The Great Escape

Finally! After a solid week of meandering around in the Gulf of the Farallons dodging tankers, warships, and fishing boats, CR’s drifter has been recaptured by the California Current and is heading south. The drifter has been sailing steadily southward for the last three days, and is now halfway between the Golden Gate and Monterey Bay.

The Monterey Bay, however, presents a new set of challenges. The currents there are notoriously variable as witnessed by Monterey Peninsula College’s two deployments of their drifter over the last seven months (See their posts  from November 17th of last year and February 3rd of this year). The excitement is building here again as the drifter approaches its next aquatic hurdle. Wake up Deidre, there’s some jetsam heading your way!


Marine Science Students Build A Satellite Drifter

College of the RedwoodsNews: Mendocino Coast
May 17, 2010 – 4:02:19 PM

Students in the Marine Science Technology Program (MST) have recently built and deployed an ocean drifter designed to study California coastal currents. The drifter is a four-and-one-half foot tall by four foot wide structure made of PVC pipe, vinyl “sails” and a package containing a satellite transmitter. The drifter is designed to float just below the surface of the ocean so that its path is largely unaffected by the wind. A satellite tracking device protrudes above the ocean surface so the path of the drifter can be monitored by MST students, scientists and the public.

It was dropped into the Pacific Ocean on Tuesday May 11 with the help of the F/V Trek II about two miles offshore of Noyo Bay. The students have been waiting for ideal oceanographic conditions to drop the drifter to utilize the dominate California Current that flows from north to south, fueled by a northwest wind pattern. Strong northerly winds also foster coastal upwelling that pushes surface waters offshore. Upwelling brings cold, nutrient-rich waters to the surface and sustains the tremendously diverse coastal ecosystem along the Mendocino Coast. Information gathered by the drifter will be used in future MST Program classes, such as the Oceanography class that will be offered this coming fall semester. Even if ocean currents force it up on the beach, the drifter can be recovered and redeployed unless it is too damaged.

Funding and support for the project came from the Marine Advanced Technology Education (MATE) program in Monterey via a grant from the National Science Foundation. Scientists from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts provided materials and technical support to assist CR students to assemble the drifter, and the federal National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has donated the satellite time to track the drifter.

Marine Science Technology students on the Mendocino Campus are hoping to see how changes in wind and currents affect the path of their drifter. Watch the MST web page ( for a future link that will allow you to track the path of the drifter along with the MST students. You can access a real-time google map with the drifter location updated every four hours at the following address:

© Copyright College of the Redwoods


CR’s Drifter Playing a Dangerous Game

College of the Redwoods’ drifter has taken “playing on the freeway” to a new level. For the last four days, our drifter has been wandering around in the inbound and outbound shipping lanes (there are six of these) to the San Francisco Bay . Two hours ago it moved to within 10 nautical miles from the mouth of the San Francisco Bay and directly into the only major inbound shipping lane that goes under the Golden Gate Bridge!

The wind direction has  shifted back to the NW, so the drifter may be driven southward again. On the other hand, there is a spring flood tide cresting around 11:30 tonight that could drive the drifter closer to the bay. All of these options are only possible if (and this is a big IF) it manages to avoid the heavy ship traffic sailing into the bay. Watch with us on our Google Map page at,


Rural Drifter Heads for the Big City

No, this is not a Country & Western song. College of the Redwoods’ drifter finally escaped the clutches of the Bodega Triangle two days ago under the cover of darkness. In the same bold move, the drifter also slipped past the deadly clutches of Point Reyes. Safe? Not even! The drifter made an initial feint toward the Golden Gate, but then eased southward. Since then the drifter has been ambling through the major shipping lanes approaching the Golden Gate: dangerous waters! (

The NWS offshore forecast for the next four days calls for more unseasonal southerly winds (is this really MAY?), which could once again subject our valiant drifter to the possibility of being pushed back northward and onshore. Thus the potential for a visit to the Big City still remains a possibility.

Both of our local newspapers published articles on the drifter project (one on the front page), and tracking the drifter has become an obsession for many members of the general public as well as our students. Thanks to each and all of you (especially Jim Manning & Deidre Sullivan) that are responsible for making this project happen!


