Last week I sailed from Trinidad to St. Lucia aboard the Seadragon, a 72′ steel-hulled boat designed for scientific research. I joined the all-women’s crew of Exxpedition to participate in research and dialogue about the growing problem of marine plastics, and fortunately, the boat had also been adapted for novice sailors. The scientists behind Exxpedition are investigating how disintegrating marine plastics affect human health, especially women’s health, because these plastics contain endocrine disruptors. The boat crews also foster dialogue and collaboration among those concerned about marine plastics, as I wrote in There is No Magical Place Called Away. I was intrigued by the opportunity to meet representatives from Caribbean universities and environmental groups and, also, to conduct research on a sailboat. This trip illustrated some realities of scientific data collection and helped me reflect on my own research methods, which have been primarily ethnographic.
By training, I am an historian of religion, and I study both texts and people. I have done ethnographic research, for example, interviews and participation-observation in different communities. To collect data for my projects, I have recorded songs in Hindu temples, helped plaster a straw bale house, and interviewed pundits at pilgrimage sites for the Hindu deity Balaram. Now, I am looking into people, place, and water, asking people about their connections to lakes, rivers, and the sea and how these places become home to them. How do local fishers think about the mounds of plastics that wash up in their fishing areas?
The scientists and crew of Exxpedition collected materials for three sets of scientists. Some materials would be sent to the University of Georgia, some to Sweden, and a third set would later be analyzed on board the Seadragon. The spacious starboard forward berth had been converted to a ‘science’ room and held a microscope, beakers, and sieves. I wondered how the microscope would fare with the boat aslant, heeled to catch the wind, and figured that I would soon find the answer.
We planned to collect samples, or ‘ do science’, upon reaching, first, Barbados waters, and then, several days later, St. Lucia. Our two scientists would perform the skilled scientific work, and the rest of us had supporting roles, ranging from dropping the large trawler into the water to documenting coordinates and times of the different samples. On Sunday morning, we left Trinidad for the two day sail to Barbados where we would do our first round of sampling.
Two days later, we arrived in Barbados, slightly green at the gills, but excited that we made the crossing. We delayed our first Barbados sampling because since a majority of the crew had gotten seasick. I’m no stranger to throwing up in the course of fieldwork, but I have never had to tether myself into a heeling boat to do so. Once anchored, we sudsed up and threw ourselves into the water, laughing and diving like mermaids. With fresh clothes and a hearty breakfast of eggs, cheese, and vegetables, we all felt like new women, and it was time to begin trawling for plastics.
Trawling required all hands on deck, a labor-intensive process that involved everyone. First, we extended a large pole, perpendicular to the boat, which would support the aptly named manta trawler, shaped somewhat like a ray. The manta trawler, about 4′ long, was designed to skim across the surface of the water, catching plastics and seaweed in the small net at its tail. Another team tossed the mantra trawler overboard, and it took several attempts to insure that the trawler’s tail lay flat upon the water. Unlike our first crossing, the Seadragon was in relatively calm waters, moving slowly at 1.5 knots, but even at the slow speeds, lowering the trawler and holding the lines was a challenge with the boat’s rocking motion.
Meanwhile, a second team filtered sea water samples through a series of sieves, then analyzed particles under the microscope below.
I watched Alice carefully pour water into beakers while the boat heeled, port side significantly higher than port. She poured a total of 80 samples, both control and variable samples, careful not to spill the data. Soon, these materials will travel in labs in the US, the Caribbean, and Europe, and teams of faculty, students, and lab assistants will analyze the samples on solid ground.
I wonder how many of these scientists realize what was involved in collecting these samples–the physical labor, the seasickness, and the laughter among our team. The results will be presented in a scientific and objective manner, perhaps in charts or figures, that obscure the people and emotion involved. Controls are necessary in scientific research, to have points of comparison. My work, however, focuses on people and communities, and my research has no controls. Instead, in my writing, some of my richest material comes from exploring my interactions with others and how our worlds come together. In my work on intentional communities, Being the Change, for example, I recognize that my repeated visits have shaped some of the communities I lived in, and I know that I have become a better person for these interactions.
I wish we had more opportunities for scientists, social scientists, and humanities scholars to work together and learn about each different research methods. We would all benefit from seeing our work through other eyes. After this trip, I will continue my ethnographic research, focusing on waters of the US southeast, but with a new appreciation of scientific data collection and its translation into scientific evidence.