Thursday, June 14, 2007


June 12, 2007. Aboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans, at dock in Honolulu. The city lights of Honolulu are so tantalizingly close, yet we are still so far away, so far detached from our land lives. The yellow flag flying on our mast indicates we have not yet cleared customs; we are still a part of the sea, an attraction of camera-flashing cruise-ship spectators. Now we celebrate our journey and prepare for our return to land.

There is something comforting about a green slab of land, rising high in the sky, up to misty clouds. We have casually cruised around the islands of Maui, Lanai and Molokai -- it has been more than a month since we have seen land higher than two meters (six feet) elevation. The green corrugated hills with white birds flitting over the soft covering of rainforest mesmerize us all while the calm waters quietly lull us out of our Pacific dream.

We have come so far on this journey, more than 3,000 nautical miles through the Pacific. In our last day of class we reflected on what we missed the most and least during our trip: the Internet, e-mail, a preoccupation with the media -- all the things that complicate our normal lives and make us lose sight of our true importance and where we are going. Here we gaze into the vast ocean and realize our insignificance against something larger than comprehension. Here the sea enlivens our passions and courses through our hearts.

Even though we may leave sight of the ocean for the first time in months, we will never forget the smiling faces of Kiribati, intricate creatures, glimmering sunsets, countless stars scattered throughout the night sky. These have shaped our thoughts of conservation and our own perceptions forever. We ecstatically await sharing our fabulous experiences, only hoping to communicate a portion of the experience that we will remember forever. -- Johnny Bartz, Stanford@SEA student

Tuesday, June 12, 2007


June 11, 2007. Aboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans. We're finally in the Hawaiian Islands. We passed Lanai and Maui, and had a super sail, tacking back and forth with almost full sails up, through the Pailoli channel between Maui and Molokai.

The islands look so high compared to the atolls of the Line Islands -- sharp cliffs, huge mountains hidden by clouds. Late yesterday, we had a spectacular downwind sail by the verdant cliffs of Molokai, where we could almost smell but not hear, the waterfalls that flow over the cliffs rising more than 2,000 feet from the sea.

We saw coves with the occasional person fishing the deep blue waters. With strong trade winds blowing at 25 to 30 knots, we came to a perfect place to drop anchor -- a protected coastline along a cliff with a volcanic rock and an emerald blue sea at sunset.

It is hard to believe that we've finished the journey. We've traveled more than 3,100 nautical miles, and now only a seven-hour sail separates us from Oahu, customs and our final dock.

As a community, we've been reflective of what we've gained, what we've accomplished and how our trip has affected all of us. Tomorrow, summer begins, and we will continue our journey as a Stanford community of seafaring friends. -- Barb Block, chief scientist

Sunday, June 10, 2007


June 10, 2007. Aboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans. We're within a day of seeing land. It's hard to imagine we've sailed 3,000 nautical miles in a triangle from Hawaii, through the Line Islands and back.

The sail home has been a good one, complete with periods of strong winds, a few squalls, some head seas that made things slightly uncomfortable, to times where we've had very little wind and had to turn on the motor to make sure we'd get back on schedule.

During the last days of the voyage, each student takes on the role of a Junior Watch Officer. This is the pinnacle of the nautical science portion of the program. The JWO is in general command of the ship, and gives commands to her or his peers. I hear students, not mates, calling out all maneuvers.

In addition, the students have all been busy preparing and presenting their scientific results from their research projects. We've heard terrific results, from a report of the phytoplankton diversity along our cruise track, to an explanation why white sharks and sea turtles might hang out in cyclonic eddies south of Hawaii or along frontal boundaries where jellies abound.

The Line Island projects showed fascinating results on predator and herbivore diversity. This year's data allows us to fill in some gaps from prior cruises. Over three cruises, we've biologically sampled all the Line Island atolls (Kiritimati, Tabuaeran, Teraina, Palmyra and Kingman).

For fun tonight, we're conducting a "styro cast". Everyone's drawing pictures on a regular coffee-size styrofoam cup. We put them all in a net bag, send them down to 3,000 meters (9,000 feet), where the pressure shrinks them -- and the illustrations -- into demitasse-size. -- Barb Block, chief scientist

Friday, June 8, 2007


June 7, 2001. Aboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans. We're 250 nautical miles from Hawaii, and sailing with strong northeast trade winds. We're keeping busy doing CTD casts (which measure salinity, temperature and density of the water) at 3,000 feet (1,000 meters) below the surface, and bongo tows (which look like bongo drums with nets that are dragged behind the ship to catch plankton). All students are working on their projects, which they'll start presenting to the entire group on Friday. The students have also led conservation discussions under the stars. -- Barb Block, chief scientist

Wednesday, June 6, 2007


June 5, 2007. Aboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans. We're 550 nautical miles from the Hawaiian Islands and sailing with a strong northeast wind on our bow. It feels as if we're fighting to go uphill against the wind. We're working on projects, enjoying the sailing, and watching the Southern Cross sink into the nighttime horizon. Today, we are the farthest from land. Except for the occasional petrel, no seabirds are in sight. -- Barb Block, chief scientist

