Citizen Science

Crowdsourcing hits the high seas to support research.

The research vessels of Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO) at UC San Diego have logged hundreds of thousands of nautical miles—over undersea volcanoes and through monstrous waves—seeking answers to some of the planet’s most daunting environmental challenges. Yet with a new agreement, that mission now comes aboard the deck of pleasure craft the world over.

Scripps has recently collaborated with the International SeaKeepers Society, a yachting organization devoted to promoting oceanographic research, to leverage the might of citizen scientists in support of research projects at sea. When a need arises from a Scripps scientist, engineer or student, SeaKeepers will tap into its database of yachting vessel owners willing to offer their ships and provide a new opportunity to collect samples, deploy instruments and otherwise further their science.

“This agreement provides a way for citizens to participate in scientific research in a meaningful way,” says Bruce Appelgate, associate director of SIO and head of Ship Operations and Marine Technical Support. “Scientists and nonscientists alike can share the experience of understanding and protecting the planet.”

The collaboration with SeaKeepers, realized with help from Scripps supporter Patty Elkus and others, is a throwback to SIO’s earliest days when scientists made full use of the public’s interest to aid the young institution’s fledgling scientific endeavors. “More than one hundred years ago, Scripps’ first expeditions used private vessels operated for, or loaned to, the institution by its co-founder E.W. Scripps and his colleagues,” says Kevin Hardy, a retired engineer at Scripps and expert in its history of exploration.

Hardy’s engineering work is currently being used in the program. Scripps graduate student Natalya Gallo, M.S. ’14, is currently using miniature versions of Hardy’s deep sea instruments to study how fish are responding to the declining subsurface oxygen levels off California, known to have dropped some 20-30 percent over the last 25 years.

In 2012, Hardy developed 14-foot-tall deep-sea “lander” science instruments as part of ocean explorer and filmmaker James Cameron’s record-breaking dives to the deepest points on Earth. To help Gallo’s current research, he developed a five-foot version dubbed the “nanolander” that is capable of being hand-launched off yachting vessels.

When San Diego Yacht Club’s Rodney Moll learned of Gallo’s research and Hardy’s new five-foot-tall nanolander, he volunteered to take them to sea aboard his vessel, Niyama. This spring, Moll’s ship will deploy a nanolander equipped with Gallo’s oxygen sensor package and camera system in the Scripps Coastal Reserve off La Jolla. Months later, the instruments will be filled with new data and recalled to the surface via an acoustic signal.

“Regular access to sea makes this research possible, but the partnership with SeaKeepers is also a unique opportunity for scientists to engage with the greater community,”says Gallo, a Michael M. Mullin Fellow at Scripps. “By partnering yacht owners with young scientists, we can both advance scientific efforts and actively engage interested members of the public
in the scientific process.”