Friday, June 12, 2009

Thoughts at the Journey's End

The Stanford At Sea 2009 Class Returns

All voyages come to an end, and we have reached our final destination - Honolulu. 38 Students and faculty, crew and Captain have sailed over 3600 nm together. It has been a successful trip, and we’re deeply touched by the strong bonds of our shipboard community and the memories of this voyage across an expansive Pacific oceanography and cultural community. We faculty have a deep admiration for our students, who have mastered sailing and navigation of this tall ship through the strong easterly trade winds which brought all of us back to safe harbor here in Honolulu. We sailed in under the guidance of Captain Phil, with Ethan Estes at the helm and all hands on deck to throw our bow and stern lines ashore.

The end of a passage is always a challenging time emotionally. There are conflicting feelings of wanting to be ashore again-to savor our terrestrial world; but also the recognition that our remarkable time together, discovering a new world for many as shipmates on this incredible sailing vessel has finally come to a close. I know for sure that each one of us who made the passage will think deeply about our time on the RCS, reflecting on our voyage of discovery, the explorations of new places, and the growth one garners from the physical, emotional and intellectual challenges of being at sea for five weeks on a tall ship. I have been thinking about how much of our time is spent outdoors in this program- and how little we experience the natural world 24/7 at home. Some students have decided to remain on board during the “Turn Around” period when the ship is made ready for the next sail from Honolulu to San Francisco. We look forward to seeing the ship again in Monterey, Ca. in the summer.

I recall as a student on Westward (w-49) the challenges at this juncture- the excitement of wanting to tell the story to others- but the difficulty of leaving a ship you’ve called home over a remarkable period of discovery. We gathered the class, and they all received their equator crossing “certificates” along with a “graduation pin” from SEA- and we took moment in this our last class gathering to open an envelope signed and sealed on the first day of class. In the envelope we had put index cards with our thoughts from day one when each one of us wrote about what we hoped to gain from the voyage. I will share below a few of these words from our students, written on day one within the first hour of meeting. It is uncanny how in March, many of us wrote down our hopes and dreams for this particular voyage - and sure enough, I think this particular cruise track truly delivered beyond expectations:

“ I’m here to understand the ocean first-hand, to feel what it is like to move a ship with only human effort and the wind, and to make myself a better, more complete person in doing so.”

“ An unparalleled sense of community. A love of the ocean and its beauty. Awesome memories: feeling of accomplishment for all we’ve done! More knowledge than I could have gained in a classroom in years. An appreciation of sleep and life’s other small blessings”

“I want to swim with a shark, and stay up on watch under the stars. I have wished and dreamed and hoped to do this all my life”

“Appreciate Earth and Oceans. Make Lasting Friendships. Know what I’m going to do with my life!

“Safe Passage, Comraderie, Discovery”

For the students and faculty of S-223, we’re home now and all of us will move on- but few of us will forget what we’ve accomplished together. Passages through expansive portions of the Pacific Ocean across two Hemispheres. A voyage through remarkable places in Polynesia where a moving and deep cultural history was shared with us by experts from Tahiti, to the Tuamotas, the Marquesas and Hawaii. It has been a super trip, and a wonderful group of students. We look forward to seeing everyone on campus, where the research, stories and memories from this voyage will be shared. Aloha and Mahalo to all.

- Dr. Barbara Block

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Sailing Past Molokai

The Seamans sails past the Cliffs of Molokai

We’ve been sailing along the Hawaiian Islands, finishing the science and oceanographic portion of the trip. The students have presented all of their final papers and the symposium focused on our science was outstanding. Talks ranged from Jessica and Kate’s research focusing on the Licor Carbon measurements taken across the equatorial Pacific and the Revelle buffering capacity of the ocean, to biological talks by Nik, Alex and Joe focused on the oxygen minimum zone and its affect on the biological community we sampled. We are having beautiful weather- and have taken a few swim calls in spectacular Hawaiian locales.. We are sailing along the final portion of our trip- the Cliffs of Molokai. We set sail tonight for Honolulu and should be in port and at the dock by 0900.

