Tuesday, May 29, 2007


May 29, 2007. Palmyra Atoll. We're in Palmyra now - an atoll that the Nature Conservancy has set up as a preserve and natural laboratory. A consortium of universities and museums has established this unique atoll as a research station.

Along with consortium scientists, the students of Stanford@SEA are conducting their missions in the small boats around the lagoons by running transect lines to continue their observations for comparison with Kiritimati and Washington islands. Because there are few people living on Palmyra, there is a trophic cascade that is rich with top predators (aka sharks).

We saw three-foot white tip sharks yesterday during our transects. The booby team (Karen and Melissa) began working with renowned TOPP bird researcher Scott Shaffer and a graduate student, Hillary, from Stanford. We've been out for two nights in a row using a modified fishing pole to catch the boobies as they are nesting and than quickly attach a GPS transmitter.

I found my skills with poles and monofilament transferred quickly to catching boobies out of trees. The work is done in the middle of the night. The first night we were rained on and were still getting used to being on land at night; it's a sharp contrast to being at sea. The jungle was rich with life -- crabs moving across our path, spiders, eels along the water's edge and the remarkable cries of the sooty tern colonies.

Last night we worked under moonlight and stars; it was spectacular. We've recovered the first two tags. One track shows a booby heading toward our next destination -- Kingman Reef. Our interest is in how the land and sea connect here and the relationship between one atoll and the next. We hope to recover 4 GPS tags tonight. If so, Melissa and Karen will have the key to understanding how the red-footed boobies use the ocean to feed their chicks. -- Barb Block, chief scientist


May 27, 2007. Palmyra Atoll. We have come to our final stop before returning to Honolulu: Palmyra Atoll. It is evident from the modernity of the facilities that we are again in a U.S. territory, the rural Kiribati behind us. A reporter from Stanford came to interview students about our experiences and projects, but words cannot fully record our journeys, neither can his sophisticated video camera. A person would have to see that deep blue ocean, wave to smiling people of Kiribati, see their faces as they smiled back, the children playing frisbee with us on the beach, learn from their simple lives that keep cohesion and happiness, reflect against the ocean waves extending into oblivion. These things, times, places that a camera cannot capture, will live in our minds forever.

I have a slight fisherman's tale to tell, if I may boast just this once. I was doing an hourly bird observation, and the fishing rod began to scream behind me, the monstrous fish almost fully spooling the line as it dove into the depths. It was an epic 45-minute battle to land the fish, involving Tuna-Queen Barb, Adam the scientist, Captain Phil, and myself, taking two gaffs to raise the 90-pound yellowfin tuna to deck, which Barb quickly dissected with relish, coercing me to take a bite of the still beating heart. Dolphins at the bow interrupted us, splashing next to our ship, accompanying the most beautiful sunset -- a perfect end to a magnificent evening.

Our entrance into the Palmyra lagoon was utterly spectacular as boobies and other birds accompanied our ship. The howling wind from a passing squall died, and soon the buzz, the drone, the shriek of thousands of nesting terns became audible as we saw the dark cloud rising into the sky and swooping down into the jungle, more birds than you have ever seen, their soothing noise continuing well into the night, all I need to lull me to sleep in tropical paradise. - Johnny Bartz, S@S student

Monday, May 28, 2007


May 24, 2007. Kiritimati, Kiribati -- We arrived in the Line Islands on a gorgeous sunny afternoon and anchored offshore of Christmas Island 2 days ago. Here, emerald lagoon seas reflect green colors in the clouds, and coral sands are bleached white. Our mission has changed, as we've been conducting scientific surveys (transects), snorkeling inshore reefs, and exploring Christmas Island.

We've transitioned to Leg 2 of our voyage where the focus is on the coral reefs of the Line Islands. Our ultimate goal is to survey the status of the back reefs along the Line Islands chain to assess the impact of the local inhabitants on the health of the reef systems. By comparing along the gradient of human habitation (from 9,000 people on Kiritimati to relatively uninhabitated coral atolls at Palmyra and pristine Kingman Reef) we hope to garner a better understanding of human impact on these vital reef systems. Project science included surveying the reefs to examine the state of the biodiversity of apex predator coral reef fish by Chris Hanson and Del Rego with Barb Block and Doug McCauley swimming close by.

