By: Maaike Smits (Trainee Masterskip), Lucas Visscher (Trainee Masterskip), and Jan Joris Midavaine (Plastic Researcher Masterskip)

16 June 2016

During the last weeks of the Atlantic crossing a planned ship takeover took place. The trainees took over the roles of crew and so Maaike Smits and Lucas Visscher became plastic researchers for four days. This was an interesting time for the researchers since a sample taken using the Manta Trawl was analysed and a presentation was given at the office of our partners of the Flemish Marine Institute (VLIZ), partners in the European Sea Change project. 

Maaike (15) and Lucas (15) became immediately enthusiastic when students who had participated in the Masterskip programme in previous years presented their experiences at their school. Maaike said: “We wanted to experience it ourselves, dissect fish and to have practical lessons on biology. The ships takeover offered excellent opportunities to put into practice the things we learned”. The crew sailed from the Isle of Wright to Oostende allowing to visit our partners. On Wednesday 20 April they took the free ferry from the city center to the office of VLIZ. Jan Seys, head of communications at VLIZ gave a presentation on the sea. Also the new researchers Maaike and Lucas gave a presentation on science on board the Wylde Swan. Lucas said: “We presented our experiences, the ocean and plastic pollution. It was exiting, but also a lot of fun to be a researcher and presenting for a large audience, including people you do not know.”

In the last days of the trip, the research team analysed the first sample they took which was close to, but still within, the outside the limits of the North Atlantic Garbage Patch as predicted by Maximenko et al. (2012). Using a tweezers and a sieve they looked for the plastics. In total 23 micro plastics were found. Using this sample to calculate the amount of plastics per square meter ocean we used the following calculation. The net filters the 15 centimeters top layer and is 85 centimeters wide, which means ≈ 0,128m2. First we calculated the miles, using the coordinates and Pythagoras: square root 8 means we towed approximately 2,83 miles. 1 mile is the perimeter of the earth 40.000 kilometer / 360 degrees / 60 minutes ≈ 1851,85 meter. We took this number to calculate the towed distance in meter ≈ 5237,83. The amount of water which went through the net is 5237,83*0,128≈667,82m3. 23 pieces of plastic were found, which means 23/667,82≈0,034 pieces of plastics per m3. Or 23/5237,83/85*100≈0,0052 pieces of plastic each square meter in the top 15 centimeter ocean. Which is 5200 per square kilometer.

This number appears to be low. However if we use our imagination and link this area with something we know, like a soccer pitch, it might not seem so low. The size of an official soccer field is 68x105 meters. Now imagine the field is flooded with 1 meter ocean water. This amount of water would contain 2458 tiny pieces of plastic. Is this a significant number? It certainly is, especially when you consider the fact that about 60 years ago we still had relatively plastic-free oceans. Time has passed since then and a lot has changed. Urgent action has to be taken to rethink the use of a plastic and start to limit its production and re-use waste.

No. of plastic pieces found / (√(∆ N or S Coordinates)2 + (∆ W or E Coordinates)2) × P of the earth ÷ 360˚ ÷ 60 minutes × fishing net hole in m2

23 / (√(23˚37N - 23˚35N)2 + (64˚53W - 64˚51W)2) × 40.000 ÷ 360 ÷ 60 × 0,15 × 0,85

Tow 1
Date 15/03/2016
Start Trawling 23&deg 35N - 64°53W
End Trawling 23&deg 37N - 64&deg 51W
Local Time 17:49 - 18:40
Time Trawling 51 minutes
Wind Speed 0 Beaufort
Sea State Calm
Average Speed
Cod-end ID number 4198


P1130616 Calculating plastics Atlantic

Maaike Smits and Lucas Visscher calculating the amount of plastics in the Atlantic Ocean

P1130231 Analyzingmicroplastics

Masterskip students analysing microplastics

P1130620 23pieces of plastics of cod end

23 pieces of plastics of cod-end 4198

Acknowledgements (by Jan Joris Midavaine): 

Last but not least I would like to end this last blog with a big thank you to all of those who made it possible to join Masterskip Wylde Swan and those who made the research on plastic marine debris into a success. First of all I would like to thank my family and friends for their support. Jan Seys, Evy Copejans and Mieke Sterken of the Flanders Marine Institute (VLIZ), Tanja Calis of AquaTT and other partners within the European project Sea Change. Ianthe Dickhoff and Francesco Ferrari of The Ocean Cleanup. Jeroen Dagevos of Plastic Soup Foundation and Marius Smit of Plastic Whale and our new friends João Frias and Isabel Gallagher of the Azores for their input. I want to thank Jeroen Peters captain of the Wylde Swan for taking the responsibility to bring 30 trainees and 16 crew members from St. Martin cross the Atlantic to Rotterdam. Besides, the crossing would not have been such a great experience without the complete crew and enthusiasm of the trainees.