-Dr. Barbara Block

Monday, June 8, 2009


As the Seamans approaches Hawaii, we can see steam plumes where hot lava is flowing into the ocean

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Sunset on the Ocean Passage

Stanford At Sea student Jessica Hinojosa uses a sextant to estimate the ship's latitude

We are nearing the end of our 15 day journey from the Marquesas to Hawaii. Strong trade winds have been in our favor for the past few days, blowing 20-25 knots. The sun has been shining, and dry air has been a welcome change from the moist tropics. We've pretty much eliminated the “mung” from our clothes and the ship, which accumulates from the wetter tropical portion of our trip. We’re sailing at high speeds of up to 9 and even 10 knots, with 6h of science stations daily. We’ve been making about 110-120 nm a day.

We are within a 100 nm of reaching the Big Island of Hawaii- where potentially tomorrow we will be close enough to witness lava flowing into the sea, producing clouds of steam - giving us a visual record for this tectonic hot spot. We’re not exactly sure where the lava is going into the sea, but hope to pinpoint the volcano flow by the afternoon. It has been a long journey home to the US- we’ve passed the 3100 nm mark in our ship’s log -- a trip full of adventure, exotic natural beauty, and spectacular sailing. We’ve used the motor very little in comparison to past trips north; we came on this leg from the Marquesas a lot further to the east than our prior trips up from Palmyra. We have had the wind pushing us north with steady breezes on the beam the entire way.

We are conducting our last biological collections today- a deep Tucker trawl- probing the depths to examine the biodiversity of the Deep Scattering Layer. This station is a comparison to our low oxygen stations earlier on the leg. We will be finishing our work in the North Equatorial Current by tomorrow. We’re hydrocasting now to 1000m and putting the final touches on the oceanographic section we’ve created from sailing and sampling from about 15 S to 19N. Students are pulling together their individual projects to start the process of presenting their results in formal talks and writing up the final project papers due on Friday.

We plan to sail along the Kona coast of the Big Island on Tuesday- a remarkable coast with epic history of encounters. I could not help but wonder today how the Polynesians could sail and paddle their early vessels through the blustery conditions of the ITCZ. I understand better now how stars such as Arcturus or Vega made navigating a bit easier- but wonder what it took to make such arduous journeys. The oral history of Polynesians included a knowledge of stars that far exceeds our own- but students on this trip have made almost all their fixes home with either star or sun site positions. A contest for the student who can put the last fix on the map approaching Hawaii with the highest accuracy drew a lot of activity. And as always we’re trying to guess what time we’ll hear the shout “Land Ho!”

We’re coming in almost under full sail to Hawaii- into the areas where Captain Cook took his ships- and plan to make a stops in the vicinity of Kealekekua Bay, where Cook miscalculated returning and lost his life. This bay, with its deep waters and lush mountain views, is also an area where blue marlin spawn- where yellowfin, bigeye and albacore tunas also call home, and where tourists come to snorkel and view the historical sites of Hawaii. Should be a grand sail over the next two days.

-Dr. Barbara Block

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Settling Seas in the Journey's Final Week

Ship’s meeting just ended, and it marked the finale of our weekly Friday afternoon marine conservation talks from Barb and Boris. The weather cooperated for another precious day of class outside on the quarter deck – blue skies, fair-weather cumulus, and northeasterly trades seem too good to be true at times. Our greater appreciation of the beautiful weather follows our almost weeklong squally journey through the ITCZ (I think everyone onboard would agree that we overstayed our welcome). Anyway, we have about two hours until first sitting for dinner, and our two ‘COWs’ (Chief of the Week) have left us with plenty to think about. As Barb pointed out a few days ago, the students of Stanford@SEA 2009 are experiencing a very different ocean than she did on her voyage on the Westward. Despite passing through some highly productive waters, our lack of shark, turtle or marine mammal sightings throughout the cruise track is a good indication of how depleted our oceans have become in terms of biodiversity and top predators.

