Watching the Phoenix Rise

Latest update September 13, 2018 Started on April 20, 2018

The Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) is the worlds largest and deepest UNESCO World Heritage Site. Discovered by science in 2000 to be replete with stunning, delicate, and mature coral reefs, they were devastated by bleaching in 2002-03, and have been slowly recovering amidst additional bleaching in 2010 and 2015. But getting out to one of the most remote coral reefs on earth to document their progress and ecological succession isn't easy.

However, we have a plan. We are going to use OpenROV technology to try to acquire photoquadrats aboard an oceanographic sail ship, using student power! If successful, we will have found a way to enable annual photo transects of one of the most remote underwater wildernesses on the planet.

April 20, 2018
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For a couple of weeks now, I’ve had the opportunity to reflect upon what we just experienced and accomplished on this wildly successful expedition through the Phoenix Islands Protected Area. Our cohort of 19 students and 15 scientists and crew sailed the Robert C. Seamans over 3,500 nautical miles while contributing to a dataset that now spans five years of oceanographic, biological, and chemical data. We conducted 46 Hydrocasts and 96 plankton net tows. We spent many late nights in the lab analyzing nitrates, phosphates, and chlorophyll. We invested most of our waking time conducting science, going through data, or navigating to our next station to do more science. All with the hopes that we could accomplish our mission: to add to our knowledge of one of the true marine wildernesses remaining on our planet, and to see how it may be impacted by a warming climate and sea-level rise.

But let’s go beyond the numbers for a minute.

What we saw and did aboard the Robert C. Seamans was truly special and can’t be adequately described with words. The ship itself felt alive. At any given point people were either on the helm, on lookout, doing boat checks, working in the lab, or doing one of the many other jobs vital to the functioning of the ship… 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for almost 6 weeks. Everyone was dependent on the hard work of each other. This, along with the fact that we only had our relatively small group with whom we could interact turned what was mostly a bunch of strangers just a few months ago into a tight-knit family. Many of us (including myself) had never even sailed before or done science on a moving research vessel, but by the end of the voyage we all seemed like hardened sailors and effective field scientists.

We accomplished everything on our science plan and then some, yet here is still so much to do. All of the hard effort put in by everyone to collect the large set of samples and sensor data has ensured that we have plenty of material to pick through in the coming months (and years) to come - the work has only just begun. In the end, these data can go on to inform policy and management measures that will ensure the preservation of this amazing place for generations to come, and hopefully inspire other nations to do the same in their own waters. It is my sincerest hope that I can return to this place again, and watch the Phoenix continue to rise.

Jacob Jaskiel (AKA Plankton Boy)- Lab Hand, Teaching Assistant.

A huge thank you to everyone who made this possible. The crew, the amazing students, SEA, Boston University, The Republic of Kiribati, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Scripps, and National Geographic all have my eternal gratitude. Until next time…

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In The Field

Swim call!
by Nate Johnson, C Watch, Amherst College

Hello everyone, it is I, Nate Johnson, back to bring you another blog post!

As we sail further from Orona, the ocean around us begins to grow and consume the horizon once more. There are no more reefs to snorkel at, and the ocean floor has once again dropped to 5000 meters below us. We are currently sailing towards the northwest corner of PIPA, where we will find Winslow reef, a seamount that lies just below the surface. After we have reached Winslow reef, we will again sail south, this time towards Nikumaroro, our final island destination, before hightailing it to American Samoa to bring this wonderful voyage to an unwanted end.

During afternoon watch yesterday, Brian Desrosiers and I were about to start our daily deck wash with the fire hose, when our watch officer, Foretek, called us off and told us to store the hoses. I was searching for a reason why we would be stopped so suddenly, until the general alarm began to ring, and the shouts of "Fire in the galley, this is a drill!" began to ring out around me. Students and crew alike began to bustle about, closing vents and water tight doors, taking in the sails and securing the galley as we would in the event of a real fire. The two saltwater fire hoses began to shower the ocean, as there was no need for their spray anywhere on the boat. In just about six minutes, the boat had been secured and all crew accounted for, and Captain Rick gave us the all clear to restore the boat to normal operating conditions, except for the sails and helm.

Captain decided to give us a swim call, as we had set the sails to be 'hove to' during the fire drill, which is a method for stopping the boat by countering sails so that they try to turn against each other. After allowing everyone the time to change into swim suits and set up the ladder off the port side, Captain Rick called down from the quarterdeck to say "The pool is open!" Some of the more impatient people on deck jumped off the side immediately, while the more adventurous among us climbed out to the bowsprit as we had grown accustomed to while in Kanton and Orona.

The mid-ocean swells brought us to new heights, literally, as the rolling waves not found around the sheltered atolls rocked the bow up and down, allowing us to jump from much higher above the clear blue water below. Although this was not our first swim call, it certainly felt much different, for with the nearest atoll miles and miles behind us, we could truly appreciate the magnitude of bobbing in the swell of a seemingly endless ocean. Charlie Schneider probably summed it up best, as he turned to me and said "this is probably the biggest pool I've ever been in." He's probably right.

On a less relaxing note, our chief scientist, Jan Witting, decided that it was time for our scientific skills to be assessed as part of our Oceans and Global Change class. Earlier today, all of the students on board worked through a lab practical exam, designed to show him what we had learned through all of our deployments and analysis. Along the way we were asked to interpret graphs of temperature, salinity and chlorophyll-a, and use the information to guess where those measurements were taken in regard to one another.

We also did our best to remember the differences between the Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler, the In-Situ Fluorometer, the Thermosalinograph and all of the other high-tech equipment on board. We were asked to identify zooplankton, tie knots behind our back (although that was for extra credit), recall the steps for deploying the hydrocast, and figure out what was wrong with a Neuston net setup, among many other things. Although there was much stressful studying, last minute cramming and frantic answer writing, I'm sure the rest of the students on board would agree with me in that we have learned an absurd amount in the last few weeks and it really points to the sheer amount of meaningful data we are collecting on a daily basis and the determination of the students and crew to process and analyze all of this information.