Sunday, June 3, 2007


June 1, 2007. Aboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans, near Kingman Reef. We’ve made it up to Kingman Reef, the northernmost point along the Line Islands. [The tiny spit of land is an unincorporated territory of the United States, and is administered by the U.S. Navy.] Bringing the Seamans within 0.15 nautical miles of this barren spit of reef is a remarkable moment for our program. Its also a bit of a tense experience. We tried to sail here during Stanford@SEA 2003, but did not make it into the channel due to squalls and cloudy weather, which made viewing of coral heads that bring up the bottom rapidly to 5 fathoms (one fathom is about six feet), and the disconcerting feeling that the charts were off.

This year, under the brilliant leadership of Captain Phil Sacks, we sailed into the reef on a spectacular sunny day. This was our Everest, taking this ship into this reef and allowing research to be conducted. It was not easy by any stretch of the imagination.
The coral cover beneath the sea surrounding the spit of land is astounding -- almost 100% in all places we’ve looked. Compared to any place in the Line Islands, the visibility is clearer and the colors of the coral reef more brillant, with the colors enhanced by giant clams everywhere.

We quickly conducted transects for predators and found the reef rich with large snappers, some groupers; black tip, gray reef and white tip sharks abounded. The herbivore fish include some of the species we’ve rarely seen, such as schools of moorish idols (Zanclus cornutus -- "Crowned Scythe"). Last night and into the early morning we had “shark night”. By chumming with leftover parts from our successful fishing endeavors, we were able to see about 16 gray reef sharks, some aggressively pursuing prey that we had attracted to our lights. We fed the sharks from the ship so that we could examine them up close. It was squally and rainy, and diligent work by the crew kept us safely away from the reef edge.

We spent the early morning using our small Avon inflatable boat to make landfalls on the spit of land. Here we were able to set foot on what I realized must be one of the most desolate places on Earth. A ghostly shipwreck loomed close to us, and we all took a picture near it. As I glanced at our ship and the shipwreck, I could not help but wonder what a forlorn situation it would be to be stranded here on a tiny spit surrounded by a shark-filled reef.

We collected two large trash bags of assorted plastics, line and buoys that may have drifted thousands of miles to land here. At noon, with a brisk wind, we sailed out of the reef for Hawaii. A 900 nautical-mile, 11-day journey over the ocean lies ahead. -- Barb Block, chief scientist


May 31, 2007. Palmyra Atoll. Palmyra is the magical stop on our tour. This atoll which is owned by the Nature Conservancy has a working international research station. The intact lagoon, back reef and fore reef offer much to explore and study. We were met at Palmyra by the staff that run the research station, and scientists from Hawaii and California studying the bonefish and black tip sharks. NPR's Alex Chadwick from Radio Expeditions and Stanford News Service reporter Mark Schwartz doing stories on the atoll and the ship.

Once we were briefed on the rules of the road at Palmyra, we were allowed to explore with our skiffs filled with scientific teams. The coral reef team called the Hobo group with Sam Urmy, Johnny Bartz and Jess McNally set out to place Hobos at the various locations in the lagoon, channel and backreef. The predators group (Chris and Del) went out to Penguin Spit (formerly Tigershark point) to do some transects, along with the herbivore algae team (Visran and Kaori). Amy Briggs and Maija Leff also did some algal collections to search for diatoms that collect ciguatera toxin.

Many students and SEA staff wandered around the atoll, a place rich in palm trees, coconuts, and picturesque beaches, including one with a swimming hole complete with a rope swing.

The red-footed booby team sprung into high gear. Karen Lone, Melissa Kunz and I worked with bird researcher Scott Shaffer and graduate student Hillary. We went out every night we were in Palmyra. Wearing long shirts and pants, headlamps and packs, we trudged in rain and clear weather through mud and muck and onto the fore reef areas where the boobies were nesting in low hanging branches of trees.

We noosed the boobies with a long fishing rod that had a monofilament loop. It was challenging in moonlight to slip the noose over the head of the bird. My fishing skills transferred readily to booby catching, and, once a bird was noosed, the gals would swoop in and delicately weigh and tag the birds. The birds were quickly fitted with a GPS tag that was taped to three tail feathers.

We all marveled at holding a booby up close. I was amazed at the head structure -- the colors of the beak and feathers and the sharp serrations on the beak that help this animal catch fish and squid. We sampled some of what they ate, as they often regurgitated their meals and Hilary saved everything for future isotopic studies back at Stanford. We caught about 15 birds in 4 nights work, and instrumented 10.