Visran Vischit-Vadakan and Kaori Tsukado, advised by visiting scientist Boris Worm, did transects that investigated herbivorous fishes. Sam Urmy, Jess McNally and Johnny Bartz, working with chief scientist Rob Dunbar, conducted a lagoon coral health project that placed temperature recorders along the lagoon regions to observe how the lagoon waters influence the physical characteristics of the water column and ultimately the coral reef community.

Students also participated in recreational snorkeling. I took one group out for a trip with experienced guide Kim Anderson of Dive Kiribati. Within three hours we swam with a large manta ray, dolphin, caught a barracuda and large blue trevally that we let go. We saw dolphin fish leap out of the water after flying fish, and gasped as a booby swooped in front of our boat to grab, and then lose, a flying fish that erupted pushed up into the air by our presence.
We met with Henry Genthe, a former chief scientist of SEA in the early years, who told stories of the early days of the program aboard Westward. Genthe, his family, and the students and staff at St. Francis High, a local school, hosted a spectacular gathering for our students. We all sat together in Henry's backyard -- literally the beach front -- as the sun set and students from St. Francis performed a series of welcome songs and traditional dances.

Stanford@SEA students led by Kat Hoffman performed several songs of their own. As the evening wore on, all the students danced together to local music. The evening was memorable primarily for the new friends, and exchange of new rhythms, dance and songs, but most importantly for the cultural exchange that has been on going between SEA and Stanford students and St. Francis for many trips.

We donated books we gathered back at Stanford to several schools. We pulled anchor at 1300 and left for Washington Island, a 2-day sail. We sailed through a feeding frenzy completely with diving birds, including boobies and frigates, and leaping tunas chasing flying fish. It was a super sight. We quickly dissected two of the 25-pound skipjack we caught, and found 8 squid (which we promptly called Meridith Capenter to sample), several baby tunas (which I put away for later viewing) and a variety of ocean life in their tummies. It was a great end to a fascinating day. -- Barb Block, chief scientist

Monday, May 21, 2007


May 21, 2007. Aboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans. It's hard to believe we have been on this ship for ten days without the sight of land; it feels more like one, or maybe two long days -- experiences melded together by the sea. Three months ago I never could have imagined myself sorting through plankton nets next to two world-renowned scientists, but now it is all too real as we approach Christmas Island in the central Pacific. Every minute I stay up, after my watch is over, to gaze at the bioluminescence of the waters, I find something I have never seen before, a whole mysterious world brought to the lights of our boat during the darkness. The sight of the most magnificent sunsets, boobies circling overhead, and the rolling waves of the vast Pacific all inspire me in this intimate experience with the ocean.

The transformation that the whole ship community has undergone is remarkable. I remember the first day when practically the entire boat was stricken with seasickness. The students and professors alike (well only Rob) bonded as we shared the rails to hurl our insides into the sea, food for Barb's tuna and the flying fish that we could see as we literally 'worshipped' the swells. But that is all over, rest assured to our avid readers. Now we hardly even notice a difference as the ship heels and lists while under way, our only indication is the gimbaled tables that rock to prevent our dishes spilling on the floor. It is equally amazing how close the community has come, recognizing the smell of each others' shoes on deck, or laundry as we hang it to dry.

As the excitement builds for our landfall at Christmas Island, there is also a sense of nostalgia: Our sea passage is coming to an end, one phase of our experience complete. I can remember the smell of land as we left Kaleakakua Bay, the sweet scent of plumeria, and, yet, I feel no urgent need for land, just the excitement to continue learning and experiencing the ocean's wonders. -- Johnny Bartz, Stanford@SEA student


May 19, 2007. Aboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans. Today was sunny and hot here in the tropics. The temperatures are rising. It was 83 degrees near my bunk, which I can attest is not the most comfortable temperature to sleep at. For the first time on this trip, I felt hot.

The day began with strong seas, sails full, and the largest waves of the trip. They're primarily wind-driven and long-period swells. The ship is rolling easily side to side and moving quickly across the top of these waves, sinking into the troughs and rising over the next. Its fun -
somewhat like an amusement park ride, with more roll and lean than any prior day. Speeds as high as 10 knots are helping to make up time from the heavy science stations in the first part of the leg. We're now within 400 nautical miles of our destination, Christmas Island.

Despite the high seas, students are conducting Winkler titrations in the lab, chlorophyll assays, and alkalinity titrations - a testament to the true grit of this program and the Stanford students. You have to hold on a bit more, and use your legs to steady your balance, but after 8 days, we're all experienced at maintaining our balance.

