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Newsletter #10

Experiments on the eco-friendly “Dan Drifter”

Thanks to Dan Palance, a summer student at the NOAA lab in Woods Hole, a more eco-friendly drifter has been developed and tested. The “Dan Drifter” is much like the “Eddie Drifter” except it has wooden dowel spars and canvas cloth sails. It also uses a wooden-handled scrub brush as a extension of the mast and transmitter platform. While this new design has not yet proven itself, more deployments are currently underway. If interested, email for the latest construction manual. We have also conducted some experiments on other alternatives including drogued drifters.

New transmitter options

There are a variety of new transmitter options from multiple companies. We have investigated a few and even tested some but have not found any that surpass the advantages of the TrackPack. Depending on your application, however, some of these new devices might be more cost effective for you. We tested the “FoxTrax cell phone” option, for example, that sells for a little more than $200 but the batteries only last for about 700 hits and the monthly subscription of near $20 is charged whether you use the unit or not. The advantage is the more frequent fixes for deployments within cell phone range.

Results of 2012 deployments thus far

Figure 1. Track of drifters built by NOAA’s Teacher at Sea Alumni.

A total of 49 drifters have been deployed thus far in 2012. One of the most interesting tracks is that of the unit deployed near a set of tagged turtles off Delaware in late May. After a few weeks on the shelf, it was entrained in the Gulf Stream with a few others but then got caught in a big warm core ring (see Figure 1). To follow the path of these drifters and other as they head towards the Azores visit As shown on the main drifter page, there are several other interesting tracks such as those from Dick Baldwin’s unmanned sailboats. Just in the last few days, we watched a few of them come ashore on the southeast corner of Newfoundland after more than 8000 kilometers of travel. He also has a few in the Gulf Stream headed towards the Azores.

New drifter deployers welcomed:

  • Bill Geppert at the Cape Henlopen High School who is working with the University of Delaware oceanographers
  • Scott Kendall (MATE participant) from the Grand Valley State University on Lake Michigan,
  • Mark Neary who works with Neal Pettigrew at UMaine Orono,
  • Jochen Schroer at New Brunswick’s NATECH Environmental Services Inc. of Canada.

Refurbishing old TrackPack transmitters

We have devise a method to refurbish old TrackPack transmitters by breaking open their housing, inserting a new battery pack (ordered from Hong Kong), and then rehousing them inside a “Otterbox 2000”. It works! If you would like us to do the job, send in your old TrackPacks that no longer work so we can try to get them going again.

The importance of “decommissioning” old transmitters

It is important that your old transmitters be “decommissioned” if they have either been a) lost or sea, b) water damaged, or c) you do not expect to use them within a year. Otherwise, the satellite company charges $2.65 dollars per month per unit for what they call a “maintenance fee”. You can always recommission them with a $30 “reprovisioning fee”.

Drifter-building presentations this fall

We have three presentations scheduled: Umass Boston (29 Sep), Massasoit Community College in Massachusetts (2 Oct) and URI Bay Campus (2 Nov). The URI event is part of the New England Ocean Science Education Collaboratives “Ocean Literacy” Workshop. All will be brief introductions to the program. We are looking for funding to conduct more extensive day-long workshops where participants actually build units to take home with them.

Future Plans

As mentioned in the last “newsletter”, we continue to look for funding for more drifter-building workshops and satellite time. We are working with the tracker manufacturer and service provider to minimize the cost to the schools involved. We continue to reduce the cost down within the range of a typical mini-grant proposal but, ideally we hope to someday secure a large gov’t grant. This would supply the various schools with the raw material they need to construct these units and to have them connect with their local fishermen for routine deployments offshore. If you have ideas, please email We now have a collection of proposals that can be reworked to fit your plans.

We encourage those who participated in a MATE drifter building session last year to contact us for help getting started with building and deploying.


Stockbridge High School Building Drifter

We hope to complete the drifter today. Our goal is to be the first team to launch a drifter into the Great Lakes. We will be launching October 1st and 2nd in the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Alpena Michigan and Lake Huron.

 The team has set up a facebook page that is updated daily with pictures, videos and announcements it can be found at:!/pages/Stockbridge-Advanced-Underwater-Robotics/148465301909424

Please friend us and follow the team.

Also the Jackson Citizen Patriot wrote a great article about the team it can be found on line at:


Insights into a Mystery

After 28 days adrift, College of the Redwoods’ drifter is poised to reveal some insights into a long-standing mystery. Marine science students at CR have deployed hundreds of drift bottles over the last 25 years. The bottles contain a card asking the finders to record the location in which they recovered the bottle, and send the card back to us.

In that time we have developed a fairly good idea of where California’s coastal currents are likely to carry our bottles. During our storm season, the nearshore Davidson Current tends to transport our bottles northward. We have very high recovery rates during those times in northern California, Oregon, and Washington. On occasion our bottles have made it as far as British Columbia and Alaska. The Davidson Current tends to be best developed between mid-October and mid-February, but southerly storm winds in late spring and early summer often produce the episodic, short-lived appearance of the Davidson Current.

The California Current, on the other hand, sweeps close to shore during much of the rest of the year. Our drift bottles are usually carried southward during these times. If you’ve been following this blog, you’ve undoubtedly noticed that our drifter has been swept over 200 nautical miles southward in the last month, successfully avoiding all of the most common stranding sites. During this time of year, most of our drift bottles are recovered along the Mendocino, Sonoma, and Marin County coastlines (counties that are north of the Golden Gate). Some of the bottles are carried south of the Golden Gate as far as Monterey County. The farthest south any of our bottles have ever been recovered is Big Sur.

Our drifter is now about 40 n.m. offshore along the Monterey coastline and rapidly approaching the latitude of Point Sur. For the last 25 years, the burning question has been, “Where do the bottles go if they don’t strand north of Big Sur?” Two of our bottles were recovered (several years apart) in the Philippines, but we have no other recoveries south or west of Pt. Sur. So, at long last, our drifter is on the verge of shedding some light on the mystery of where the surface currents carry our drift bottles.


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:

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