However, as I’m sure everyone at home can imagine, it is difficult to be a pessimist while sailing on a tall ship through the Central Pacific Ocean. So our marine conservation series ended on an appropriately optimistic note, with a nod towards the intimate experience and education we’ve had with the Pacific Ocean and how we can bring that home with us to increase awareness and even *gasp!* concern about the status of our finite and fragile marine resources.

The limited nature of these resources is even more apparent now as we approach Hawai’i and head into the more oligotrophic waters of the North Pacific Gyre. Thankfully there is still plenty to occupy us as we approach the home stretch. Our GPS continues to be concealed by a sign that says ‘Seek Guidance Elsewhere,’ so every morning and evening between Civil and Nautical Twilight, we are perfecting out celestial navigation skills through STAR FRENZYING!! During ‘Star Frenzy’ the quarter deck overflows with sextants and the air is filled with shouts of “Standby on Arcturus! Ready…and…MARK!” We have also moved into J.W.O./J.L.O. phase (junior watch officer/junior lab officer), so the 22 of us who thought a jib jigger was some sort of dance four weeks ago are now taking turns running the ship during our watches. Any offerings made to King Neptune would be greatly appreciated.

-Annie Scalmanini

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Rough Seas in the ITCZ

We’ve been sailing through the last of the inter tropical convergence zone (ITCZ), an area of atmospheric activity that has led to confused seas in squalls, some high wind gusts of 35 knots and heavy seas. The ITCZ has handed RCS some heavier weather-without question its been rough the last few days, cloudy and squally- some of the biggest swells of the trip. Cooler weather is a welcome relief after the heat of the tropics.

The students handle this weather with ease now – their capacity to carry on scientific station work- measuring and pouring fluids to do nitrates, phosphates and nutrient or microscopic observations, sailing the ship, creating delicious galley meals, and being up at all hours to keep the vessel going by watch, from galley to deck is remarkable. Boris and I served all day yesterday in the galley, and this reaffirmed my awareness that this job is the hardest by far on the trip. Imagine cooking three meals and three snacks in a single day in a hot galley in a rolling sea. It is not easy, and the students do this every day with the guidance of our Steward Anna. At this point, the students of Stanford@SEA (S223 in SEA terms) are primarily taking charge in all aspects of the shipboard function.

The final phase of the trip has begun when each student is a JWO, which means a Junior Watch Officer. Here they will be completely in charge- with the true watch officers standing close by. JWOs provide leadership on the watch, calling out the commands for changing sails or helm orders, and JWO will be the communications point person with science deck.

The Tucker trawl being prepared for deployment

We’ve been studying the oxygen minimum layer intensively here in this portion of the Pacific. Its shoaled up to 100m in the past few casts. Oxygen is very low below 100m - perhaps becoming a biogeographic boundary for larger vertebrates. We’re using the Tucker trawl with 3 nets to sample the mesopelagic world that lies in this low oxygen zone and we’re finding some remarkable squid, hatchet fish and other very beautiful midwater animals capable of handling the harsh environs.

A silvery hatchetfish and a variety of bright red crustaceans come up in a midwater trawl

Alex and Nick have projects that will utilize the data sets being generated by the daily tows and intensive processing. Kate Lowry’s been working up the station data from the CTD and corresponding with our shore base support from NOAA (Dr. Dave Foley) for an in situ comparison of chlorophyll from the CTD and satellite data. Students are busy analyzing data for their individual projects and final oral reports and papers which are due early next week. The ship is a bee hive of activity and everywhere you go you see students with computers either discussing data or writing up their work.

The log shows we’re past 2500 nm on this trip- and we’re about 600 nm from Southpoint, Hawaii. That’s a lot of sailing in the Pacific, with a few hundred more miles to go before we see the mountainous volcanoes of the big island.