Today also marks another milestone for the trip; only two weeks left! There's still so much left to do that the end seems impossibly far off, but it does start to set off alarms in the back of my head saying 'You need to finish the methods for your research project! When are you going to edit your paper? What are you going to put in your policy addendum?" For now, I will send those thoughts to the backburner, because I can smell Sabrina's fresh-baked focaccia from the galley!


“Did you see anything cool?”
by Sadie Cwikiel, Stanford University

Last night we sailed away from our second port stop, the island of Orona. Of the past 10 days, 6 have been spent snorkeling, swimming, or exploring Orona and Kanton. After a group of snorkelers returns to the ship, one of the first questions always asked by those already on board is "Did you see anything cool?" The answer is usually focused on the big guys, the charismatic megafauna that reside in these waters and on our snorkeling bucket lists: the sharks, sea turtles, manta rays, etc. While it's thrilling to follow around giant, majestic rays and to feel your heart beat a little faster when a grey reef shark appears suddenly beside you, I've found that as much joy can be found if I just look a bit closer at the little guys swimming below.

Wrasses, damselfish, butterfly fish, chromis...the list of tiny, gorgeous fish is endless. They dart in and out of hidey-holes in the reef or surround you in glimmering schools. A few days ago inside the Kanton Lagoon, I spent the afternoon snorkeling along the beach during some time off. The majority of my shipmates left the water after the manta rays disappeared, but I was enamored with a small damselfish species that I had never seen before: the humbug dascyllus. They are only a couple centimeters long with a white tail, solid black and white stripes, and a small patch of white between their eyes. The humbugs stayed close to the acropora coral heads in the shallow parts of the reef. Dozens of them flitted around each coral. When I dove down to get a closer look, however, every single one would turn to look at me. They were still and stared at me right in the eye, as if challenging me to come closer. As soon as I or my camera was back at the surface, they would continue swimming around their coral, nibbling on algae or chasing away other fish. I floated and watched the humbugs dart in and out of the coral, their adorable zebra-striped selves quickly winning me over and becoming one of my new favorites.

Another magical miniature fish moment came at a deeper reef off the shore of Orona. My snorkel buddy and I were cruising along the edge of the drop off hoping when I noticed an undulating patch of tannish yellow amidst the mostly pink and purple crustose coralline algae. The anemone swayed gently back and forth with the swells. Swimming above it and burying themselves in its tendrils were two orangefin anemonefish (the same genus as the famous clown anemonefish). The orange, black, and white striped fish happily rolled around in the anemone, but when we swam closer, they also swam toward us, baring their tiny teeth in protection of their home. Like a lot of the small reef fishes, these two would be easily missed when just swimming quickly near the surface and scanning for megafauna. But if you dive a little closer and swim a little slower, there is always an infinitely exciting world to explore.

Sending love and happy thoughts to family and friends at home!


The Giant Clams of Orona
by Rosie Wigglesworth, A Watch, Harvard University

Hello all! We are a few hours from hauling back the anchor and getting underway once again. Orona has been incredible. From jumping off the bowsprit and getting to climb aloft, to exploring the atoll and snorkeling in the lagoon, the adventures we have all experienced here have been some of the best of our trip. This morning began for me with dawn anchor watch from 0540 – 0700. I had the unique experience of watching the sun rise as the full moon set. Clouds rose up from the tops of the trees on Orona like mountains and we watched as the Southern Cross slowly faded from view. I do not think I have ever seen something more beautiful.

My Orona experience has been largely highlighted by incredible snorkel trips. I spent hours in the water swimming around outer reef with baby black-tip reef sharks, turtles, bump-headed parrot fish, dolphins and a whole host of other tropical fish. My favorite snorkeling trip however, did not include sharks, but rather giant clams. The inner lagoon, which looks like a text-book definition of tropical paradise, was full of thousands of them. Every rock and reef had them wedged into every crevice. You can only see the outline of the shell and mantle of the clams but they are amazing. Each one a slightly different size, the clams were fluorescent shades of purple, green, blue and turquoise. Every time I reached a new patch or reef, there were more, each different from before. I absolutely loved it.

We only have about two weeks left before docking in Pago Pago. It is hard to believe that we are about to embark on our second to last significant ocean passage and our time onboard is nearly over. I still have papers to finish, navigation skills to learn and a thousand miles of ocean to cover. The adventure continues! We will reach Winslow Reef in a few days and then head back down south to Nikumaroro. I don’t think the swimming could be better or snorkeling, island and ocean views more beautiful but I am excited to find out!

I need to sign off and head to sleep. It is only 18:56 (6:56 pm) but I have found that when darkness settles in, it is automatically time for bed. For me, this is being reinforced by the fact that I have to stand watch from 0100-0700. Until the next time!


The birds of the Phoenix Islands
by Jessie Panton, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Hello people! My name is Jessie and I am here to talk to you about some insane PIPA experiences and BIRDS (my research project, yaaaay!).

We have been in PIPA for 11 days now and have already seen 3 of its islands: Enderbury, Kanton, and now Orona. Orona is where we currently are, and the number of birds on this island is extensive! Now you might be reading this and think, 'hmm extensive...must have been a couple hundred birds'. I am here to tell you that you are wrong! There were probably around 500,000 terns flying around us today on the island and we got too see a large number of them nesting as well. Thankfully none of us got pooped on (although one person did earlier in the voyage by one of our stowaway boobies, but that is another story).

Seabirds are super important indicator species for marine ecosystems, and PIPA is a haven for 19 nesting species, including the endangered white throated storm petrel, and the phoenix petrel. I am excited to do more research on them, and appreciate everyone's help on board for helping with bird observations. It truly is difficult when you are trying to identify 100+ birds in one observation period and I am grateful for your enthusiasm and persistence.

Apart from seeing an absurd but wonderful number of seabirds, I have also been able to explore Kanton and Orona. The snorkeling has been incredible, and exploring the islands is breathtaking (and not only because of how hot it is, although that does play a part in taking your breath away). I think my favorite moment so far was getting to know the people of Kanton. I am so grateful to my WoodsHole roommate and now great friend, Moamoa, the Kiribati observer on board, for being so willing to share her culture with me. Because of her kindness and welcoming nature, I couldn't wait to have her introduce me to some of the people on Kanton. This introduction consisted of playing a card game called 1,2,5. The first day I sat there watching them play for two hours trying to learn it, and just got around to playing when we got called back to the boat for an all hands dinner. I told Moamoa that I would be back to play again and came back the next day to the same group of young men playing under the trees by our boat.

