the limited electrical system. Bread versus science quickly became a very practical decision: make fresh food for lunch or let Hank use his microscope?

As much of the lab space as my normal camera lens could capture. The freezer is behind the bucket next to the fan:

Sea Dragon Index

While I’m not ‘that kind’ of social scientist, here are some silly statistics I compiled aboard the Sea Dragon using top secret methods:

Number of crew aboard the Sea Dragon for Algalita’s North Pacific Expedition: 13

Number of countries represented: 7

Nautical miles sailed between July 7 and July 27, 2011: 2995

Miles actually sailed in the right direction 2343, or 78%

Chance that the person sitting next to you had substantial sailing experience: 1 in 4*

Percentage of guest crew that experienced seasickness: 90

Approximate number of days where better conditions were ‘just 2 more days away’: 5

Average number of  additional photos taken each time Jin declared ‘one more’: 4

Number of digital image capture devices on board: 62, or almost 5 per person.

Number of books packed with the intention of being read: 33

Number read in their entirety: 5

Divide between those electing to sleep facing the stern versus bow: 50/50

Relationship between sleep direction and something important: 0

Number of sharks sighted throughout entire 20 day voyage: 4

Times elapsed between first shark sighting and swim time: 50 minutes

Number of trawl samples collected: 38

Percentage of samples containing plastic: 100

*While I couldn’t resist the juxtaposition, I must confess that most miles in the ‘wrong’ direction involved beelines direct north for better weather, chasing debris and zigzagging through the accumulation zone rather than lack of experience.

Wrapping Up

Tonight we were treated to a beautiful sunset over calm seas, setting off a frenzy of last minute photo taking. If all goes as planned this will be our last night with land out of sight, as current conditions should bring us to Victoria Monday evening, and Vancouver late Wednesday afternoon. We’ve seen signs of land over the past day or so, including stray bull kelp (at first mistaken for a new kind of plastic debris), increased boat traffic, and even a log.

Yesterday, Marcus disassembled the trawls, officially marking the end of ‘The Science,’ and has been busily assembling a research report (coming soon). Without fresh samples to preserve and photograph, Hank took up the ukulele and composed the official expedition theme song “Jin Bad and Juice,” an amazing sequence of pithy crew profiles and inside jokes about Tang and Korean hot sauce (“Wolff has the name but is built like a fairy, eats lots of plants but please hold the dairy”).

Afternoon activity involved packing preserved samples for transit. We lovingly swathed bottles of preserved plastics in disposable baby diapers (!) then sealed them in zip-lock bags. I met my souvenir sample for the first time and it looks like I managed to score a plastic cap amongst the bits. It is now snug in its huggie awaiting a permanent home in a glass jar of rubbing alcohol. I’m about to tuck myself into my bunk, to dream of salads and trees, and maybe even sunsets over the open seas.

A ‘Patchy Patch’

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is, well, patchy. We’ve spent the last few days skirting its fringes, while still well within the area the Algalita Marine Research Foundation previously collected dense plastic samples. Just last week, the gorilla trawl was one of the densest Marcus has seen from the smaller trawls used on the crane-less Sea Dragon. Our most recent samples, however, have been coming up mostly jelly. As in jellyfish. Mostly blue, but sometimes pink, pulverized into messy jam-like goo by the water passing through the high-speed trawl. There seems to be more zooplankton than the synthetic variety here, at least on the surface that we’re skimming. This shows some of the trouble with the 6:1 plastic to plankton ratio circulated widely as a measure of density – conditions are variable as plastics and currents circulate, plankton blooms and congregates at the surface. Traveling through this amorphous, shifting accumulation with changing sea states, it’s difficult to tell if we or the plastics are ‘there’ or not.

We’re officially headed to Vancouver now, but Northbound traffic is being forced east by the winds (supposed to change any minute now). At least we had one last morning sail straight into the sunrise. Marcus saw a ‘green flash’ but I was too busy posing on demand for the film crew, trying not to be bounced off the bow into what are increasingly chilly seas (down from 25 C to 16).

Life Re-Canted

Unless the wind is directly behind the boat, sailing pushes us on edge, resulting in a tilted world above and below decks. Heading straight north for the first 9 days meant a pretty steep but constant angle, one we’d mostly adjusted to – comfy seats established along with a sense of what and who was about to slide where. Two days ago changing tack to head east reversed the direction of our keel resulting in some confusion and vastly re-arranged bunk real-estate values. My bed that previously lay nestled comfortable and safe against the hull now lists about precariously, threatening to eject my sleeping body onto the floor three bodies below. I now sleep with a strap tied across the bunk. Lying carefully on my back, with bedsides curling inwards I can’t help but feel like a hotdog secured in a bun with a belt.

