Microplastic Field Research from a Sea Kayak: overnight camping and jellyfish mishaps

 In By the Ocean we Unite Blog, Stories from the field
This blog is written by Tia Westermann, a Danish biotech student that would have been sailing on a Tall ship this summer. Unfortunately, due to the current situation all these trips were cancelled. That did not stop her going on the water. She combined her study with her passion for the sea and developed a method to measure microplastic in the surface water from her sea kayak. This is the second blog about her adventure.

 

Paddling out from shore to open water, the wind pushed foam-topped waves over my deck. The wind picked up as I got further away from the shallows, and as I rounded the first rocky outcrop, I lost all shelter from the west wind which will accompany me most of the summer. Shifting between stabilising in waves with the paddle and pushing forward, I slowly made my way towards the inlet that was my destination for the day.

I launched the trawl after half an hour, this time trawling a couple meters behind the kayak on a long rope to eliminate issues with drag and to simplify my setup. The current kept the trawl to the side of kayak and out of its wake. I sailed past a large fishing area indicated with buoys, and reached my waypoint: the tip of an isthmus, directly opposite the northern edge of the inlet I was aiming for. The stretch around the rocks into the inlet began with perfect shelter from the wind for a few hundred meters, and a gorgeous view of a tree-covered cliffside. I stopped paddling for a few minutes to listen to the birds and soak in the early evening sun before braving the wind again.

Paddling across the small inlet and finding the camp spot along the shore took the better part of an hour, and once I had the kayak safely on the sand, I realised I had not, indeed, found my camp spot. I went on a recon mission in the area to scope out where the alleged camp spot was, looking for a firepit as an indicator, as I had read should be there when I researched my route. Nothing. A while and some googling later I found the camp spot, a circle of mowed lawn nicely surrounded by tall reeds and only a few meters from the beach – five hundred meters away from where I had landed my kayak. Cold and wet as I was, I did not want to get into the boat and paddle over there, but instead got the idea to tie my trawl rope to the kayak and walk next to the water while floating it behind me.

This is a perfect example of something that seems like a great idea, but turns out… not to be. I did succeed in my endeavour, but not before I had waded through reeds and almost lost hold of the rope as the kayak floated away from me. In hindsight, I should have just paddled that short distance instead of insisting to stay on land. The more you know.

I set up camp and put the net from my trawl in a sample bag, and sat down to boil some water for dinner. As I sat outside my tent wrapped in my sleeping bag and watched the moon rise, the wind died off, and the quiet settled in around me. Slight breezes through the reeds punctuated my dinner and the glass of wine I had brought to enjoy on my first night camping from my kayak.

Successful Trawling, and Arriving in Skive Harbour

Day two started early after a cold night in the tent. It was a beautiful morning, and I couldn’t help smiling as I packed up the kayak and headed out of the inlet. The water was calm, and the wind hadn’t picked up for the day yet. The peace lasted until I rounded the bank just south of the inlet: after that, the wind whipped the water into foamy rolls washing over me, and made hard work of getting to my halfway rest point. The wind was strong around me as I landed on the small beach, but even that could not take away from looking across the water at the cliffs and having some well-deserved lunch. After the break, I launched the kayak and the trawl, and made for Skive Harbour, the end point of the trip.

It was a long, arduous afternoon. Paddling directly into the wind, waves crashing on my bow, I was sure my arms would quit as I got the harbour in sight. Somehow, the last distance seems the longest, especially when you can see the destination. I paddled on.

A couple hours later, I was at the entryway to the harbour, and reeled in my trawl. The net was mostly full, and had trawled very successfully on this stretch. On the first day, the net had gotten caught on the pontoons, but on the second day, the net was free of the trawl, and the trawl itself stayed upright even in the waves.

Rounding the wavebreak into the harbour, I felt as though every part of my body hurt, and lifting the kayak onto the car was a challenge in itself. All of that became secondary once I had some dry clothes on and got into the car for the ride home to Aalborg: the first overnight trip of the summer was complete, and I was already looking forward to the next one – perhaps with a warmer sleeping bag.

Processing the Samples, and Next Steps

When I got to processing the samples at home, I was (more than) slightly mortified to find a jellyfish in one of the nets. Now, I’m not squeamish, but I have… a problem with jellyfish. Which is not the best thing to be uncomfortable with when doing this project. Let me say that I overcame my sudden urge to never look at the ocean again, and bravely removed the jellyfish from the net using two pairs of tweezers. Worked surprisingly well for its jellified composition.

That interlude aside, the sample processing went rather smoothly using the 5Gyres protocol for sample processing. I had a lot of seagrass in the samples, and spent a while removing it with tweezers after rinsing the contents of the net into a sieve. I found a couple particles in each sample which appeared to be plastic, but did not find any large pieces or plastic.

On this trip, I collected one sample per day, as I kayaked relatively short distances. The next development to the method I’m working on is a spool and mount system inspired by kayak fishing to ease handling the trawl from the kayak, as well as building a larger trawl. With the trawl behind the kayak, it’s possible to use a bigger device, which will improve sample size.

The next week or so, the weather is looking pretty grim with gale force winds, rain, and generally inhospitable conditions for kayaking – hopefully it’ll clear up enough towards the end of the week to get out on the water.

Over and out,

Tia W.

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