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

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Untangling the Knot

You think about a lot of things while standing at the helm and steering a 140-foot-long tall ship.  Like the drift of the swell that rocks the Seamans, my mind often wanders off over the horizon and into ill-explored territory.  Lately, this has varied from wracking my brain for the lyrics to "Jessie's Girl" to wondering whether anyone could make a wrap-up of all the news we've missed, Liz Lemon-style. 
The tangled threads of my thoughts often lead back to a central knot.  I've been turning it over again and again, but there seems to be no unraveling it.  What I've been trying to get at with my thoughts and my contemplating and my mental poking and prodding is a feeling I have in the part of my mind that doesn't think.  The issue at hand is that the big picture, the basic undertaking of this experience-sailing through the Pacific-doesn't feel real to me.  I look out over the seemingly endless expanse of the sea and something in my brain gets jammed up.  The message doesn't translate from my brain to my heart.  As a result, a sense of wonder gets lost, and I feel no differently than when I look out a car window or out my front door.  Maybe it's sensory overload, or maybe it's how far-flung this experience is from any other I've ever had, but there's a disconnect between what I know is happening and what I feel.
You've probably experienced a similar dissonance between the head and the heart.  A good example is an irrational fear-you tell yourself that the thing won't hurt you, but the fear you have is deep down in an unreachable place.  We have our conscious thoughts, which are completely within our control, and then we have the things we really feel in our guts.  These feelings can't be easily created or changed through conscious thought.  I can tell myself that I'm on a boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, but feeling that in my gut is an entirely different beast. 
It's not that everything about the trip has felt unreal.  Picking through zooplankton at 4 AM feels real.  Deep-cleaning the heads on field day definitely feels real.  But when I look out into the vastness of the ocean, something doesn't click.  What I'm seeing sits at the surface of my understanding and goes no deeper.
In the first half of the voyage, this was cause for panic.  I think that gut understanding is vital to actually experiencing something, as opposed to just going through it.  I don't want to live my life just going through things, especially as unique an experience as this.  I wanted to untangle the knot, to make the connection click.  A part of me also hoped that the problem would work itself out on its own.
The problem did not work itself out on its own.  While we were anchored at Palmerston, I went up into the rigging to take some time to do nothing but sit and think, of which there is precious little on a ship.  Aloft, I stared out over the reef for upwards of an hour.  There was no grand revelation, but I did a lot of thinking.  I thought about my processing issues, and about the worry it was causing.  The worrying is very much within my control, and I decided to rein it in.  There's no reason to add it to the existing problem.
In a way, I've given up.  I'm no longer trying to get myself to take in the overarching picture.  However, I've fully experienced plenty of small moments-the most excited I've ever been to see pasta, the hardest I've ever laughed at 5 AM, the most supported I've ever felt while being in charge and also being completely clueless-to know that a larger whole is forming.

-Emma Gee

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Arrival at the Kingdom of Tonga

After 7 days at sea (8 if you go by the calendar), we have reached The Kingdom of Tonga. The ship's calendar shifted at midnight and, just like that, June 6th never happened on the Robert C. Seamans. However, as some other posts have touched on, time morphs into a bizarre animal when rotating through watches, weather conditions, and the ocean's restless motion. In the last week we have lost our wits in lab during dawn watches, struck and re-set the same 5 sails over and over, motored over the doldrums, and experienced a new side of sailing as Junior Watch Officers. The standard 7-day week does not make the seafaring life justice by any means; what seemed like a bittersweet goodbye at Palmerston is now a hazy memory left behind the 10 watches we have stood, the fresh sushi, the midnight cookies, and the Field Day ice cream. This ominous stretch of open-ocean sailing had been looming in the back of our heads since day 1, and now that we've sailed out of the South Pacific Gyre and into highly biologically-productive waters I think of it as an outlier in my life-a period of undetermined time (by usual notion) in which I was completely isolated with 38 of my shipmates in the middle of the vast Pacific ocean. It was a true delight to be so ever-present, and it was a true challenge to appreciate the uniqueness of each waning moment. 

But everything must come to an end, and in the last 24 hours we had our stress levels increase logarithmically as the latest details of our final 10 days aboard the ship were relayed to us. With conservation dialogues, book reviews, leading watches, and finishing the collection, analysis, and write-up of our projects in our future, the next leg of our voyage now carries a previously unexpected weight with it. In addition, the anticipation of landfall and going ashore at another new, completely different island has been building and, as we sit in the dock waiting to be released into Nuku'alofa's streets, peaked. The Kingdom of Tonga, one of the few nations in the Pacific Ocean that has never been colonized by the West, lies right past our gangway. We will be exploring its capital city until tomorrow morning, when we will depart for Vava'u, anchoring at night in a couple of the archipelago's 171 islands.