-Dr. Barbara Block

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Sampling the Deep on the Long Haul to Hawaii

We're sailing and doing some motoring as we head north towards Hawaii. We have to average over 110 nm a day these days, with over 1000 nm ahead. We're doing 5-6 hours of station work, and the rest is travel time. Another large project has taken off- this time its Alex and Nik's OML project studying the remarkable shoaling of the oxygen minimal layer in this region of the inter tropical convergence zone (ITCZ), and examining the critters in the deep scattering layer. We're using a Tucker trawl which, when it works correctly, should tow a zooplankton-collecting net at a specific depth. We're pulling three nets and sending down messengers - small brass weights that slide down the line to open and close them - to sample the mesopelagic organisms at specific times and depths. We're pulling up lots of exciting fish, many of which have bioluminescent light organs and other adaptations specifically for life in the deep sea. Squalls are making things a bit blusterly at times and clouds have filled in as we course through the ITCZ.

-Dr. Barbara Block

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Back in the Northern Hemisphere

The pollywogs await their trial in King Neptune's Court
We successfully crossed the equator with traditional shipboard pomp and ceremony aboard the RCS. We had discussed the crossing in class back at Hopkins, but the reality of tropical breezes, a hot day, 15-20 knot winds and a ship full of traditions wowed the pollywogs (those who have not been across the equator).
King Neptune and his Court prepare for the crossing ceremony
The pollywogs were treated quite fairly by the experienced shellbacks, led by the Court of King Neptune (Rob Dunbar), Neptune’s wife (Boris Worm) and the Bayliff (our second mate Sully). After a speedy and unsuccessful legal trial for all 25 pollywogs (defended by the lawyers Barb and Liz), the crew, led by James, Mack, Anna and Erin, provided the traditional ceremonial crossing the line shipboard fun. All the pollywogs successfully made it across, solemnly promised to protect and conserve the oceans, and became shellbacks. Many aboard shaved their heads in traditional styles for first time crossings of the equator as final tributes to Neptune. Enthusiasm could not have been higher aboard the ship as we all enjoyed the day together.

We’re sailing in the Northern hemisphere now, the big dipper in front of us guiding us each night, the southern cross behind; with a fast breeze - speeds up to 8 knots - under starlit skies and a bright sliver of a moon. Once again- the rolling seas, the gorgeous weather, and the grace of a tall ship under a bright night sky has captured the imagination of another generation of sailors here in the Pacific at 0° latitude. I myself enjoy the solitude of a bow watch, where you stand alone scanning the horizon for ships or obstacles, but primarily you are vividly aware of your presence on this ship sailing within a huge sea, the sounds of the riggings and the beauty of the sails against the nighttime sky- an awesome place to be.

-Dr. Barbara Block

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Crossing the Line

Stanford At Sea student Kate Lowry

It’s 0900 and we are just a couple hours away from crossing the equator! According to our celestial fixes and dead reckoning, we are within 15 nautical miles of 0 degrees…the lateral center of the world! The ship is booming with excitement as we travel across the Equatorial Counter Current. So far we pollywogs (those who have never crossed the equator on a ship) have in good fun, been subject to the whims of Neptune. We’ve been left messages on our mirrors from King Neptune, labeled pollywogs, and offered cereal and milk for breakfast rather than fresh bagels and papaya. By lunch time, we will all celebrate together as shellbacks, the name for those who have crossed the equator!

Students prepare a CTD sampler on deck

It’s hard to believe we are already so far along in our journey. It’s bittersweet to leave the Southern Hemisphere. We are excited to really dig into our projects and eventually reach Honolulu, but sad to see our time south of the equator end. With more uninterrupted time at sea, it seems that everyone has acclimatized pretty well to ship life. The spirits on board seem higher than ever, and after some structured working time yesterday afternoon, everyone is well into their projects. Our knowledge of the ship increases each day, but we are now navigating without the GPS (using star and sun sites for positions) and have received high compliments from Captain Phil on our sail setting and line handling. With lots of data collection and new organisms in our net tows every day, it is an exciting time to be aboard the Robert C. Seamans!

