Microplastic Field Research from a Sea Kayak: the start

 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 her story.

When you think about adventure, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Images of polar explorers, perhaps. Or scientists trudging through a dense jungle. Maybe it’s extreme sports and the thrill of leaping out of a plane, trusting that the air will catch you.

What these things have in common are their pathos: the feeling they invoke, the smile they put on your face, and that magnetic combination of awe and apprehension.

Discovery, exploration, and adventure

Expedition science has notes of the romantic, to me. It’s the smell of the tropics as the sun rises, the feel of the armchair in a library with shelves strewn with stories from faraway lands, and it’s the unabashed joy of discovery. Current science and field work is full of sophisticated equipment and complex software, and our range in research and expeditions today has expanded since the days of Darwin and Humboldt. The cornerstones of it, however, remain the same. Discovery, exploration, and adventure.

Heading out

This project came from those three principles. I have been an adventurer at heart since I was little. The love of science has been a constant in my life as well, and the combination of the two was inevitable. In a way, this project came about accidentally. I was going to sail in the Tall Ships Races this summer, and when that was cancelled, I knew I had to find a different project to dedicate myself to. It hit me one night as I was going to sleep.

I was going to sail around my local fjord in a sea kayak, collecting data on microplastic in the water.

Opportunities to Improve from the First Expedition Day

This expedition has been in the works for a couple of months, and is made up of ten trips of a few days each during July and August: its purpose is to develop a microplastic trawl system that’s easy to use from a sea kayak and accessible to citizen scientists, and to survey Limfjorden in Denmark for microplastic using that system.

The first of those ten trips was completed on Monday – that trip highlighted the challenges and issues with the method, and was an exciting and important milestone. This project, which seemed farfetched at first, is coming together. It’s real. This is a time of excitement and energy: it’s a fantastic place to be, and has that feeling of awe and apprehension.

The first day on the water was a paddling trip from Skiveren to Hals in the eastern part of the fjord, a trip of 13 km. The weather was windy but dry, and the water threw strong currents and shallow areas at me. Plenty of sea grass and jellyfish accompanied me on most of the trip, and may also have startled me a few times by getting caught on the paddle.

After about an hour and a half, I launched the trawl to collect the first samples. Now, that’s where the difficulty really began.

The trawl is based on the babylegs trawl developed by Civic Laboratory in Newfoundland, and is a very small trawl well suited for hand-propelled vessels. It’s made with simple materials, which is also a part of the aim of this project: to develop a system that’s easy to use from a kayak and accessible to citizen scientists. The design of the trawl will change throughout the summer, and I expect to build several different versions. On this trip, the trawl was attached to the front of the kayak using a wooden pole to keep it out of the paddling range and also trawl out of the wake of the vessel.

Once the trawl was launched, the main problem was the drag it caused. The pole, fitted with a pulley system to be able to control it from the cockpit of the kayak, could not stay extended because of the drag. Unfortunately, this meant that it was not possible to collect adequate samples during this trip. On future trips, I will experiment with the placement and the design of the trawl, and work towards the final system.

Arriving in Hals

Curiousity, Citizen Science, and Plastic Pollution

There’s nine more trips to go for this expedition, and I’m both excited about the experimental side of the project, the development of the method, and the sailing itself. This is an exploration of what is possible from a sea kayak in scientific research, and the end result is not set in stone. I want to make it possible for kayakers with an interest in plastic pollution to collect data in the areas where they paddle, and be a part of protecting our beautiful ocean. I want to learn about the extent of plastic pollution in the fjord I see when I walk through my hometown every day. And I want to encourage everyone who follows along on this journey to look around with a curious and inquisitive mind, and ask themselves: what can I discover?

Over and out!

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