Danica Cowan worked in a cancer research lab at UCLA for two years, obtained an MS in nutrition science from Tufts, and is now on academic leave from pursuing her Registered Dietician certification. She is currently on her second 10-month voyage from Maine to the Caribbean aboard her family’s traditional wooden schooner. She is joined by her parents Beverly and Horatio “Ted” Cowan III, husband Isaac Brown, brother Horatio “Scott” Cowan IV, and his girlfriend Molly Segee. Danica and crew are collecting data on microplastics for the Marine Environmental Research Institute. Follow their adventures on their blog: schoonerkoukla.wordpress.com.
To say my family is into sailing is a bit of an understatement. Families that are into sailing have little 30-ft sloops and go out on the weekends when the weather is nice. We have a 60-ft gaff-rigged wooden schooner that we’ve spent decades refurbishing, not to mention a 36-ft ketch and bits of another boat that has been dismantled for parts cluttering the front yard of my parents house in Rockland, Maine. Sailing is in my blood. I come from a long line of sea captains, whalers, seafaring merchants, and the like. Some families may celebrate their heritage through traditional foods or dance or music. We go on nearly year-long voyages every decade or so. We are currently out on our second.
Twelve years ago, my parents, brother, and I set out for a 9-month voyage from Maine to the Caribbean and back. I was 16 at the time, my brother was 12. It was the experience of a lifetime. We hiked into the crater of an ancient volcano, had dolphins play in our wake, witnessed the green flash at sunset, and saw a volcanic island erupt as we sailed past. There were less pleasant aspects as well. When we left, we had no electricity, no running water, and no toilet. We had flashlights, a hand pump, and a port-o-potty. And we had our fair share of bad weather. We hit a front with hurricane-force winds and torrential rain during our offshore passage, and we were in it for three days. But despite all this, my brother and I, now in our 20’s, saw fit to not only join our parents on the family schooner, but to bring along our significant others.
My dad and grandparents have spent decades in and around the shores of New England, and have witnessed firsthand the decline in sea life. Even I have noticed it since my own childhood. I wanted to find a way to use our current voyage to make a positive contribution to ocean conservation. With Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (ASC), I found an organization that would help this happen. In the twelve years since the first trip, I gained a background in biology research. This made the Marine Environmental Research Institute (MERI), to which I was connected through ASC, a perfect fit.
Before we left, my husband Isaac and I had the opportunity to meet up with Abby Barrows at MERI, and to learn about her work with microplastics and how to collect samples. Microplastics are, as the name implies, microscopic bits of plastic floating around in the ocean. They can come from many different sources: manufacturing processes, facial cleansers, even polar fleece and other synthetic clothing. The effects of microplastics on the environment has not been fully investigated. However, some initial studies suggest that there are negative effects on filter feeders—which range from bivalves such as muscles and oysters up to baleen whales—as well as the entire food chain containing these animals. For instance, the microplastic particles can be absorbed into the tissues of mussels and oysters, so you may be eating plastics on the half shell at the oyster bar.
As we sailed down the east coast we collected water samples as frequently as possible. Sometimes the weather was rough and we would be bundled up with only our hands exposed to pull up buckets of frigid seawater to pour into duct tape labeled 1 liter bottles. We would record latitude and longitude, wind direction and speed, water temperature, and anything else noteworthy.
We stopped and collected samples in several urban areas, such as New York City, Boston, and Baltimore MD. In several of these densely populated areas it was disheartening to see garbage—from water and soda bottles, chip and grocery bags, and candy rappers floating in the ocean. Several areas actually had garbage sweeping boats, like street sweepers for the coastline.
My work with MERI and ASC has made me conscious of how pervasive plastics are in our every day lives. Living in the damp marine environment of my family’s schooner Koukla the usefulness and importance of plastics has become even more obvious. It is a constant struggle to keep things dry, and subsequently most everything ends up in some sort of plastic container or other. However, there are small choices we can all make to help reduce plastic waste. For more information on MERI and ways you can help, visit their website: www.meriresearch.org To follow the adventures of the Koukla crew visit our blog: Schoonerkoukla.wordpress.com
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