Friday, June 16, 2017

Thoughts from Pago Pago

The sighting came while the ship was stopped so we could lower scientific instruments into the deep blue -- for the last time.. A large white shape appeared just below the surface not 50 feet away from our side. It moved forward to aft and then disappearing behind us, among the whitecaps and glare of the sun. Moments later, it was back. This time the large creature was almost bobbing at the surface; this time presenting a clearly recognizable shape.  “Whale ho,” went out a cry from the quarterdeck.  In seconds, the back of the ship was full of curious crew. For the next hour and a half we were treated to a spectacular sight of first one, then two, Minke whales. They swam languid loops around the ship, presenting their sides and white bellies for us to admire. Amidst the whoops of joy and gasps of wonder there were questions. What kind of behavior is this?  What are they doing?
Curious Minke whale from aloft (Hanna Payne)
Now, for starters, whales have no necks. The eyes of a whale are   separated by a wide head.  To see in the upward direction they have to rotate on their sides, and even show their bellies in the direction of their gaze. It seemed to me they were very carefully surveying us, the hull of the ship, the science gear dangling over the side, the excited people cheering on the deck, the tall ship’s rig and its sails. We had come long way on this voyage as scientists, observers and mariners. The tables were turned now, the sea looking back at us in form of this pair of whales.  The implied message seemed clear: Who are you, what are you about?

The questions, indeed this whole encounter, took me back to the Hopkins Marine Station where we started our voyage. During those frantically busy five weeks, the students learned a great deal about the ocean they would be studying; its currents, chemistry and plankton inhabiting the deep. But probably more importantly, a series of Friday conservation lectures challenged them to think deeply about our relationship with the ocean and all the fantastic life in it.  Our close encounter with the whales could have come straight out of the very first lecture, given by Carl Safina, a noted author and leader in ocean conservation. In a moving talk grounded in science and much research, he challenged us to re-think our relationship with animals, to re-examine our assumptions about their consciousness and intellect.

In another talk in the series, Doug McCauley from UC Santa Barbara rang the alarm bell about the creeping industrialization of the oceans while Mark Meekan from Australian Institute of Marine Science gave us front-row look at the depletion of shark populations globally, and strategies for their conservation. Jeremy Jackson, at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, spoke of the challenges to coral reefs and the need to understand the socioeconomic drivers behind destructive human behaviors in exploiting the reefs, while Nancy Knowlton of the Smithsonian Institution told us to recognize and celebrate the success stories in marine conservation when we see them in action.

These themes have come up and again during our voyage. We’ve seen, measured, photographed and videoed sharks, and reefs, parrotfish, and strange deep-water plankton, ocean productivity, and hotspots of ocean life. Throughout the work of the cruise, the concerns and the challenges given to us by the speakers at Hopkins have kept bubbling up, and I figure for these young minds they will continue to do so.

Something different yet equally powerful the voyage has given us all is a new, or renewed, love affair with the ocean. The wonder of the starlit skies on the open ocean, the rush of bubbles and cool embrace of the water of a swim call, the colors and shapes of the reef corals and fish There is much to love, we all have our favorite moments. The best thing is that all these visceral experiences couple powerfully with the intellect, with our concerns for the future of our ocean.

Stanford@SEA 2017 in Pago Pago
What the whales saw was a small community afloat, a community of caring people with a deep commitment to keep our oceans healthy, and restore them when they are in trouble. It’s hard to say what these marine mammals made of us, but they didn’t seem to feel threatened. I don’t know what they felt, but I know their appearance on the last leg of our South Pacific expedition buoyed my spirits and renewed my sense of hope. It’s a gift to be part of this community, knowing that these young bright minds are engaged to assure a better future of our ocean.

At anchor, Pago Pago Harbor,

-Jan Witting,
SEA Chief Scientist.

Lastly, a post script and shout out to the soul of Stanford @ Sea. This expedition -- specifically for Stanford students, like the others before it -- would not have been possible without Barb Block. Unfortunately, she was not able to take her place on the ship due to family medical emergency. Barb’s passion for the ocean brought this program into being. During our five weeks at Hopkins she worked her magic on this class as well. We missed you Barb, but I think you’d be proud of what this class has done and has become!

