Friday, 20 March 2009

VOR: Ocean Science

Mikel Pasabant water testing onboard Telefonica Black, on leg 3 of the Volvo Ocean Race, from Cochin, India to Singapore. Image copyright Mikel Pasabant/Telefonica Black/Volvo Ocean Race.

by Riath Al-Samarrai

"Science is simply common sense at its best." Thomas Huxley may have been one of the most renowned biologists of the 19th century, but that particular pearl of wisdom is unlikely to draw approval from the media crewmembers right now.

To that group of would-be scientists there appears to be little common sense in hanging over the stern of a runaway Volvo Open 70 in the name of science. Or in studying the particles in a water sample while their laboratory clatters from wave to wave.

In fact, as Rick Deppe, the PUMA media crewmember (MCM), joked ahead of leg five, "there can't be many harder places to do an experiment than one of these boats".

But, then again, the project the MCMs enlisted for was never meant to be easy. Specifically, the MCMs are working with race partner Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics (WWL) to gather information to tackle the issue of invasive marine species.

It is one of the "four major threats to the world's oceans", according to Melanie Moore, WWL's global head of environment, and is caused by the dumping of untreated ballast water by the shipping industry. An estimated three to five tonnes of ballast water is transferred around the world each year, potentially introducing alien species to new ecosystems every time it is discharged untreated.

The effects have already seen in countries visited on the race route, with the Ostrea gigas (oyster) in South Africa destroying habitats and causing eutrophication, while the Gymondinium catenatum algae in China has caused shellfish poisoning. In Cochin, Water Hyacinth had taken over the water surrounding the race village and yet it is native to the Amazon basin.

But it is the impact of untreated ballast water on the open ocean that is being examined by WWL. According to Moore, "a large percentage" of ballast exchanges take place in the open ocean, areas of the world considered by assumption to host considerably fewer species than coastal waters. However, this experiment has been commissioned to prove that life in the open ocean is not marginal and, therefore, vulnerable to untreated ballast discharges.

The MCMs' role in tackling the problem is to lean over the stern every three days and collect water samples for testing. Upon collection, the samples are examined down below with a luminometer to determine the amount of micro organisms, expressed as biomass, while the air temperature, cloud cover, water temperature and the GPS position of the boat are also logged.

The results are then sent electronically to Stockholm for further examination by scientists at Wallenius Water, a WWL sister company.

Already the results are supporting the hypothesis. "The results we have gathered so far support what we are working to prove, but the conclusions will not be released until after the race. We have so far been very impressed by the ability of the media crew members to provide us with the information. It's not an easy job they are doing," Moore said.

Although the findings will not be announced until after the race, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), the marine body of the United Nations, is in the process of getting member nations to ratify a convention which would force countries to ensure that their ships treat their ballast water.

It's all very noble. But at the coalface, life is a little less simple.

"On leg one I was doing the test when a sail broke and was pulled down on top of me," Deppe recalled. "A complete failure and a total mess of scientific equipment mixed up with sail-making paraphernalia."

Gabriele Olivo from Telefonica Blue finds it no easier. He, like Deppe, has carried out the procedure approximately 23 or 24 times in the four legs so far, with each attempt taking between 30 and 45 minutes depending on the weather. They aim to carry out one test for every three days of sailing, which in the repeated fire hose conditions of this leg is not so easy.

"When you're travelling at 30 knots or more it is not an easy thing," Olivo said. "Even at 25 knots it is very difficult, but after a while you handle your equipment better and find some tricks to make the measuring easier, but that requires more time."

Despite the practical difficulties of playing scientist, there is no doubt onboard that the health of marine ecosystems is of paramount importance.

"The actual project is very noble and for me is very important that we do all what is possible in order to improve the regulation of cleaning and emptying tanks on commercial vessels," Olivo said. "I'm very proactive in terms of preservation of the sea, but again I'm not sure the Volvo 70 is the right environment in which to do it."

Deppe added: "I am very interested in the findings. Even in my short sailing career (20 odd years) and my own personal observations, I feel that the oceans have become more polluted. I am interested in commercial fishing especially on a regional level and the effects of overfishing and ecology imbalance are of grave concern to me."

And so for another four months the mobile laboratories will clatter across the world's oceans, fighting not only for a worthy cause but also to keep water in a glass.

It's probably not what any of the media guys envisioned they'd ever be doing in their lives, but, to quote the philosopher John Dewey, "every great advance in science has issued from a new audacity of imagination".

Volvo Ocean Race

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