Citizen science for voyagers

Cruising sailors leaving home often want to be useful in places they visit along the way. This can take the form of applying skills from their lives on land, like teaching or carpentry, or distributing supplies to distant places. But another way to contribute to the greater good is through citizen science.

Citizen science happens when the public voluntarily helps conduct scientific research. Citizen scientists may collect data, analyze results, and even design experiments but the specific problem and the tools to address it are set up by professional scientists. Employing volunteers can broaden the geographic reach of a research project and make it possible to obtain a large pool of meaningful data that can be applied to real-world problems. 

This raises the bar on activities like beach combing, fishing, or even gazing at the ocean on a passage and gives them a structured purpose. A good place to start could be with NOAA, which for decades has relied on citizen scientists to help fulfill its mission of studying the ocean. Visit the website ( and filter for NOAA in the search bar. If you prefer not to start with a government site there’s SciStarter (, an online citizen science hub supported by a number of private and public partners. You can search either site for interesting projects and find support and tools. For sailors with children on board there are projects that can be used in home schooling.

An obvious place to begin would be with the Marine Debris Monitoring and Assessment Project, or MDMAP, which engages NOAA partners and volunteers around the world to survey and record the amount and types of marine debris on shorelines. You just have to stand on the windward shore of an island in the Caribbean or South Pacific to understand the depth and breadth of this problem, where everything from flipflops to plastic cigarette lighters floating in from miles away pollutes the beaches. NOAA’s Shoreline Survey Guide provides an overview, and a Get Started Toolbox ( contains data sheets and protocol documents, tutorials and a registration portal where participants sign in to digitally upload their data. You can also view the results of previous data collection without having to sign in. Because the data is to be used by professional scientists, if protocols are not followed and the collection work is sloppy it will be rejected but it is well within the purview of interested sailors to do a good job and make a positive contribution to knowledge of the ocean environment.

Ann Hoffner