Observations from Ken Weiss

Joining the South Pacific expedition in its final leg, I was surprised at what I found. I knew the students had encountered rough seas that dragged down the hardiest of them into a woozy world of seasickness. Broken into three groups, the students had been standing watch, around the clock in six-hour watches to master nautical science and seamanship skills. They got their hands wet, conducting science experiments, often in the middle of the night.
Diego sheet handling
They juggled all this with classes on the quarterdeck, making way through mandatory reading lists, writing book reports and analyzing data for science projects. And yet, when I got on board, students often spontaneously burst in song, rousing-cheers and unabashed smiles beaming from sun-browned cheeks. Politeness, rather than grumpiness, reigned. Were they giddy with exhaustion, punch-drunk from storms and crazy schedules? What's the source of this happy juice? I needed to find out.
Living in their midst for the past week has offered some clues to good humor and bonds of camaraderie that seemed as tight and secure as the knots that hold fast the ship's sails.  Friendship began to form in the first five weeks of intensive coursework - 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove. They all piled in like puppies, living and eating together in group housing.
Then they moved to the Brigantine sailing vessel, where personal space gives way to collective life in narrow confines.  The 138-foot ship offers few places to hide for the company of 38 people aboard.  A student can retreat to a bunk; however these nests are hot and stuffy-usually avoided except for sleeping. 
Much of their time is spent elbow-to-elbow with many hands on a line hauling and easing sails on slippery, pitching decks, or standing watch for hazards that might lurk ahead. Each took turns wrestling the giant wheel at the helm to keep the sluggish ship on course, through squalls and under night skies with dazzling stars. On top of that, as budding scientists, each spent hours in the wet and dry labs, analyzing samples collected from the deep or found on coral reefs.  Twice a day, while underway, they lowered various forms of nets or oceanographic instruments to gather raw material of scientific inquiry.
When they get a chance to venture to the decks below -- and not catching catnaps -- students clean heads, handrails, floors. They navigate ladders - the ship's name for steep stairs - and narrow halls. When the wind blows enough to set sail, the boat heels by 12 degrees or more. Students lurch like tippy bowling pins, bumping into walls and each other, and then awkwardly thrown by the force of a wave that strikes the ship like an unseen bowling ball.  Crash. Thunk. Splat. Laughter. "You Ok?" asks a concerned teaching assistant, looking at the student sprawled on his back. A direct response doesn't come, just uncontrollable, breath-catching laughter. It's infectious as everyone within earshot begins to laugh.
Even dining in the salon is a delicate dance that can easily slide into calamity. A no-elbows-on-the-table rule is more than just etiquette. As the boat rocks and rolls, the gimbaled tables swing with hidden counterweights to keep them level to the horizon. An errant elbow on the table can send dishes of steaming food crashing to the floor or colleagues laps. Regular updates on a white board record the time between major spills, the last time food had skittered across the floor.
It would be easy for the hive-mind of this collective to turn sour, judgmental or irritable. Instead, it developed a lightness of being, with songs, strumming of ukuleles, and sweet, self-deprecating humor. The ripple of laughter usually begins with whomever made the embarrassing misstep.
Others joined in, laughing with the light-hearted perpetrators, not at them.
Lindsay taking the plunge - proper use of the head rig
As I got to know the group better, I realized the 21 students aboard made up an unusual self-selected group. All of them have got game, enthusiastically throwing themselves into the depths far above their heads, even at risk of failure. Their admittance followed careful screening by Stanford Professors Barbara Block, Rob Dunbar and Jan Witting, faculty of the Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, Massachusetts.  These three veterans of previous sailing expeditions have learned to recognize qualities of character that would shine in such sea trials. 
On the first day of classes, Block warned them that this class was like none other. Sailing 2,600 nautical miles (2992 miles) across the open ocean with rough seas and forceful winds has its dangers, she said. The students would literally hold their colleagues' lives in their hands. And so they looked after each other, including offering water or soda crackers one particular rough stretch to the half-dozen miserable souls curled up on deck beside the rail between bouts of nausea. 
The five weeks also brought revelry: "Swizzle" nights of song and skits, a tradition that dates back when rum once was allowed on board and into the fizzy Swizzle punch. They celebrated birthdays. Two of them celebrated for two days in a row, as the ship crossed the date line between Tonga and American Samoa. Eleven lopped off their hair with shipboard clippers - as many women as men  - mostly with buzz cuts and one Mohawk. They scrubbed decks together. They danced and sang the night away on shore leave at the Reload, which calls itself, "Probably the best bar in Tonga." As the days passed and blurred together, the ship became home, their fellow sailors surrogate family members.  "We've never had a bad Stanford @ Sea," said Dunbar, the Stanford professor who shared the role of the expedition's chief scientist. "But this is the happiest. I cannot sleep sometimes because of all of the giggling."