If you ask anyone on board, any given day, watch, or single duty at sea will seem to drag on forever or go by quickly depending on what that person's mood is like. Today, however, time is shifting back into normal as we step on Tongan soil, and a new dimension of our trip will begin, if only for the
20 hours we are docked in Nuku'alofa. Rest assured that we'll make the most of it.


Sunday, June 4, 2017

Field Day on the Seamans

"Help! I've been murdered by someone on the ship, somewhere on the ship, with a specific item!"

And with that, she collapsed on the quarter deck. The time was 14:37. A light breeze wafted through the 38 others gathered for ship's meeting as the sky filled 7/8 full with cumulus clouds.

B Watch took command of the investigation, immediately producing a list of suspects, potential locations, and weaponizeable items. Murmurs of suspicion began to circulate. To my left, I overheard a hushed whisper of "I bet it was Emma in the fo'c'sle with the tepid coffee." Others suspected Jan in the galley with the hydrowinch. I myself was certain the deed had been done with concentrated Envirox cleaning solution, but held my tongue.

The solution to the mystery of Charlie's murder, it was explained, lay hidden throughout the ship in the form of small cards, reminiscent of the board game "Clue," to be found in exactly the places that were due for a deep cleaning, Field Day-style. The only way to discover the truth was to clean, so off we set, in the tradition of many a weekend ship's meeting, to scrub and polish those areas of the ship so often neglected during Daily and Galley cleans.

Field Day on the Seamans is special in many ways. It's the only time we can play music out loud, there's ice cream at the end, and we discover all the festering gunk that lives in crannies and crevices. When we're done, however, the Bobby C. is not only ready to appear in public but also just smells and feels nicer to be in. While removing all the mugs from the cupboard to wipe out each rack (as I have done twice so far) might be a bit of a shoulder strain, it is good to know that it does actually get cleaned back there.

Once the mirrors were spotless and the soles (floors) were swept, we gathered as a ship to compile the results of our sleuthing. The cards came rolling in, deftly gathered from hiding spots in the stove grease catches, under stacks of plates, in hatches, behind fire extinguishers, and in with the pots, we had a solution: third mate Rocky in the salon with the JT halyard. And we, with our steward restored to us, feasted on ice cream. The autumn heat melted my summer treat, swirling deep purple taro and pastel pistachio together in my cup.

We're headed toward Nuku'alofa, Kingdom of Tonga at decent clip and expect to arrive in two days, as much as we understand days given our 18-hour watch rotation and the impending date line crossing. There are many things to look out for when approaching land. When people before us searched for coral atolls, they looked at the undersides of clouds for the different colored reflections from shallower lagoon waters. Pacific Islanders for years have known that frigate birds venture 100nm from shore; when the first distinctive forked-tail flyer meets our ship, we'll know our range, no radar necessary. I saw a brown booby today, my first bird of any type in days.
Closer in, nighttime lights will glow on our horizon hours before the piercing silhouette of land.

We've been catching fish and shooting stars, and having one heck of a time doing it.

-Marianne Cowherd

Saturday, June 3, 2017

"Let's Go Fishening!"

"You put your fingers in the gills like this and your thumb up on top. Then just rip the head off" Jon, the 18 year old Palmerstonian with a full, curly black beard, demonstrated the technique on a 12 inch long pink and silver parrot fish. Standing with waves breaking at our knees, Dylan, the engineer, and I tried and failed to repeat the process on two more parrot fish fish caught in the hand-woven net.  Jon came over to show us again. We moved down the net repeating the process as we went.  By the time we reached the end of the net, 6 parrot fish lay motionless in the bottom of our dinghy: Five of them a drab pinkish silver color but one is a bright blue color with pink stripes and a protruding forehead. Edward, Jon's dad and the island policeman, looked into the hull shaking his head and said, "Not a good catch. We will have to cast the net again".