-Kate Lowry

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Last Day in the Southern Hemisphere

Fair winds and fast sailing has brought the students, faculty and crew of S223 to within a day of crossing the equator. Seas are beautiful, the temperature has remained hot and muggy but the strong breezes have cooled the ship. Its almost picture perfect. Stations for science morning and evening are on going. Bird diversity is being monitored across the transect hourly, and the ship has been successful catching fish for science and the galley. The students are engaged in a variety of individual and ship-wide science projects ranging from examining squid and pteropod diversity along the transect, to collecting first-rate carbon data along the track- setting a baseline for future studies. We put an ARGO float over the side yesterday which will sample continuously to 1000m for the next five years.

Lectures during class by faculty provide a structured classroom setting during the afternoons and delicious snacks are served by the students in the galley both am and pm. The big news is the crossing of the line. At sea there is a long tradition of having a "Line Crossing Ceremony." Sailors who have not been across the line are called pollywogs and experienced veterans are Shellbacks. Of course King Neptune and his wife are sure to make an appearance and a certificate of crossing will be issued to all the pollywogs of S223.

-Dr. Barbara Block

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Good Bye to the Marquesas

We had a super port stop in Nuka Hiva, Marquesas- a place that is remarkable for the people, the beauty, the island culture and history. We enjoyed a spectacular hike to a waterfall, and along the way we saw historical sites, rock foundations, rich with history, marked with tikis, that echoed in a somewhat haunting way the loss of a society that once numbered hundreds of thousands of islanders. There are less than 3000 today.

We loaded the vessel with fresh produce from the island and traded fishing lures with the locals. We organized some tours to archeological sites and spent several days hiking, swimming, exploring and even fishing. The dogtooth team was ecstatic when on the third day a local Marquesan had the elusive fish mixed in with his yellowfin catch. I immediately asked for the
fish, and we're looking forward to dissecting it. To us it's almost like finding a dinosaur.

We fished again with this vessel in the early am the next day- and were able to document their fishing methodologies with students Joe Berg and Jered helping to pull fish in. It was awesome to be out on a local boat, with 6 other boats surrounding us, all working together to chum up fish; and then using traditional techniques - handlines - to catch the fish. There was a colorful Saturday market full of fish, produce, carvings and local artisan products that all members of the ship browsed through. We left Nuka Hiva full of new experiences and memories, chanting a local tune taught to us by Marquesans.

We are heading north now to the equator on the longest leg of the trip- 19 days and over 2100 sailing miles. This will be the leg that students truly sense the sea- under fair breezes sailing with all the lower sails up. On this leg, our students get to experience fully the joy of being on a tall ship- with sails up, stars overhead used for celestial navigation, and 4-6h of science stations ahead. Winds are steady, we're making good time, and everyone appears happy. Crossing the equator - a rare event for most sailors - is up next for the students of S223.

-Dr. Barbara Block

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Back to Sea from Nuku Hiva

Sunday at sea. After about 3½ days at anchor, we left Nuku Hiva around 1730 yesterday, and while everyone was sad to say goodbye to the magical island, I think we were all ready to go to sea again. During the night, we set our course for 355┬║PSC, set sails, and shut off the main engine! Nothing like the trade winds to carry us to Hawai’i.

Some highlights from our 3 days in port:
-On Wednesday, we had an epic hike through the lush tropical vegetation to a waterfall that Captain Phil knew about. Considering the seemingly limitless surrounding vertical walls, isolated nature of the pools, and the coolness of the water, it’s no wonder that there was unanimous agreement on the boat that it was the coolest place most of us had ever been in our lives. We closed out our first day in port with a delicious barbeque dinner on deck, some sweet live music, and general merriment enjoyed by all.

-On Thursday, the “off” watches dispersed for a wide array of adventures, including tattoo-seeking, hiking, swimming, hitch-hiking, scuba diving, and pineapple-picking.

