UKZN Academic Joins Expedition to Assess State of World’s Oceans

Marine Biology lecturer in the School of Life Sciences, Dr David Glassom, is a member of a two-week research sail venture aboard the sailboat Fleur de Passion that is part of a four-year global voyage known as the Ocean Mapping Expedition.

Glassom is collecting data on the use of plastic debris by juvenile fish, specifically the potential for species migrations or invasions in a time of global change.

The expedition, sponsored by the Switzerland-based non-profit organisation Fondation Pacifique, is following the route taken by Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan 500 years ago when he initiated the first circumnavigation of the Earth. Its aim is to observe, understand, map and report on the state of the oceans in light of the first circumnavigation, thereby raising awareness of issues arising from humanity’s impact on this environment, and provoking thought about our relationship to the Earth’s oceans.

The journey began in Seville in Spain on 12 April 2015 and concludes in September 2019 on the Iberian Peninsula.

Departing from Durban on 14 November and disembarking in Knysna, Glassom joined eight others aboard the Fleur de Passion, a 33-metre-long two-masted vessel and the largest sailboat flying the Swiss flag.

‘Throughout our journey, the assessment of human impact on the oceans is carried out by our scientific partners, who use the boat as a quite unusual yet very effective platform to perform unprecedented field research on noise and micro-plastic pollution as well as monitoring greenhouse gases at the ocean surface,’ said Mr Samuel Gardaz, Vice-President and founding member of Fondation Pacifique.

The expedition is arranged around three multidisciplinary hubs of activity that emphasise the sharing of experience to gauge humanity’s impact on the oceans, namely: scientific, socio-educational and cultural. The latter two themes involve the inclusion of young people on short, medium or long-term experiences of life at sea, and the ‘In Magellan’s Mirror’ project, where cartoonists join the journey to create sketches on the themes of exploration, the quest for knowledge, and the links between humans and the sea and mother earth.

Important scientific field data collected is vital to promote better understanding of the role of the oceans in the carbon cycle, the quality of ocean water under siege from plastic pollution, the health of corals, and the impacts of sound pollution.

Along the way, local researchers have joined the expedition; in Australia, researchers from the University of Queensland joined for a month to measure environmental impacts on areas including the Great Barrier Reef.

Glassom will sample plastic debris and capture any juvenile fish using the debris, measuring, identifying and weighing the fish, and examining their gut contents for plastic particles. He will debrief the crew on the sampling protocol so that sampling can continue until Cape Town and possibly even further.

‘Juvenile fish are known to shelter under plastic debris. Species range shifts or range expansions are already evident as a consequence of rising sea surface temperature due to global warming, and migrations could be facilitated by the availability of debris for shelter and possible nutrition from biofilms growing on the plastic,’ said Glassom.

The Durban-Knysna leg includes Glassom, four crewmembers, two teenagers and their educator and one other passenger. When the boat reaches Mossel Bay, four learners will be welcomed aboard through a project between CapeNature and the Swiss Embassy, and a South African cartoonist will join.

Words: Christine Cuénod 

Photograph supplied by the Fondation Pacifique/The Ocean Mapping Expedition