Adventure Science: Sharks, Ocean Dumpster Diving, and the Survival of Mankind

Sailing downwind on the Sakura. (Photo courtesy ORP)

Emily Stifler Wolfe of Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation is working with Gregg Treinish and many others to bring us stories from around the world. Here, she interviews sailors and ocean researchers Matt Rutherford and Nicole Trenholm.

By Emily Stifler Wolfe

During their 63-day crossing of the Pacific Ocean, sailors Matt Rutherford and Nicole Treholm had to jury-rig a compression post when their boat’s deck cracked above and below the mast. They nearly caught a shark in their research net. And they gathered invaluable data on marine pollution.

For these ocean veterans, it’s all in a day’s work.

Rutherford, Founder and Executive Director of the nonprofit Ocean Research Project, made the first nonstop, solo voyage around North and South America, spending 309 days at sea from June 2011 to April 2012, and garnering two Guinness World Records. Trenholm, ORP’s Program Director and Field Operations Scientist, is a 100-ton US Coast Guard Nearshore-licensed Captain, and a former hydrographer and mate for NOAA.

During their 6,500-mile Pacific voyage, the two sailed through both the east and west sides of the North Pacific Gyre (aka the Pacific Garbage Patch) along with mapping its southern extreme, a 1,000-mile stretch that had never been explored by scientists in the field of marine plastics.

While sailing, Rutherford and Trenholm encountered a white tip shark, flying fish, a pod of small whales, and many sea birds in the open ocean.

A pod of whales entertained the crew for several hours one day. (Photo courtesy ORP)

Through ORP, some of the data Rutherford and Trenholm collect is submitted to partnering institutions, some is analyzed in-house, and most is available as an open source upon request. As well, they gathered ocean water samples for the Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation microplastics project.

Just before landing in Japan, the ORP crew experienced seven days of rain, and then had to navigate a dangerous current on the south coast as a storm was heading their way.

ASC caught up with the crew in Yokohama, Japan, as they were wrapping up the trip.

Interview with the ORP Crew

Pacific sunset from the Sakura
Pacific sunset from the Sakura. (Photo courtesy ORP)

ASC: Is there a memorable or funny moment from the trip you’d share?

Rutherford: When the wind dies down, Nikki likes to go dumpster diving in the gyre. She stands in the cockpit with our large fishing net, pointing out plastic flotsam that looks interesting. We sail over, she scoops it up and investigates and photographs the debris.

[At one point] she scooped up a large piece of plastic that looked like part of a car fender and accidentally caught a good-sized fish. I’ve never seen someone catch a 10-pound fish completely on accident without a fishing pole.

ASC: What was the most challenging part?

Rutherford: The greatest challenge was just getting off the dock in California. We arrived and had to build our boat in lest than 24 days! We debuted the boat at the Strictly Sailing Pacific Boat Show half-completed.

Rutherford and Trenholm hard at work. (Photo courtesy ORP)

ASC: Were there any cool animal sightings?

Rutherford: Six days ago we were pulling our net, collecting a microplastics sample like we have many times before. I was sitting in the cockpit staring out to sea in a mindless trance, when all of a sudden, shark! An 8–10-foot whitetip shark was swimming straight for our Avani net, which [we were pulling] through the water.

The shark came right up to the tail end of the net, mouth wide open, just a few feet from the boat. I’m yelling and waving my arms, knowing the shark isn’t paying any attention to me. Just then the shark closes its mouth, rams the mesh net, sits there and disappears. It must have realized the net wasn’t food at the last second.

For a moment I thought our net would be destroyed, and our research would be over.

ASC: Please explain your work with Ocean Research Project.

Rutherford: To survive, mankind needs a healthy ocean… Through science, education and exploration we can help to keep the oceans healthy. We share our resources and results because people need to work together and often interpret information differently.

Ocean Research Project's trans-Pacific voyage.
Ocean Research Project’s trans-Pacific voyage. (Image courtesy ORP)

ASC: How was integrating our microplastics sampling with your own project?

Trenholm: We were already sailing across the wide-open ocean. It only makes sense to collect as many samples [as possible] when you have the opportunity to be in the ocean wilderness.

Next, Ocean Research Project is headed to the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland to research the cow nose ray and its impact on biodiversity there. Find more on the ASC microplastics project on our website, and keep up with us by subscribing to our blog, and following us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google+.

Read More by Gregg Treinish and His Team


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Meet the Author
Gregg Treinish founded Adventure Scientists in 2011 with a strong passion for both scientific discovery and exploration. National Geographic named Gregg Adventurer of the Year in 2008 when he and a friend completed a 7,800-mile trek along the spine of the Andes Mountain Range. He was included on the Christian Science Monitor's 30 under 30 list in 2012, and the following year became a National Geographic Emerging Explorer for his work with Adventure Scientists. In 2013, he was named a Backpacker Magazine "hero", in 2015, a Draper Richards Kaplan Entrepreneur and one of Men's Journal's "50 Most Adventurous Men." In 2017, he was named an Ashoka Fellow and in 2018 one of the Grist 50 "Fixers." Gregg holds a biology degree from Montana State University and a sociology degree from CU-Boulder. He thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2004. Read more updates from Gregg and others on the Adventure Scientists team at Follow Adventure Scientists on Instagram @adventurescientists, on Facebook @adventurescientists, and on Twitter @AdvScientists.