-On Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, most people on the boat had a chance to take a tour of the island from a local woman named Jocelyn. She showed us Taipivai valley (the location of and inspiration for Melville’s book Typee), countless breathtaking views, and incredible ancient archaeological ruins tucked away under the tropical canopy.

-On Saturday morning, some of us headed to the market on the wharf at 0530 to buy some fresh produce for the boat. There was a big festival that day, including an outrigger canoe race (average speed was about 10 knots, no big deal) and a dance party that unfortunately happened after we hauled up anchor.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Hard at Work

It’s almost 1700, and the main salon is full of students cramming in their sun line calculations before we reach Nuku Hiva tomorrow. The deck was packed at Local Apparent Noon today as we were all trying to get our sun sights. Those of us not working up our LAN in the sweltering salon or on watch are up in the increasingly-crowded lab prepping for the MIME 4 station. We’re doing not one but two hydrocasts tonight woohoo!!! And a meter net and a neuston tow. That lab is going around the clock, that’s for sure. But we’re getting a ton of awesome data for the Marquesas Island Mass Effect project.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Wrapping up Work in the Gyre

Student Stacy Aguilera counts fish on deck.

We are headed toward the Marquesas with gentle breezes and warm days. The water temperatures are the hottest we've seen, hovering about 85F, and the air temperatures are getting past the 90s. It is remarkably warm- but we're all staying well hydrated and cool with lots of water freshly made by reverse osmosis.

The ocean waters are oligotrophic -- nutrient-poor and a crystal clear. We're in our last days within the South Pacific Gyre, greeted daily by marvelous sunrises and sunsets. We'lll soon be in the Marquesas where two days of intense sampling are planned to examine the Island Mass Effect- examining howthe islands, like rocks in a stream, create vorticity and upwelling in the wake behind the strong west-flowing currents. This creates hot spots with nutrient-rich waters coming to the surface.

Eugene and Ethan will be leading the stations through this region- we anticipate up to 6 stops to sample the physics, nutrients, and biological life in the water column.

During the transit from Rangaroa to NukaHiva, Natalie Arnoldi caught some skipjack tuna for her project, which focuses on the foraging diet of these warm-water predators.

As we're crossing the water column, the carbon and climate research group - led by Jessica Hinojosa, Mara, Reese and Sam - has been getting super Total CO2 and pH in situ. The data coming in are research-grade, and everyone is excited about the opportunity to make such precise measurements that have a bearing on how oceans impact climate.

Soon we'll be at Nuka Hiva- a high pointof our stay in French Polynesia.

-Dr. Barbara Block

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Science in the South Pacific Gyre

Students furling a small sail aboard the Seamans.

The RCS is in the South Pacific Gyre where we can report very warm waters, oliogtrophic seas and fair breezes, minor squalls and occasionally no wind at all! We're heading toward the Marquesas and Science is in full swing. We daily are collecting CTD casts with Niskin water bottles that are collecting samples for nutrients, chlorophyll and carbon. Nets are going in daily at noon and midnight aswe target the biodiversity of the epipelagic to the mesopelagic. Diverse creatures from pteropods to porpita greet us daily.

We're heading toward Nuka Hiva and the next 3 days will be filled with stations for the Island Mass project that Ethan and Eugene are heading up. In the midst of this oligotrophic, low-productivity sea they hope to identify how and why regions of high productivity occur in association with the Islands. Satellite imagery provided by Dave Foley of NOAA has guided our approach and late tonight we start a series of 5-6 stations to see what exactly occurs in the water column around this area. Fishing has picked up, with animals as diverse as tunas, wahoo and spearfish attacking some of the baits we're towing for sampling the epipelagic.

Spirits are high among our students, and all is well aboard the RCS as we are getting into the rhythm of beingat sea.

