In this episode, Lisa Campbell shares a story of sailing, science, and Sargassum. Based on a 3-day research cruise to the Sargasso Sea, the story was originally developed during a workshop with The Story Collider, a non-profit organization that “helps people of all walks of life — from scientists to doctors to patients to engineers to teachers to firefighters — tell their true, personal stories about science.” Not only did the workshop inspire this particular story, it motivated Lisa to think about podcasting as something she might do.
Dr. Lisa Campbell is the Rachel Carson Professor of Marine Affairs and Policy at the Duke University Marine Lab. Her research is broadly focused on oceans governance and she is especially interested in the roles of non-state actors and science in governance. She went to Bermuda as part of a research project on the Human Dimensions of Large Marine Protected Areas. A founding co-conspirator in Seas the Day, her regular role is host of the Conservation and Development series.
Featured in this Episode
Leslie Acton was a PhD student at the Duke University Marine Lab and is now Assistant Professor of Coastal Sciences at The University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Coast Research Lab. Her PhD research examined one of the most significant trends in global oceans conservation: large-scale marine protected areas (MPAs). As part of the Human Dimensions of Large MPAs project, Leslie led research in Bermuda, and documented the strategies used by diverse actors, including government representatives, conservation NGOs, scientists, funders, fishermen, and industry representatives to assert their territorial interests in offshore waters of Bermuda. Learn more about the Bermuda case study here.
Special thanks to Sara Mirabilio for graciously allowing Lisa to include her story within this one. Read Sara’s blog about her trip here.
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Supplemental material for this episode
Seas the Day Episode 27 – Doing science in the Sargasso Sea
[music – oyster waltz]
Lisa Campbell: Hey listener’s, it’s Lisa Campbell, welcome to Seas the Day. A couple of years ago, I was invited to participate in a science story telling workshop, hosted by The Story Collider. The Story Collider is a non-profit organization that, quote: “helps people of all walks of life — from scientists to doctors to patients to engineers to teachers to firefighters — tell their true, personal stories about science.” Endquote. The story Collider works to show the relevance of science to everyday life, and to make scientists as people more familiar. The staff run workshops where stories are crafted, and then host live shows and a podcast to share some of them. The story you’ll hear today is my story, developed initially at a workshop, and shared here for the first time. So, with a shout out to my workshop hosts Erin Barker and Liz Neely, let me tell you a story…
Lisa: I am in bright red / foul weather gear, attached by a harness to one of the safety lines tacked down on the deck, and running its length. Technically I’m on watch, but throughout my four-hour shift, 8pm-midnight, I am huddled on the deck in the stern of the boat, leaning against a bulkhead, my knees pulled up in front of my body, my head and arms draped over my knees. I am rocking – or maybe swaying a little – and possibly moaning, more or less in sync with movement of the boat, through what I am told are moderately ‘rough’ waters. For the inexperience sailor, like me and many others on the voyage, it is enough. I am useless, overwhelmed with a nausea that is so specific to seasickness.
Earlier, throughout the day, I watched my fellow crew members struggle, as one by one, they fell ill. One person didn’t even make it out of the harbor before they threw up over the side, and then retired below to their bunk. Another lay prone on the deck, staring into the distance, for 5 hours. While I was sympathetic with my fellow voyagers, I was also somewhat smug about my ‘superior’ stomach and my strategic approach. Anticipating possible problems, I’d loaded up on anti-motion sickness meds before boarding, and I stayed in the stern of the boat for most of the day. It’s a small thing to feel smug about, I know…
BUT then at dinner time, everything changed. One of the few remaining crew members able to eat was sitting across from me on the deck, telling a story, when she vomited – mid-sentence – into her dinner bowl. Mid-sentence. Talking. Vomit. It was that quick. And that was it – I felt my own stomach turn. I crawled to the side of the deck, discreetly I hoped, and threw up. While still able to function, I rinsed the deck with a hose before collapsing into my so-called ‘watch’ position. This was the end of my first day on a 3-day research cruise to the Sargasso Sea, in the offshore waters of the Island of Bermuda. As a social scientist, I was working on a project that sought to understand the diverse values that people attach to these distant off-shore ocean spaces, ones they seldom visit. My conclusion at the end of day 1? Humans have no business here. The ocean is hostile. Keep out.