-- Ken Weiss

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Sounds of the Sea(mans)

I love diving for the hush quiet it brings. I can feel the lack of
noise: it's heavy and light at the same time, a thick film that shifts easily as I move. It feels like my breadth has just caught in my lungs. It's thunderous, and wonderous. The muted melodies of the sea often envelope my thoughts, and I've come to associate a tangible silence with most aspects of the ocean.
Yet living on a tall-ship in the middle of the South Pacific is anything but quiet. The 41-meter ship with 40 people crammed aboard develops a familiar rhythm, not all that different from the beat of steel drums of my youth. If I close my eyes, these are the sounds of ship life:
In the background, there is always the lull of the waves, the hum of the engine, the faint movement of sails and lines. It's punctuated by the loud calls of the watch officer or the JWO or the master. Classmates Robby, Sam, Chris, and Lia often burst into song. Natasha strums on the ukulele.
The whoosh of the fishing lines buzzes and our TA, Ben, makes himself laugh.
There's the drip-drop from the coffee machine when coffee-addict Jan makes a fresh pot, and the ring of the lunch bell after steward Charlie has cooked lunch. Daela hums the Jurassic Park theme song until it's drilled into my head. A camera, probably carried by Dan, clicks away furiously with the snapping of pictures. It's followed by his catch phrase, "very rare and very awesome." The sun sets as Captain Pamela discusses sail plans, and I can hear fire crackling as the sky catches flames- red, pink, and orange streaks exploding from the horizon with a silent bang. Our first scientist, Nick, teaches students the safety of going aloft, his calm voice easing people up the mast to startling heights. Stella's presence-- and her laugh-- echoes through the halls. There's the sound of rushing water through the pipes as someone turns on the fresh water, for a navy shower or to fill a bucket to wash laundry on deck. The sharp snap of the jib catches in the wind; it luffs for a second, and then fills again with satisfaction. Maddie climbs the riggings and screams "Lay away!", signaling that the lookout below can follow her up. There are yelps of delight, and surprise, on the science deck as Lindsay and Sierra cut open a tuna heart. A bird's wings, and then our mainsail, catch a gust of wind; we're sailing at about 6 knots. Dylan's blue eyes crinkle with laughter and his waxed mustache wiggles. Squares the braces. Hands to pass the staysl's. Ready on the port sheet. The words swim call! drift enticingly down to my stuffy bunk. The pool is open. We're drifting over the Tonga Trench, the second deepest spot in the world's oceans. Splash! The air is filled with the sounds of classmates screaming as they leap from the headrig into the sea. Their squeals float over the waves for only our ears to hear; there is no one else on this ocean for 200 miles.
A toilet flushes and there is a sigh of relief from the engineers when it doesn't clog. Scientists Gabi and Helen finish a 100-count of marine organisms brought up in the plankton net. No one asks how many copepods they found because we all know they are the most abundant metazoans in the ocean.
The ship takes a roll and there is a crash, and a curse, in the galley. I can't tell if it was pots or pans or plates, but either way, the 'hours since last spill' board will drop back to zero. If there are whales and dolphins and sharks below the ship, we can't hear them. But we can hear the ocean floor: the seamounts and the ridges are reflected back in the echo of a 'chirp' emitted by the sonar. Classmate Mike steps on deck, and promptly informs everyone: "Mike on deck". Rob corners another unsuspecting victim into hearing his colonoscopy story; some sounds should be lost at sea. I
hear a joke and a gybe and then, just silence.  
Over the past five weeks, I've learned to appreciate sounds in their different capacities. While the ocean once brought back memories of a quiet I could feel, it now reminds me of the comforting sounds of the Seamans.
We're five days out from Pago Pago, and I fear the impending silence of shore-life the most.
-Hanna Payne

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Thinking back on Palmerston

For this blog post I want to share something I wrote about our time in Palmerston a few weeks back. Its bit delayed, just like the time it took to process what an incredible experience it was. 