Mindy Summers has conducted her first respiration experiments which is a breakthrough for all of us. She struggled with chief scientists Jeff Schell, Rob Dunbar and Barb Block for three days as they solved software problems for this "first-time" instrument for this trip. As in any science done shipboard, there are often great rewards and challenges and, for Mindy, the disappointment of not having this unique instrument working was palpable. Finally, the microrespirometer is working, and animals such as amphipods, copepods and shrimp from the evening tows are now being placed into miniature chambers and having their metabolic energetics examined.

Kat is looking daily under the Zeiss microscope at the phytoplankton she's been collecting as she examines the species composition along the transect. The members of the turtle team are preparing for their final station now that we're deep into the productive region of the lower latitude frontal station. Satellite images from shore have extremely useful and provide guidance as we select station locations.

We're entering the most productive waters of the trip - the hottest waters - beyond the frontal edge, the region we have yet to see the sea turtles penetrate. My guess is it's just too hot for their reptilian physiology. Large body size, and retention of heat in a 1,700-pound (800 kg) sea turtle would be hard for the turtle to dissipate, and it would overheat. Remarkably, the thermocline (where the water temperature drops rapidly with depth) is shoaling and the oxygen minimum layer is as shallow as 150m. Below this depth, the water is as cold as 8 degrees C and there is less than 1% of the oxygen we have at the surface. This raises a ton of interesting questions that the students are pondering.

Chief scientist Rob Dunbar, Stanford University professor of geology and environmental sciences, gave a fascinating lecture on carbonate production and dissolution in this region of the Pacific, and provided the students with a context for understanding the vertical profiles revealed with the daily noon CTD casts. Related to these observations, Annie Scofield's project involves measuring the pH and alkalinity in samples collected from the deep ocean beneath the ship. She is studying the carbon system in this seldom-sampled part of the planet.

Guest scientist Boris Worm, an assistant professor of marine conservation biology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, and students have been recording birds daily for Juliann Schamel's project and have had their first sighting of a bird that's native to Kiritimati Island (Christmas Island). That suggests we're getting closer to our Line Island destination. The evening meal was an ono (also known as wahoo) caught on a large lure earlier in the day. -- Barb Block and Rob Dunbar, chief scientists


May 18, 2007. Aboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans. The ship continues on its way south and we are experiencing the remarkable wonders of sailing a tall ship. The trade winds are blowing strong and steady and all the students of the 2007 Stanford@SEA class have their sea legs.

The routine of the ship runs now like clockwork - with watches (groups of students) rising and relieving one another with an energy and enthusiasm that reminds me of when I was a student aboard Westward. Our students are carrying on the continuous rhythm of the ship's mission: research, sailing, cooking meals, catching fish (wahoo and tuna) and simply experiencing high seas sailing.We've just passed the point where we're farthest away from land. With winds as strong as 30 knots and almost all the sails of the tall ship up, it almost feels like flying. And at night, with starlit skies, our bow is directly pointed at the Southern Cross which rises higher each night. The stars and planets are intense in the evening sky. Venus is brighter than I've ever seen it. A sliver of the moon rises early in the evening. One understands how Polynesian voyagers could use the star Arcturus to navigate as it rises prominently in the evening sky.The students have been collecting sun and star sights with their sextants and calculating our position. Jess McNally was the first to put a position on the chart, and, using astronomical math, was within 5 nautical miles of the GPS positions. This group is among the strongest we've had in navigation and nautical science, which met daily in the shore component and continues here in a practical context at sea. Their enthusiasm for using the sextant, shooting local apparent noon sights, and learning is almost insatiable. Del Rego commented today that nautical science might be the most practical course he's ever taken at Stanford - "I'm learning about the planet". Captain Phil and engineer Dusty are working daily on sextant handling, reduction of the positions and teaching how to use the stars to navigate.
Over in science, the turtle team continues sampling along the frontal boundary where the northern equatorial current meets the counter current. Using temperature and salinity along with chlorophyll as a cue, we've focused in on our second station of three. At midnight we conducted a long three-hour station. Our meter net was filled with the jelly biomass of siphonophores and pyrosomes that lit the evening with their remarkable flaming bioluminescence. While conducting the station, squid filled the evening lights and flying fish were so plentiful they were jumping right into the boat - this shows the richness of the frontal edge.

