Citizen science at sea

During our stopovers in Brest and Concarneau, we had the chance to meet three people who are each developing participatory science programs around the sea.


© Aline de Pazzis · Sailing Hirondelle

What’s that?

Participatory science are research programs carried out jointly with citizens to acquire more data. These volunteers, assisted by mediators or the researchers themselves, follow a scientific protocol (defined in advance) to collect new information to help research laboratories [or] on study sites. They will thus come to enrich the databases of the research laboratories or will be processed immediately.

The first meeting was with a passionate person of science - of all sciences -, of mediation, and of the ocean: Cédric Courson, co-founder of Astrolabe Expeditions, an association of participatory sciences on board private sailboats. Between training courses, development of data collection protocols and science and sailing weekends, he marvels at the incredible spectacle of life, sharing stories of night-time swimming, under a starry sky, in a marine milky way made of bioluminescent plankton. 


A few weeks later, Nadia Améziane received us at the Marine Biology Station in Concarneau, the oldest still in operation in the world. Research, teaching, mediation and participatory sciences have a strong place there. Transmitting to the public the notion of ecosystem, to lead citizens to question the importance of protecting biodiversity for human societies; this is one of the main missions she has set herself, for many years now, directly from the Marinarium of Concarneau, as with her commitment to the Ocean and Climate Platform in Paris. 


Also at the Marine Biology Station in Concarneau, we met Pauline Poisson, a marine biologist who coordinates and develops the Plages Vivantes, or Living Beaches, participatory science project, aimed in particular at school children. The ecosystem of the upper beach, valued for better or for worse by tourist activities, water sports and hikers, is an accessible gateway to discover the astonishing diversity of such a small strip of the coastline.

Science, the expert's field par excellence?
As Cédric tells us, "Historically, participatory science has long been the norm". "With the Age of Enlightenment, science became something of the domain of specialists, it became an elite of people who think. " Yet, in times of great discoveries, sailors had to be the eyes and hands of researchers. To assist them, painters and artists were on board, in order to restitute as well as possible the discoveries - which, moreover, would have remained unknown to Europeans without these "participants". And even before, as Cédric reminds us, for a long time "science was everyone's territory: we did science to make agriculture, to manage time, to manage the city".

Since the 1960s, participatory science initiatives have been back in vogue. The forerunners are on the other side of the Atlantic and even give them a name: 'citizen science'. It is very practical to be able to use thousands of eyes spread over a large territory to observe nature and its evolution. Counting populations of certain species, particularly birds and butterflies, observing migrations; participatory science becomes an additional tool available to researchers. Non-professional taxonomists are behind more than half of the animal species described between 1998 and 2007 - often retired scientists and amateur volunteers (Boeuf et al. 2012). 


On land, programs are growing, expanding, and becoming more mainstream. There are many opportunities to participate, either directly from one's own garden or during walks in the city or the countryside.


And at sea?

The ocean, a hostile environment that is more difficult to access for us earthlings, is less suitable for participatory science. Having a ship, knowing how to navigate or dive autonomously, dealing with meteorological and material constraints: the challenges are substantial! However, on the water as well, participatory science is slowly developing - albeit with some delay. Telephones, internet, photo and video, the widespread use of modern tools enables the public to get involved from anywhere, at sea or on land. 


Astrolabe Expeditions highlights the 14,000 sailors continuously present on the high seas; a formidable resource for the collection of physical, chemical and biological data. This beautiful fleet can - if they wish - bring on board technologies, such as thermometers, plankton nets, or hydrophones, to collect data from around the globe. A brief training before departure, the transmission of the gestures and protocols to follow in order to respect the rigor necessary for this data collection, and the sailors become formidable partners to the oceanic research vessels, whose deployment is very expensive, and is planned well in advance, generally on a precise and short itinerary.

On the foreshore, the strip of coastline that is covered and uncovered by tides, other programs, such as Plages Vivantes, which Pauline Poisson works on, take the students to the seashore. "The goal is to involve citizens, whether they have scientific knowledge or not, in scientific programs to reconnect them with conservation issues - in this case, the upper beach - and to retrieve data. » 


Between the open ocean and the coast, the thousands of boaters who go out for the day on boats of all sizes are the basis of programs such as Objective Plankton. Every year at the same time of year in the Bay of Concarneau and Brest harbour, researchers organize with the Boaters' Association a few days dedicated to data collection. These plankton samples and water turbidity measurements have precise GPS locations allowing the organizers to follow the evolution of plankton in space and time. After the outing at sea, the sailors are invited to discover the fruit of their harvest under the microscope, in a moment of science and conviviality. 


Much more than a simple research tool, participatory science directly involves citizens in contemporary issues. By getting their hands "dirty" - or wet -, being in the field, observing for themselves how an ecosystem works, the pressures it is undergoing and the changes underway, citizens can take grasp of an issue, better understand the stakes, and ultimately become better ambassadors for it. 


Through this active engagement and personal involvement, participants can in turn become advocates for the causes they discover. This process enables us to make more informed decisions, influences our behaviour, and encourages each of us to become advocates for the issues of today and tomorrow. 

With a small bonus: being close to the ocean nurtures strong emotional connections that enhance our well-being! 


As the United Nations Decade of Ocean Sciences for Sustainable Development (2021-2020) begins, incorporating a major "Ocean Literacy" component, participatory science at sea is a formidable vehicle for raising awareness and engaging citizens in the science agenda. As Nadia Améziane reminds us, "As long as we haven't gone to see the 7th continent of plastic, it's hard to integrate it. Whereas when I went to collect plankton myself, and I look under the microscope and I see that there is plastic, that makes me think a lot more".

*La taxonomie, c'est la science des lois de la classification : la conception, la dénomination et la classification des groupes d'organismes.

*La turbité correspond au caractère plus ou moins trouble, indiquant la présence de particules en suspension.

*La haute mer est la partie de l'océan qui n'est pas soumise à la juridiction des Etats, la haute mer couvre la moitié de la surface du globe.

How better to start an expedition dedicated to outreach on human-ocean interactions than by meeting an ocean photographer? Upon arrival in Concarneau, we set out to interview Benoît Stichelbaut, a sailing and ocean photographer particularly admired for his spectacular shots of the Ar-Men lighthouse.


So how can you participate?

  • If you have a sailboat, or if you live in Brest, Roscoff or Concarneau and want to go on an outing, follow Objectif Plancton


  • Ifremer's Click&Fish application, which records lost or abandoned fishing gear →


  • The ObsEnMer application and site → From the coast or at sea, you can record your observations of marine fauna directly on the ObsenMer application or site, a collaborative platform that brings together observations of mammals, turtles, birds, fish →


  • Astrolabe Expeditions - with science and sailing weekends →


  • The Great Nurdle Hunt - an English association that collects information about "mermaid tears", the small raw plastic pellets often found on beaches →


  • Boeuf et al., L’apport des sciences participatives à la connaissance de la biodiversité en France, Lettre de l’OCIM, 2012

  • Cigliano et al., Making marine and coastal citizen science matter, Ocean and Coastal Management, 2015

  • Theobald, Ettinger et al., Global Change and Local Solutions: Tapping the unrealized potential of citizen science for biodiversity research, Biological Conservation, 2014

  • Sciences participatives et biodiversité - conduire un projet pour la recherche, l’action publique, l’éducation, Guide de bonnes pratiques, Collectif Sciences Participatives Biodiversité, 2016