Citizen Science for Cruisers

June 2014
Rachelle Lauro, Indigo V Expeditions
Help oceanographers close the data gap!

Indigo V Expeditions
The Indigo V Expeditions team deploy a Niskin bottle that captures a sample of seawater during the proof-of-concept study.

Planning an open ocean cruise? If so, you are the key to helping us better understand the health of the world’s oceans!  

Oceans cover 71% of our planet and play a critical role in regulating the atmosphere, cycling nutrients through the food web and absorbing the massive release of CO2 since the industrial age. Taken in sum, the oceans serve as the backbone to sustaining habitable life on planet earth.

Yet our oceans are under unprecedented stress. Overfishing, ocean acidification, dumping, increased usage of oil pipelines and deep sea drilling all contribute the destabilization of this increasingly fragile ecosystem. As world population rises and our demands grow, the prognosis for the oceans is not good. While these effects can be readily seen and appreciated, the biggest threat is to the invisible majority: microbes.

What are Marine Microbes?

Though they may be tiny, marine microbes are one hundred times more abundant in the ocean than there are stars in the galaxy and make up 90% of the ocean's total biomass. They play critical roles in converting carbon dioxide to organic matter and in regulating nutrient cycling, which serves as the bedrock to the food web.

Thalassionema, Synechococcus, and Prochlorococcus
With names like Thalassionema, Synechococcus, and Prochlorococcus these microscopic organisms are hard for people to connect with, but they are the essence of life on our planet.

Without healthy functioning microbial communities, we would not have any air to breath and the food web would collapse. With all the pressures our species places on the ocean, now more than ever, monitoring the health of these organisms is of urgent priority. 

Data Collection Woes

The ocean is a dynamic system that requires millions of observation points to fully understand the very complex marine ecosystem. To better evaluate the health of the world’s oceans, we need significantly more data than we are currently collecting.

Traditional oceanography is restricted to large and expensive research ships where only a few samples may be taken at a time. A modern research vessel typically costs more than $30,000 per day to operate and research vessels only cover a fraction of the world’s oceans.

Scientific progress in microbial oceanography has long been hampered by both expense and geographical constraints, which limit the quantity of samples collected, particularly in the Indian Ocean. The missing data limits our ability to predict ocean weather, determine the stability of the food web and better understand the impacts of ocean acidification. Without more data points, much about the true state of the ocean will remain largely unknown.     

With global cutbacks in government research funds, citizen science (research conducted by nonprofessional scientists) offers an elegant solution to solving the lack of global data collection.

By putting data collection in the hands of world cruisers, we will dramatically reduce the cost per sample, which means more information can be gathered per research dollar spent.

Ocean Sailing Microbial Observatory

Last year, Indigo V Expeditions carried out a proof-of-concept study aboard our flagship vessel, S/Y Indigo V, a 61-foot Nautor Swan. We sailed  from Cape Town, South Africa to Phuket, Thailand, covering over 5,800 NM, developing methods and defining the parameters needed to better understand ocean health.

We developed an, Ocean Sailing Microbial Observatory (OSMO), which is an auto-sampling device that collects meta-data such as temperature, pH and salinity. The OSMO records time, date and location of the vessel at the time of sampling. The raw data is sent to the Indigo lab via satellite SMS and we are able to put a time and location stamp on every sample. Microbial data is also collected via seawater filtration to be further analyzed onshore.  

Involvement for sailors is easy and free! OSMO will be attached to the stern pulpit using sturdy integrated hard plastic brackets. It is fully automated, and supplies its own power. Sailors do not need to operate the OSMO and it does not slow sailing performance.

Symbiosis of Cruisers and Oceanographers

By joining cost-effective cutting edge technology with existing world cruiser routes, we can monitor microbial communities in the world’s oceans year after year in the same locations. This is crucial to building a baseline of ocean health that can be closely monitored for changes 

The data collected from citizen oceanographers will be used to raise public awareness and assist policy-makers as they make better scientifically based decisions that will lead to the protection of this very precious resource for generations to come. 

World Cruising Routes
Every day there are thousands of vessels cruise the oceans. With the help of cruisers worldwide, we can collect vast amounts of data that will help us better understand ocean health. Source: 

A combination of innovative, cost-effective technologies and world cruiser involvement will lead to a paradigm shift in how we view traditional oceanography. We will broaden our knowledge base, leading to unprecedented advancements in field of ocean health.  

The first OSMO units will launch with a pilot study along the Indian Ocean cruise routes pictured below, including the Chagos Archipelago / BIOT. Eventually research will expand to every ocean basin.  

Cruising Routes of The Indian Ocean
Cruising Routes of The Indian Ocean. Data from:, figure courtesy of Jacob Senstius.

The oceans are in trouble, but hope exists to save them. Once we move to protect the fragile balance of the ecosystems, the oceans will recover and flourish.  But if we make no changes, if we ignore the warning signs and continue to destroy eco-systems, we will destroy the very ‘organs’ put in place to support habitable life on the planet.

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” – Lao-Tzu

Take Action

You can make a difference. Follow these steps to create a positive future for the ocean.

Take Action
  • Don’t forget the OSMO! If you would like to be a citizen oceanographer, contact Rachelle Lauro at Alternatively, you can always  keep in touch on Facebook or Google+.
  • Learn more about Indigo V Expeditions and the 2013 proof of concept cruise.
  • Help spread the word to your local yacht club, sailing networks and to anyone you know planning an open ocean cruise.
  • There are many citizen science projects that you can participate in. If you are not planning on ocean cruise in the near future, check out Scientific American or Scistarter for many more citizen science projects.