By: Jurre Swen (Trainee Masterskip), Valentijn Elderhorst (Trainee Masterskip), and Jan Joris Midavaine (Plastic Researcher Masterskip)

15 April  2016

We are two students from the secondary school Visser ‘t Hooft Lyceum in Leiden, the Netherlands. Both of us study advanced scientific educa tion, Valentijn is in the 5th grade and Jurre in the 4th grade. When we decided to join Masterskip, we did not know each other. It was only after a meeting for students joining Masterskip that we recognized each other as being from the same school. We also found out that we had the same physics teacher.

Our physics teacher was enthusiastic about Masterskip from the moment we told him we would join. All trainees bring homework from school which has to be made during self-study in the mornings. When collecting the schoolwork for physics our teacher told us to just go and have a look at the book and plan our homework ourselves. Instead of sending us to the Atlantic Ocean with a lot of schoolwork, he gave us a nephelometer to experiment with and asked us if we could find some way to get hold of a Windoo 3 sensor, so we could do research on water turbidity and weather circumstances. Valentijn managed to get one from a sponsor. This trip costs around €5000 in total, and our parents do not pay all of it, which made it necessary to look for people and businesses wanting to sponsor us.

Our physics teacher’s hypothesis was that algae in the water caused the water turbidity to change. The water turbidity would change with weather circumstances, like wind speed and direction, air pressure, humidity and location. To measure turbidity, we take a bucket, fill it with sea water, put the sea water in a small glass container which fits in our nephelometer. One of the difficulties of doing research on a sailing vessel on the ocean, is that the ship tends to move a lot. When we look at our sensor readings, you can see the turbidity going up and down with the position of the ship. To get the turbidity, we let our Vernier Labquest device take measurements over 180 seconds, and the take the average turbidity.

When we did our first measurement we saw that the water was extremely clear. When we continued our measurements we saw a turbidity between -20 NTU and 0 NTU. NTU stands for Nephelometric Turbidity Unit, which depends on the amount of light scattered by small particles in the water. Algae were not found at all. The reason for this might be that algae live on the ocean floor. They spread by spores and they are too small to see. Algae need a solid surface and food. We will keep on measuring and at home we will look what we can make from our measurements. We will contact our physics teacher and look if there is any link between the water turbidity and our results. Our conclusion so far is when doing research, one should always first find out about the subject of the research, in our case algae. When we would have searched for algae on the internet on forehand, we could easily have found out that we would not find any algae on the open ocean.

Jurre Swen

Jurre Swen taking a water sample

Correspondence: Jan Joris Midavaine ( +31648061953)

By: João Frias (PhD in Environmental Science – Microplastics, IMAR – Departamento de Oceanografia e Pescas (DOP) Universidade dos Açores), Dennis Vos (Physics Teacher Masterskip), Jan Joris Midavaine (Plastic Researcher Masterskip), and Marybeth de Waaij (Chemistry Teacher Masterskip)

15 April 2016

The Azores archipelago, located in the northeastern Atlantic Ocean, is a small paradise with great natural landscapes. Its economy is mainly based on agriculture, fisheries and tourism. Due to its proximity to the North Atlantic Gyre, the entire archipelago is prone to marine litter accumulation, particularly lightweight plastic that can travel great distances.

In the past decade, plastic pollution has become a hot topic in the Azores, leading to an increasing number of awareness raising campaigns and research projects on the topic. Concerning scientific research, the Marine and Environmental Sciences Centre (MARE) and the Instituto do Mar (IMAR), both based at the Department of Oceanography and Fisheries (DOP) of the University of Azores (Uaç) are investigating the accumulation and impacts of marine litter in the Azorean islands, in a project called “Azorlit”. This project aims to determine baselines for marine litter in this region.

So far, the team conducted an intense sampling program on 40 beaches across the archipelago to quantify both macro and micro litter densities and composition. Although, the samples are still being analysed in the laboratory, the researchers have found a high variability in densities and composition of micro and macro litter between beaches. Although, litter of local origin was occasionally found, most of the items originate from sea based sources or land based sources from other regions.