Mary Marsters (Center) with Lindsay (third from left) and 
shipmates on Palmerston Island
Church hymns still resonating in our minds, the rhythm pulsing through our veins, we made our way to the gazebo area where Mary Marsters and her family ate lunch together on Sunday after church. We sat in silence waiting for all members of the family to arrive. There was nowhere else to be on Palmerston atoll in the South Pacific. Nothing to do on this white sand island, with thick grove of coconut trees, surrounded by green lagoon and the deep blue of the Pacific. The fish had been caught, the rice and taro had been cooked and a lavish spread awaited. It's a simple but idyllic life on Palmerston, a three-day sail from the nearest of the other Cook Islands. Upon arriving on the island earlier that morning, Mary and her family adopted three classmates and me for the night; we waited for everyone to gather for the feasting to begin.

Seven family members arrived for the Sunday ritual: Mary's daughter and son in law along with their three children, her brother and herself. She said grace before everyone scampered off in different directions to assemble the dishes they had prepared for our lunch. The three children ran from the house to the gazebo for what seemed like hours, shuttling new pots of steaming hot food to the table. Rice, taro, parrotfish (fried and pan seared), coleslaw, fried pork, and ceviche. To top it off, each of us received a freshly macheted coconut to drink from.  My eyes widened each time they laid a new plate on the table, shocked by the generosity and effort that went in to our Sunday meal.

For us, as a cultural experience, it was perfect. But for Mary, she missed family members no longer on the island. Mary's husband was in Rarotonga at the time. Awaiting a doctor's appointment scheduled for October, he had to leave on a ship in May to make it in time due to the lack of traffic between the islands. She had a son in New Zealand for work and a daughter in Rarotonga as well. This was familiar story among the extended family on this island; the young move away, attracted by bright lights, bigger towns and the trappings that come with a cash economy. At this moment, Palmerston has only 40 people left.

It was only a few months before that I had learned about Palmerston.
Accepting the opportunity to sail across the South Pacific Ocean with Stanford at Sea, I received our cruise track, which included the island of Palmerston. It was then that I learned it was a lightly, and I mean very lightly, populated island about a three-day boat journey from Rarotonga.
Reading through the class syllabus, Palmerston stood out as the island I most wanted to visit. Nothing could have prepared me for the intense sense of community we felt immediately upon stepping foot on their sandy soil.
They insisted that we stay in their homes and bring our dirty laundry with us as well. I was bowled over by their generosity, even embarrassed that these people who had so little, were eager to give us all they had. And they were deeply interested in us: we were new people with new stories to them - they wanted to hear from as much as we wanted to hear from them. 

Rob also seemed moved by their generosity; he prompted us to think about our time in Palmerston by asking how they could afford to give so much away. A fair question. There is nowhere on the island to use currency and the only source of income (as far as we could tell) comes from selling their fishing catch to people on other Cook Islands.

When we snorkeled around the reef, we saw plenty of beautiful parrotfish; however, upon talking to islanders it became apparent that the size and number of these reef-chomping fish had dwindled over the years. They used to catch fish two to three feet long; now they consistently catch one-footers.
Many islanders refuse to think or discuss this issue, seemingly because they rely on God to provide them the resources they need. They believe that the fish populations depend on God's will rather than any overfishing.

God, however, cannot explain other cultural phenomena like the fact that the younger generations seem to be more interested in their iPads and the latest hits rather than learning the hymns and community songs their parents and grandparents have known for years. Mary fretted that the children seemed uninterested in preserving this important part of their culture. When I asked her why she thinks that is, she just shook her head and responded, "I don't know." The Protestant church is quintessential to the Palmerston community. Beyond the Sunday church affair when services are held at 6am, 10am and again at 4pm, Palmerstonians gather at their newly constructed church on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays as well for shorter ceremonies.
Mary attends them all.

After we finished eating, the youngest family, Joy - age 7 - enthusiastically toured us around the island - less than a mile in circumference. It was easy for her to show us each and every nook and cranny that mattered to her. During our walk, I asked her about her family members who had left the island, wondering what she thought of Palmerston in comparison to Rarotonga and New Zealand. She was emphatic. She would definitely end up in Rarotonga - "for the shopping."