Jon and Edward had told me earlier that morning that on a single day of fishing they can catch between three hundred and four hundred parrotfish.
These algavores are essential to maintaining the heath of the coral reefs surrounding Palmerston, but are also are the major export from the island, fetching $10 per kilo of fillet. At the peak of the parrot fish trade in the 1970's Palmerston's 50 or so fishermen exported 90 tons of parrotfish to Rarotonga, but now that number is much lower: they send between 600 and 800 kilos of parrot fish per cargo ship (3 to 4 times a year). A part of me worried that I was contributing to this reduction of parrot fish abundance on the reef, but at the moment all I could think about was not getting knots in the net as we prepared to cast it again.
We start piling the 40m long net into our dingy; one person pulling the edge with floats tied to it and the other unwrapping the lead weighted edge from around rocks underwater. With the net folded back into the homemade boat, fashioned out of half a kayak that had washed ashore, we walk out farther towards the reef break. Suddenly Jon holds up his hand and says "Stop". He points to a nondescript part of the blue water in front of us. He whispers, "Look there- there are a whole bunch of parrot fish- you can see their tails coming out of the water" I look and nod even though I can't see them. Jon turns to Dylan and me to hash out the game plan.
"Edward is laying the net down there (pointing to the ocean side of us), I am going to walk around the fish and you two stay here and be really quiet. When I say go we all have to run towards the net slapping the water".
He slaps the water with his 10 foot wooden spear to demonstrate. Dylan on my right also holds a long, sanded down wooden pole, in my hands a baseball hat will serve as my splashing instrument.
Dylan and I wait as Jon almost tip toes across the reef, the water barely coming up to his ankles at this point. Once in position, Jon holds up his arm like an official starting runners for a track race. He shouts "Go" and we begin sprinting, tripping, and splashing our way over blocks of coral towards the net about thirty yards away.
"Over there! Don't let them get away." Eddie points to a hole between the edge of the net and our advance, to which Jon threw his spear flying in that general direction sending water spraying in all directions.
We splashed the rest of the way to the net. Upon getting there, I look down to see blood dribbling from my left shin into the water from where I fell and scraped it on coral during the mad dash. Looking at the net, parrot fish can be seen every couple of feet, tails wriggling in vain. The four of us separate and go down the net kinking necks and then stringing the fish onto the prongs of Jon's rusty three pronged spear.  We fill up all three prongs in about twenty feet of netting, to which Jon remarks, "This is a good catch. When we get home I will fry them up and we can have lunch."
We empty the net, filled with almost forty fish, and then load the net back into the dingy. Towing the dingy by a rope, we step over coral heads protruding from the surface all the way back to the larger aluminum boat.  Dylan meanwhile was trying his hand at spear fishing.  Once at the larger aluminum boat, Edward ties the line with fish onto the back of it, takes out a knife and slices open the underside of one of the parrot fish, exposing its innards.
Jon then takes his hand and shows us how how to remove the guts from inside of the fish then throwing them into the sharky waters around us. We work our way down all of the fish, our hands covered in the gritty coral pieces that had been digesting inside.
Edward asks me to lift the fish into the aluminum boat, but the catch is too heavy for me to lift on my own. It ends up taking all of us in the small boat hoisting the line to get all the fish on board.
We motor back to Ed's house where a wheelbarrow waits for us on the beach. We load the fish in the wheelbarrow and push it to a table under a tree where all the other men of the family, David, Simon and Sione (our Tongan observer) are gathered sharpening knives. They quickly set up a four-step assembly line on each side of the table with the first person cutting two skin-on filets, the second slicing off the skin from the filet, the third deboning the filet, and then the last person wrapping groups of filets in plastic wrap for export.  I am stationed at the third position. Jon takes the first fillet that his brother David throws across the table and shows me how to hold the filet in my hand and carefully cut out the five pectoral bones in a v-shaped cut.
In the center of the the table there is a glass dish filled with coconut milk and lime. Each person in the the assembly line throws bits of fish they missed while cutting the filets into the dish, creating instant sashimi. When we finish, 12 neat packets of fish fillets lay on the table.
David then takes a cleaver and begins cutting up the fish ribs for our fish fry lunch. I go over to Bob's, the father of Madenia and Henry whom I drew pictures with the other day, to give his daughter a pencil sharpener.
When I get to the table outside of Edward's, it is stacked with plates of steaming fried fish. Jon serves up fresh papaya juice and we all eat until nothing is left except clean bones.
At that point I have to bid my goodbyes and return to the ship to start on my watch standing duties. When I get up to leave, Eddie brings out all the fish I thought they were going to export. "A gift" he tells me and loads it all into the aluminum boat.
I thank them and when we return to the ship gift Jon with the rain boots I bought in Tahiti, since the ones he uses to fish are developing holes on the sides.
Back on board, the parrot fish fillets become our next two meals.
I help Charlie first make grilled parrot fish in a red curry sauce for dinner that night and then for lunch the next day we batter and fry the last of the parrot fish, the final remnant of the fishing trip as we sail away from Palmerston through the open ocean towards Tonga.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Crew Spotlight: Bryan

