Microplastic Field Research from a Sea Kayak: On Expedition Planning and Methodology

 In Stories from the field

Tia Westermann

This blog 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 third blog about her adventure. Prevvious blogs you can read here and here.

This week, my sailing plans have been foiled by none other than the weather. High winds and rain are throwing the schedule off, but that is not the only adjustment I have had to make to the planning of this expedition. I realise now that when I was planning the summer and learning how to sail a sea kayak, I fell into the trap I suspect many beginners do: overestimating the scope of the project at hand. This week of dry land is a good time to reflect on that, and have a look at how the rest of the project can be adjusted to ensure its success. After all, experience comes with mistakes, and the only thing to do is learn from them and keep moving forward.

Physical Ability and Ambitious Plans

I have been on the water for a few days so far, and have not met my initial target of 25 km per sailing day. This was a number I came up with as I was researching long distance kayaking, and read that it was a fair daily distance for a strong kayaker. I had not quite counted on the physical challenge of paddling for hours, and have so far sailed 15 km in one day at most. Now, I think it’s important to acknowledge this, and adjust accordingly. I have a tendency to plan over-ambitious projects. With this one, I’m able to catch it early and ensure that the expedition becomes a success regardless. This does not change the aim of the project, but only the scope, and slightly the methodology.

The distance paddled and the time spent on the water naturally affects the number of samples collected with the trawl. I have been experimenting with different trawl times, and with the current setup it seems that an hour provides a good sample size. This will change with a different trawl size, as the different sized net will fill up with sea grass and other debris in different amounts of time. Once the net is full, it has to be changed, so that trawling can continue. The amount of time it takes to fill the net is dependent on the conditions of the area. If there’s a lot of organic material present in the surface water (such as creepy jellyfish), the net fills faster. This means that it’s not possible to give a set time for trawling, but rather a time range, the lower end of which should be possible in most areas, while longer trawling times can be done in others. As such, it takes some paddling time to find the right balance, and every kilometer paddled is important to test the method thoroughly.

Experiences from Turning Plans into Actions

The research vessel

This expedition has been actively underway for just over a week, and in that time I have seen just how well my plans and lists translate to actions. I’m no stranger to planning trips and projects, but this is a different magnitude to what I have done before. What I have noticed in particular on the days I’ve been sailing, is how many small details seem obvious when I’m sitting at my computer, writing lists, but are actually points of stress and doubt when out in the field. What I have realised from the first week of working on this is that nothing should be taken for granted, and that “I’ll figure that out when I get to it” should be a banned expression.

I’ve been continuously working on the processes and workflows I use when sailing and collecting samples, and they have become more and more detailed the more I think about them. That means that when I’m in the situation, I have less to think about. This is especially important when I have to do things from the kayak: I’ve found that multitasking while keeping my balance in waves and not drifting too far from shore is, well, harder than I thought. When kayaking, you’re as close to the water and the weather as you can get without jumping in and swimming, and that closeness is undoubtedly exhilarating. It is also incredibly demanding, and diverting attention to any other task than simply remaining in control of the situation is hard.

So, when I first launched my trawl and had to adjust it and later reeled it in and reattached it to the side of the kayak, I drifted several hundred meters and almost capsized. The physics of a kayak also mean that when you stop paddling and let the vessel drift, it turns into the wind and takes a lot of strength to get back on course. This is exactly why processes are important, and why I need to have already thought through the tasks before having to do them.

Agile Processes and the Illusion of Perfection

The ability to adapt and make changes where necessary is one of the cornerstones of a successful project, and that also ties in to the need for perfection. I am prone to that myself: wanting what I do to work the first time around, and wanting to have everything figured out by the time I start. As I was planning this and getting closer to the first sailing day, I knew that I would not feel ready when I launched my kayak for the first time, or when I put the trawl in the water for the first time. Now that I’ve gotten past the first week, I’m full of excitement and positivity for the months ahead, even if I still don’t feel quite ready as I paddle away from the beach. There’s always more preparation to do. There’s always more research and reading, and the time is never truly right. Imperfection is not a weakness: it’s the drive and the courage it takes to act.

Over and out,

Tia W.

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