The morning of day 2 dawned overcast but relatively calm; most of us were more or less recovered, and we exchanged sheepish looks as we started our day. I sat clutching a mug of hot, milky tea, and watched the sky slowly brighten. With calmer seas, the ocean seemed less hostile, but still just so incredibly vast. I felt physically small and insignificant in a way I had never felt before. All around us the sea looked the same; no land, no other boats, nothing to distinguish one view from another for the inexperienced sailor, except maybe the sky, I guess, if you knew how to read it. I had learned that the harness that tethered me to the boat was because, if I were washed overboard, I would be lost from sight within minutes, lost in the swell of the ocean, long before the sailboat could turn and return to retrieve me. I was tethered to the boat not to avoid drowning, but to avoid disappearing. You can disappear.
I wasn’t frightened, not really. But the feeling of smallness, of my insignificance in the midst of the vast Atlantic Ocean, did help me understand in some new and visceral way the enormity of the task of trying to manage and conserve the ocean on a global scale. And places like this, the Sargasso Sea, feature in these efforts.
Now, I’m a social scientist, and I study global oceans conservation and related politics. My research normally takes place at international meetings, or in offices of conservation organizations; not on research cruises. My data come from people and documents; not from the waters of the Atlantic Ocean. So, how did I come to be drinking tea at dawn, reflecting on my insignificance, during a research cruise in the Sargasso Sea? Well, at the time, my then student and now colleague Leslie Acton was conducting research on Bermuda’s efforts to protect the Sargasso Sea. Early on during her stay in Bermuda, she met Dr. Robbie Smith, from the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum, and Zoo. A natural mentor of graduate students, Dr. Smith — well, I’ll call him Robbie, everybody does – Robbie went out of his way to support Leslie, making introductions, sharing documents, and – you guessed it – inviting her on a research cruise to the Sargasso Sea. He thought she should see first hand the environment at the heart of the conservation effort she was studying. As luck would have it, the cruise was scheduled during the two weeks I was in Bermuda to support Leslie’s work. So, Robbie made a place for me as well.
Robbie runs these short expeditions in Bermuda’s offshore waters opportunistically, on the Sea Dragon, a 72 ft sailing vessel that serves Pangea Exploration, a non-profit organization committed to Exploration, Education, Conservation. When the Sea Dragon’s available and Robbie can raise the funds, he and his students use these trips to collect samples for various ongoing research projects, but Robbie also takes the opportunity to show members of the public – high school teachers, environmental educators, politicians, students, and even visiting researchers — an ecosystem he cares passionately about – the Sargasso Sea. So, the journey is both a scientific expedition, and a science education expedition.
The Sargasso Sea is named for the vast ‘patch’ of free floating sargassum seaweed that circulates in the north and mid-Atlantic, bordered by 4 ocean currents that ‘contain’ it in a gyre. While there are other types of floating seaweed, Sargassum is interesting because it is the only type that reproduces at the surface, while floating; it also provides habitat to various species, including some fish and invertebrates endemic to it – they don’t exist anywhere else. This second day is a work day and day time hours are devoted to sampling sargassum. We go to work armed with the sophisticated tools of many field biologists – think pool skimmers and kids dip nets, kitchen colanders and sieves, and buckets, lots and lots of white 5 gallon buckets.
The Sargasso Sea has been described as a ‘golden floating rainforest’, but sargassum has a seasonality, and moves with winds and currents; the transect we followed at that time of year and in those conditions was populated with small, dispersed clumps of Sargassum, rather than the vast mat I had imagined. This makes our collection efforts both challenging and humorous. To collect sargassum, we hang out over the side of the sailboat, leaning into our harnesses, trusting them to keep us in the boat, to stop us from disappearing. We wield dip nets, trying to time our ‘dips’ perfectly, to ‘catch’ the small clumps of sargassum as they move past the boat. With the boat shifting and dipping in the waves, it’s more challenging than you would think., and we laugh as some clumps evade all of our collectors, lined up along the length of the boat. Eventually, our buckets are full of sargassum, and we watch Robbie and a student pick through it, recording information on species, their number and size. They patiently answer our questions about what they are looking for and finding as they do their work.