I’ll forever remember the last night at Palmyra. Working in moonlight, Boris Worm, Sarah Rizk, Adam the first scientist and I tagged three mantas -- huge animals 10 feet or so across. While tagging mantas I had an encounter with a tiger shark that will last as a snapshot in my mind forever. I’ve never seen one so close, and let me tell you, there is little doubt in the water what shark you’re looking at. We sailed through the channel early in the morning on a clear day. It was a nice contrast to the squally rains that had been ever present there. A glorious exit, with mantas swimming beside us. -- Barb Block, chief scientist


May 26, 2007. Washington Atoll. -- We approached Teraina (Washington) Atoll (one of the 32 islands and atolls that are part of the island nation of Kiribati) to compare this reef to Kiritimati (Christmas), Tabuaeran (Fanning) and Palmyra atolls. Teraina Atoll rises strikingly from the sea with a thick jungle of palms along the beaches. Our ship approaches to within a half-nautical mile of shore, and through the binoculars I can see kids running along the beach.
It was a remarkable moment as the ship loomed offshore with the lower sails up. I wondered what the isolated islanders thought when they saw this remarkable tall ship approaching so closely. The approach to shore at Washington Atoll was extremely steep along the beach with huge breaking waves, and we were unable to land a Zodiac ashore but we did allow four swimmers to swim through the surf zone and onto the island.

We launched our Zodiacs filled with equipment for our scientific snorkel missions. We were surprised at the lack of biodiversity in the fish -- predators (snappers, groupers and sharks) and herbivorous fishes at Washington Atoll, and assumed that the local population of about 1,000 islanders may have contributed to the decline of the reef fish.

I talked to one man who greeted me as I emerged from my swim to shore. At first he was concerned – who are you – what are you doing here? he asked. I realized we must have looked quite unusual- all of us in our neoprene swim-wear emerging from the water. I explained who we were and invited the man, whose name was Tauro, to our ship. There were numerous aluminum small craft and Tauro indicated they spearfish regularly on the reef.

His community looked significantly more isolated than at Kiritimati Island. We provided school supplies, some canned goods and I presented my favorite fishing lure and monofilament line to the boat captain who drove the aluminum skiff. As we sailed away, a triple header of yellowfin bit the lines, and we were able to sample two fish. Both had stomachs filled with very small animals, including crabs, shrimps, and small fish. -- Barb Block, chief scientist

Saturday, June 2, 2007


May 31, 2007. Aboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans -- There is nothing more luxurious than a clean, dry shirt--something absent from my life this past week. We have finally left the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone, which makes Palmyra such a damp place, allowing us to finally dry our clothes. I have never been to a place so wet, so tropical, so beautiful, with scuttling hermit crabs, scurrying rats, and miraculous reefs--a technicolor painting of the underwater world beyond the scope of imagination.

Perhaps many places used to look like Palmyra before human interaction, with numerous sea turtles, inquisitive black-tipped sharks, and graceful manta rays, several of which Barb Block tagged. Speaking of sharks, I tracked a black tip for six hours. The constant ping of the satellite tag reminded me of songs, playing in my head, a reminiscence of civilization that I left at home, under my bed. I asked about the diet of the black tips, and learned that in addition to reef fish, these sharks eat fallen booby chicks and rats! Supposedly being eaten by a shark is a 'good way to go' for a fallen chick, since the alternate fate would entail coconut crabs picking out their eyes. It's a tough life for a fallen booby chick.

Along with the damp weather, we bid adieu to Rob Dunbar, who is staying on Palmyra for coral research. Now Barb is the mother of us all, the queen bee of our Pacific colony. I should mention that the ship itself feels like home. Each day, returning from a scientific mission or a shore expedition, we receive comfort by grabbing a snack in the saloon before curling into our bunks, no matter how stifling, and regardless of the number of damp clothing articles we are trying to dry. We are truly a shipboard family, about to begin our homeward journey, preparing to grasp every last moment as we again traverse the vast Pacific. - Johnny Bartz, Stanford@SEA student


May 22nd, 2007. Aboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans. [ed. note -- This is a posting from a student on May 22.]


After ten long days of waiting, my dream had finally come. For months I had imagined this moment: sitting on top of the wind, 60 feet above the deck, staring in wonder at the vast blue surrounding me. I felt like I could see forever, not because we were in the middle of nowhere, but because we were in the center of something.

Studying oceanography gives one an entirely new perspective on the world - an entirely different dimension, almost invisible from the surface. A glance over the blue would yield nothing more than waves, but the flying fish and seabirds give a glimpse of the land beneath. It's impossible to be alone on the high seas with so much "something" around you.

We lay there on top of the yard, watching the people on deck so far beneath us, suddenly part of a separate layer of Earth. You don't know the troposphere until you get off the ground. Up here we were weightless. We were free. We were not as human, or at least not at an evolutionary advantage - most humans should have better common sense than to climb up the mast on a tall ship. But at that moment, all the way I had come to get here now had a purpose.

I anticipated this voyage for over a year, but the R.C. Seamans was only a means to a beginning. To be a true oceanographer, you have to understand the inhabitants of the sea, but to see beyond the science, you must understand what the ocean inhabits.

The view from the top is great. - Kat Hoffman, Stanford@SEA student