Sea Shorts: You don't need hi-tech gear to study plankton

Technology has proven to be a wonderful thing for ocean science. New developments like underwater robots are allowing us to to study even the remotest of places. Satellite technology is letting us monitor ocean conditions across the globe. Tags attached to animals are helping us learn more about how they live.

Not all technology for ocean science is quite so high-tech. Take the humble plankton tow - essentially a fine mesh net held open by some sort of hard frame, to which ropes for towing are attached. They come in all sorts of sizes - the one in the photo is a small one - but what’s particularly neat about this tech is that it’s not really changed a great deal since it was developed by John Vaughan Thompson in the early 1800’s.

 A mini-plankton trawl is deployed from the MV Coastal Explorer in Holyrood, Newfoundland, Canada. Credit: Samantha Andrews/Ocean Oculus

A mini-plankton trawl is deployed from the MV Coastal Explorer in Holyrood, Newfoundland, Canada. Credit: Samantha Andrews/Ocean Oculus

The principle is quite simple. Throw the net in the water (making sure you are holding on to the other end of the ropes), and then pull it (or in our case, get a boat to pull it) through the water. Plankton (and other exciting things like trash) will get caught in the fine mesh net. When you pull the net out of the water, you can inspect the contents - and see all sorts of weird and wonderful life.

We used a plankton trawl purchased from a manufacture, but did you know you can make your own trawl yourself using just every-day items that you can easily find (and even with second-hand items or by reusing packaging)? Take a look at the Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR) lab’s ‘Baby Legs’ surface trawl - complete with instructions to build your own. Cool right!