Valuing the Sargasso Sea scientifically is one of the many competing value propositions at stake in the conflicts over whether to not Bermuda should protect this space. Scientific arguments are weighed alongside economic arguments, soveiregnty concerns, and cultural claims. How does science fare in such contests? When do scientific arguments prevail and when do they fall flat? Who mobilizes scientific authority and to what effect? These kinds of broad questions about science and scientific practice drive my own research on global oceans conservation and shape all of my engagements with science. So, even though I am here to participate in Robbie’s research, I can’t help but think about my own. I am interested both in the details of the science – what is in the bucket—and also our approach to the activity. So, what does our science look like?
When we reach our first transect, the captain announces that it’s time to ‘do science.’ “let’s do some science.” And Robbie responds with his own call of “who wants to do science?” Many of the volunteer crew engage with enthusiasm, and there is a giddy procession of people to get sampling gear. Aren’t you excited? Don’t you want to do science? I find it both fun – let’s do science – but also unsettling, like ‘doing science’ is a goal in and of itself. Sociologists of science tell us that the inaccessibility of science, combined with its projected authority, can explain some of the public’s distrust of science and scientists, distrust that is part of what has been called the ‘post-truth’ era. The approach we take to ‘doing science’ certainly makes it accessible – you too can do science! But it also seems to celebrate it – ‘science’ – without reflecting on the questions we are seeking to answer, or why we would ask them in the first place. But we ‘do science’, all of us pitching in, all of us enjoying ourselves. I recognize the power of that, of participating, of having fun. And, maybe it’s enough.
When we arrive back on shore the next day, we are all tired and need to bathe, but we linger on the dock, hesitant to say good-bye. A collective crew vomit can bind people together, after all, both in place, when it happens, and in the story that each of us tells and retells over time to other people. While I am still mulling over the role of science in the trip, at that moment, as we find our shore legs together, I am overwhelmed with the sense of gratitude for having had this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience the Sargasso Sea, and to do so with these people. I say good bye knowing that I am unlikely to cross paths with most of them again, but also that I won’t forget them.
I also know that I am unlikely to do anything similar in the future; it is only due to the coincidence of timing, combined with Robbie’s thoughtfulness, that this trip happened at all. As I leave the dock, I am already ‘filing’ this in my memory – Lisa’s research cruise in the Sargasso Sea – as a stand alone event, one with a clear beginning and ending.
But beginnings and endings often blur. Six months later, back at home in North Carolina, I received an email from a colleague, Sara. In her message, she described how, at age 37, she had been diagnosed with stage 2 hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer. The email took my breath away. 37 is young, and Sara is a runner, a non-smoker, the picture of health. I was shocked that this thing – stage 2 hormone receptor-positive breast cancer – had happened to her. But the message continued. Sara, about to turn 40, was celebrating two years cancer free. And to mark the occasion, she had signed up for ‘eXXpedition’ a series of all women sailing expeditions to scientifically investigate causes and solutions to plastic pollution in oceans. The organization’s tag line is to make the unseen seen, by connecting the toxics in our bodies to the plastics in our seas. Scientific research increasingly suggests that many plastics leach chemicals that mimic female hormones, impairing normal function in the body and likely leading to cancers of hormone-sensitive tissues like the breast and ovary. So, yes, Sara’s response to her illness and recovery was to ‘do science.’ And guess what boat would host this eXXxpedititon? It was the Sea Dragon. Sara would sail on eXXpedition Caribbean leg 2, sampling and testing water for contaminants on that same boat. I pictured the Sea Dragon; I imagined her crew. And for reasons I don’t fully understand, this gave me great comfort. As I typed a response to Sara’s message, I couldn’t help myself! I thought, “OK Sara. Let’s do science!”
Thanks for listening to Sea the Day. Today’s episode was written and produced by me, Lisa Campbell. Rafa Lobo edited it. For more information, visit our website at: sites.nicholas.duke.edu/seastheday. You’ll learn more about Leslie Acton’s research, the Sargasso Sea, expeditions on the Sea Dragon, Sara’s story, and the Story Collider. Don’t forget to follow us on twitter and Instagram @seastheday pod, and leave us a rating wherever you listen to podcasts.
END OF TRANSCRIPT
All the songs come from the freemusicarchive.org
In order of appearance:
Cory Gray – Old World
Tea K Pea – Sono
Damiano Baldoni – DeepSea
Silence is Sexy – On the Beach
John Bartmann – Safari Time
One Man Book – The Elephant & the Dove
Scott Holmes Music – Never Mis a Moment
Scott Holmes Music – Soft Inspiration