Next up on crew spotlights is one of our newest shipmates, Dr. Bryan Barney.  Bryan joined us at our last port stop, Rarotonga, and has been a very knowledgeable and helpful resource for some of us in science and project work.  He is a research scientist who is fascinated by the melding of different fields, such as genetics and computer science, and he self-describes himself as a molecular ecologist and a nerd.  Bryan has many scattered interests, but at the core truly cares about what matters to him: family and marine life.  When he's not spending time with his wife and 8 year-old daughter, Bryan dabbles with his saltwater aquariums and the occasional nerdy board game.  Originally, he worked with pharmaceuticals and biotech, but has since transitioned to teaching and post-doctorate activities.  On board the Robert C. Seamans, Bryan is performing PCR experiments on the environmental DNA (eDNA) we collect from our water samples.  It is thought to be the first time PCR has ever been performed on a ship! When asked what's the hardest thing for him to explain, he said it would be dispelling the myth that everything is caused by genetics alone.  Here's Bryan:

- Robby Haag


Hometown: San Jose, CA

Hobbies: Reef aquariums, nerdy board games

Favorite Book:  Steinbeck's Log from the Sea of Cortez or Cannery Row, anything Steinbeck really

Favorite Vacation Spot: Maui

What draws you to sailing: Adventure and a historical connection to early naturalists like Darwin or Wallace!

What are you looking forward to most on this trip: Sequencing on-board!

Favorite sea creature (or the one you relate with the most: The lowly nudibranch - so cool!


Bryan is the ship's DNA dad 
   -a Stanford@SEA student

Even though he just joined the ship, Bryan takes care of us all.  He drove us all over Rarotonga to collect samples for our projects.  He waited for two hours on the beach in the rainstorm while we collected algae from the lagoon.
   - a Stanford@SEA student

I'm always inspired by how hard Bryan works.  You can always find him working away in the lab or reading up on what he's studying.  He's a wonderful teacher and always excited to share his knowledge.

   -a Stanford@SEA student

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Update from Rob Dunbar

Dear Reader,
We've just passed our halfway day for Stanford@SEA 2017. As a veteran of over 100 oceanographic voyages, some of them nearly 3 months long, I can tell you that such days are always cause for comment and sometimes cause for celebration. The halfway day is most often called hump day, suggestive of a certain eagerness to soon be done with the sea and all that voyaging upon it entails. Not so the mood on the Robert C. Seamans. The occasion of our halfway day has mostly been met with incredulity at the speed with which our time at sea together is passing. Our students are mindful of how much class work lies ahead and the diminishing hours available to complete assignments. Yet we also anticipate great adventuring in the company of friends as we approach the islands of Tonga and probe the mysteries of this seldom studied reach of the ocean.

As an instructor for Stanford@SEA I am taken aback by how much our students have learned and how quickly they have done so. In less than three weeks our class has transformed itself from novice sailors and apprentice scientists to a team of skilled shipmates now calling out sail handling and gear deployment commands and conducting their research

projects with acumen and skill. As a parent myself I can tell the parents tracking this blog that you have raised a fantastically capable and caring cohort of young people. It is classes like this that remind me that I have the best job on Earth. And the simple fact is this job is great fun.

I've attached a few photos from our time at Palmerston Atoll. You'll hear mostly about the people of Palmerston in our blog posts but I hope you can see in our aerial and underwater images how otherworldly this place is. Some of the colors and patterns of the Palmerston seascape challenge our comprehension, yet we immediately see beauty in them. Although I have come to think of the outsides of coralline atolls as centers of action for research here I include photos of the Palmerston lagoon and patch reefs. This lagoon is vibrantly alive in ways that so many lagoons across the Pacific are no longer. There are hundreds if not thousands of large patch reefs on the inside, and they serve as key habitat for fish, sharks, clams, and algae. Seeing a lagoon full of life and clear, clean water, and doing so in the company of so many smart and innovative young gives me hope that we can address some of the challenges facing the remote islands of the Pacific.

