Edgartown fisherman finds mysterious box at sea

A camera attached to the weather balloon took this photo of Martha's Vineyard at 59,800 feet. — Photo courtesy of Olin College

On Saturday, April 28, Edgartown commercial fisherman and retired business executive Chuck Wendel, returning from Cape Cod and fishing for sea bass off Oak Bluffs, found a box that had just returned from the edge of space. The 18-inch-square box was floating in the water about 400 feet from shore.

Mr. Wendel said, “It wasn’t Styrofoam but a protected rubberized composition. It was trailing something. It looked like a big deflated balloon or a parachute with all the paraphernalia. It looked like silk.”

The box was designed by a group of four college freshman from Olin College, a small private undergraduate engineering college located in Needham, Massachusetts, part of an engineering class project. They used two-inch-thick pink foam cut into interlocking panels glued with hot glue and reinforced with soft black foam bumpers. A 5-foot diameter helium filled weather balloon and a parachute were attached.

Olin associate professor of mechanical engineering Brian Storey, who mentored the project, said that when the balloon reached an altitude of 80,000 feet it expanded to somewhere between 20 and 30 feet in diameter before it burst due to the change in air pressure at that altitude. The parachute brought the science project safely to earth. The balloon was one of four developed by four different groups of four students for a class in real-world measurement. They were all launched from a more western location, Great Barrington, with the unrequited hope that the westerlies would not carry the balloons out to sea.

The box contained a still camera, a video camera, and equipment to record environmental data: sensors for measuring temperature, air pressure, and CO2 levels. A cell phone was used as a GPS device to locate and track the box. Hand warmers were included to keep the batteries warm to increase their life.

Fisherman Wendel picked up the box and saw that there was a request written on it that it be returned to Olin College. He continued to fish, unaware that the camera on the box had photographed him picking up the box and that the GPS was recording his route as he fished. “We run up about a quarter of a mile and then drift back. Run up and drift back repeatedly during the day. The fishing has been good.” The GPS recorded his zigzag course.

He took the box back to his home in Edgartown. He contacted Olin College and made arrangements with a friend who lives in North Falmouth, who agreed to pick it up when they met on the fishing grounds the next day and take it to the mainland where the Olin College students could pick it up. “My friend didn’t go out fishing the next day.”

He again talked to people at the college who through intricate layers of communication found someone who was on the Island who would return the box. “So I left it on my porch and when I returned there was a very nice card thanking me. Some time later I received a box with a thank you note, a hat, and a mug from Olin College.”

Douglas Ulwick, an architect who lives in Abington, said that he was at his house on the Island when he received an email from a friend, Merlyn Liberty, whose cousin works at Olin, asking if he “would help out with a project that required the intra-state transport of goods, as though it were a spy mission.” He said the retrieval of the payload was a fun adventure. “We played it cloak and dagger and had fun with it.” He picked up the box pretending that he was part of a secret special ops group.

“I had to get this suspicious looking package off Island. The shrouds, parachute, and balloon were still attached.” He chose the 20 mil contractor’s trash bag to conceal the box.

“I made a cell phone video of me retrieving the payload from the porch in Edgartown, photographed it in the black plastic trash bag on the ferry and on my car hood at Palmer Ave.”

The box was returned. Professor Storey said that all the data was intact thanks to the rapid retrieval by Mr. Wendel.

Of the other three balloons, one landed on Cuttyhunk Island, one has not been recovered and one washed ashore on the Vineyard where it was found on Mother’s Day, May 13, two weeks after the data indicates it went down 20 miles east of Nantucket.

Luanne Johnson director/wildlife biologist with BiodiversityWorks in Edgartown found the balloon while setting up piping plover exclosures on South Beach near Edgartown Great Pond. Edgartown School science teacher David Faber was helping with the exclosure project. Ms. Johnson gave the box to Mr Faber who called the phone number on the box. He was given permission to open the box for his students, which he did. He also helped dry the box which had taken in ocean water during it’s voyage and with the help of his son retrieved photos from the onboard camera.

Mr. Faber and Ms Johnson said that they thought is was amazing that scientists found the work of other scientists. She said, “It’s always fun to help another scientist with their project.”

Kate Maschan, one of the Olin College students on the project, said in an email, “The best part of the project was the real-world experience. There was a high chance of failure because there were so many uncontrollable variables, and it did indeed fail when it landed in the ocean. Weeks after we had accepted that we would never see our projects again, we were incredibly lucky that they were recovered and that our pictures from near space survived.”

“The projects did not go perfectly as planned,” said Mr. Storey. There was a miscalculation of the wind intensity, which resulted in the balloons being blown off shore, but without that error the Vineyard would not have been a part of the story.

A pdf report of the project can be found at mvtimes.com

Photos, a video and some information about the project are online at