Giving back: citizen science programs for cruisers

Living with a lighter footprint is one of our motivating factors to choose the cruising life. Helping our children learn about risks and realities of the global effects of climate change and is connected to this environmental sensibility. A great way to bring these together is to participate in citizen scientist programs, where our nomadic lifestyle can offer unique opportunities to collect data and contribute to active research. Anyone can do this: anyone can share from their experiences to help inform and direct decisions to improve life for all of us on planet earth.

The individual burden of effort is generally very small, but cumulative impact can be tremendous as more citizen scientists on the oceans of the world and in our Salish Sea waterways at home take the time to contribute.

The programs we’re participating in are below. I’d love to hear what others know about, or what you’re doing- please add a comment here, on Totem’s Facebook page, or message me with information!

Jellywatch –  

box jellyfish floats with garbage- Labuan, Malaysia

There are increasing reports of jellyfish blooms and other disruptions, but little organized data to connect observations and make global inferences. Jellywatch, a project of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s research institute, seeks to improve the body of knowledge by gathering observations from around the world. Their handy app makes it easy to submit a sighting: not just of jellyfish, but of other ocean conditions like algal blooms. We have seen a large number of jellyfish in Southeast Asia the last few months, from the highly toxic box jellies to more benign edible varieties, and are excited to be connected enough in Malaysia to start actively contributing.

Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation

ASC is dedicated to building partnerships between outdoor enthusiasts and scientists, and will match interested volunteers with an appropriate project. They have projects that are well suited to cruisers, but many for those who are still tied to land as well. On Totem, we’re really excited to be able to contribute to a project on microplastic contamination by gathering water samples along our route. The samples will help scientists to better understand the sources and toxicity, and are helpful to gather from less-traveled waters we sail.

Sea Bird 

Have you had a feathered visitor or stowaway on a passage? We’ve hosted a few, like the barn swallow sitting on our son Niall’s book in the photograph above. Sharing what, where, and when you see these birds can help. SeaBC seeks to benefit seabird conservation by gathering information from boaters about their ocean-going bird sightings. Surprisingly, this area is considered a frontier science: little is known about breeding and wintering areas for many species, which are often vulnerable or endangered. You don’t need to be a birding expert to log sea bird sightings that can add important information to the base of knowledge.  All you need to do is take digital photos of seabirds, record basic data in a downloadable logging form, and report the sightings. Members on the group’s Facebook page offer support to identify and submit sightings and facilitate submission. SeaBC data goes to Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology’s eBird database, where it’s a permanent resource for scientists and conservation efforts worldwide.


Secchi Disk is the world’s biggest plankton survey. These microscopic plants and animals are an essential link in the food chain of the sea and the earth’s ecology, but there’s a lot we don’t actually know about them. By measuring water clarity and uploading the data, you can contribute to a global database of measurements that’s building knowledge about plankton presence in different seasons and different geographies. All you need to participate in this project is a GPS enabled phone or tablet, and a simple measuring device: the Secchi disk. You can buy one online, but they are easily made at home with instructions on the site. You sink the disk, measure the depth at which it is no longer visible, and submit this and a few other bits of information to the database. Plankton may be tiny, but these organisms are critical to the livelihood of other (much larger) species, and they are harbingers of the effect of climate change on the ocean.

hawksbill turtle, Tioman Island, Malaysia seeks to organizing the world’s sea turtle information, making it universally accessible and useful. Founded out of a desire to support research and conservation efforts in the sea turtle community, they also offer an easy opportunity for the cruiser to give back and contribute to their database. It’s also a great way to learn about issue facing the turtles, as well as forcing you to get smart about identification (which was not as simple as I first thought!). Collect information on the turtles you see- get a photo if you can- and save the details about your location, and submit it online. Easy!

4 Responses

  1. Behan — is that the actual color of the hawksbill turtle?
    BTW I picked anonymous as my profile since I was unsure about the others. I am John Kern

    1. I really like this post – I would never have imagined. We will begin homeschooling Carolyne again starting this week and this is a great addition to her curriculum as we head south next month. Muchas Gracias!!

    2. John (and anyone else curious about the hawksbill)- The colors are funky in that image. It’s hard to get true colors on underwater images, especially if you don’t use lights (and, I don’t- I only work with natural light). There’s a huge amount of color loss, more the deeper you go, and everything just looks like shades of blue and gray. This was down around 20′, late afternoon- so, really poor available light. It was difficult to pick out the turtle from the coral until I played with the colors of the image a little. The goal is to try and bring them out to something a little closer to how they REALLY look, but it’s far, far from perfect. The head, front flippers, and top of the turtle’s shell are pretty dang close to how those hawksbills really look. The back of the shell, where it fades into the depth (and the image gets a big red shift) is not how it looks- that’s just my lack of skill with image editing programs!

Comments are closed.