It’s pretty typical for kids to make cool discoveries at the beach — shells, sea glass, shark teeth. But 11-year-old Quinlan Slavin is going to have some bragging rights when he returns to his sixth grade class at West Tisbury School in September.
On June 30, while sailing in Tisbury Great Pond with his older cousin, Raymond Muldaur, who is 56, they spotted a yellow object in the water.
Since the pond is one of the sites where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is looking for unexploded ordnance from days when a U.S. Navy base was located on-Island and did bombing practice, Quinlan and his cousin initially steered clear.
But the object was bobbing, and it was yellow, and it showed no signs of deterioration, so when Quinlan returned to the shore, he got on a paddleboard to take a closer look. It was not a bomb, but it was clearly something important. On the side of the item was the name of Cornell University and a phone number to call if it was found.
“After that I paddled back and told Ray, so we took out a kayak and lifted it into the kayak and brought it to shore so we could call the number,” Quinlan said. “They told us people would be very excited that we found it.”
It turns out that the find was something called a Marine Autonomous Recording Unit (MARU), a pop-up buoy that records the movements of baleen whales, particularly endangered right whales, Genevieve Davis, a research analyst from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, told The Times. The data collected by the MARU, which had been deployed off the southern coast of Nantucket, is used to help scientists, in part, decide where to alert boaters to whales.
“It’s basically one big microphone, and it can hear the whales,” said Quinlan, putting the MARU in simpler terms.
The pop-up buoys are deployed on the ocean floor for six months before they’re retrieved. But occasionally, they break free. They have GPS tracking devices on them, and this particular unit looped around Nantucket a couple of times before venturing over to the better of the two islands off the coast of Cape Cod.
“It’s cool, and it’s kind of crazy how it went around Nantucket three times,” Quinlan said during his conversation with The Times. “It came into the pond six hours before we found it.”
A few hours later, the tide would have likely carried it out of the pond again, and off on more adventures. Time was running out to retrieve the unit, Quinlan said he was told, because the battery pack that provides satellite positioning was dying.
“We were thrilled,” Davis said of the discovery by Quinlan and Muldaur. She works with Sarah Weiss and Sofie Van Parijs, acoustics team leader at NOAA in Woods Hole, to analyze the data retrieved from the MARU units.
They don’t like to lose them, not just for the lost data, but because each of them costs about $10,000. There are about 300 of them out there collecting data, and they can be reused.
“Thankfully it didn’t get caught up in the Gulf Stream and get taken off,” Davis said. “They can definitely travel for long distances.”
Researchers could see the location of the MARU through satellite tracking, but often didn’t have a boat or staff available to immediately retrieve it, she said.
Aside from getting the MARU back, Davis said, she and Weiss, who traveled by ferry to retrieve the unit, were thrilled to meet Quinlan.
“He was adorable,” Davis said. “It was unfortunate that we were on the ferry and had to go right back. It was nice to see him being so enthusiastic about it.”
Quinlan, who is the son of Chilmark Police Sgt. Sean Slavin and Dardy Slavin, said the whole episode has inspired him, and he could see himself one day building undersea devices like the one he found in Tisbury Great Pond.
“That would be fantastic,” Davis said. “We need all the engineers we can get.”
Quinlan received his cut of the $250 reward. Muldaur took the other half, Quinlan’s mother saying it was the right thing to do because it was a “team effort.”
Asked what he plans to do with his cash, Quinlan said, “I think putting it into my savings account, probably; I don’t really have anything to do with it right now.”