I am happy to announce that I won the card game twice, which is no small feat (I got two stars next to my name on the scoring sheet). I had a lot of help from Moamoa and one of the locals there, Tauriki. Well really it was 75% Tauriki,15% Moamoa, and 10% me but still, it was my name that got the stars. After working really hard on board for the past two weeks it was really nice to relax on Kanton, play some cards with new friends, and lie on a hammock listening to them sing and play guitar for you in between games. I will never forget any of the incredible moments that I am blessed to have experienced thus far and cannot wait for what is yet to come.


Arriving in Orono
by Makaila Lyons

hoy everyone! Makaila Lyons here to blog your ear off again, and what perfect timing because we anchored at our second port stop today, Orona!

C watch started their morning watch at 0700, and we could already see Orona not very far off in the distance. We did our station 028 deployments on this watch, in order to gather more of the aforementioned data, and then continued on to our anchoring location. There was a lot of sail-handling and prep during our watch as well, as we quickly approached the atoll. Once we anchored, we took care of some housekeeping things, got both of our little boats in the water, and took in the beautiful sights. There's definitely more work than you would think when it comes to getting ready to sail, or ceasing to.

With all of that said though, we were still able to get a snorkel trip in at 1500! Our watches change quite a bit when we aren't actively sailing, so we break out into starboard and port watch. Even after a long morning, I was siked to be in the starboard watch because we were the ones who got to snorkel today!

We took the two little boats out around the bend of the atoll, and were able to snorkel for about an hour. We all saw some really cool corals in Kanton, but for me, today's views were top-notch. The rock-like coral formations that we were swimming amongst were stunning colors of pinks, greens, and even some blues. I felt like I was grooving through some 70's scenery. Apparently this is actually a type of algae on top. Besides the beautiful colors, they were huge. Unlike some other snorkeling locations, it was hard to avoid hitting them, and at times swimming nearly on top of them was necessary (and super cool!) Can it get better than this? Yes. There were reef sharks here too. We were snorkeling away and suddenly someone pointed one out towards the deeper water. We all watched from the surface level, and tried not to make any really sudden movements, and avoided looking like injured fish. The shark swam around, and we just watched it thriving in its natural habitat. Although not the thickest shark you could imagine, it was probably close to 5 ft. from end to end. Not only that, but there was a second one a few minutes later. Absolutely amazing.

What felt like too soon after we got in the water, we headed back to our home away from home. The best thing to come back to after snorkeling is a meal. Sabrina made salmon, roasted root vegetables, and spaghetti with a garlic sauce (personal favorite). We got a sweet treat of brownies for dessert too-yum! As I'm writing this around 2100, we've started our rotation of anchor watch. Thankfully I had mine early on, so I can get some solid sleep tonight before another jam-packed day of snorkeling and hopefully exploring the land tomorrow. A shower to rinse all the salt off, and a bunk with a fan in my face are calling my name right about now. Thank you for reading!


Back at sea
by Andy Suski, University of San Diego

Excitement from our recent port stop still remains aboard the Seamans. We have completed our first day back at sea, and are on our way to the small atoll island Orona (4o 30'38.88" S x 171o 10'37.92" W for those that wish to find it using Google Earth. Apologies the location is slightly off). We are still well within the boundaries of PIPA, which means that we have been, and will continue to sail to set station for hydrocast deployments, Neuston net tows, and tucker trawls. Today, in our shallow depth tucker trawl at station #26, over 50 tune larvae were found. This breaks the previous record recorded by SEA Semester of 26 larvae. Needless to say, we are all stoked to be collecting data that gives insight into the success of this MPA, supporting the protection of this very special and remote area.

The islands that we visit during this trip have the potential to be older than the human race, and will more than likely exist, in some form, long after we are gone. In regards to geological time, we have been on this earth a very short amount of time, and yet, we left a substantial impact on places that have existed before us. As we go about our lives, I believe it is important to decide how we want to impact the places we visit, how we each of us wish to view our lives among the geological timescale, and decide if we will allow our insignificant existence (in regards to time) become significant for the right reason, the wrong reason, or to let our existence go by unnoticed. It comes down to a lesson that was instilled in me by my parents: Respect the locals. Although I believe that our lives on this earth are gifts, I do not consider us locals in the sense that many other organisms (bacteria and other early oceanic life forms) and systems (oceans/ atmospheres) have existed before us, and lived in a world that, for the most part, remained in balance that led to its resilience throughout time. With our presence, the resilience is diminishing, the locals do not only seem to be upset with our presence, but some are in fact dying. This is not a sign of respect.

Although most of us wish we could still be exploring and experiencing Kanton, instead of waking up at times that take our circadian rhythm for a roller coaster ride, we all keep in mind that we are on this trip to collect data that shows how well we are respecting the locals and the earth. This keeps us going and keeps our excitement up although there are no kids to kick a soccer ball around with.

A once in a lifetime trip.


The People of Kanton
by Charlie Schneider, A watch, Colorado College

The people of Kanton are unlike any I've met. I know Nate talked about the reception they held for us, but there cannot be enough said about that evening. Their musical performances were as humbling as they were spectacular. While the women and children sang the words of a language we do not know, the men harmonized perfectly as they beat a large, shared drum to the slow rhythm of their chanting. Their voices filled the air and created the most enchanting atmosphere I've ever experienced. I'm still struggling to comprehend the gratitude I feel for them.

The sacrifice they have made to protect this invaluable natural treasure is humbling. A group of 30 people live here in isolation from the rest of the world, so they can be stewards of their nation's rich ocean heritage. Although this community was placed here by the government, it is clear that there is something special on this island: something we lack in the United States. It's something I will not be able to put into words, but you can feel it in the warmth of each interaction. I've received so much from the people here: much more than dinner and a show. I cannot communicate the debt I owe to the people of this island, and the only way we can pay it off is in the diligent research we conduct and the protective policies it informs. For my research project, I've spent hours each day laying underwater transect lines, taking pictures of the corals, analyzing water samples from each reef, and trying desperately to catch my breath in between (literally and figuratively). From this, I've learned just a small bit of how largely significant this place is. Their houses may be small, but their home is grander, more ornate, and more beautiful than any of ours; the corals that decorate it are truly a wonder unlike any other.