Mary confessed that she spent her 30s off island, living in New Zealand to obtain retirement benefits. Because all Palmerstonians are New Zealand citizens they are entitled to its old-age benefits if they spend ten years or more on the mainland. In New Zealand she lived with her son and spent much of her time gambling in Auckland's casinos. She was excited to return home after ten years and has since become one of the "aunties" of the island
- leading hymns, church songs, and providing a foundation of culture that she hopes will persuade the younger generation to stay.

The dwindling population was common topic of concern. In our official welcome to the island, the island leader joked that we should have delayed our arrival to five years from now when the census-takers arrived on the island. Our class would double their population. Financial aid from the New Zealand government is calculated on population size, and every person counts on a scale this small.

These isolated incidents only furthered my curiosity about this place. It offered such a rich, and idyllic island lifestyle, and yet so many things threaten to allow the community to wither away. What will it look like in 20 years from now? That is a question that only the islanders can answer depending on the ways they chose to remain and interact with their community.

Since 2014, Palmerston has seen significant changes to its infrastructure. Previously, its only power came from a diesel generator; the island recently received funding to put in a solar farm. No longer does the constant hum of the generator overpower the sound of the birds and waves crashing on the shore. Their entire community runs of solar. Each and every child enthusiastically showed us this new advancement; the excitement was visible in every Palmerstonian's eyes when they discussed it.

While more than half of the children move away when they come of age, there are a few individuals keeping hope alive for the community, like Mary's "adopted" grandson. His parents recently decided to move to Rarotonga, but he couldn't bear the thought of leaving home. His love for the Palmerston community, his relatives and friends, their school and their little island paradise kept him here.

Mary's daughter also opted to remain on the island. Now the headmaster of the school on the island, she has tailored the education system to help students who work at varying levels and paces. Her passion for the community shined through as she told us about her work, the new curriculum, and the teachers as well.

With a community richer than any I've witnessed, with a people brimming with generosity, and with songs and voices that would win any competition in the United States, I hope Palmerston remains the tight knit community we witnessed. Even as the younger generations go away for higher education, there seems to be something that pulls some of them back home. During our brief stay on the island, I saw a spirit of generosity, a sense of community that's rare to see in these modern times. I can only hope that the strength of familial relationships and the little island paradise they have counter the pull of social media, "shopping," and the prospect of new experiences in new places for the islanders. It's a special place, and one worth keeping.

-Lindsay Allison

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Finding your true self at sea

Captain Pamela says you find your true self at sea. Apparently my true self is a loud and hyperactive jukebox, with the poor hygiene and spikey hair of a 12-year-old boy.

It's always nice remembering you have the capacity to surprise yourself.

With only a week left, it's funny feeling like I'm only now falling into my ship life stride. Truthfully, the onset of this endeavor was unexpectedly difficult. I felt perennially exhausted and ceaselessly incompetent. At times I missed home severely - not the place but the feeling and people.
Other times I struggled to remember what life was like before the ship.
Often I felt self-pitying and guilty about my ungratefulness.

Then one morning I woke up with a 101.4-degree fever. Over a wretched 8 hours of cold sweats, hot flashes, achiness and congestion, my body seemed to be signaling defeat. Thankfully, my shipmates were instrumentally kind, with our captain and medical officer checking in on me regularly. I was cleared just in time for a loopy dawn watch on deck!

I can't pinpoint exactly how it all transpired, but ever since then, I've felt more and more at home here. Maybe it's because my threshold for sleep deprivation has vastly increased, exhibiting a strong correlation with my baseline slaphappy delusion. Or maybe it's because I've realized how much I appreciate the little community we've got going on here. A community whose lives are more entrusted in each other's than anything I've ever experienced; a community that genuinely tries to look after one another.

Now, I don't want to elicit an erroneous, romantic vision of a unified and loving whole, which hugs and compliments and hauls lines together all day smiling and singing... But I would say there's definitely something special brewing here, and I don't mind drinking the swizzle for a little while longer.