Meet the Crew

Now that I’ve had a chance to get to know the people on board, thought you might like to meet them too:

From the left: Clive, Dale, Me, Karen, Rob, Hank, Carolynn, Marcus, Tim, Brandon, Ming, Judy (Jin is behind the camera)

Taken after the epic swim, this photo was quite the comical production involving Jin, still in swim trunks, being strung up the boom, the 7m beam that extends over the side of the boat, which we normally use for trawling. Dangling precariously in a harness with what I can only assume is a very expensive camera, he snapped away as we laughed.

The crew is divided into three watch teams that rotate through the five shifts dividing our days and duties (6-12, 12-6, then 6-10, 10-2 and 2-6 at night). This results in a 3 day repeating rotation of pretty irregular sleep patterns. Having the two 6 hour day shifts off in a row is the closest thing to a weekend – it’s called ‘Sunday’ accordingly.

Grouped with Marcus, Jin and Brandon, I quickly dubbed our team “Man Watch.” Hank stepped up with the tagline “it’s like a cross between Baywatch and a manwich.” Although Marcus recently re-christened our watch ‘the wolf pack’ I still prefer the original.

My team:

Marcus is the research director for Algalita and 5 Gyres’ founding member. He seems to be on deck or in the lab area at all hours, always full of energy and ready with stories of dinosaur digs and solo jungle campouts to help pass night watch hours.

Jin is a high up dude with the Seoul Broadcasting Corporation, tasked with filming the voyage as part of a documentary on the Pacific. Although his colleagues were sent on comfy cruises and other cushy assignments, he’s always laughing, in good spirits, and has a seemingly endless stash of candy squirreled away among camera equipment, Korean hot sauce and instant ramen.

Brandon is here as Jin’s assistant and translator. He throws all his energy into the task at hand, whether dishes, sleeping or dreaming of hot tub soaks. Before the trip Brandon had only ever seen Jin in serious suits – certainly never strung up a boom topless.

Diving Off the Deep End

Finally the day we’ve all been waiting for – calm seas and little wind at the edges of the main east accumulation zone in the North Pacific Gyre. The high-pressure system is no longer a myth. Everyone was up and buzzing at lunch, making plans for what might be our only chance to film from the water, dive around debris and – what I’ve been hoping for – take a swim in the very, very deep end of the ocean.

The film crew set off in the dinghy, cameras at the ready. With no debris in the immediate vicinity, Tim (feeling somewhat guilty) throws a small Chinese fishing float retrieved a few hours earlier back into the water. Up at the bow I play spotter, pointing with my eyes on the debris as the boat comes round so we can scoop the float with a net (again).

Just about swim time, after days of seeing little in the way of marine life other than barnacles latched on to the debris we’ve been collecting, Judy spots a fin in the water. I kid not. A shark. Circling the boat right before pool time. Coupled with warnings of likely jellyfish stings, leaping off the bow took a bit of courage, but how often do you have the chance to take a dip in the middle of the ocean?

Hawaii, 1200 miles to the south, is still the closest bit of earth apart from the sea floor over 5km below! Looking down through my goggles, the water is impossibly blue, and thankfully, shark-free.

The View From Here

Looks like this. All the way around, 12 miles to the horizon.

We are pretty much alone out here. An albatross or other bird sighting is an event that brings those awake up on deck. Yesterday morning we crossed the path of a giant container ship, fully loaded and headed east for Hong Kong. I wonder if plastic waste from North America is on board. It was only the second ship we’ve seen in a week.

When seas are calmer I feel like we are traveling through an artificial dome of blue and cloud and sky. I can imagine, Truman-show style, the bow piercing the canvas horizon at any minute.

This is also the view of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Not exactly somewhere you can get out and have a picnic, but debris continues to fill trawls and float past. On watch this afternoon I spotted a bottle, a square white float and a bunch of random bits. While hardly a floating trash heap, the presence of bits and pieces so far from anything, anyone, anywhere is a constant reminder of the impact of plastics on the sea.

On watch from 10pm-2am, I imagine the nets and floats and bottles passing by in the dark, the seas still churning, mixing pieces into the water column and out of sight and reach of the trawl.


Rough seas the first few days tossed the boat and tested our bellies. We’ve been chasing a high-pressure system straight North from Hawaii, looking for calmer waters, but it’s smaller than normal and keeps moving. Bouncing around again today, I feel like I’m trying to type on a galloping horse.

I miss entered an email address a few days back and posts didn’t make it, so sorry if things are bit out of order as I try to get things up to date.