Dr. Barbara Block

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Rangaroa Atoll - which means “Long skies”

Lush green coconut trees, thick vegetation, turquoise waters and crushed coral shores. After coursing through a challenging channel between the Motu Islands of this fantastic and large atoll, we came inside the lagoon to an anchorage overlooking a tranquil scene - a tropical paradise that includes a small town, a few dive shops, a pearl farm and a resort hotel.

We explored the sediments below the ship for a geological project investigating the history of the coral lagoon during the early morning hours. Using our zodiacs we made landfall and took on a variety of shore activities. Snorkel trips took off investigating the reef fish, channel explorations revealed a vast biological diversity inclusive of rays, barracuda, reef fish and sharks. The atoll’s fishers and divers know the sea well here and shared with us the Polynesian’s latest information on the state of their reef.

Missions on small boats to investigate the geology of the lagoon and students studying pelagic fish went off after the rare dogtooth tuna. Fishing on the outside of the atoll we encountered several bait balls rich with frigate birds, boobies and yellowfin tunas. We almost caught the elusive dogtooth as the sun set but lost this large reef predator right at the boat. Perhaps in the Marquesas we’ll get another opportunity. The port stop was short but allowed the students and faculty time to explore a remarkable location in the Tuamotus - the “Sea Islands”.

Dr. Barbara Block

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Class Arrives!

The Stanford@SEA class arrived in Papetee Tahiti after many of the students enjoyed a few days of touring the islands of Tahiti and Moorea. We met the RCS (Robert Seamans) at the central dock in a busy downtown and casted off the lines for Moorea a nearby island. Dr. Boris Worm from Dalhousie joined the scientific team of Rob Dunbar, Barb Block and Jan Witting, and together with the captain, crew and students we casted off the lines for our 5 week adventure.

After a delightful short trip from Tahiti across gentle seas we anchored in Cook’s Bay in the center of an ancient volcano. The anchorage was surrounded by lush green, jagged peaks and a tranquil setting for our ship orientations and safety briefings. We gazed at crystal blue waters and a gorgeous sunset set while feasting on a home cooked dinner on deck.

The Robert Seamans anchored in Cook's Bay

The next morning we left in the morning for Rangaroa, the second largest Atoll in the world. Fair breezes from the west made sailing easy and by midday we had most of our lower canvas up. Students are quickly learning the rig of the RCS. Science stations have started and CTD casts (an instrument that measures physical parameters of the water column) and water samples for a variety of projects have been collected. The Class has quickly mastered many instruments as we had a rapid succession of stations collecting microbiology samples from a Long Term Ecological site off Moorea for a project funded in part by the Census of Marine Life (CoML), nutrient and carbon samples from depths along the track and than some net tows into the water column. Dr. Dunbar’s team has successfully installed a sophisticated instrument for sampling total carbon in the surface waters allowing several projects to make some major measurements along our cruise track that will inform the team about the oceans role in the carbon cycle.

It's been a quick and successful start.

Dr. Barbara Block

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Stanford@SEA to set sail across the Pacific

From Stanford Report, May 1, 2009


Ask anyone who is a master at their craft, and you'll likely be told there is no substitute for hands-on experience. At some point, you have to get your feet wet if you're going to learn how it's done. Thus, the Stanford@SEA program, which takes students on a five-week voyage on the Pacific Ocean to conduct oceanographic research and heighten their awareness of the vital role the oceans play in supporting life on Earth and regulating the global climate system.

This is how you're going to get the next generation of students thinking about these problems," said Barbara Block, the Charles and Elizabeth Prothro Professor in Marine Sciences at Stanford University, Hopkins Marine Station, and one of the instructors.

The 22 undergraduates and two graduate students assisting in this year's class will fly to Tahiti the first week of May and set sail May 8 from Papeete aboard the oceanographic research vessel Robert C. Seamans. The 134-foot, two-masted brigantine will sail through part of the Society Islands before heading northeast across the Tuamoto Archipelago to the Marquesas Islands. Leaving French Polynesia, the expedition will head northwest, crossing the equator as they sail roughly 3,500 nautical miles of open ocean to Hawaii. The group will be at sea for 37 days.

