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February 15th 2011. By Diane Byrne.

SeaKeepers Society: Climate Custodians

The aptly named International SeaKeepers Society is arming the global scientific community with much-needed data about the ocean, the weather, and more.

Every minute of every day, sensors sitting on the hull of nearly three dozen megayachts measure 10 parameters pertaining to the ocean, climate, and weather. This adds up to more than 14,000 measurements per yacht per day—things like pH levels, chlorophyll, and oxygen, plus barometric pressure and wind speed.

M/Y Big Fish is the newest member of SeaKeepers’ monitoring fleet.

Every three hours, a snapshot of this data is automatically uploaded and sent via satellite to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Weather Service, with NOAA additionally sharing the details with the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the United Nations agency responsible for providing international cooperation on weather, climate, and related environmental issues.

The result? Scientists both stateside and around the world (there are nearly 200 WMO member countries) can access the information—which, over the past decade, has come to represent six percent of the world’s weather data. Six percent may not sound like much, but considering the information was not otherwise available, it’s pretty significant.

It’s all thanks to the International SeaKeepers Society, which has grown from a germ of an idea in two people’s heads to a worldwide charitable organization working hand in hand with researchers and lay people who wish to protect the world’s oceans.

The International SeaKeepers Society traces its roots to 1997, when two Los Angeles area businessmen approached Jim Gilbert, then the editor of Showboats magazine, about installing scientific measuring systems aboard megayachts. They reasoned that yachts travel to places that research ships don’t and therefore would be able to collect otherwise unattainable information.

Gilbert liked the idea of having owners take a direct role in data collection, rather than simply writing a check. After several conversations with captains and owners, it was clear that people wanted to not just fund research about the deteriorating conditions of the seas but also participate in it. Their input was also actively solicited on how and where to install the systems, and the International SeaKeepers Society was formally formed in 1998.

A cutaway view of the SeaKeeper 1000

It took an additional three years for the equipment to be properly adapted so that it could transmit information via the yachts’ satcom. At that point, in 2001, five owners were signed up, including Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft and an avid yachtsman (he owns Méduse as well as Octopus), and Alfred Balm, a Calgary businessman who owns Silver Living.

So how exactly does the data-collection system work? The proprietary unit, the SeaKeeper 1000, has been approved by both ABS and Lloyds and requires only one through-hull fitting. It further contains a cofferdam to contain potential leaks. To eliminate bubbles stemming from the yacht’s motion that would interfere with the readings, a hydrodynamic wing sits in front of the penetration.

The SeaKeeper 1000 has a “wet box” for measurements, containing a plug-and-play sensor that the yacht’s engineer can easily remove for recalibration (performed by Society personnel). It also contains a “dry box” that’s tied in to the yacht’s satcom, allowing the transmission of data from the sensor. The data transmission is paid for by NOAA—gladly, as it’s less than the cost of hiring a boat to carry out research.
“If you randomly call any scientist and ask what it costs them to go out on a data-collecting mission, you will be floored,” says Michael Moore, chairman of the International SeaKeepers Society. In fact, he adds, Bob Ballard, the ocean explorer who discovered the wreck of the Titanic, told him it’s typical for research trips to cost $1 million. Dean Klevan, president and CEO of the Society, adds, “The oceanic community is data-starved, particularly in the more remote regions of the world. More ‘feet on the street’ are needed to provide the data for vital studies on ocean issues.”

Because of the frequent data collection and regular travel that yachts do, the organization and its members have successfully arranged meetings with influential congress members and NOAA scientists. They’ve also helped scientists better monitor specific sea life. Case in point: mussels and clams in the world’s northern climates, which just in the past few years were discovered to be undergoing shell thinning.

Perhaps the most dramatic impact the Society has had thus far is in the response to the BP oil spill. With the assistance of the University of South Florida and YSI, a company that develops and manufactures sensors and related data-collection items for environmental monitoring and testing, the organization successfully adapted a hydrocarbon sensor. That sensor worked in conjunction with a SeaKeeper 1000 unit aboard a research vessel in the Gulf of Mexico to map the oil plumes and the extent to which the oil was spreading.

l to r: SeaKeepers Chairman Michael T. Moore, YachtWorld.com Founder Jessica Muffett, and YachtWorld.com and Dominion Marine Media VP and General Manager Ian Atkins, at the announcement of the YachtWorld Foundation.

These efforts and more are among the reasons why the International SeaKeepers Society now counts more than 45 yachts plus several dozen cruise ships, ferries, sea buoys, and even piers as hosts to the SeaKeeper 1000. It’s also why the newly created YachtWorld Foundation chose it as its first beneficiary. The Foundation is a nonprofit that provides funds to similarly structured organizations and people who strive to protect the world’s oceans.

As impassioned as the International SeaKeepers Society members are, they and the board members haven’t lost sight of the challenges they face. There are still many who doubt environmental changes are occurring at the detriment to the ocean. On top of that, as Moore sums up wryly, “There’s nothing less sexy than data.”

There’s also nothing sexy about the alternative: a lack of sustainable ocean life.

Diane Byrne
Diane M. Byrne is the founder and editor of the daily updated website Megayacht News. A longtime yachting writer, she also contributes to Yachts International, Boat Exclusive, and other magazines. She is additionally a member of the International Superyacht Society Board of Directors and Vice Chair of the U.S. Superyacht Association.