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How Sailors Become Scientists

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Scientists at Plymouth University’s marine institute in England have embarked on a project that could become one of the biggest collaborations of seafarers of all time.

The Secchi Disk Project and the Secchi App were launched in February last year and were designed to enlist all sailors, yachties, fishermen and ocean cruisers to take part in a global marine science project. The objective is to chart the distribution of phytoplankton in the oceans, after studies have shown a decline in the species due to rising sea temperatures as a consequence of climate change.

Phytoplankton are vital control mechanisms of the temperature on Earth. During photosynthesis the plankton drawdown CO₂ which is then transported down and stored in the sea bed. Without this process, CO₂ concentrations would be significantly higher and therefore Earth’s climate much hotter. In addition, changes in the abundance of plankton species are thought to affect the entire marine ecosystem, including commercially important fish such as cod and tuna.

secchi app2It is very simple to take part in the project. The only equipment needed is a Secchi Disk, which can be made from a white plastic lid cut down to 30cm diameter. The disk is used to measure the Secchi depth, which records the turbidity of the water and hence the amount of microscopic life present (phytoplankton). You can then use the Secchi App on your smart phone or tablet to store measurements and upload them to a database that is analysed by marine scientists.

The project is now one year old and becoming a great success. However more sailors are needed to do their bit for science, so if you are not taking part on your boat, it’s time to get involved!


Doctor Richard Kirby who leads the project says “We have nearly 200 regular users and just over 300 data points. We are receiving a Secchi Depth from somewhere in the world almost every day, this is very good for our first year”. Scientists will begin to start analysing the data in the next few months. Dr. Kirby added, “As the data accumulates we will be able to compare this with historical records collected up to 100 or more years ago, which is the project's main purpose”

secchi map 1st birthday 250As you can see from the picture of data sites recorded, there is a big gap in the Southern Hemisphere. Should you find yourself on a yacht lucky enough to get down there, please make sure you record some Secchi depths and send them back to the team at Plymouth.

So far, the shallowest depth submitted was just 0.1 m in The Bristol Channel and the deepest was 39.9 m in the Mediterranean off the coast of Turkey. The most southern Secchi Depth taken was near Wananga in New Zealand, recorded at 2.8 m and the most northern was off the Northern Isles of Scotland at 6.4 m. You can look at all the data recordings by going to http://www.playingwithdata.com/.

The project has recruited all kinds of ocean goers, from large community organisations to individual adventure seekers. The largest and most reliant cruising associations are all endorsing the project.  These include The Seven Seas Cruising Association, The World Cruising Club, Ocean Cruising Club and The Bluewater Cruising Association.

The legendary Jimmy Cornell who has been an ambassador for world cruising since the seventies has incorporated the Secchi Project into his latest sailing events. The Blue Planet Odyssey in 2012 aimed to raise awareness of climate change in vulnerable watery parts, such as the Pacific Island of Tuvalu and The North West Passage. His most recent Atlantic Odyssey recorded data for the project as will the up-coming European Odyssey this summer.

project leader with diskScientific organisations in Sweden and France are including the Secchi App in their public outreach campaigns.

The project has the support of scientists worldwide who are encouraging citizens to contribute to research that could change the way we see the world. 


So if you can find just 10 minutes in your day (maybe not possible on charter I know), you can become a citizen scientist too and help to increase our knowledge about the oceans. Download the free App now for iOS or Android on your smartphone or tablet.

Follow  @secchiapp and #secchidisk for updates and for further information go to: http://www1.plymouth.ac.uk/marine/secchidisk/Pages/default.aspx.


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