Side effects may include:
1) Entrancement - dazed gazing aloft.
2) Primordial screaming - leaping off the bowsprit during open ocean swim calls.
3) Unexpectedly breaking out into group singing - What's Love Got to Do With It?
4) Uncontrollable laughter - the blind leading the blind in some questionable sail handling.
5) Odd phrase coining - "brute strength and ignorance!" "pork bun!"
"~rogue~" "put the cow in the shed!"

6) Enlightenment - learning how funny/crazy/weird/interesting all your shipmates are.

-Ensign Tipton

Friday, June 9, 2017

Crew Spotlight: Helen

Hey friends!
Today, we'd like to share a little bit about our third scientist on board, whose energy and knowledge helps keep this ship afloat. Helen grew up in New York, and spent parts of her childhood visiting Florida's Gulf coast, where she first fell in love with the ocean while exploring the miles and miles of beaches. She grew up wanting to learn as much as she could about the natural world, and that enthusiasm for learning carries over in everything she does on board the Seamans. Helen describes her position as third scientist as a great mix of a learning and a teaching opportunity - she benefits from the knowledge that different students bring to the voyage, and gets to share the work she loves with others.
After three sessions on board, Helen says that she misses her family and her dog the most, but gets to see them during her breaks. At sea, she loves developing a community that grows together, similar to some of her communities at home like her family and her college team. Her favorite part of traveling is the people she gets to spend time with, whether they are the people living in the port stops, or her fellow crew members. When on the ship, she loves getting to know the students and staff, and having fun with all aspects of ship life. Helen's favorite lab work is the Neuston net tow 100-count; she loves the process of identifying all the cool critters that the tow brings up, from copepods to siphonophores to lobster larva.

Helen's eagerness to learn new things is contagious. She is always bright, cheery, and helpful, through the worst weather or the roughest seas. Thanks to Helen for bringing unique perspectives and an incredible breadth of knowledge to Stanford@SEA 2017!

Hometown: Troy, NY
Hobbies: When I'm not on the ship I'm usually sailing
Favorite book: The adventures of Bloody Jack (12 book series)
Favorite place to travel to: New places!
How long have you been sailing?
 I sailed on the Seamans when I was in high school; sailing became a big part of my life in college when I started racing dinghies.
What draws you to sailing? We have created a community where we live simply, look out for each other, and travel to places few have seen.
Worst job on the ship? Depends on your perspective.  A tough day on the ship beats a great day in an office.
What are you looking forward to most on this trip? Learning about all of the student projects. I learn as much from my students as they do from me.
Favorite sea creature (or one you relate with the most)? Sea turtle

Crew Quotes:
"She doesn't appreciate when you call a species 'gooey goop' or 'halo sword'." - Chris Leboa, Stanford@SEA Student
Author's note: Chris is referring to a siphonophore, a gelatinous marine organism, when he says 'halo sword'.

"Helen is extremely organized and makes working in the lab much more enjoyable, and less stressful. She's really detailed when she's teaching, and helps makes sure that you know what you're doing and why you're doing it. And she always lets us have fun!"  - Andrew Henning, Stanford@SEA TA

"She's so caring and always down to chat, whether about sailing, science, or life beyond the sea." - a Stanford@SEA student 

The Resilience of the Living Oceans

Standing at the helm, I grasp two spokes of the ship’s wooden steering wheel, when the order comes: “Course ordered 355, steering 005.” I recite the order, following ship’s protocol, knowing full well it will send us directly into the path of an oncoming squall. I turn the wheel a quarter turn until the bow points directly toward the looming wall of black clouds. I can see black streaks on the horizon, curtains of rain spilling out of  sky. The junior watch officer barks out commands in preparation for the oncoming deluge. “Close all hatches. Grab your foulies. Bring in dry laundry.” The deck springs to life. My watch crew scurries to don foul-weather gear, and latch down the ship. My job: I stand fast at the helm, watching into the threatening clouds and wonder:  How bad is this storm going to be?
Chris at the helm as Seamans steers toward a squall line.
Our five-week journey on the SSV Robert Seamans has been filled with similar questions. How can we sail with winds directly on our bow? Will the storms we detect on radar knock us off our plotted course? We had other questions, too, about what we would see under the waves. In our shore-based courses in Monterey, we learned about all of the stresses coral reefs face today and that Palmerston Atoll had experienced such hot water the coral reefs had bleached white. We were prepared for the worst. “Isle Maria could be totally bleached,” said Rob Dunbar, the chief scientists as he described,a remote and uninhabited coral atoll between Tahiti and the Cook Islands.When we got a chance to survey the reefs while snorkeling, how bad would it be?