Trapped in the Bodega Triangle: Day 9

College of the Redwoods’ drifter continues to wander in a relatively small area that we have dubbed “The Bodega Triangle”.  After charging southward nearly 90 nm in the first 5 days after deployment, the drifter has since been cycling around an area of only a few square miles.  The seasonally unusual southerly winds over the last couple of days have been driving the drifter northward, but the forecast calls for a return of our typically strong northwesterlies today. I’m tempted to suggest that those winds may push the drifter southward again, but I have been surprised so many times over the last 9 days that I think I’ll just say, “Stay tuned for more excitement!”


CR drifter becalmed

For the first 5 days after deployment, strong NW winds fueled a current that carried College of the Redwoods’ drifter at speeds of well over 1 knot. Those winds died down on Sunday  and postponed our hopes of the drifter making it past Point Reyes. The past 36 hours have becalmed our drifter, and it has become a waiting game.

A weak front is predicted to slip through the area today, and with it will come southerly winds. Southerly winds could produce a northerly current, and more significantly, an onshore flow. The front is predicted to move through quickly, and our usually reliable NW winds should return tomorrow. Today produces another round of anxiety among the students and staff following the journey of the drifter. Will it be driven onshore today, or will tomorrow’s northwesterlies power our drifter past Point Reyers?

Regardless of the drifter’s immediate fate, the drifter has proven to be one of the most dynamic and powerful teaching tools I ever had. Each day’s odyssey has been a string of teaching and learning opportunities for all of us.


College of the Redwoods drifter continues

The excitement is building in our lab, as our drifter skirted by a major geographic hurdle. In our past studies Point Arena has captured many of our drift bottles. Early this morning the drifter we deployed two days ago (  ) successfully avoided the clutches of the Point and is continuing southward. The excitement is palpable in the lab and classroom. Students and staff are huddled around their computers for the position updates every 4 hours. Cheers actually broke out when the drifter missed Pt. Arena. Now we’re watching its course as it approaches the next big roadblock, Point Reyes.


College of the Redwoods deploys a new drifter

The students in our Marine Science Technology Program were excited to assemble our new drifter, but their enthusiasm was wavering as we waited weeks for good sea conditions. For those of you unfamiliar with the northern California coast, spring is a rather volatile time. Typically we have strong northwesterly winds at this time of year that fuel the upwelling that sustains an extremely productive marine ecosysytem. The California current (flowing from north to south) sweeps close to shore and gains momentum.  Winter storm winds, on the other hand, approach from the south and often produce a nearshore current (the Davidson Current) that flows from south to north and nudges the California Current offshore. Deploying the drifter involved waiting for the ideal window of opportunity: just after a front, with its southerly winds, sweeps by, and just before the northerly winds reappear to return the ocean surface to chaos.

This spring has been unusually violent and the seesaw of the California and Davidson Currents jockeying for nearshore dominance, and the nearly ceaseless winds, have kept the sea conditions very poor for a deployment.

This is the last week of our spring semester however, and I felt compelled to deploy the drifter before the students dispersed for the summer. We launched yesterday, and the sea conditions were perfect (if you like sea sickness). 10 to 12 foot, short period swells and rather chaotic seas did not, however dim the students’ enthusiasm. The winds (20 to 35 knots) were from the north and the surface flow was strongly southward. We were hopeful that the added influence of upwelling would force our drifter offshore and to the south.

For those of you that have already deployed a drifter, I’m sure you know what the next few hours were like waiting for a satellite fix. By the time our second fix arrived, it appeared our drifter was heading to shore. The students in our program have been conducting cheap, low-tech drift studies for almost 25 years now. We’ve been throwing drift bottles overboard with a printed message asking the finders to mail them back to us. It’s been tremendously successful, and we’ve received bottles from as far away as Alaska and the Philippines. In that time we’ve discovered that certain locations seem to catch more bottles than others.

Last night our drifter was heading for the dreaded Caspar Bay.Check out our Google Map page at: . By early this morning it was apparent that the drifter had skirted the foul place and was heading south. Past experience has indicated that we have two more major hurdles to bypass if our drifter is going to be in this for the long haul. The next is Pt. Arena, which the drifter should approach within the next day or two. We’re all holding our collective breath. If the drifter misses that roadblock, the next is Pt. Reyes.

