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.





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