Citizen Science for Sailors

There is a saying about a child wandering along a beach throwing the starfish back in to the sea. A man comes along and says “what are you doing? There are thousands of starfish here and this beach is miles long, you can never make a difference” The child picks up another starfish and throws it in the ocean and says “it made a difference to that one!”

I have recently completed an online course called One Planet, One Ocean. It was a fascinating course about Ocean sustainability and many other things. What became very apparent during the course was what a precious resource the Ocean is, and how it is currently being exploited beyond repair.

So as sailors, what could we, just as one boat, possibly do to help make a difference to that one starfish, or that one and only Ocean…?

Citizen science is described as public participation in scientific research. As sailors know, the Ocean is huge and scientists can’t be out on the water all the time collecting data. So citizen science projects were formed and the general public can volunteer and assist with making observations and sending the data back to the people collecting it.

The benefits are boundless. People get to participate in something they are passionate about and the scientist has access to people all over the world, providing data that would otherwise be extremely expensive for them to collect on their own.

So how do you get involved?

There are literally hundreds of different projects out there. Some of them might just be in your country, and others are global. Some require you to have particular equipment, some require you to send samples to a particular place, others just require you to take a photo on your phone, or report a sighting. Here are a selection of some of the Ocean related ones I know about. Please add any more in the comments below.

Take 3 For the Sea – this simple concept encourages people to take 3 pieces of rubbish home with them whenever they visit the beach or a waterway. Plastic pollution in our Ocean is a massive problem, and if everyone got involved with this, then it would surely make a difference. Simple to get involved in this one, just pick up the rubbish and put it in the bin!

IMG_9365Seth and I participating in a community river cleanup in our neighbourhood

My OSD – Ocean Sampling Day – this one was recommended by the course I was doing, and I was keen to get involved as I was going to be in New Caledonia on the selected day. If you are in certain parts of the world, they will send you a testing kit that you can use to measure things like the pH level in the water, salinity, temperature and all sorts of other things. Sadly they wouldn’t send one to New Zealand, and you had to get permission to test the water from the government of the country you were in. That all sounded a bit difficult so I missed out. But if you are in the region where you can pick up a kit, it looked really good.

Secchi Disk Study – this study measures phytoplankton in the ocean by using a simple white disk, that you can either buy or make yourself. You simply lower the disk in to the water and measure the depth at when it disappears from sight. You download an app on your phone and load the measured data in. The app also makes a note of your location. All the information is sent back to the scientists to analyse.

Microplastics – this one involves collecting water samples and sending them back to the USA for testing for micro plastics. Just bear in mind that posting water could get expensive, however there is an option to be reimbursed for this expense.

The Big Microplastic Survey is one that we have just done and really enjoyed. You can read more about our survey here. 

Micro plastics are a big problem for our Oceans. Check out this short video to see why.

Shark Base  – This organisation is interested in mapping worldwide shark populations. They are also interested in any historical photos of sharks.

Sail & Whale – Sail & Whale is a pilot project which intends to get long term useful cetacean data in collaboration with sailors, citizens and scientists. Report your sightings of different species as you sail.

If you don’t want to spot sharks, then you can take your pick of lots of other marine life, including spotting jellyfish, whales, turtles, dolphins, coral, rubbish, birds etc.

Birding Aboard ‘benefits seabird conservation by mobilizing the worldwide boating community to document ocean bird sightings, providing critical and otherwise seldom-recorded data on seabird abundance and distribution and on ocean migration routes.’ You simply need to take a photo of the bird you see and note the latitude and longitude and send the details in.

Give Sight Program – This is a very cool program which really allows you to really make a difference to the local people in places you are visiting. You purchase a kit which comes with everything you need to test people’s vision and then prescribe them some glasses!

A good database of projects to choose from is SciStarter.


You don’t even need to leave the comfort of your own home to become a citizen scientist.

Zooniverse is a platform where anyone can assist with research online, this can be in the form of counting penguins in photographs, transcribing historical ships weather logs, or listening to whale sounds. There are lots of different topics including the Ocean, space, animals and much more.

Or if you are in New Zealand you might like to participate in Marine Metre Squared. This project is an easy way for anyone to survey the plants and animals living on their local seashore. There are lots of resources on their website to help people identify the different sea life and how to do your reporting.

If you have got any other citizen science projects that you can recommend, please enter them in the comments below. I am super keen to participate in some of these projects once we get on the water full time.


5 thoughts on “Citizen Science for Sailors

  1. Pingback: Awesome Apps for Sailors | Astrolabe Sailing

  2. Pingback: Measuring Microplastics | Astrolabe Sailing

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