In the past, if our drift bottles skirt Pt. Reyes they tend to travel to locations south of San Francisco or into the open Pacific. You’re all welcome to share our tension and excitement. Follow along on our Goggle Map site along with our students and the local community.

If you are an educator, I must say that this is the most excited I’ve seen my students about a single project in a long time. During yesterday’s deployment, the students were getting soaked by waves breaking over the boat’s bow, and everyone of them sported a grin that was, if possible, larger than their face.

Stay tuned for updates as our drifter approaches the much feared Point Arena.






Drifter Newsletter #6 April 2010

Drifter building and support team

We are happy to have a growing drifter support team to help users with various aspects of the operations. While all members of this team participate in nearly all phases of the process, the specific tasks are as follows:

Southern Maine Community College Marine Science:

  • Tom Long – supervisor
  • Kara LaLomia – lead drifter builder

Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation (GoMLF):

  • Erin Pelletier – purchasing and billing


  • Jim Manning – lead design and tech supporter
  • Joe Letourneau – programmer
  • Shawn Wolff – assistant tech support
  • Tanya Stoyanova – web developer
  • Grant Emde – field tech
  • Dave Novak – outreach

Marine Advanced Technology Education:

  • Deirdre Sullivan – connection to national COSEE-like initiatives

Since we are all involved with the drifter operations on a part time basis (typically one day per week each), we do not derive our living from the sale of drifters. This is a not-for-profit organization devoted to maximizing the amount of drifters that go in the water and the students who are exposed to the science and engineering aspects of drifter use. If you correspond with Jim, Erin, or Tom via email about any drifter-related issue, please copy all three:,, and so that all three parties are in-the-loop.

New website still under development

While the new drifter homepage is still under development , you can visit it at: . We ask for feedback from you, the participants in this collective effort. We do NOT want to publicize this site until we have heard your feedback and suggestions. Please do not distribute this address to others or link to it from any other website. It may be months before this becomes our primary drifter website. During this transition, we will still consider: as the main page.

Dealing with your satellite bills

There are two options now available to pay for satellite fees:

  1. pay GoMLF upfront for your expected satellite fees and then get billed by GoMLF if you exceed that amount.
  2. get monthly bills directly from the satellite service provider ComTech Mobile.

In this second case, if you are a new user and haven’t got billed from them yet, you need to fill out the ComTech “business agreement” form. To get one of these forms essentially filled out, email Erin ( Again, please copy and on any emails concerning drifters. MATE participants do NOT have to worry about satellite fees since they are still covered by the NSF grant.

Two Deployment Forms

You need to visit the drifter website both before you deploy and after. Here’s why: If you want to label your drifter deployment with the distinct “deployment ID”, you will need to know what that is. For this you visit the “Plan deployment” site. If you want us to process your deployment and make real-time plots, you need to tell us the exact time and place of the deployment. For this you visit the “Report deployment”. Let me know if you have any troubles with these sites. As with most of our sites, they are “under development”.

New Drifter Users:

  • Center for Student Coastal Research (Cohasett MA)
  • Redwoods Community College (Fort Bragg, California)
  • Falmouth High School (Falmouth MA)
  • Zephyr Education Foundation (Falmouth MA)
  • Atlantic Salmon Federation (St Andrews, New Brunswick)
  • On building drifters from “kits”

Those that have been through it know that building a drifter from a “kit” is not easy. It requires shopping for a lot of hardware that is not supplied and several hours per drifter of labor. To make things easier we have the following suggestions:

  1. new users should either buy at least one complete drifter (as a model to go by) or attend one of our “drifter building workshops” that we have from time to time.
  2. Jigs have been constructed that help with the drilling and cutting
  3. certain tools make things easier like professional drill presses, table saws, and heat guns
  4. ask for our latest “Rachel Construction Document” before you start building

On sealing the transmitter

We recently purchased a machine to vacuum-pack the transmitters in clear plastic bags. This eliminates the need for the white vinyl bags we have used in the last few years and provides a way to insert a readable label. We still wrap the edges of the unit with black tape both before and after the vacuum packing. Users should supply us with the cell phone number that beach combers and mariners should call when they find a unit. We will seal the transmitter so that this number is visible.