On the short boat ride to the reefs, low-flying seabirds sweep the air in front of the raft and regard us, the strange visitors, with curiosity. A pod of dolphins swims just in front of the bow crisscrossing each other's path with bubbling jubilance as they escort you to your destination. All this before you enter the turquoise clear, 85-degree water. When you jump from the boat and the bubbles of your sloppy entry clear around your goggles, a sweeping view of orange, green, tan, and purple coral plates and branches greets you in 360 degrees. Large, brilliantly painted parrot fish of every hue cruise among the tiers of coral plates while the smaller ones weave skillfully through the tunnels and trenches of the reef. Schools of fish forage in the hundreds. Stripes of yellow, blue, white, and black line the bodies of the silver fish you're surrounded by. An occasional reef shark can be seen intimidating the adjacent fish while an unconcerned sea turtle slides gracefully along elsewhere. In a completely silent environment, these short-lived sightings race through your field of view. Were it not for the overflowing stream of diversely colored fish swimming past you, the ephemeral nature of these sites might be frustrating, but the only frustration I find is in the fact that I can't see it all at once.

After all that, I should say I've completely failed at describing these reefs. Any number of colorful nouns and thrilling adjectives cannot give a reader the same sense of the wild aliveness that pulses from these reefs so generously and intangibly. For now, suffice it to say that Kanton's people are protecting something worth protecting. The Phoenix Islands is one of those increasingly rare places on Earth where an ecosystem looks exactly the way it should. If humans had never encountered these islands, and I had never swam in these reefs, the corals and fish on July 23, 2018 would have looked exactly the same.

Although this is a no-take protected area, we've all come away with more than we could have asked for. As we sail away through the rest of PIPA, I'm left thinking about the people of Kanton. While I may not come from a place as rich in culture or community, I want to be rich in memories like this.


Exploring Kanton
by Mackenzie Meier, University of New Hampshire

Mauri friends and family of the 2018 SEA PIPA Expedition,

Our little world shrunk to 34 people when we boarded this ship in Honolulu, but our world began to grow when we started trawling for zooplankton below us and realized we were far from alone. Our little world just grew again today. We've begun to explore Kanton island and the lagoon. We've met the people of Kanton, joined fishes for a swim on their reefs, and sailed through a feeding frenzy of birds who absolutely ignored our insignificant little home in their vast ocean.

The most important part of dock watch besides making sure the boat isn't sinking or on fire would have to be the snorkeling missions. I went on two snorkel missions today; the first was to the pristine reef deemed "Coral Castle" and the other was a reef restoring itself over a sunken WWII vessel.

Coral Castle was a picturesque reef with more live corals than any of us ever imagined we'd see. The wreck had more parrot fish, groupers, bluestreak fusiliers and convict tangs than we could have anticipated (with special appearances by a black tip shark, green sea turtles, and a couple octopuses. Yes. Seeing an octopus in the wild: check! Thanks Cap). Both sites were close in proximity and sometimes appearance, but also strikingly different.The wreck had more diversity of fish but much less coral. Coral Castle was brimming with coral, we even had to be careful not to swim to shallow! This difference struck me as a parallel to our experience on the island of Kanton. Our cultures and languages are very different, but my shipmates and I have already found similarities with the people here and ways to connect.

The world is bigger than I've ever imagined. I wonder how much more my mind can stretch as my world continues to grow. After dinner I sat with a group of 4 young girls; we watched some of the older kids and my shipmates play soccer. We talked about our families, our brothers and sisters, and where we were from. It was hard for them to wrap their head around how far I have come. It's hard for me to wrap my head around too. I can't believe we've found this island in the middle of the vast ocean. After two weeks I almost forgot there was more than just the ocean. I've always known we live on a blue planet, always known the world is over 70% ocean, but somehow I still feel so different about this planet then I did when we first set sail. It's no longer just a poetic saying or scientific fact: but it's my reality. For2 weeks, we saw nothing but ocean with our chirp reading our 5000+ meters below us and today we still can look over this island and see more ocean.It's strange how any land is able to penetrate from the mighty depths of the ocean.

I'm humbled and honored to reside on this beautiful big blue world and so so thankful to the people of Kiribati for sharing their pristine oceans with these little 34 people.


by Cody Hoff, A Watch, Willamette University

It has officially been two weeks since we departed Honolulu and set sail for the Phoenix Islands Protected Area in Kiribati. After seeing nothing but open ocean and passing by Endurbury Island yesterday for 1900 miles we have made it to Kiribati, specifically Kanton Island where we were finally able to set foot on stable ground for the first time in what seems like an extremely long time. I speak for the rest of the students and crew in saying that we are excited to get in the water to go snorkeling in the next few days as well as having a normal sleep schedule which has been difficult with. The process of preparing for arriving at Kanton Island took a lot more work and energy than I realized. It took the whole crew most of the afternoon, but with the motivation and excitement of everyone working hard we were able to get everything done and then waited for the Kiribati Customs to clear all of us since we are in a different country.

After we officially got cleared, our captain, chief scientist, and crew informed us of what we cannot take on any of the islands we will visit and not to bring anything on the ship as well as these islands are protected and they want to continue to keep them that way. After our meeting most of us went on to the island to walk around the area. There were a group of students that were playing soccer with a group of the local children which looked like a lot of fun for everyone. I walked down the main road with a few of the other students and the first thing we noticed was the incredible amount of hermit crabs there were and they were everywhere that ranged in size. We also took a small trail that leads to the lagoon and the water is just so clear and warm it blows my mind. We walked even further to this area where a storm took out the main road and there is all this dried up coral that will have you gazing for hours. This island is just truly astounding to me that there are less than 30 people that live here and they just live off the land with no stores or anything and our ship is one of only a few the local people will see all year.


