Strange contraption washes up on St. Augustine Beach

Device found by First Coast News’ Jessica Clark.

ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. — Sometimes science is weird, or at least, it’s looking weird.

Friday morning, while taking a walk on Crescent Beach, I found a contraption with fabric blowing in the wind. I had no idea what it was.

It was made of PVC pipe, canvas, and it had some kind of technical gadget attached to it. On the sails, someone had written “Jacksonville University” and “JU” and “NOAA Drift Study”.

On a hunch, I called JU Marine Science professor Jeremy Stalker. Yep, it was his. But what was it?

“It’s a drifter,” he explained to me later at Jacksonville University.

He and his students make these drifters. He introduced me to two students who made the one I found, Melanie Doan and Connor OMeally.

These drifters are made to track the ocean’s currents. They’re part of NOAA Drift Study and people around the country participate in this effort. It’s a legitimate scientific piece of equipment.

“Sometimes they look a little funky. But if they work, they work,” Doan said.

The drifters are from Crowley cargo ships several miles offshore.

“They’re supposed to go for six to eight months,” Stalker explained. “Depending on how and how well they get caught up in currents.”

The technical gadget that sticks out of the water is a solar-powered GPS.

“It pings twice a day,” O’Meally noted.

A satellite picks up those coordinates, marks them on a map and tracks the drifter device’s movement.

The canvas “sails” are actually below the water’s surface.

“The whole point of it is so it’s not impacted by wind and rather impacted by the currents,” O’Meally explained. “What we’re trying to do with this is studying the currents.”

Some of these drifters go way out.

“So we’ve had drifters launched from here that will end up off the southern coast of Greenland,” Stalker said.

But why would scientists want to know about the ocean’s currents?

“This is a part of the ocean that is a little understudied,” Stalker nodded.

And knowing currents better could help forecast the weather better, or better understand animal migration, or even help track boats that lose power.

Stalker and his students hoped to have this drifter last longer in the ocean. It was only there for two days.

However, it could still provide important data about the current along the shoreline.

They hope to refurbish it and get it back out there to carry on with science.

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