Center for Student Coastal Research Project

It took two days for high school students from Cohasset MA (and surrounding towns) to build 15 drifters. These units will be used by the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries to investigate the pathways of lobster larvae in the vicinity of the new LNG terminal in Mass Bay. In exchange for the students efforts, the Cohasset Center for Student Coastal Research will get 6 drifters of their own to deploy in order to investigate the tidal flushing of their local harbor. See photos below and full story at:


Drifter Newsletter #5

Drifter Newsletter #6
February 2010

Drifter Website Update
We have made some progress in designing a new website to plot all the drifter tracks and to serve the data but we have not yet released it. It will take the place of the rather cluttered site: before the 2010 drifter season gets underway in a few months. Tanya Stoyanova, a computer science student from Bulgaria, is working on it one day per week.

Figure 1. Example of comparing an observed drifter track (blue) with simulated forecast tracks (other colors). In this case, we are using the UMASS-Dartmouth’s FVCOM model output on the “GOM2 grid” provided on the web. We are developing a routine to track particles through their 3-d velocity fields.

Figure 1. Example of comparing an observed drifter track (blue) with simulated forecast tracks (other colors). In this case, we are using the UMASS-Dartmouth’s FVCOM model output on the “GOM2 grid” provided on the web. We are developing a routine to track particles through their 3-d velocity fields.

Collaboration with Coast Guard
Working with SMCC and UMASS-D, we provided the USCG with one of our drifters which they deployed off of Cape Elizabeth Maine in mid-January 2010 (see Fig 1). This was part of the USCG Search and Rescue Training Operations where they practice some of their routines following drifting objects over the coarse of several days. Since we have similar interests for scientific reason (such as following patches of toxic algae), we are trying to combine our efforts in this endeavor. Animation of these forecasts vs observed tracks are linked from the drifter website but may be found directly is at, for example: If you are interested in implementing this sort of forecast operation in your waters, let us know. All you need is to find a URL for some webserved “CF-compliant” circulation output in your local waters and a MATLAB programmer.

COSEE podcast
Ari Daniel Shapiro’s interview with us including a trip to Casco Bay to deploy drifters was released last week and posted on the COSEE NOW website where it will be heard by many educators and their students around the country. It can be found at

New Drifter Deployers
We are happy to add Long Beach Community College from California, Clatsop Community College from Washington State, and the Atlantic Salmon Federation from New Brunswick, Canada to the list of drifter users. LBCC students are actively designing new rigs to radio track bucket drifters in Los Angeles river runoff events. CCC students are following their surface drifters (rachels) rapidly moving north and east of their deployment location off Astoria. ASF will be deploying several drifters in the St Lawrence River in May to track the potential transport of young smolts.

New Transmitters on the Market
We are watching the development of various transmitters such as the new “Spot2” come on the market. There are a variety of options available “off-the-shelf” for doing our sort of tracking but we are sticking to the TrackPack II in 2010. Given its increased battery power this year and improve circuitry, we are hoping it will serve our needs. We will see.

Figure 2. Approximate location, institution, #, purpose, principal investigator, and month of SMCC/eMOLT drifter deployments planned for 2010 on the northeast continental shelf.

Figure 2. Approximate location, institution, #, purpose, principal investigator, and month of SMCC/eMOLT drifter deployments planned for 2010 on the northeast continental shelf.

Drifter plans for 2010
More than 100 drifter deployments will be made this year (Fig 2) to document flow patterns around the Gulf of Maine. Most of the deployments this year will be made in Massachusetts Bay. The state has funded a project, for example, to investigate the potential effects of the LNG facility on the lobster population. We will deploy dozens of drifters in the coastal waters north and south of Boston Harbor. Some of the drifters for this project will be put together by the Center for Student Coastal Research in Cohassett, MA. In exchange for their efforts, they will get several drifters of their own to deploy in their local harbor to examine the exchange mechanisms with the bay.