JU Students Voyage Atlantic Ocean Through Tracking Buoy

Jun 26, 2015

Jessica Alexander lowers "Wilson" into the St. Johns River to test its buoyancy.
Credit Jennifer Dougherty

A class of Jacksonville University students is traveling the Atlantic Ocean by tracking a floating buoy.

The oceanography students are using the simple device to learn where water ends up when it leaves the St. Johns River.


The Jacksonville University Marine Science Research building overlooks the St. Johns River.

The lower level of the building is a big, open garage. Boats sit side by side, and the buzz of fish tanks compete with cicadas singing outside.

Marine Science Professor Jeremy Stalker works here. He’s brushing off sand from a kayaking trip he took earlier in the day. When he’s not on the water, Stalker teaches something called physical oceanography.

“We don't really have a great idea of where the St. Johns River water goes once it gets into the ocean and starts mixing with the Atlantic,” Stalker said.

  “They learn how water moves and why water moves in the oceans on a very large scale,” Stalker said. “So we're talking big currents.”

This past semester, he says he wanted his students to learn how water flows out of the St. Johns River. So he had them create buoys with tracking devices to release in river. He says they also had to also predict where they think the drifters going to go.

Stalker says making the buoys was no easy feat.

“Most of them are built of PVC, wood dowels, canvas, string, spray foam, anything you can find at Home Depot,” Stalker said.

After tweaking the designs for months, Stalker’s class launched them in February, close to where the river empties into the Atlantic.

“Two of them sank within the first 24 hours,” Stalker said. “One of them, we found the remains in Ormond Beach.”

The other was found washed up just south of Jacksonville.

But one survived, and nearly five months later, it’s still floating. The class named him Wilson. He’s about 4 feet tall and kind of looks like a makeshift mini-sail boat. He has PVC pipe arms draped in canvas.

“Then attached to the very top we have the volleyball in this case, the Wilson volleyball is attached to the top,” Stalker said.

The volleyball is lime green and on top of that is a GPS tracking device.

Stalker says at first Wilson headed south toward Cape Canaveral, but then he caught the Gulf Stream and started heading north. Now he’s bobbing up near Vermont.

The tracking info he’s sending back is helping answer some previous unknowns, Stalker says.

“We don't really have a great idea of where the St. Johns River water goes once it gets into the ocean and starts mixing with the Atlantic,” Stalker said.

Shortly after Wilson was launched, he started getting sucked into what are called eddies. They’re like whirlpools of cold and warm water. Stalker says eddies are a poorly understood phenomenon.

“They form very randomly and we need to understand more about them,” Stalker said.  “Because they tend to harbor a lot of animal life.”

Jessica Alexander is one of two students who wrote a blog about Wilson’s journey. She says once, Wilson was stuck in an eddy whirlpool off of Cape Canaveral for two weeks.

“It will be a sad day when that green marker turns red,” Stalker said. “Because that will have been its last transmission.”

  “We were like jeez it's going to get stuck there, like why, what it is doing?” Alexander said.  “And then the more research we did on it, we found out that it was  actually an area that was known for, like, shipwrecks.”

Wilson the buoy is still at sea. Stalker pulled up the tracking map on his computer. There’s a green dot on the map every time a GPS transmission is recorded.

Wilson’s tracking device has an eight-month lifespan.

“It will be a sad day when that green marker turns red,” Stalker said. “Because that will have been its last transmission.”

Until then, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is using JU’s buoy data for research.