Sailing in the Service of Science
Ocean Missions Iceland
WideOyster photographer Frits Meyst joins a group of international scientists in the waters around Iceland, with the aim of jointly mapping the environment. The results are shocking. Will you go as a citizen scientist on the next expedition?
“Orcas! Orcas at two o’clock!” Cries Louise, the Danish whale researcher from her viewpoint on the bow of the Icelandic schooner Opal. Three black swords split through the icy water.
10 pairs of eyes on board scan the horizon. “Over there! They are also on the port side!” Lauren calls out from behind the helm. The Orcas swim in circles around schools of herring. Seabirds have also discovered the fish and plunge vertically into the water. When one of the orcas jumps out, I point my camera, but miss. It went too fast. It’s the first time I’ve see orcas. You have to have eyes in the back of your head to photograph them, because one suddenly rises up just two meters behind the boat. There we are: four whale researchers, a microplastics specialist, an industrial designer, an environmental journalist, two sailors and a photographer. We are all enchanted by the spectacular display.
Three months earlier one of the initiators of Ocean Missions, Belen Garcia Ovide, called to invite me to join this trip. I already knew her as a crew member of the Bark Europa, with which I sailed to Antarctica. “You must come on our expedition!” she called enthusiastically. “It will be a great adventure, not with tourists, but with scientists from different backgrounds and storytellers who will do research around Iceland together.”
And so it is on a mild May evening, that I’m sitting in a hot tub on board a historic sailing ship. As Captain Heimir of the Opal heads west, the green glow of the Northern Lights moves across the sky.
“Life is good,” says Belen. “I’m so glad you are here! The aim of the expedition is to collect data about the ocean around Iceland together and to share our findings through the storytellers. On the next trip we also want to take ‘citizen scientists’ with us. That is anyone with a passion for the ocean who would like to commit to the environment. By working with our scientists, they become ambassadors for the ocean, and that is our goal. There is too much ignorance among the public about the fragile ecosystem of our oceans, and what they don’t know about, they cannot protect.”
“We want to take citizen scientists, anyone with a passion for the environment, with us. By working with our scientists, they become ambassadors for the ocean”
Louise Flensborg, graduated in Arctic Mammal Protection. “During my master’s study I discovered that the most common risk analysis for mammals are based on tropical models, but they do not apply at all in the polar region. That’s why I think it’s important to do research around Iceland”. Louise also carries her dart gun. “It contains hollow arrows, with which I can harvest a piece of skin and fat from a whale, without the animal feeling it”.
Journalist Erica is from New York. “I have always had a passion for nature and when I went into journalism, I quickly found out that if I wanted to write about the environment I had to dive deeper into the matter, so I also studied environmental sciences.” This is how she came across Torsten Geertz, the microplastics researcher, and sailed the world with him to do research. “Microplastics are tiny particles of plastic that end up in the water when plastic garbage falls apart.
Because they are very small particles, they end up in the food chain. Small fish eat krill, which are eaten by larger predatory fish and eventually we eat those fish again. That is why it is so important to research this.” The fading Northern Lights signal that it’s time to go to sleep.
The next morning there is finally a favourable wind and Heimir decides that it is time to set the sails. The scientists are all on deck and under Heimir’s command we hoist the sails in the pouring rain. That doesn’t happen with the push of a button on a traditional wooden schooner. He loosens the right lines and in teams we set the sails. 20 minutes later and the ship is making 8 knots. Heimir looks up proudly. “When North Sailing bought this ship, we immediately wanted to limit our ‘footprint’. The diesel engine was replaced by an electric motor and large batteries. When we sail, the propeller turns so that we recharge the batteries via an alternator. This allows us to sail in the fjords, very quietly and emission free. Normally we sail with tourists in Greenland, but I also want to give back to the ocean with North Sailing. That is why we make the ship available twice a year for a research platform for scientists and as part of Ocean Missions.”
Iceland is one of the most rugged places on earth. Volcanic eruptions, wild storms, and powerful ocean waves have sculpted the island over the millennia
As soon as the sails are up, Torsten and Lauren put together a large construction of drain pipe and mesh. “This is the Manta Trawl.” Declares Torsten. “With this, we filter the water over a certain distance and in a certain grid, keeping the coordinates. Then we check filters for microplastics. You can then extrapolate the results to give a value to the entire area. Iceland is very important for microplastics research because many large currents come together here. The Manta Trawl goes overboard and for us the work is done and we can enjoy the view.
Iceland is one of the most rugged islands on earth. Hundreds of volcanic eruptions, wild storms, and powerful ocean waves have sculpted the island over the millennia to a sharp mass of black granite. Only grass and wild bushes grow on it. Miles of glaciers scoured the rocks and slowly slid into the deep fjords. The steep cliffs are the habitat for large colonies of birds, gannets, puffins and petrels.
After 3 miles, the manta trawl is lifted and the contents are rinsed through a fine sieve. After seeing how it works, Louise is also looking through a microscope for pieces of plastic: “I find it very interesting to see how Torsten conducts his research, now look at me: From the largest mammals on earth, to looking for microplastics”.