Moorea, where many of us spent a few days before embarking, did not appease many fears. The first thing I did was to throw on a snorkel and swim onto the reef directly out the back door of the Airbnb where we stayed. The water was cloudy. Besides some sea cucumbers, mostly devoid of life. A few coral heads stood amid clumps of turf algae smothering the dismembered remains of once regal branching corals. As I swam through this seafloor graveyard, I almost caught myself on a gillnet in which a 5-inch long juvenile parrot fish, the largest fish I had seen that day, struggled to free itself. After that day, I wondered if the other reefs we were to visit on board had suffered a similar fate.
Bleached corals dotted the reef at Îles Maria.
We made way from Moorea to Îles Maria, four sandy outcroppings of land, barely visible from the endless blue around them.

On these uninhabited islands the reefs could be unfished, vibrant and healthy or bleached with the symbiotic algae living in corals unable to survive such high water temperatures. With a hesitant anticipation we leaned back off the rescue boat and looked around. Below us the sea floor was tinged pink with coralline algae, corals favorite substrate to grow, and branching corals clamor over each other for space. Looking past the schools of parrotfish however, it was impossible to miss the effects the warming oceans. Some of the coral heads were bright, almost blinding white instead of the kaleidoscope of greens, blues, reds and browns of their neighbors. Bereft of local pressures like overfishing and nutrient pollution, the vast reefs around the Îles Maria are mostly vibrant and healthy. Still, there is no telling how much more time they can survive the global pressures all reefs face like ocean warming and acidification.

From Îles Maria we headed to Rarotonga, the capitol of the Cook Islands. I was excited to see if the reefs were as healthy as those around Îles Maria, or if local pressures had dealt similar damage to those around Moorea.  However, getting in the murky water I could barely see anything. In eight spots we surveyed around the island, I could make out more algae than corals in the turbid waters. It seemed to confirm the worst of what we learned in class:  The proliferation of algae is thought to be correlated with an increase of development and human sewage seeping into the island waters. Foreign experts had been brought here to offer solutions to the problem. As we set sail from the Cook Islands for Tonga, I wondered if it was ever possible for coral reefs to coexist with the pressures humans place on them.
Vibrant, healthy corals from the reefs at Vava'u, Tonga.
As we sailed into Nuku‘Alofa, a city of 60,000, I was braced for the worst. Perhaps, if I was lucky, I might spot the one coral head that had survived the onslaught human development as I jumped off the pier adjacent to where the Robert Seaman’s was docked. In the water I couldn’t believe my eyes. Instead of a rocky or sandy bottom, the seafloor was totally covered in coral. Branching corals, none bleached, competed for space in a classic struggle on reefs to absorb available light needed for coral growth -- a scene I had only seen in pictures of Discovery Bay, Jamaica, from 1975. Yesterday we dove around a motu, or island, a few miles from the main city. Again, florescent branching corals and giant bommies spread across the surface below, while fish darted in an out of the porous rock corals were growing all over. Although we expected the worst, the reefs of Tonga offered a hopeful sign that sometimes examining things up close show they are not as bad as they seem from afar. Some reefs of the world seem to have adapted to the human pressures, or somehow eluded them. Either way, they remain vibrant and healthy.

All these ideas roiled through my head as I stood at the helm, steering the ship into the dark horizon. As the Seamans drew closer to the ominous front, the clouds began to dissipate. To our left a rainbow emerged, its end dipping below the waves a hundred yards from our port bow. We passed by with barely a sprinkle. A couple of hours later, the sky cleared of clouds, the wind stopped and the ocean surface turned smooth like glass. It was time for an open-ocean swim in waters usually traversed by freighters, deep-sea fishing fleets and historically whalers. We all jumped in the water. During a game of open ocean water polo, Captain Pamela called “Whale Ho!” from the deck. Turning where she pointed I saw the mist from its last blow before diving to great blue depths below. Another hopeful sign of the resilience of the living oceans.

--Chris Le Boa