Christmas Island lies 4 days ahead and our students with Line Island projects are memorizing fish, preparing their gear, and sorting out field plans. But for now, we have fallen into a routine of sailing ever southward, with a warm breeze out of the northeast and twice daily station stops punctuated by afternoon all-hands meetings. We are a happy ship. -- Barb Block and Rob Dunbar, chief scientists

Friday, May 18, 2007


May 16, 2007. Aboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans. The ship is currently approaching the halfway point between Hawaii and Christmas Island -- 14.50 of latitude on the 156.5 line of longitude.

Last night might have been one of the most exciting evenings ever on the Seamans with a Stanford@SEA class. With the help of people on shore who are providing satellite images of the ocean surface, we located and crossed a dynamic feature of oceanography and reacted quick enough to sample the physical oceanography and got a rare glimpse of what lives in the region.

The ocean is a dynamic place and when you look across the surface its often hard to "see" the distinctions between different water masses. But when we saw a booby fly over the ship at 4 p.m. so far from land, it should have been a sign that we were close to a large oasis in the sea.

After a super day of sailing at speeds as high as 8 knots we were moving steadily along on the evening watch when the science lab noticed the fluorescence climbing steadily, the surface temperatures warming and the salinity dropping. These were all signs that we were crossing from the North Equatorial Current (NEC) into a new water mass.
A satellite image from David Foley of NOAA had just come through and we recognized that we were on an extension (that green "finger" on the left in the image above) of the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), a strong frontal zone that is approximately at 11o north. This finger, which extends as much as 200 miles north of the front, was a lunch spot for a leatherback sea turtle that's wearing a satellite tag. Stanford students Larisa Lehmer and Scot McCrackan are studying how leatherback sea turtles follow the frontal zones. They hypothesize the turtles use this tactic to forage on jellies. They think that these "fingers" serve as small buffet tables for the sea turtles, allowing them to dine on the rich resources yet remain on the cooler side of the front.

Leatherbacks are "gigantotherms" and are warm-bodied. The hot waters of the ITCZ may be too warm for their huge five- to six-foot bodies, and, by nibbling on jellies at the point of the convergence of the two water masses, they possibly gain a slight energetic advantage.

The ship passed through the finger and, as the fluorescence signal declined, SEA chief scientist Jeff Schell and I asked Captain Phil Sacks to turn the ship around -- quickly! The "B" watch team (the students work in groups, and take turns being on "watch" to sail the ship) conducted a rapid jib manuver, crossing 3 sails, and within 20' we were back on the feature. Here we once again jibbed and put the ship hove to (come to a stop, in landlubber language). At midnight, we tossed the CTD profiler in the water. We also threw out a series of nets. One was 2 meter net at a depth of 150 feet (50 meters) that caught more jellies than anyone had ever seen. A second was a bongo net for squid, which student Meridith Carpenter is studying. A third net was a neuston net to capture life in the surface waters. The team worked into the early morning hours but went to bed satisfied that the mystery of why the sea turtles forage along the frontal edges had for a moment been solved. -- Barb Block, chief scientist


May 15. Aboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans, Pacific Ocean. The 2007 class of Stanford@SEA has made steady progress south toward the Line Islands. We're on the "Open Sea Transect Leg" and have had tremendous success. The students, professors, and crew are working 24 hours a day conducting research, sailing the ship and providing all the necessary forage for the 38 people on board.

South of the Hawaiian Islands, we've focused on the oceanography and ecology of eddy features. We crossed the center of an anticylonic downwelling eddy and clipped a piece of a cyclonic eddy. Here we studied the ecosystems of both features with Gen Del Raye, a freshman at Stanford. His project is assisting researchers at Tagging of Pacific Predators to investigate how and why large predators such as white sharks swim thousands of miles to forage in these eddies.

Sure enough, by deploying instruments that profiled the physical elements of the water column and nets that sampled the organisms living in the water, we were able to find distinct differences between the "hot" and "cold" eddy features. Also, by sending down the CTD (an instrument that measures salinity, temperature, and chemistry of the water), we were able to see that there is a significant drop in oxygen in deeper waters, which may explain why the sharks seem to dive to depths as great 1,350 to 1500 feet (450-500 meters), but quickly resurface. Water samples taken from bottles on the CTD that took samples of this deep water were also used by Annie Scofield to study changes in ocean alkalinity, in important parameter for determining oceanic uptake of carbon dioxide. -- Barb Block and Rob Dunbar, chief scientists

Sunday, May 13, 2007


May 12. Aboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans. We sailed from Oahu to the island of Hawai'i. The high winds channeling between the islands made for some rough seas within a few hours of the departure. With Beaufort force 5 and 6 conditions we were able to get across to Kealakekua Bay a half day ahead of schedule.
The calm waters of the Big Island were a welcome relief to the students and crew who found the channel crossings a bit uncomfortable. Today, we split into teams: three teams went sport-fishing aboard local charter boats Sea Baby III, Silky and a third vessel, and another team went snorkeling at the Captain Cook memorial. Here scientists Rob Dunbar and Boris Worm led our students on an underwater survey in the marine preserve to study the diverse reef fish and unusually healthy corals of Kealakekua Bay.