Next morning the sun breaks through the clouds and casts its magical light on the Opal anchored at Arnarstapi. The village is shaded by a volcano and the harbor is so small that we can only reach the quay with the dinghy. Here and there’s a wooden house visible among the wild yellow grass. Only the sound of a single car on the island’s bypass, otherwise it is deafeningly quiet. A few geese are bobbing in a pool and sheep are walking on the slopes, but when we get to the rocks there is quite a racket. Entering the breeding chamber of all shorebirds, the black rocks among the nests turned white and a piercing fishy smell from all the droppings. Below me, blue-green ocean waves crash and thunder and soon after we are back on board Opal.
Below me, blue-green ocean waves crash and thunder and soon after we are back on board Opal
‘’Blow!’’ exclaims Lauren, who mans a whale watching boat in everyday life. We peer over the waves to see where the whale is. At the second “blow” we also see the “fountain”. “There,” Charla the seasoned Canadian whale researcher shouts. “Yes! A Sperm Whale’’. She practically grew up with whales in Vancouver but has never seen a sperm whale and is over the moon. She even takes selfies with him. We wait for it to dive and for the tail to emerge, which is like a fingerprint. Once you have a photo of that, you can identify and “track” the whale in the database. The sperm whale is finished with its nap and curves its back. In slow motion, the enormous tail of the 18-meter-long colossus emerges. My camera clicks and I get a beautiful shot of it against the glacier behind. Everyone cheers celebrating the observation.
The wind turns to westerly and we can no longer sail. With the engine on we now crash directly against the waves. When the ocean swell comes into play, the ship becomes like a ferocious bull wanting to shake off his rider. Soon I only have two choices: staring outside into the now raging storm or lying in bed with my eyes closed. Heimir empties the sloshing hot tub as the storm blows every breaking wave horizontally across the deck. After half an hour in the elements I am numb to the bone and choose the bed like the rest of the crew. In the kitchen, the pans fly around the cupboard, but it doesn’t matter because nobody is hungry. Dry biscuits and tea keep us alive, and complement what regularly disappears in the toilet bowl. After 48 hours of torture we turn into the port of Grimsey and this brings an end to the seasickness. Welcome land sickness… Yes it really exists! As soon as I get on dry land, my head still tells me we’re moving and as long as balance organs and other senses disagree with the input of information, my stomach remains nauseous.
Grimsey is a small island of five square kilometers with a harbor, an airport and 61 residents. The rolling green landscape ends abruptly in steep cliffs, with black pebble beaches underneath. Grimsey is also a breeding ground for puffins. Of course I want to take a good picture, but I’m not a bird watcher and I don’t have a camouflage tent and no time to wait all day for a landing. There are several pairs in the grass, and I slowly crawl on my stomach through the grass. Every few meters I shoot a few pictures and then a bit closer. Two couples are quite distracted so I can approach them closely. How beautiful they are, with those big beaks and their round heads. My day is saved.
Sailing a Traditional Schooner
Opal is a schooner, a traditionally rigged sailing ship from North Sailing, which does expeditions around Iceland and Greenland. Those who do not want to join a scientific expedition can also join a sailing trip. With North Sailing you can also spot whales on the best whale waters in Europe.
A little further on I see our scientists on the beach. Under the leadership of Lauren, they collect all the waste over a length of a hundred meters and note the weight and type of waste. “Look,” says Lauren, “Almost all of this is plastic from fishing.” She has her hands full with fishing net floats. “Everywhere I go I do beach clean-ups. We take the waste with us and the results are kept in German databases. We do this according to a fixed principle, so that people without scientific knowledge can still contribute to research”.
Torsten reports his findings: “Near the Orcas, we measured the highest concentration of microplastics on this trip: no less than 8,125 particles per square kilometer”. I think again of the fantastic face of the Orcas, but what also struck me were the many fishing boats in the area. How about that? Erica answers “Everyone is here because of the large amounts of krill. These small organisms are at the bottom of the food chain, small plastic particles also float between the krill. Whales dive here for the krill, but so do the herring”.
“Near the Orcas, we measured the highest concentration of microplastics on this trip: no less than 8,125 particles per square kilometer”
Torsten adds “These microplastics are also already found in the stomachs of the herring in large quantities. The herring thinks that it has eaten enough, and doesn’t grow to the normal size. This in turn has consequences for fish stocks, with all the consequences for the rest of the food chain”. And who eats the herring? Cod and Orcas. And who eats the Cod? Right,- man!
Belen shouts with great enthusiasm: “This is why we are on this expedition together! Everyone has a piece of the puzzle and we can only present it together. Ocean Missions is already successful!”.
Help researchers to protect the ocean
Join an expedition as a citizen scientist
Ocean Missions aims to map the ocean around Iceland in terms of the environment. You too can join! As a citizen scientist you work together in a team and help with research into microplastics, whales, birds and pollution. It is an adventure in which you do meaningful work, that you will always remember. In 2021 the Opal will sail twice for the Ocean Mission Expedition. Sign up now and contribute to the Ocean.