The Indigo Project

Ocean Health Tracking With Citizen Sailing Oceanography

  • Ocean Health is Critical


    Ocean after storm

    Can you believe that in the year 2017, we still know very little about the oceans? Yet, the ocean plays a critical role in supporting habitable life on earth, moderating the climate, cycling nutrients, absorbing more carbon dioxide than the Amazon Rain Forest, providing half of the oxygen we breathe.

    In the last fifty years, we have seen the demise of 90% of the big fish, 50% of the coral reefs, and the rise of ocean acidification, desertification and dead zones. While these effects on marine fauna can be readily seen, measured and monitored, the biggest threat is to the most important lifeforms in the ocean – the marine microbiome  - which forms the backbone of the food chain.

    On a changing planet, its fate is mostly unknown.



  • The Marine Microbiome – Sustainability Soldiers


    mm 300

    The marine microbiome is made up very small plankton that collectively fix more carbon than the Amazon rain forest, provide half of the oxygen that we breathe, and provides the very base of the food web.

    Microbes are also the first to respond to changes in the ocean environment. Because of this sensitivity, we can liken them to the proverbial ‘canary in the coalmine’. Without a healthy marine microbiome, the food web would collapse and drastically change the levels of atmospheric oxygen.

    Though tiny, marine plankton are the most abundant organisms in the ocean, yet they are the least understood. The good news is that we pioneered citizen sailing oceanography as a way to quickly understand ocean health on the most important biological level.

    (Figure courtesy of Seymour, Stoker & Gorrick)

  • The Problem: Data Collection Bottleneck


    Lack of data is the key issue that limits our ability to understand the marine microbiome. As uncertainty surrounds the fate of marine eco-systems, we must rest on our ability to understand the response of the marine microbiome to natural and anthropogenic challenges.

    However, using traditional research vessels to collect enough data is not possible. We estimate that if one research vessel went to sea continuously for one year, it would cost at least $15 million for the vessel, crew and analysis. Despite covering an enormous area – 9.7 million km2 – it would only be able to sample 3% of the ocean surface.

    Twenty vessels would be required to effectively cover the region between both tropical lines. The costs would exceed $300 million dollars per year. This would also exclude high latitude regions, and the carbon footprint would be enormous.



  • The Solution: Citizen Sailing Oceanography



    Following our landmark concept paper, The Common Oceanographer: Crowdsourcing the Collection of Oceanographic Datawe set out the protocols to crowdsource ocean microbiome data.


    A single oceanographic research vessel can sample only small fraction of the ocean. During a continuous year at sea, without stopping for fuel or crew change, a single research vessel could cover ~3% of ocean-area, traveling at 10 knots between stations and only stopping at each station for two hours. Despite this being an enormous area, it would cost at least USD $15m for the vessel, the crew, the science, and the scientists.

    Twenty vessels would be required to cover the mid-latitude region at a cost of USD $300m. The carbon footprint of this effort would be enormous.


    Cruisers continually sail along the same routes, year after year, season after season. We harness these existing routes to accumulate datasets that allows us to track ocean health over time.

  • Far Reaching Long Term Benefits


    oceans 400

    By tracking ocean health over time, we will be able to build the tools necessary to combat the following challenges:

    OCEAN ACIDIFICATION – The marine microbiome is critically sensitive to ocean acidification. We can track how the community is responding to changes in the ocean.

    HARMFUL ALGAL BLOOMS – By monitoring and modeling the marine micriobiome, we can identify pre-cursor conditions that lead to harmful algal blooms and fisheries collapse.

    MARINE PLASTICS – MORE THAN JUST AN EYESORE – Marine plastic provides an easy way for pathogens to spread around the globe. We can discover how.

    SECURE FISHERIES – Ocean health tracking will not only a historical record of bodies of water, but we will be able to recognize keep species that indicate a looming deadly plankton bloom.

    CLIMATE CHANGE – There is a link between climate change and oxygen loss in the oceans. We determine the threat level for each ecosystem.

  • Join The Adventure – Become a Citizen Oceanographer!



    If you are planning an open ocean cruise, you hold the keys to helping us break new ground. We send you a plankton data collection kit, that enables you to collect plankton from a number of ‘stations’ during your cruise. You’ll learn field-based scientific skills, including sample collection and preservation of biological materials, and will take a variety of measurements including temperature and salinity.

    To register your interest, simply fill in the contact form below, or contact us directly: rachelle at indigovexpeditions dot org

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the ultimate purpose?

    By vastly increasing our number of observations, we can construct detailed baselines that can be used to identify changes in the ocean environment over time. This will lead the way for the scientific management and preservation of the oceans and coastal ecosystems. We will also be able to early indicators of potentially major declines.

  • What happens to the data?

    We abide by the principle that all collected data is considered part of global public goods. All of our collected data by ‘citizen oceanographers’ is analyzed, findings are reported in peer reviewed scientific journals and then deposited into gene banks such as NCBI and iMicrobe, a Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation funded project. Since each dataset release will be identified by unique identifiers that will include the names of sailing vessel involved in the collection, we hope that data users can be educated to accurately cite the source of pre-publication data, including the version of the dataset. Data users will be encouraged to contact Indigo V Expeditions to discuss publication plans in cases of uncertainty.

  • What measurements are taken?

    As a volunteer citizen oceanographer, you will be collecting the following parameters per sampling station:

    • microbiome / plankton sample
    • salinity
    • temperature

    You will also record the latitude and longitude of where each sample was taken, along with some observations of the sea state.



  • Who can become a citizen oceanographer?

    Anyone planning a cruise on the high seas! We do abide by the Nagoya Protocol, which means that we do not take any biological information from coastal zones within 200 nautical miles from land. If you’re planning on sailing further abroad, please get in touch!

  • Where in the vertical water column are the samples taken?

    The max depth is around 2 meters deep.

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