Enderbury Island
by Andy Suski, The University of San Diego

Land Ho! After 2 weeks aboard the Robert C. Seamans we have laid our eyes on land. The Enderbury Island was used in the 1800s for mining guano. This guano was then shipped off to make fertilizer. After the discovery of less isolated location with just as much guano, the island became uninhabited, and has remained so ever since. Although this is the case, remnants of anthropogenic impact are still visible on the island. These include markings for the entrance to the mine, remains of small stone huts, and the presence of invasive rats that harass the bird population of the island.

It is strange to see land after a 2 week period at sea. My eyes quickly became accustomed to focusing on nothing but the horizon and skies, and the presence of an inanimate object so close to our ship seems surreal. Beautiful, but surreal. The island is sparely decorated with a few trees and shrubs, while the majority of the surface is covered by a mixture of bird excrement and sand. Surrounding the island are reefs that shelter the island from the open ocean swells that we have been sailing alongside. The stopping of this swell energy results in the swell almost doubling in height before folding on top of itself, resulting in an explosion of white water.

In taking a full 360° observation of my current reality, the significance of the island is hard to wrap my head around. From where I am standing, one direction leads to over a 1,000 nautical mile journey back to Honolulu, with no land to disrupt the atmospheric processes causing weather, and very little visible life. To my other side, there is a 5 mile long island occupied by thousands of birds, schools of fish jumping out of the water, and open ocean energy being stopped by the presence of coral reefs. To think that I, and every student on this ship, shares responsibility for traveling into the Southern Hemisphere, and getting us safely to this small piece of land, leaves us all feeling proud and accomplished.

Tomorrow we are scheduled to make port in Kanton, where I, and my fellow shipmate Charlie, will begin our data collection observation algal-coral interactions. We speak on behalf of everyone on the ship when we say that we cannot wait to combine the joy of swimming in the tropics with growing our intellectual curiosities concerning marine biodiversity in PIPA.

Time for another amazing dinner by Sabrina, our Steward.

Into the Protected Area
Brian Desrosiers, C Watch, Northeastern University

Hello all,

Brian here again, and what an exciting few days it's been! My classmate and shipmate Andrew spoke about crossing the equator and what an experience that was. I didn't realize how much of a feat it was to cross from the Northern Hemisphere into the Southern and I was so enthralled with the festivities that I even allowed myself to get an equatorial haircut! Shortly after, we crossed into PIPA and now the real fun begins.

At exactly 1900 last night we reached our first waypoint in the Phoenix Islands and data collection began like clockwork. Luckily for me, I was in the lab last night and was able to witness the stunning productivity of these waters first hand. As we turned on the Science Deck floodlights and prepared our deployments, the water was illuminated and revealed a spectacular scene.

Hundreds of squid were swimming around chasing down myctophids for dinner. Occasionally, one would launch itself into the air in a desperate attempt to catch the elusive myctophids. Because of their acrobatics and bioluminescent properties, these squid have earned themselves the common name of neon flying squid. After watching in awe for a couple minutes, we got back to hard work deploying our Hydrocast and slew of nets in order to gather samples from the waters. A few hours later when our deployments were done, we were able to completely appreciate the productivity first hand. My shipment Sadie, who was also on lab duty, and I, spent what felt like forever washing all the biomass out of our Tucker Trawl Net.

When our chief scientist Gabo came over to inspect our work under bright white light, it was revealed that we still had a long way to go. We spent another hour washing all of the zooplankton and biomass out of the net into sample buckets and Gabo remarked how she has never seen anything quite like it. As 0100 passed and I headed below to crash in my bunk I looked off our stern and saw a solid glowing, green trail of bioluminescent water and this evening we were treated to a spectacular sunset that pictures do not do justice. We truly are in a remarkable place.

The next few weeks are going to consist of lots of hard work and lots of fun. We will continue to zigzag our way through the protected area deploying our gear at predetermined waypoints. Tomorrow, we will see our first sight of land, Enderbury Island. We will not make landfall there however, but it will be nice to know that in this vastness of the Southern Pacific Ocean land does exist.

By Friday we will reach Kanton and make our first island stop. I am beyond excited to explore the coral of its lagoon and hopefully will get to see a few small sharks! These next few weeks in PIPA will fly bye and I hope you all stay tuned to see and hear more of our adventure!


0 degrees North, 0 degrees South. The Equator!
Andrew Chin, A-Watch, University of Washington

The ship's company gathered on the quarterdeck today a little before 0700, with C-Watch bleary-eyed but excited from their dawn watch. Captain Rick gave the order to throttle back on the main engine, slowing to a steady 2.7 knots under sail power. With our four lowers and Brian at the helm, we watched the GPS tick down, down, down to 0°00.00'N, hold for a moment, switch to 0°00.00'S, then begin tick back up in latitude. We cheered! My name is Andrew Chin, and together with my shipmates, we sailed 1546 nautical miles to reach the Equator, a place of unique importance for both oceanography and mariners.

The Equator is a fascinating place in the global ocean, as it where the southern and northern hemispheres meet. The southern hemisphere is a place quite unlike the northern. The northern hemisphere has an abundance of land, the southern mostly vast ocean; the seasons are flipped; even the ocean moves differently. The Northern and Southern Equatorial Currents flow in opposite directions from each other (east and west, respectively), allowing deep, nutrient-rich water to rise to the surface. This creates an area of high primary productivity, supporting an abundance of life. In the days leading up to the crossing, we observed this richness firsthand: sighting flocks of seabirds feeding on forage fishes, peering into diverse 100-counts of zooplankton, and numerous hookups of tuna on our handlines (though sadly landing none of them). In order to directly examine this amazing productivity first-hand, we maneuvered back into the position over the Equator and deployed our sampling equipment. As I watched the hydrocast descend to collect water samples at different depths, it was humbling to know we were taking a hard look at such an important, but under-studied part of the ocean.

Crossing the Equator has tremendous significance for mariners as well. Charts are changed over, the stars to steer by and pinpoint latitude change, and the plain fact remains that we are a long way from home. Therefore, crossing the Equator is a milestone; those sailors who have crossed the line are known as "shellbacks." Those who have not crossed the Equator are deemed "pollywogs"; these pollywogs must "pay tribute" to Neptune and his court and pass his trials to prove their worth. As all of the students (and a few of the crew) were pollywogs, we wrote poems, sang, performed, and cut our hair, to celebrate the crossing. In the end, we proved ourselves to Neptune and tucked into a delicious shellback cake prepared by our steward, Sabrina. Don't worry parents and loved ones: haircuts were optional, and all are very stylish.