-Rob Dunbar

Paradigm Shifts

Our voyage so far has been filled with surreal experiences.  Jumping off the bowsprit into the open ocean and seeing only blue under your feet. Standing fifty feet aloft in the rigging, staring down over everything else. Watching whales surf the waves along our ship.  One of the strangest experiences I've had so far, though, hasn't been any sort of crazy ship shenanigan, but rather involves a certain Canadian TA named Andrew (who may alternatively be referred to as Princess, depending on your willingness to accept the name giving abilities of a six-year-old girl.  She named me Lovely, so I'd say she knows what she's doing).

Here are some facts about Andrew/Princess:  Andrew is a 29-year-old grad student in Dr. Dunbar's lab studying the Antarctic.  He is from Calgary but went to school in England.  He and I were both in Introduction to Physical Oceanography last quarter.  In that class, he would sit in the front row every single day and chat it up with the professor.  One of those people.

Here are some facts about me as they relate to Andrew:  I wrote Andrew off as an uptight know-it-all about a week into IPO.  When asked to describe him by a fellow student, my response was "the snippy one with the narrow face."

Over the past several weeks, I've come to see how wrong I was in my assessment of Andrew.  Not just wrong, but astoundingly wrong.  Andrew now sports a mohawk and a bro tank instead of pretentious side bangs and a quarter zip.  He holds nothing back when he sasses you.  He's friendly and funny and sometimes kind of resembles a wet noodle in his movements, and he is not at all the person I thought he was.  It's a weird feeling to realize the extent to which you are capable of misjudging a person.  It makes you think about how little you actually know about most of the people who pass through your life.  I very easily could have never seen Andrew again when the clock struck 11:30 on the IPO final, and he would forever be the snippy one with the narrow face in my mind. 

I don't have a great takeaway from this experience.  Obviously you can't go on a five-week-long voyage across the Pacific with every person you meet in order to figure out what you did and didn't get wrong about them from your initial assessment.  To some extent, you need to pass judgment on people in order to function in most social settings, so the moral of the story isn't to not judge people.  What I take away from having gotten to know Andrew better is the knowledge that people can surprise you much more than you realize.  Perhaps don't be so firm in your judgments of a person until you've filtered chlorophyll with them at 3 AM.

-Emma Gee

A Teacher's Perspective

Hello from your friendly neighborhood teaching assistant; feeling inspired and intimidated by the literary prowess of the ever-impressive Stanford undergraduates who have already contributed to this, the sole means by which we keep parents' blood pressure down. We are once again underway, leaving behind the gem of an atoll on which I could wax poetic for hours had Hanna not already done so. So rather than paint the same word pictures the students have deftly crafted, I will instead attempt to spice up your reading material with perspectives from the most junior member of the teaching staff.

A wise woman once told me that her human inability to learn everything brought her great stress. I can sympathize, for many of the students have specialized knowledge far surpassing my own (for example, me lecturing Dan about groupers might feel like an exercise in role reversal). If our job is not, then, to bestow great swaths of information upon the class, what is it?

We teaching assistants occupy an interesting role on board. We don't have quite so many responsibilities to the ship as the professional staff, we don't have so many responsibilities to the mainland as the professors, and we don't have nearly as many assignments as the students. Yet we've still needed to become proficient sailors, and rather than having one project to worry about, we have all the projects to worry about. As I mentioned, we are not here to teach everyone everything about every project, rather we are here to help make every project possible, which is a dynamic responsibility that can be as simple as ordering supplies or as subtle as, "your project is prohibitively difficult and you need to narrow your focus."

The students' ambitions are vast, and we hate to be dream crushers, but an over-scoped project is an over-scoped project. Experience in academic research - field research in particular - brings with it a different notion of what is possible. Broad, sweeping objectives like "full reef community assessments" and "measurements of human impact on overall reef health" are "possible" given adequate time, money, and trained staff (if the stars align). We are limited in all three, and we can't count on the stars.

Tactful nudging by the teaching staff drove the students to focus their projects and define more pointed and achievable goals that were less likely to bring heartache and sleep deprivation. These goals - still a bit lofty - were further pared down after the first deployments and missions ("I can't believe we thought we would be able to identify and count more than just parrotfish").

You might be fooled into thinking it has been more than six weeks since the teaching staff was exchanging worried glances across the room as the class pitched project ideas judging by how much they have matured (the project ideas, not the class). Now every day is an adventure as projects gain traction on the ship. Light bulbs continue to come on as the research takes hold ("Why does everything produce bias??"), and every project has some data to work with now as we cross the halfway point and make way for Tonga.