João, PhD in Environmental Science and micro plastics researcher at the University of Azores, joined us to the beach of Horta, eager to explain more about plastic in the ocean, focusing on how to do research on micro plastics. With a scoop and sieve João showed us how to collect samples. Sieving an area of 50x50 cm to a depth of 2 cm resulted in finding over 30 small pieces of plastic (<5mm). The whole beach was covered with these washed ashore plastic fragments!

“Looking at the huge amount of plastic pieces on this beach, 1700 km away from the nearest mainland, I realized that I could not imagine the scale of plastic pollution in our oceans. While awareness on entanglement by and ingestion of plastic is increasing, little is known about the impact of the broken, sometimes invisible pieces of plastic. Each of them has a story to tell, each has traveled far to end up on this beach of Horta. They get so small, that it is almost impossible to clean our own garbage. They get so small, that you can only observe them under a microscope. They get so small, that it is eaten by plankton, moving up its way into the food chain” (Dennis Vos, Physics teacher Masterskip).

Apart from on the beach, plastic is often discovered in the stomach of fish, but sound scientific knowledge on the long-term-impacts on fish, the oceans, land and ourselves is lacking. The Azorlit research team therefore also focuses on monitoring ingestion of plastics by different components of the food web, namely fish, sea birds (Cory’s shearwater) and stranded dolphins and turtles. As the project is recent and the team is still processing samples, there is no available data on this part of the work yet. However, preliminary analysis suggests that there is a high frequency of seabirds that ingested plastic. After the explanation of João we spend an hour crawling through the sand to collect bags full of micro plastics. Our goal is to do something creative with the collected material later on, such as making mosaic coasters, to create more awareness on this not-too-well-known problem of micro plastics floating around everywhere throughout our beautiful oceans.

Microplastic beach02

Microplastic beach collection. Left to right: Joao, Dennis Vos, Merel Collenteur, Merel Janssens, Marybeth de Waaij, Rimke van de Nes

Microplastic sampling IMAR

Mircoplastic analysis

Correspondence: Jan Joris Midavaine ( +31648061953)

By Jan Joris Midavaine (plastic researcher), Eva Meeuwissen (trainee), and Isabel Gallagher (No More Plastics for the Azores).  

Accompanied by strong winds and heavy rain we safely moored the Wylde Swan in Horta, the Azores, on Tuesday March 29, at 01:30. After little more than two weeks on the Atlantic Ocean our plan was to stay for at least five days to enjoy the green island and carry out some maintenance on the ship. The research on plastics using the Manta Trawl and our self-made trawl had increased the awareness on plastic marine debris among both crew and trainees. After some days of maintenance part of the crew got a day off. We rent a car to cruise around the island, hiked the Caldeira, visited a lighthouse in a volcanic landscape and learned Portuguese in local bars. At one of the larger beaches of Faial, Baía da Ribeira das Cabras, we found a large fishing crate and enthusiastically decided to clean the entire beach. In less than an hour we collected two cubic meters of plastic waste, including: ropes, fishing gear, jerry cans, shoes and other pieces of colourful plastics.

A day later all trainees joined a locally organised river cleanup in the communities Salão and Cedros. The cleanup was coordinated by the organisation No More Plastics for the Azores, a citizen based action group, formed with the express purpose of eradicating plastic waste from rivers and coastlines, and preventing it from reaching the ocean. Nine o’clock in the morning we were picked up by a bus that brought us to the start of the cleanup. The group of 30 trainees was at least doubled by participation from students and other local environmentally concerned citizens. We were subdivided into groups of 5 and brought to various locations along two different rivers by tractor. The rivers were more like small streams and beautifully overgrown by trees, flowering plants and bamboo. At first sight nothing was wrong with this scenery, however a closer look taught us the riverbed was full of plastic. For two hours we collected plastic bags, glass bottles, sardine cans, batteries and complete refrigerators, collecting over 4.000 kg of waste.

“It was fantastic to join the cleanup. The environment was very beautiful and helping clean the river gave me a good feeling. I would love to join again. Back in The Netherlands it is a little different. I would not like to clean the streets of Amsterdam, were I live. Though, if you see the environment improving you become really happy. We were in a team with four trainees and a local guide. He explained us about the island and his job as councilor of Faial. Most farmers do not know about the effects of leaving plastics in the environment. You should ask farmers and all other inhabitants of the island to join a cleanup to allow them to learn how much work it is to clean these beautiful environments. Also they should know when they do not do anything all waste ends up in the sea” (trainee Eva Meeuwessen).