Our students sharpened their in-the-water observational skills in advance of our field work in the Line Islands. This is the healthiest coral preserve in the Hawai'ian Islands and provides a useful reference site as we move to warmer waters near the equator.

The team aboard the Sea Baby III fished with legendary Captain Freddy Rice. Within 2 hours they hooked up to a striped marlin and the line screamed off the reel. Karen Lone, a Stanford junior, jumped into the fighting chair and reeled the fish to the boat where I quickly tagged the fish over the side with a pop-up satellite archival tag. The fish was released without any difficulties: it swished its tail and swam away. The tagging event will complement ongoing studies of striped marlin being conducted by New Zealand scientists in collaboration with the Block lab. Students aboard the fishing vessel Silky tagged and released a spearfish.
The spectacular day was capped when Herb Kane, noted Hawaiian artist and historian, mesmerized all aboard with stories of Captain Cook's encounters with native Hawai'ians in the bay in 1779, and of ancient voyages of the Polynesian voyagers. -- Barb Block, chief scientist

Thursday, May 10, 2007


May 9. Aboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans, Honolulu, HI. Today the 26 members of the Stanford@SEA class of 2007 -- undergraduate students, graduate students and professors -- joined the Seamans at Pier 35.

Tomorrow, we will cast off the lines and make way for the Big Island of Hawai'i and Kealakekua Bay. Here we'll be met by well known sport fishers. The students will spend the morning fishing, snorkeling and practicing transects in the bay. In the evening, we'll be joined by Herb Kawainui Kane (pronounced KAY-ney). Kane, an artist, author and historian, will describe the events that took place at the bay when British explorer Captain James Cook visited and died there in 1779.

Kane's research on Polynesian canoes and voyaging led to his participation as general designer and builder of the sailing canoe Hokule'a, on which he served as its first captain. Hokule'a has now made four round-trip voyages between Hawai'i and Tahiti, and a 16,000 mile pan-Polynesia voyage to New Zealand and back, all navigated without instruments.

We will then sail due south toward the island nation of Kiribati (pronounced Kiribas) and begin the scientific portion of the trip on the "transect leg". Here we hope to focus on a variety of student-led projects including identifying species of squid that live in the open sea, studying phytoplankton communities and ocean food webs, and why animals such as leatherback turtles and other Pacific predators use eddies -- the life-filled whirlpools that move across the ocean.

Of course, the first few days will be the hardest when all of us are learning the lines on the ship, and getting used to its pitch and roll. The trades are moderately strong, which will provide a quick sail to our destination. This hopefully will allow more time for science "on station" along the transect leg.

The enthusiasm is palpable as we prepare to set sail. -- Barb Block, chief scientist

Sunday, May 6, 2007


May 6. Hopkins Marine Station, Stanford University. The shore component of the Stanford@SEA program finished on Friday. For the last 5 weeks, 21 Stanford undergraduate students and three graduate students have been learning about oceanography, maritime history, marine conservation, sailing and navigation. Now they're on their way to Hawaii to join the tall ship SSV Robert C. Seamans for a voyage to the island nation of Kiribati, and up the Line Islands to the unique Palmyra Atoll and Kingman Reef. The trip will take five weeks, and end in mid-June back in Hawaii.

Under the watchful eyes of Seamans Capt. Phil Sacks and his crew, the students will be sailing the ship 'round the clock, cleaning the ship, fixing meals for all on board, and assisting in maintaining the ship. Under the tutelage of Stanford@SEA chief scientists Barb Block, Jeff Schell and Rob Dunbar, they'll be doing the fieldwork for their research and putting together the presentations that they'll do at sea on the last leg between Palmyra Atoll and Hawaii. Also on board will be guest scientist Boris Worm of Dalhousie University.

When they're able, they'll send us messages to post on the blog. They'll be boarding the ship on Wednesday, and leaving shortly thereafter.-- Jane Stevens, Stanford@SEA editor