Along the route, the students will be conducting oceanographic research projects they designed during the on-land half of the course at Hopkins Marine Station, as they studied oceanography, and maritime culture and nautical science, the latter taught by the ship's captain. The steel-hulled ship was built specifically for ocean research and teaching, with laboratory, library, classroom and computer facilities on board. Students' research projects this year will include investigating the role of the equatorial currents in the carbon cycle and how ocean acidity is affecting certain invertebrates.

In addition to research, the students are required to pitch in with operating and maintaining the ship—everything from swabbing the decks to standing watch to navigating and steering the ship itself. Various members of the team also will be blogging as the voyage progresses.

Christopher Hanson, now a junior, went on the voyage in 2007. He and a partner studied populations of large predators in the Line Islands in the central Pacific.

"Stanford@SEA is an incredible experience," Hanson said. One of his strongest memories is of smelling the grass and flowers of the Hawaiian Islands as they appeared on the horizon after the long sea voyage.

"You don't realize what the Earth smells like until you are away from land for weeks at a time and you are surrounded by ocean," he said.

Hanson credits the experience with helping guide him to his major in the Earth Systems Program. "Prior to that voyage, I had never even heard of [that major]," he said. But Rob Dunbar, the W. M. Keck Professor in the School of Earth Sciences and the Victoria P. and Roger W. Sant Director of the Earth Systems Program, was one of the chief scientists on the voyage. Dunbar is teaching and sailing again this year.

"Stanford@SEA is my all-time favorite teaching experience. We are able to focus and observe in ways that are never possible in a normal classroom back at Stanford," Dunbar said. "This class always ends up changing peoples lives … and even though I've been going to sea for more than 40 years I always learn something new that changes how I think about the ocean. I expect this trip will be no different." Block said a lot of students have been guided in their career choices by their time on such voyages.

Bruce Robison is one of many former students who took a similar class in the 1960s, when Stanford was using the converted luxury yacht Te Vega as an ocean-going research vessel, and was influenced.

Robison said that while the ship and program were different when he was a student, the fundamental goal was the same. "Take students to sea and let them conduct research in an environment that in many respects, both literally and virtually, was total immersion," he said. "It was the best thing that ever happened to me."

Robison is now a senior research scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing, but back in 1967 he wasn't sure of his direction.

"I was interested, but I didn't really know if I had any aptitude," he said. "One of the things that [a voyage like] this shows you is that oceanography, at any rate as we still practice it, is both physically challenging as well as intellectually challenging.

"When I realized, 'Hey, I can do this and I like it!' that was an important revelation," he said.

"The sea has a special capacity to kindle in many people this very transformative experience where they then move on to a career in ocean sciences," said Block, who herself was influenced in her career choice by taking a similar class as an undergraduate through the Sea Education Association (SEA), in Woods Hole, Mass., which owns and operates the Robert C. Seamans, a ship built with support from private funders as well as the National Science Foundation.
Stanford@SEA is a cooperative venture between the Massachusetts association and Stanford. In addition to Block and Dunbar, a third chief scientist on this year's voyage will be a marine biologist with the Sea Education Association, Jan Witting. Boris Worm, an ecologist from Dalhousie University, also will be on the trip, as will three additional associate scientists and five professional crewmembers.
This is the fourth session of Stanford@SEA, which has been offered alternate years, starting in 2003.

Block sees courses like Stanford@SEA as vital to the planet's future.

"Really what climate is about is how the atmosphere and the ocean are coupled, and if we don't teach this next generation about how these systems work, if we don't attract students to these types of courses and put them in touch with the ocean, I believe that we will not have enough people trained in this fashion in order to generate the type of scientific research we are going to need to pursue the questions we need to solve Earth's problems," she said.

Block and Dunbar are both senior fellows at Stanford's Woods Institute for the Environment.