Islanders phone home for a NOAA drifter

Chris Scott, executive director of the Martha's Vineyard Preservation Trust, holds the scrub-brush portion equipped with a GPS tracker used on a NOAA drifting buoy. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

A weird-looking contraption that Caitlin Houghton, age 12, discovered on a beach walk with her parents, Amy and Olsen, last Saturday evolved into “The Case of the Missing Drifter.”

While looking for the usual shell and beach glass treasures on the shore near the West Chop lighthouse, Caitlin came across a two-by-four about three feet long, almost as tall as she is. A portion was wrapped in bright pink electrical tape. In addition to a piece of a handle attached to it, the board had a couple of spindles. A canvas sail held by dowels in the board was stenciled with orange letters that said, “Drift Study.” Another ragged canvas piece loosely attached was inscribed with “Newton North High” and signatures. There was also a phone number written down the side of the post.

Since the mystery item was cumbersome, Amy Houghton dialed the contact number on her cell phone from the beach. To her surprise, she reached oceanographer James Manning of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Laboratory in Woods Hole.

He explained that Caitlin had found part of a drifter, a floating ocean buoy equipped with a GPS tracking device used to study ocean currents. It was launched into Vineyard Sound on October 11 by a group of Newton North High School students aboard one of the Patriot boats, about a mile off Nobska Point.

Ms. Houghton said Mr. Manning sounded disheartened to learn, based on her description, that the drifter must have broken into pieces and the GPS tracker was missing. He asked if she would please bring the “remains” to Woods Hole on her next trip off Island.

“It’s cumbersome enough, that we thought we would just let him know it was there,” Ms. Houghton told The Times in a phone conversation Wednesday. “We didn’t really think that he would ask us to bring it back. It wasn’t an easy thing to take home, because it was awkward to carry and covered in seaweed, and I have a very small convertible car. But fortunately we live in Vineyard Haven, so we managed the short trip.”

Later that day Ms. Houghton received an email from Mr. Manning, thanking her.

“The students at Newton North High will be glad to hear what happened to their drifter,” he said. “I am especially happy to hear what went wrong because I now know that my broom-handle-mast-extension is not a good idea. This is the second time we found this broke so we will discontinue this model in the future.”

In the meantime, Mr. Manning said the drifter would be refitted with a new transmitter and the bulk of it reused.

Mysterious signals

On Sunday, however, the plot thickened. Mr. Manning emailed Ms. Houghton and said that despite losing contact with the drifter shortly after the students dropped it in the water, it started sending signals again.

The missing GPS tracker showed its new location near Church and Pease’s Point Way in Edgartown, although at times it appeared at times to be traveling around, Mr. Manning said. He asked whether the Houghtons live in Edgartown, thinking they might not have realized the GPS tracker was still attached to the drifter parts they found. It dawned on Ms. Houghton that the tracker must be in the vicinity of the Whaling Church, a Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust (MVPT) property.

Ms. Houghton called MVPT executive director Chris Scott, who did some sleuthing by talking to people he knew that live and work in the area, and glancing into parked cars and backyards as discretely as possible.

“And then I thought, Doris Ward has dogs; maybe they were on the beach and they found this thing and she’s got it in her car or something,” Mr. Scott told The Times in a phone conversation Tuesday.

When he did catch up with Ms. Ward and described what he was looking for, she said it was in her garage. Her grandson, James Taggert of Maine, had recovered it while he was fishing in the Striped Bass Derby.

“Right now, I’m on my way to Oak Bluffs to get a haircut and it’s in the back of my car, so NOAA’s going to wonder what’s going on with this thing,” Mr. Scott said with a laugh as he spoke to The Times on his cell phone.

The second half of the drifter was basically a sweep broom with a GPS unit taped to the bristles and three foam buoys, similar to those used on lobster pots, attached to the handle.

A member of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, Mr. Scott planned to attend a meeting in Woods Hole Tuesday night, so he arranged to meet Mr. Manning beforehand to return the drifter “remains.” The Houghton family met up with Mr. Scott at his car in the 5 pm ferry line in Vineyard Haven to hand off their part of the drifter.

Caitlin, who attends West Tisbury School, said it was exciting to find the mystery object and to learn more about the drifter project online.

Mr. Scott concluded that, “The moral of the story is, never pick up a drifter.”

Drifting along

Mr. Manning was happy to have his wayward drifter returned. It has been one of NOAA’s ongoing projects, and he has experimented with low-cost drifters built and put into the water by students, he said.

Mr. Manning has received help deploying drifters in Vineyard Sound over the last few years from schools associated with the Zephyrus Education Association, a nonprofit organization created to support marine science awareness and education.

“We usually put in about 100 a year, and at any one time, typically there are about a dozen or so that are floating,” Mr. Manning said.

The GPS transmitters cost a couple of hundred dollars each and there is also a charge for the satellite service that provides the data. “So it’s several hundred dollars to put a drifter in and get it back,” Mr. Manning said.

That’s one of the reasons he appreciates the help and interest of people like Ms. Houghton, Vineyard Nursing Association’s development director, and her husband, who teaches social studies at the regional high school.

“It turns out our Vineyard Sound is very interesting place, because of the strong tides,” Mr. Manning said. “Even though the drifters are moving nearly a knot in the current and the tide, we’ve put out dozens of drifters in between the Vineyard and the Elizabeths, and even though they are moving nearly a knot in the current and the tide, we found that sometimes if they don’t get picked up or run ashore, they’ll stay there for weeks, and go back and forth with the tides all the way from Nobska down to Cuttyhunk.”

More information about the drifter program is available on the NOAA website.