Derya Akkaynak Yellin, Applied Ocean Physics & Engineering
I am an engineering student working with a computer scientist at MIT, and a marine biologist at MBL. For me, SCUBA diving is not only a data acquisition tool, but also a passion that has always inspired me. This passion (and curiosity) has led me to do dives in an artesian well in New Mexico, a crater at 6000ft in Utah and under the thick ice of a frozen lake -- in addition to many beautiful coastal ocean sites around the world.
While attending a conference in Kona, Hawaii last fall, I went diving at a famous site where manta rays were known to gather in large numbers to feed. This spot is listed among the top 10 night dives in the world, so there were about 50 other divers, waiting to witness the feeding of the giants. The “dive” consisted of divers descending to the bottom, and just sitting there for 45 minutes while their flashlights helped collect plankton, which attracted the manta rays. I was one of the first divers to go in the water, so as I was sitting at the bottom and watching 50 other divers slowly descend; suddenly I saw them as temperature sensors sampling the water column, rather than divers! Having just learned how under-sampled our oceans are in the 12.808 Physical Oceanography class a week before; the divers4oceanography project was born in my head at that moment, underwater. Divers had fancy dive computers equipped with thermistors, they kept a log of their dives religiously after each dive – why not try to collect those data that are already out there and put it to use?
I envisioned collecting temperature data from divers all around the world and making it available to oceanographers, coral reef scientists, marine biologists who study manta rays – to anyone interested! This could be the first and only global Citizen Science project for SCUBA divers. It could help scientists monitor and conserve sites like the manta ray gathering spot, coral reefs and many other sites around the world where no buoys, floats or temperature loggers are present. It could help physical oceanographers understand currents better.
It is easy to get excited about ideas, and difficult to make them happen. In my case, there were two big challenges to bringing this idea to life: building a website that would make it easy for divers to submit their dive logs, and advertise effectively so that divers actually know that this project exists. (Perhaps a bigger challenge was that I was not a physical oceanography student, and this project would have no contribution to my own research whatsoever, and would likely be seen as my advisors as a distraction. Luckily there are still one or two days in the week, known as weekends, when even a PhD student can afford to work on distractions).
To build a website and phone apps, I recruited my husband as a volunteer. One of my labmates at MBL designed a logo with classic oceanographic colors. My MIT advisor hired an undergraduate student to build web service calls and my 12.808 instructors hired a winter intern who would do an initial analysis of the data sets that were starting to accumulate to see if the data were meaningful indeed (they were!).
Thanks to the research award through the Coastal Ocean Institute, I attended the 2012 Ocean Sciences meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah and presented the divers4oceanography platform as to scores of ocean scientists, scientific divers and most importantly, decision makers. To help spread the word, I passed out 400 postcards, with pens pointing to our website. Feedback I received was overwhelmingly positive; I made contact with NOAA managers who showed interest in funding, supporting and even owning this project and arranged for an article to be published in the Oceanography magazine, a publication of The Oceanography Society. It is thanks to the support from the Coastal Ocean Institute that divers4oceanography got off the ground.