From plastic-spotting to fried-egg jellyfish: an account of my stay on the SY Independence. Written by Veerle Troelstra

First for introductions: I’m a third-year Environmental Geoscience student at UCL. I initially chose my degree in the hope to eventually be able to contribute my own research on prevailing environmental issues. Having always been very keen on sailing and hoping to combine these two interests, I stumbled upon Project Manaia in my search for ocean research opportunities. What instantly drew me to this particular initiative is that it is not contradictory in its aim. I found it highly appealing and inspiring that Project Manaia is run on a sailing vessel, minimising its footprint and making active efforts not to work against its main purpose. 

I had never heard of such an initiative, and it was extremely uplifting to see that there are people around who dedicate their efforts to the research and solving of these sorts of fundamental anthropogenic-caused issues. Manuel and Pinar’s lives currently revolve around their aim to restore Mediterranean habitats. Seeing such dedication to a certain goal is not only refreshing but also motivating in that it drove me to think about what efforts I could be making (or at least striving towards) in order to see an actual difference. 

It was made very clear from the start that Manuel and Pinar wanted this to be our project (the volunteers) just as much as it was theirs. We were encouraged to do whatever we were enthusiastic about and given a heap of flexibility to determine our best way of working, our schedule and role distribution.

Joining the team at Trogir, I was blessed to have two volunteers there convince me that the underwater world is at its finest at 6 am sharp. I was humbled by how right they were. Hence, we chose to start our mornings at this time, snorkelling and identifying species near our anchorage. We would remember these, photograph them and record our findings back on the boat. Later on in the day would follow our seagrass transects, designed to give an overview of the extent of seagrass habitats at each location. A typical day would usually end with some data admin and light discussions on how today’s findings differed from those of the last anchorage. 

Veerle Troelstra on field collecting data.

I myself do not stem from a marine biology background. So, as you may be able to imagine, I returned to the boat the first day with a shockingly low amount of observations. I am however grateful (in a way) for this lack of initial knowledge, as without it I would not have realised how steep the learning curve really was. After every outing, I knew more species, grew more confident in identifying these and was on the whole that much more excited to get back in the water. While certain species were more abundant (while of course still exciting), it was sightings such as the fried egg jellyfish, cuttlefish or seahorses that were most thrilling. 

Part of the research into marine plastics is notating sightings of these while out on the water. Having to look out for any sign of plastic at all times makes this issue suddenly appear a whole lot more pressing. What was interesting to see, and have pointed out to me, was the interaction between wind direction, ocean dynamics and the amount of plastic that would drift past on a given day. It was insights like this that provided a better context for the observations we were making, allowing us to notice certain correlations that were not so obvious beforehand. 

This sort of way of thinking was encouraged even further by the newly introduced (although I did admittedly dread this at first) “presentation at the end of your stay” routine. More specifically, a chance to present and discuss any key observations or correlations we made throughout the duration of the trip. These would form the basis of theories or hypotheses that Project Manaia would then keep in mind for the remainder of their journey. Being forced to think so constructively allowed me to get a whole lot more out of the experience. 

One of the things that I have held onto from this trip is how aware I became of the idea of limited resources. Naturally, a sailing vessel is limited in space and capacity. It requires developing a certain awareness of how much water and electricity you were using, and how much you could have gone without. I am so keen on this aspect of my experience as it has forced me to adapt a much more conscious mindset. 

I am still quite taken aback by how much I was able to absorb and learn on board, varying from all of the species names to the more obscure fun facts, like which coastal plants are edible, and different ways of storing a watermelon onboard… 

All in all, a wonderful experience! 

Veerle Troelstra writing down the data of beach transects.

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