We here at OceanBites are passionate about bringing science to you, our audience, in an accessible way. But at the end of the day, we know that reading about cool research projects and unexpected discoveries only brings you so close to the action. Some of you may be pursuing degrees to enter a scientific field, while some of you may have branched off to work in unrelated areas. Others may only have a love for the topic, but not the associated professions. Ultimately, our shared passion is for the ocean—and luckily with the advent of technology, people don’t need specialty training to help contribute to ongoing scientific studies. Welcome to the world of citizen science!
With 2017 barely a week old, many of you may have resolutions and goals for the next 358-odd days. If you have a goal to get more involved in science, a smartphone, and access to a computer, then the following review will give you a good idea of what opportunities are out there. This list is by no means comprehensive—only a few global initiatives are presented.
Interested in observing animal life? Many scientists rely on population data for ecological modeling, crafting policy initiatives, or measuring biodiversity. These first few programs are a bit more intensive, and also rather traditional in their methods.
REEF Project: Do you have experience as a diver, recreationally or professionally? Why not test your skills with fish identification the next time you’re out? The REEF Project’s Volunteer Fish Survey Project is free to join, although the field supplies will cost you a few dollars. If you’re concerned about your fish identification abilities, don’t worry—they’ve got online courses to help you! And if you’d rather spend time observing invertebrates and algae, they’ve got a similar initiative here.
SharksCount Program: Are you more of a thrill-seeker? Would you prefer your data collection to involve swimming with sharks? If so, check out SharksCount. These apex predators are dwindling in number all over the world, so it’s critical we know how many are left.
With smartphones becoming the norm in everyone’s pockets these days, many initiatives are turning to the mini-computers to help with data collection. Using GPS and basic recording techniques, these projects are making sure observers the world over can upload information.
JellyWatch: Jellyfish may not be the most exciting sea creatures, but they are very important to ecosystems. Given the punch their stings can pack, too, it’s often better to know where they pop up. JellyWatch does just this with free iPhone or Android apps for participants to record sightings.
iSeahorse: Who can resist these little guys? iSeahorse is an initiative geared toward documenting and identifying seahorses to guide conservation efforts. It’s free to join, and you can download an app for iPhone or Android to upload sightings while you’re in the field.
And for those of you who are more interested in the ocean’s physical and chemical properties, a recent test of a citizen science initiative in Europe resulted in the development of the EyeOnWater-Colour app. This project aimed to allow people to use their smartphones to assess the color and clarity of bodies of water since smartphone cameras are standardized. Just be sure not to lose your phone to the depths when you snap the shot!
Plankton Portal: What if you can’t dive, don’t often visit the ocean, or don’t own a smartphone? Why not try Plankton Portal, a web-based, photo identification exercise crowdsourcing thousands of images of plankton to get an idea of biodiversity in the Mediterranean and California currents. Their tutorial is straight forward, and the images of this alien world are amazing!
Ultimately, there are many opportunities out there for you to get involved. Check for local or regional projects that suit your interests and schedule. Ask around at universities to see if they have any programs hosted on their campuses. (For example, URI participates in the URI Watershed Watch.) Inquire with aquariums or outreach programs—you never know what cool things others might be up to. Or check out SciStarter if you have a specific area of interest. Remember, you don’t always need a degree to participate, and there are plenty of researchers out there eager to have you on their teams.
I am a former PhD student from the University of Rhode Island, having discovered my love of teaching and informal science education in part through OceanBites! Since departing academia, I’ve focused on creating educational content for visitors at the New England Aquarium, Chincoteague Bay Field Station, and now the National Aquarium. I’ve also dabbled in co-creating a comedy/brainstorming podcast, ThunkTink, and enjoy getting lost in nature with my dogs.