Tuesday August 06, 2013 | 09:33 AM
Posted by Harold Johnson

I’ve mentioned many times the work that I do at the beach collecting debris. Thought it would be nice in a blog to do a little Flotsam Diaries behind-the-scenes.

Each visit to the beach involves more than just trash bags and patience. I make sure to start the visit with an overview shot of the beach -- from a similar point of view. It’s a great record of the beach changing over time.

From late winter’s wrack:


(April 2012)

To the calm & blooming algae of mid-summer:


(July 2012)

To autumn storms:


(Nov 2012)

I record into the phone some basics of the day -- here’s an example from June 21:

“Friday, June 21. First day of summer. It’s now 3:15PM, going on low tide. Looks like a pretty good low tide... Bright sunshine. A couple tiny, puffy clouds. Little bit of a breeze. It feels like it’s actually coming from the south -- it’s not a seabreeze or a land-breeze. I assume that if it’s anything, it’s sea-ish. A lot of life growing back along the back of the backshore -- lots of plants pushing back up through the rocks. Doesn’t look like there’s been too much energy here, though there is a lot of thin, pulverized wrack in the bands along the bottom of the-- the back of the foreshore. A lot of green algae showing up down low, that means it’s getting an awful lot of light and it’s, again, calm and quiet. So it’s not being ripped or shredded up. So I think we’ve had a low-energy week; I think there’s not going to be a lot coming in -- though I can see a few pieces. And we’ll see what we get.”

Much of this info may mean nothing. But some may help tell a tale later on, about which forces & conditions bring which kinds & amounts of debris to the shore. Good science only happens with good data. Often that means hours spent on dead-ends. But also often, little details crack the nut.

After the first survey, I walk my zone -- about 150 feet set between two telephone poles as guidelines. I troll back and forth from the backshore down to the low foreshore. And I do my best to pick up every piece of debris I can find, each week. That way I can see what has come in the next time I visit.

At home, first the rope gets counted...


(One of my bigger rope hauls, from April 8, 2013)

...then stored away.

The rest of the debris comes inside for a thorough cleaning.

After a clean, it's all separated out into groups and photographed:


(this batch from March 22, 2013)

Once photographed, every piece is recorded in a log-sheet. Week after week:

And finally the results of the day are written up. See all of them at my Flotsam Diaries blog.

I started this, 3+ years ago, because I wanted to learn what was getting into the ocean and why -- and then share what I learn. That's still my goal.

Science isn’t always glamourous. But if you are willing to ask questions and then work to find the answers, you might just discover something amazing about the world.

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About the Author

Visiting a Maine beach in March 2010, Harold Johnson was shocked by the ocean-borne debris left by recent storms. He grabbed a garbage bag and a camera, and hasn’t looked back.

Since then he has spent most of his free time studying marine pollution, coastal ecosystems, and the mysteries and science of ocean and shore.

Copyeditor and writer by trade, historian and archaeologist at heart, Johnson’s philosophy is simple: Dig below the surface, travel the currents, make the connections, learn. Then share what you learn. He lives in Saco with his wife and young daughter. Follow on Twitter @FlotsamDiaries.

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