Jon Chamberlain holding a surface drift tracker affectionately known as a Sponge Bob. (Nick Murray/News Staff)

Hundreds of floating ‘Sponge Bobs’ help track ocean currents

Institute of Ocean Science tracks ocean currents partly to assist water contamination clean-up

The Institute of Ocean Sciences (IOS) have developed surface drift trackers, affectionately known as Sponge Bobs, due to the yellow and blue spongey material they are made from, to track ocean currents.

For anyone with a TV and a childhood, Sponge Bob Squarepants is a cartoon sponge who lives under the sea in a pineapple with his pet snail Gary, who meows like a cat.

If ever there was an unlikely inspiration for cutting edge–science, Sponge Bob would appear to be it.

The IOS in North Saanich forms a part of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO).

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There are two types of the gadgets and they are both useful in helping the IOS predict where spilled contaminants and even lost sailors are likely to end up. A group of the buoy-like devices are usually deployed by helicopter and bob around on ocean currents until they run aground or are collected. On each unit a GPS satellite tracker sends back the gizmo’s location, allowing IOS experts to build accurate modelling systems of the world’s ocean currents.

“These can be deployed and track the surface currents so, if there was a contaminate, the clean-up crew would know where to go,” says Jon Chamberlain DFO Acting Manager of Ocean Sciences Division.

“These things will corroborate or refine the modelling, so it all fits together. We have these models running all the time now, so there is a forecast to say where contaminants would go if they entered into the water.”

The IOS say they have some of the best programmers and some of the most powerful computers, including a super-computer, at the institute working on modelling. GPS trackers go into “sleep mode” when not being moved around, so a resourceful technician came up with the idea of attaching spring door-stoppers on the top of the devices to keep their GPS trackers wobbling.

“So a Canadian Tire special enables them to continue transmitting and reporting their position,” laughs Chamberlain.

The project is part of the government’s Oceans Protection Plan and of much interest to the DFO are currents near Canadian coastlines. As a result, Chamberlain explains that sometimes the Sponge Bobs wash up on beaches and are found by confused members of the public.

“We’ve found, especially in urban areas like Vancouver Harbour, people walk their dogs on the beach and sometimes find them. So we have labels asking people to contact us and to please send the electronics back. The rest of it is biodegradable and can be disposed of. We then send them an IOS mug or cap as a thank you gift.”

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Last spring, one of the Sponge Bobs was found in Powell River by a group of First Nations students conducting a beach clean-up. The students were curious to know more and contacted the IOS, who visited them with two Coast Guard vessels to explain more and to help conduct field work. The students sailed in the boats and helped deploy the Sponge Bobs, before tracking them online.

“We deployed the trackers and re-deployed the one they found. They had a connection with the whole process and would ask ‘where’s our tracker?’ [as they viewed them online],” said Chamberlain.



nick.murray@peninsulanewsreview.com

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The top of a Sponge Bob, with instructions of what to do if a member of the public finds it. A GPS tracker is attached to a wobbly re-purposed door-stopper. (Nick Murray/News Staff)

A dog on a B.C. beach surprises its owner with a Sponge Bob. (Institute of Ocean Sciences)

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