Oscar’s proving to be scientific surprise

  • Crew on deck: Oscar with some of the Waterstart students who helped build the drifter (Photograph supplied)

    Crew on deck: Oscar with some of the Waterstart students who helped build the drifter (Photograph supplied)

  • Students about to launch Oscar off Burt Island for its two-week sea trail. Project leader Mark Fox is pictured standing, third from right (Photograph supplied)

    Students about to launch Oscar off Burt Island for its two-week sea trail. Project leader Mark Fox is pictured standing, third from right (Photograph supplied)

  • Oscar in the water off Burt Island (Photograph supplied)

    Oscar in the water off Burt Island (Photograph supplied)

  • Waterstart students cut the main mask down to size. The group used the island’s invasive Allspice trees for their project (Photograph supplied)

    Waterstart students cut the main mask down to size. The group used the island’s invasive Allspice trees for their project (Photograph supplied)

  • Waterstart students cutting the drifter spars to size (Photograph supplied)

    Waterstart students cutting the drifter spars to size (Photograph supplied)

  • Oscar’s panels were covered in art and signatures by the artists and staff (Photograph supplied)

    Oscar’s panels were covered in art and signatures by the artists and staff (Photograph supplied)

  • Mark Fox, left, with students as they prepare to release Oscar for a two-week trail to determine whether or not the drifter is seaworthy (Photograph supplied)

    Mark Fox, left, with students as they prepare to release Oscar for a two-week trail to determine whether or not the drifter is seaworthy (Photograph supplied)

  • Waterstart contact details on Oscar’s GPS tracker platform (Photograph supplied)

    Waterstart contact details on Oscar’s GPS tracker platform (Photograph supplied)

  • Mark Fox (Photograph supplied)

    Mark Fox (Photograph supplied)

  • Mark Fox (Photograph supplied)

    Mark Fox (Photograph supplied)


A Bermuda float bobbing around the Atlantic is proving interesting to scientists — and the students who designed and built it.

Named Oscar, the “ocean drifter” was launched off North Shore a year ago as part of an oceanographic experiment by Waterstart, a programme that exposes young people to Bermuda’s marine environment.

“There are several such creations sailing and drifting around the Atlantic, but this is the only one from Bermuda,” said the charity’s founder J.P. Skinner.

“It was designed and built using 100 per cent recycled/repurposed materials, including an old fishing float found on the beach, old sails and sticks from invasive allspice trees cut on our Burt Island campus. The only new part that we purchased was a GPS sender unit that sends ‘pings’ to a satellite every couple hours, so we can find its location.”

Drifters supply data on ocean currents and temperature. The information is used to optimise shipping routes, for search and recovery, oil spill mitigation, recreation and science.

Oscar’s path is being tracked by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration whose partner, Educational Passages, inspired the Bermuda project.

A few years ago the US charity asked Mr Skinner to look out for an ocean drifter expected to pass near Bermuda as its battery was dying. Although he never found it, the idea that Waterstart could create one of its own stuck.

“He left the project to me because I have a boat-building degree,” said Mark Fox, who also drew on his childhood experience of building boats and releasing them to see how far they travelled.

Waterstart was able to buy the GPS from Educational Passages, the rest it had to source on its own.

Mr Fox began building in April 2018 with a team of students that came up with the design. Following the suggestion from Educational Passages, they created Oscar using two panels and a float.

“We thought it was perfect for us to build given the resources we had. It wasn’t a simple build. There are certain specifications they need to keep the data consistent.

“We had to go into the forest on Burt’s with students to find an allspice tree that was closest in diameter [to those specifications], cut it down and shape it to the size we needed.”

The project started at the end of August and was completed by early November. More than 30 students were involved at various periods; they drew pictures and painted the device to make it more identifiable as theirs. Waterstart’s contact details are on both the float and the panels.

Oscar was deemed seaworthy after a two-week trial, and a launch date was set, but then “winter hit and we had nothing but bad weather”.

Finally launched on June 18, 2019, Oscar’s erratic movements since have mystified Waterstart and Noaa.

“We launched it just outside the main reef line,” said Mr Fox. “It started to head out, but the next day it drifted right back into reef line and headed towards Eastern Blue Cut, kind of like it had a mind of its own.”

That the drifter seemed to be deliberately avoiding the reefs, “was weird”.

“We thought we’d leave it and see where it goes,” Mr Fox said. “It took the rest of the week to travel through the north bit of the reef line and then it went to the south of Bermuda.”

Following its path online, the charity was amazed to see Oscar suddenly “take off and keep heading south”.

“At one point it started making weird giant loop de loops, and tiny ones, too,” Mr Fox said. “We were like, ‘What’s going? Is something broken?’”

It had been his expectation that Oscar would stick around Bermuda for a while.

“My dad was telling me of a boat he’d launched off Shelly Bay once and, five years later he found it off the government quarry. In my mind I thought it would get stuck in the eddies around Bermuda. I wasn’t expecting it to go off and do all these crazy loop de loops and start heading south.”

Mr Skinner got in touch with Ruth Curry, an oceanographer with his former employer Bios.

She explained the movements could be caused by local winds and that the tiny “loop de loops” they were seeing would take Oscar 22.8 hours to complete.

“The giant ones are giant eddies that pass by Bermuda and those would take over a day for it to travel, they usually have a diameter of 100 to 150 kilometres at this latitude.”

Even Noaa agreed that Oscar’s track was “odd”.

“It kept heading south, it actually got really close to the Caribbean,” Mr Fox said. “It made several passes down and then started heading north again in early May and doing giant loop de loops. It’s now on the same latitude as the Bahamas.

“It’s odd. I’m sure it’s something to do with the Gulf Stream and the Coriolis effect.”

Unless it makes land, Oscar will move around the Atlantic until its battery dies in another two years.

“Hopefully, there will then be a boat nearby that can retrieve it for us. I know they like to see if it is broken, if anything has happened to it.

“The idea was that we wanted the kids to be able to build something they could put in the ocean and track. It was a way they could get involved in ocean, in marine sciences; they don’t need a degree to do this stuff. Bermuda is in the big Atlantic Ocean; what’s going on in that ocean around us? Some students are still asking about it.”

For more information on Waterstart visit waterstartbermuda.org. Track Oscar here: bit.ly/2XBeRG9

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Published Jun 8, 2020 at 8:00 am (Updated Jun 8, 2020 at 7:59 am)

Oscar’s proving to be scientific surprise

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