Tonight, as I am writing this entry, the Robert C. Seamans marks another momentous occasion: we cross into the borders of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, our long-awaited destination. Now, we begin our work in earnest, hoping to draw valuable data and first-hand experiences from one of the wildest and untouched places on Earth. The crew is excited to see land and beautiful coral reefs, but there is some apprehension. In the aftermath of the short-term climate shift known as El Niño, when sea temperatures rise dramatically, coral reefs can be greatly degraded and the life-giving upwelling nutrients can be cut off. Previous voyages have seen dramatic changes in PIPA in the wake of El Niño, (which occur on an irregular basis, from decadal to multi-year time scales), and the 2015-2017 event may have some lingering effects. However, PIPA has bounced back from previous El Niño events, reflecting a healthy, resilient ecosystem. Whatever we see, we will be among special company; few humans have the opportunity to give first-hand accounts to the beauty and changes in this slice of the tropical Pacific. Stay excited, and we'll see you on the other side!


My home away from home
Lucas Asher, University of Chicago

We continue to draw nearer and nearer to the equator-news that Sadie mentioned yesterday and will probably continue to be repeated until we actually cross (estimated to be sometime on Tuesday). We aboard are all preparing our "rituals" for the crossing: in some sailing traditions you shave your head when you cross the equator and in others a musical "offering to Neptune" is given by those who have not sailed across the equator before (the students and not a small number of the staff!) We've been making pretty good time, but it is incredible what the difference between making 6 knots (~8 land miles per hour) and making the slower, 2 knots speed required for our science deployments.

By now, you've heard a lot about what life at sea is like; from the science to the activities to the sail handling. What you haven't heard as much about is what life is like belowdeck. You may think that "going below" would be cooler-the sun isn't blasting you, you're safe from sunburn, and all of the work is happening over your head. On deck, however, has the beauty of a breeze, while belowdeck can feel a bit stifling. We fortunately all have fans in our bunks to keep us cool(ish) at night, but the heat below makes on deck truly the preferred place to hang out when you aren't sleeping or eating.

Speaking of sleeping, I think we've all found a new preferred way to wake up in the morning. To avoid alarms going off at all hours of the night and day, as one watch is getting up to take the deck and another is comfortably in the middle of their time to sleep, twenty minutes before each meal / an hour before you are due on watch, the current watch sends someone to gently awaken you by calling your name. These gentle wakeups are accompanied by a reminder of what time it is, when the next thing you should be doing is (the next meal or the start of your watch), and usually a weather report. Way better than an alarm clock. (Now. to my friends at college reading this. who wants to come wake me up before class every morning next year?)

I was on dawn watch this morning, so my eyes are starting to glaze over as I type this; I'm going to go collapse into my bunk until gently awoken for class.


Following the Trade Winds to Kiribati
Nate Johnson, Amherst College

Hello Everyone! My name is Nate Johnson and I'm here to bring you the fourth installment in the S-281 blog. For several days now, we've been able to cruise along the trade winds towards Kiribati, and today we just crossed the line marking 1000 nautical miles to PIPA. If all goes well, we should cross the Marine Protected Area's borders in one week! The sun continues to arc behind mostly cloudy skies, although that offers little respite from the heat, and the layers of sunscreen continue to pile up. Winds have started to pick up; forcing us to pull in some of the main sail, and with this change the boat has been running smoothly at 7-8 knots heading 200°, slightly southwest.

As the bouts of seasickness have all but passed for the whole crew, and our sea legs have gotten under us, we have been able to sink into a consistent schedule of scientific deployments. I have been able to work on two of these so far, both including a hydrocast, which collects water samples from a carousel that gets dropped down to ~600m and a Neuston tow, which collects fish larvae, plankton and all kinds of biomass. Unfortunately, we have also been picking up a significant amount of plastic. This has not, however, dulled the excitement of the deploying crews.

The evening deployments are a sight out of Fantasia, as bright blue flashes emanate from the bioluminescent plankton washing out of our net. This morning's deployment, made challenging by the heavy winds and hefty swells, was no less exciting. As we pulled back the net and peered into the collecting and saw endless wriggling copepods, flying fish and anchovy larvae, our 2nd scientist, Gabo, nearly grabbed a Portuguese Man o' War, a gelatinous organism teeming with excruciatingly painful stinging cells. Luckily, her vigilance and experience paid off and she was able to spot it and end any possibility of a painful end. As we continue to run twice daily deployments, our data set will fill out and state of PIPA in 2018 will begin to paint itself before us.

As we have started to grow accustom to the schedule, the rest of the students and I have begun to explore ways to enjoy this 134' beauty, instead of sleeping the hours away in between watches. My watch (C watch) had the morning shift today, and after being relieved by A watch at 13:00, we decided to spend the hour and a half break before class lounging in the bowsprit. For those of you who don't know, the bowsprit is a ~12ft hefty steel beam that extends off the bow of the ship and which houses the two forward-most sails on the Seamans, the Jib, Jib tops'l and their accompanying lines. Underneath this beam is a precarious bundle of netting that extends about 4ft out to either side, just wide enough for two people to lay side-by-side. Those of us who didn't retire to our bunks below deck were able to climb out and laze in the net, mere feet above the rolling seas beneath us. The cool sea breeze was a welcome departure from the hot, tiring work on deck. The serenity of the moment was only occasionally punctuated with an anxiety-inducing (especially considering I had my Nikon DSLR in hand) roll over a particularly large swell. As we sail ever closer to PIPA, these moments of calmness and beauty will certainly only continue.


Adjusting to Life at Sea
Annabel Spranger, Denison University

Hi y'all! It's Annabel, or AB, as I'm known on the ship. We are on our fourth day at sea, and honestly I'm starting to lose track of time. When I'm not on watch, I'm in class or eating. And when I'm not in class or eating, I am curled up in my bunk, being rocked to sleep by the waves.