The data is only half the battle, though. It is time to start crunching the numbers as we quest for statistical significance in a land of high variability and small sample sizes, all while sailing this beautiful ship, not forgetting about the book report, and preparing for the arrival of our favorite Pulitzer Prize winner and writing coach, Ken Weiss. I wish I could work as closely with each individual project as the students can, but I do not envy their work load, nor do I doubt their ability to execute. They may scoff at that, but they already have a leg up on at least two members of the teaching staff (myself included) who were denied admission to a good school in the Bay Area (not Berkeley) way back when.

Everyone is learning aboard the ship, including the course and professional staff. Everyone has something to teach, and no one can know everything. With each bit of new information, the vast unknown shrinks, but each new answer brings forth many new questions. I wonder then if the stress of not knowing rises or falls. This feels like a slippery slope into academia.

Kia oreana,


Crew Spotlight : Gabi

Today we will be highlighting Gabi Chavez! Gabi is the 2nd scientist on the ship and is a unique staff member on our journey. In 2015, Gabi was a Stanford at Sea student herself; after finishing the program, Gabi knew she had found a passion and started working for SEA. An avid adventurer, always looking for new experiences, Gabi claims the craziest thing she has done is sailing across the Atlantic Ocean with a Polish family after just meeting them online. She is curious, empathetic, and open minded, always a calming presence to have in the lab and a wonderful teacher as well. Gabi reminds us to keep seeking new adventures and to pursue passions.  She's not sure what's up next in her life plan, but will always keep a connection to the ocean. In between voyages at sea, Gabi volunteers for the Western Service Workers Association, reorganizing resources and improving conditions for low-income service workers. Gabi is an inspiration in all she does and is a great presence to have on the ship both as a former Stanford at Sea student and an even-keeled, compassionate member of the crew.

-Lindsay Allison

Here is our quick interview with Gabi!


Hometown: Pacific Grove, CA

Hobbies: Reading, origami, tide pooling, doodling in my notebook

Favorite Book: The Little Prince

Favorite Place to Travel: I haven't been able to go back to visit my family in Venezuela in a few years and really want to go soon.

How long have you been sailing? Two years almost exactly. I sailed for the first time on the last Stanford at Sea.

What draws you to sailing: I have always loved travelling so to find a place where I live and work on the move has been the perfect fit for me.

Worst job on the ship: Cleaning conditioner and hairballs out of the showers. I'd rather be cleaning the heads! (Author note: heads are the ships bathrooms)

What are you looking forward to most on this trip: I really didn't know much about the destinations of this trip but when I learned we were visiting an island with a population of less than 60 people, I was intensely interested. Palmerston just might be the highlight of the trip, but I've never been to Tonga or American Samoa either so I'm excited to see what they hold!

Favorite sea creature (or the one you relate with most): I have love for a lot of creatures. On the small end, I love velella velella, blue siphonophores that are called by-the-wind-sailors. On the big end, I hope to one day see a blue whale. Their tongues weigh as much as an elephant, their hearts are as big as a sedan, calves gain as much as 200 pounds a day, to find myself next to the earth's largest-ever creature would make me feel small in a good way.

It takes somebody of great ability to handle the combined immaturity of Ben and A Watch in the lab, and Gabi definitely has that ability. -Mike Burnett, Stanford@Sea student

Gabi always keeps her cool and rolls with the punches. -Stanford@Sea student

Time at Sea

I look at the watch on my wrist to learn that today is Thursday. I would have no idea otherwise. In the middle of the South Pacific, hundreds of miles away from the nearest inhabited island, the days of the week hold no meaning.

Time moves differently on the ship. We operate in 18-hour square peg rotations awkwardly fit into 24-hour round hole days. Sleep is no longer a nightly activity cued by dusk but rather by the satisfying drop of the harness at the end of a watch shift, or rushed between meals and snacks. At certain moments the seconds trickle slow - staring at the stars while at the helm at 0300, staring at elaborate tubes of water waiting for nitrate samples to filter, standing at the bow scanning the vast horizon for potential threats in the clouds. Other moments slip time by in a gust - the frenzy of striking sails and closing the hatches at the sight of an approaching squall, the thrill of spotting land for the first time in days and being graced by a green deviation to our deep blue expanses, sighting a pair of whales surfing the waves alongside our ship well into the day until sunset.

Although we are only approaching about three weeks aboard the Robert C.

Seamans, it's difficult to remember life before the ship. Each three-day cycle of the watch schedule feels like a full week in and of itself, with the closest notions of weekends being the sparse days we spend anchored or at port. The beat of the ship has skewed our sense of the flow of time. As the days have passed, her syncopated rhythm has become our new norm.

-Jonathan Fisk