It was disturbing to find such a large amount of garbage. Questions were raised and it soon turned out people have been using the rivers to get rid of their waste for decades. Although, the situation has improved and there is a proper waste collection infrastructure at the moment, it still happens households far from the road do continue littering the rivers. Cleanups like these allow the inhabitants of Faial to learn about the effects of throwing waste into the rivers and hopefully will make them change their behavior. At least, the enthusiasm of the participants proved cleaning up beautiful environments satisfies people.

At the end of the day every single plastic bag helps, since plastic does not degrade and, if left, will remain in nature forever. The total amount of almost 3,000 kg of collected waste was celebrated with a sponsored lunch for all participants. We also got the opportunity to present Masterskip and our collaborations with Sea Change and The Ocean Cleanup, which was supported by showing videos of towing the Manta Trawl in the Atlantic Ocean. A nice discussion followed and organisations demonstrated their gratitude towards each other, welcoming continued collaboration in the coming years.

About No More Plastics for the Azores:

Citizens of the Azores have been witnessing the destruction of ecosystems through ocean pollution. Many people including dive operators, tourists, and environmental agencies came together to discuss the growing problem and an action group was established. Through the constant effort of teamwork and awareness raising through media and social networks the group grew and became a loose affiliation of citizens, foundations and companies.

The 4th of May 2014 one of the largest clean ups was organized, if not the biggest the island had ever seen. It brought together over 150 people on 11 coastal locations and tons of litter were collected. The plastics found were separated and sorted for recycling on the mainland.

Everything was filmed and released for more public awareness through social media. Based on the evaluation of the cleanup: “plastics on the beach do not all origin from the Azores” a follow-up program was launched: the Rivers and Creeks Cleanup. From September 2014 a dedicated group of concerned citizens clean various rivers regularly, raise awareness among other inhabitants and provide educational forums.

P1130007 800x600 Beach cleanup02 Faia Azores Dorus Zwerts

P1130019 800x600 Beach cleanup03 Faia Azores

P1130023 800x600 Beach cleanup01 Faia Azores left Nienke Sinnema right Dorus Zwerts

By Merel Collenteur (Biology teacher)

The ocean, intense blue with a dazzling depth, what kind of surprises does she have? Could you truly get to know the ocean when you are not having the ocean in your vicinity? On board of the Wylde Swan trainees have a chance to meet the ocean and her sea creatures. Whales, dolphins and fish are passing by and in the meanwhile we discus ocean health. I am on board as a biology teacher. I quit my former job as a biology teacher on a normal school to work on this tall ship. After one trip I knew that education needs more than only a classroom with books. Now, I am back for the fourth trip! Compared to biology on mainland, on the Wylde Swan biology is tangible and developed knowledge can be applied in daily life directly.

During our Atlantic crossing, between the British Virgin Islands and the Azores we caught a Mahi-Mahi or Dolphinfish. Fighting for its life the fish was hoisted on deck minutes later. After it was killed, the beautiful yellow-green coloured scales turned grey. That moment, the trainees surrounded me with great enthusiasm: “we are going to dissect a Mahi-Mahi!” With great care I opened the stomach. One trainee cried out “a worm!”, a few parasites ted to get their way out of the organs. Once the fish is cleaned these parasites are not harmful to human.
Nevertheless, its appearance might be disturbing for some.

We had a closer look at the stomach, did the Mahi-Mahi have a proper meal in its last days? The trainees were able to identify the stomach immediately as they recognised the tissue structure. During the dissection of the stomach some trainees speculated about the content of the stomach. Perhaps a small fish, a shrimp or a micro plastic? The Mahi-Mahi did not eat much these last days: apart from a few fish bones the stomach turned out empty. Lastly, we had a closer look at the muscular tissue. A thick layer of muscular tissue makes this specie a fast swimmer, with a top speed of 50 knots an hour, it is not surprisingly that in Hawaii Mahi-Mahi means ‘very strong’.

Completing the circle we had Mahi-Mahi with rice for diner. Having the catch of the day as dinner brought up a discussion. A trainee asked me if it feels right to kill a fish. I replied that the Mahi-Mahi is fairly abundant, making me feel OK to kill or dissect the fish. Furthermore, I think there is great value in showing the beauty of the ocean and ocean life. Catching a Mahi-Mahi allowed 30 trainees to learn about the ocean and reveal its beauty.

Wylde Swan Learning

Learning how the ship works

 DSC 0208 Dissecting a Bigeye Tuna photo by Marybeth de Waaij 800x533

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