Adjusting to life at sea has been interesting. We never get to sleep at the same time and sometimes I'm crawling into my bunk just as the sun comes up, while other times I'm getting woken up at midnight to go stand watch. I have realized very quickly that being on my feet for 6-12 hours a day is much harder in sandals and on a boat that is constantly rocking side to side. I also really overestimated my sea legs- they were not as good as I thought they were, but they have gotten better. And unlike some very fortunate people on the trip, I did succumb to sea sickness the first couple days. Luckily, I think that storm has passed. But getting to have a little break from smartphones and social media has been good. I've had a lot of time with my thoughts, a lot of time to write, and a lot of time to take in all the sights.

I am also lucky because I chose a very exciting day to choose to write the blog. Today during our ship meeting/oceanography class, we were discussing sea birds, when we saw a dozen of them feeding on the horizon, likely on a school of fish underneath the sea surface. Just as we were all looking to them, someone announced that we had a fish on the line. After a lot of reeling, we pulled a small Mahi Mahi onto the boat! And that's what we had for dinner. It was delicious, as is most of the food our steward cooks.

I think my absolute favorite part of the trip so far is lookout on night watches, being up at the bow all alone, with millions of stars above, and bioluminescent plankton below. I know it's an important task, being the eyes of the ship, and it also gives me some time to think about how small we are and how big this world is. It makes it a lot easier to not miss my loved ones at home, because I know we are all under the same sky, watching the same sunsets and sunrises. It reminds me to be thankful for this experience because it is a once in a lifetime chance, and we have access to people, things, and places that not many other people get. In my time up at look out, I have been spending it thinking of gratitude.


Student Blogs Begin!
Brian Desrosiers, Northeastern University

Hello all!

Brian Desrosiers here to kick off our student-written blog posts. Currently, we are three days underway and are making great time. Adjusting to life at sea has been a cumbersome task. Irregular sleep patterns, only seeing water as far as the eye can see, and sea sickness are all things that we have to get used to. Luckily for me, I seem to have escaped the sea sickness curse (no medication necessary) and have won the price of a Dunkin iced coffee in the process, thanks Makaila. Unfortunately, others have not been so lucky and are continuing in "making their donations to Poseidon". As we sail towards the Phoenix Islands, a wealth of knowledge is being transferred from brilliant minds to us, the students. At times it can seem overwhelming and the thought of getting a few hours sleep, even if it's in the middle of the day, is what seems like the only thing that keeps us moving. However, we all know how amazing and unique this experience is and take every task and hardship with a smile and an optimistic mindset longing for the day when we finally get to see one of Earth's last undisturbed marine habitats.

Last night was my first dawn watch taking place from 01:00 to 07:00. This has been by far my favorite experience thus far. After being woken up at the earliest hours of the morning, we headed on deck to survey the scene and take over from the night watch. What we saw was incredible. Looking up at the night sky felt like I was dreaming. Having spent the majority of my last few years living in the beautiful city of Boston, being able to see the stars encompass the whole night sky only ending at the horizon was breathtaking. The Milky Way, stars, and planets that I had never seen before faintly lit up the deck and a sudden peacefulness fell over me as I looked out at the waves gently rolling across the seascape. I felt like this is exactly where I am supposed to be. However, the coolest part wasn't what you saw when you looked up; it was when you looked down. In the wake of the Robert C. Seamans was thousands of bioluminescent plankton. The sea seemed to sparkle almost as much as the sky. This is a phenomenon that I have only heard about and I cannot put into words how beautiful it looked. As the watch came to an end, we were treated to the faint glow of the sun on the horizon and the relief of the next watch. As C watch descended below to grab a quick breakfast before collapsing in bed, we took a brief moment to think and talk about how truly lucky we are to have this experience and how much we are looking forward to continuing this adventure.

It is currently 16:20 and I have a long night watch ahead of me so I need to go try and steal a few hours of sleep. I look forward to you all following along with our adventure and am excited for you to here from the perspectives of other students. If I'm lucky, I'll be able to write more blogs to share my experiences! Best wishes to everyone in the outside world and we will all see you soon!


For a few hours now, we've been sailing at steady 8-9 knots with a fine
trade wind on our backs. Squeezed between the tall Hawaiian Islands, the winds funnel into the jets that are now speeding us along toward the Phoenix Islands. With 25 knots of wind come commensurate seas, and the Seamans is lunging down some waves as the bigger ones catch our stern and we accelerate away. It has been only a few hours out of the bustling port of Honolulu, and we're already in the middle of the ocean, alone, a ship going about its mission.

Our mission is to sail to the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA), a huge marine reserve set aside by the Republic of Kiribati to protect a tropical archipelago of coral atoll islands and the ocean around them. The area, about the size of California, is also the deepest UNESCO World Heritage Site, and as such a place well worth visiting. The trouble is it is very difficult to get to, and because of this difficulty it has remained very poorly studied and consequently poorly understood until late. And yet with these protections, surely, we want to know what is being protected?

Our expedition, launched by the Sea Education Association in partnership with Boston University and PIPA managers in Kiribati, is the fifth of its kind on board the Robert C. Seamans. Our expeditions have been the only oceanographic surveys within PIPA, and these 19 undergraduates and 15 scientists and crew on board now will add the next chapter in the knowledge of the ocean inside PIPA. We will be using the ship's sophisticated oceanographic tools to explore the area, and the results of our voyage will add to our five-year data set exploring how the ocean in PIPA might be changing in this time of warming global climates and rising sea levels.

Though we just left, our mission began in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, on SEA's campus on June 11th. For three intensive weeks, the students received a torrent of information about oceanography, marine policy and seamanship. The last topic looms large now, as the students are challenged to be an integral part of our sailing ship's crew. They'll participate in all of the work of the ship carried on in three watches, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

These are our first hours at sea, ahead more than 3000 nautical miles of sailing and another 37 days of hard work. Also, ahead many sublime sights; starry skies, bioluminescent wakes at night, remote coral reefs with countless fish. In the coming blogs, you'll hear the voices of our crew telling you about the voyage, our ship, each other, PIPA, and the important work we'll carry out there.

There is a lot of excitement about finally getting underway all that lies ahead, and I know everyone is equally excited about the opportunity to tell you about our voyage through the entries of this blog yet to come. I hope you'll join us and read on!

Jan Witting Chief Scientist, Sea Education Association / SEA Semester


Airports are such funny places. I travel a ton, and every single time I travel I always think to myself: "gosh, there are just SO MANY DIFFERENT human faces and phenotypes out there". It really is amazing. 7.6 billion and counting, and we all are unique.

So, it's really amazing when you run into someone in the airport. I always do a double-take, wondering if that person is the person I'm looking for, or just a doppelganger. Well, as it happens, I was transiting home from Tarawa, and I just happened to be at the airport at the same time as Jacob, from my lab, who was heading to Honolulu to depart in a few days for PIPA. In essence, as he's heading out to Kiribati, I was heading back from Kiribati (you can read more about that here. Small world!

The SEA team has been busily working and preparing for their trip here in the Atlantic (see pic below), but now as they all head off to the Pacific, there is excitement and buzz all around with last minute prep, travel, etc.

After 40+ hours of my own travel, I headed back to the airport a mere 6 hours later to see Rosie & Moamoa off to HI as well.

For this trip, I'll be supporting from Boston, while Moamoa, Jacob, Jan, and others journey to my favorite MPA in the world: The Phoenix Islands Protected Area. But until then, I'll keep my eyes open... not everyone has left for HI yet, and ya never know who you might run into next....

Happy 4th!


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Snorkeling in Kanton
by Lee Fenstermacher, C-Watch, Dickinson College

It is our third day in Kanton and snorkeling is in full swing. This morning at 08:30 myself and 11 others took two small 8 person rescue boats to a reef on the outer edge of the atoll. On our way there we were greeted by a pod of dolphins who swam under our little boat, not more than two feet below us, leading us to our destination. On the snorkeling outings I've been on so far, there have been sightings of four turtles, a few sharks, a plethora of reef fish, an eel, and three different octopi. Considering that combined, the professional crew and the student crew have about 40 sea themed tattoos it is not difficult to imagine our excitement. I can understand why the reefs in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area have been dubbed "Underwater Eden." In fact, it's difficult to imagine how they could be called just about anything else. However, the magic of this place isn't limited to under the sea. In fact, I'd argue that the people I've gotten to meet, both my shipmates and the people of Kanton, are more extraordinary than what is under the waves. (Those of you who know me know that's about the highest praise I could ever give.)

The people of Kiribati have been unyieldingly kind. There are no natives to Kanton, the ~30 people who live here are primarily government officials and their families. They nod, smile, and stop to ask you questions in English as they pass you on the gravel pathways. There is always room to spare for any of us who want to join them in a game of soccer, the goals marked by large rocks on either side. And despite the limited resources available to them on this island, the people of Kanton always find a way to be the most gracious hosts possible. Our first night we were gifted four lobsters, each just shy of two feet long. The next day, my friend Lucas and I got a chance to attended a Protestant Sunday service (their time) in a small structure held together on the sides and overhead by correlated sheet mental. We took our shoes off, went in, and sat on beautifully woven mats.

The service included passage readings and hymns in their native language, and then in English, I suspect at least in part so that Lucas and I could understand. A nice gentleman also lent us his hymnal, so that we could join in some of the most marvelous singing I've ever heard. Many of the people of Kanton have invited my shipmates into their homes and they have even slaughtered one of their pigs for a welcoming ceremony tonight, allowing us to cook half of it in our preferred style.

These wonderful people, the people of Kiribati, are looking to us for help to gather scientific data and provide informed policy options. And I can say without hesitation that myself and my shipmates are more than willing to oblige. Among my shipmates I've never met a more passionate group of people. Shout out to Charlie, Andy, Jacob and others for using their time on the reefs for collecting data, which is less than easy to say the least. For those of you at home, we're fine. In fact, we are so much more than fine. The work may be difficult but it is also so very rewarding. We are all among amazing people, giving all we can to protect what we love. What else can you ask for- I certainly can't think of anything


Class has begin! Prior to sailing, there is a 2-week shore component. The students have arrived, including an i-Kiribati student and Observer, Moamoa. She is hard at work learning navigational charts and the science of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA), but she is up to the task.

My favorite part of the shore component is meeting all the students, telling them the story and history of PIPA, and watching the whole room get goosebumps at the same time. Me too!

The story is really that good. After all, when a least developed nation makes a marine protected are the size of California... BEFORE everyone else did.... that was a giant act of conservation. I should tell you the story in more detail, and I will, I promise, when I'm in a goosebump-y mood and I'm not crazy busy packing. But until then.... I promise, it will be worth the wait. :-)

Expedition Background

Since 2014, Sea Education Association (SEA) has worked in partnership with the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) to bring ~20 undergraduate students from the US and abroad to PIPA as part of their SEA Semester study abroad program. In partnership with collaborators at Boston University and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, this team has committed to 10 years worth of study on the basic physical, chemical, and oceanography of PIPA. In parallel, PIPA scientists have been studying the coral reefs at irregular intervals, due to funding and logistical constraints, but have nonetheless managed to maintain a database of photoquadrats dating back to the year 2000. With almost two decades of data and three bleaching events, this is an incredible natural laboratory to study reef resilience. SEA has the ship. SEA and BU have the students. SEA, BU, Scripps, and WHOI have the collaborative scientific expertise. And now - we have the tech to try to enable students to take the data we need without SCUBA. The Phoenix Islands have been rising from the ashes.... and now we hope to be able to watch the process.

This expedition will leave from Honolulu, HI on July 5 and arrive in Pago Pago on August 13.

Project collaborators: Jan Witting, SEA; Randi Rotjan, Boston University; Jacob Jaskiel, Boston University; The Republic of Kiribati; Stuart Sandin & Jen Smith, Scripps Institution of Oceanography; Sangeeta Mangubhai, WCS; Simon Thorrold & Anne Cohen, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; The Republic of Kiribati and the Phoenix Islands Protected Area

This is so awesome Randi! Did you know you can add your collaborators directly to the expedition so they can post too?

I had no idea. Thanks David - I'll add them to both projects!

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