Monday, June 10, 2013

Beginnings, Endings, and the In-Betweens, by Seaman's Sailor Sarto

Sarto at the helm, on the way in to Honolulu
Beginnings are tough but endings are less kind.

The first time I stepped aboard the Robert C. Seamans in Honolulu Harbor, I was surprised at how small she was, uncertain of how the miniature galley could feed 40 and how the saloon would stand up to mealtimes. A friendly crew member showed me to my bunk, a tiny hidey-hole in the wall of the ship. I remember being surprised that all of my clothes and supplies fit into a cupboard and one small drawer. The two showers seemed insufficient for the number of bodies that would soon be covered in sweat and mung. A nervous trepidation was palpable as we prepared to make way with limited knowledge of where the lines that controlled the sails were and what to do with them when we found them. When we finally did set sail, gravity and motion fought with our inner ears and threatened to throw us around the boat in unpredictable ways.

Now we are masters of our moving environment: walking down the ladder on a starboard tack means feet hard to the left and right hand braced against the opposite wall. Standing up straight usually involves leaning to one side. Five weeks later, sail-handling has become our favorite part of standing watch, especially my lovely B-watch who has an uncanny affinity for setting the Fisherman. The two showers that once seemed insufficient are never backed up, and the shower hose up on deck is more often in use. That crew member who helped me the first day turned out to be Don, our chief engineer, and a few weeks later I’d be standing on Palmyra’s North Beach with him having an intense conversation about the importance of experiential learning for conservation. I’ve discovered that my tiny bunk was too spacious at times for the rolling ship, and I had to make use of spare laundry and a rolled up sleeping bag to fill up some of the extra space. Like many other parts of the ship, the galley and saloon have both grown to enormous, well-provisioned spaces that take implausible amounts of energy to traverse.

It is impossible to believe that we are only two days away from setting our salty feet on land and keeping them there indefinitely. It simultaneously feels like we’ve been at sea forever, and like this experience has gone by like a dolphin at the bow – unexpected, thrilling, and sadly fleeting.

Before we left land, we were told that we would discover our authentic selves on this trip. If they meant we would discover what we truly smell like without showering for five days, then that discovery has certainly been made.  Have I discovered my authentic self? As with any great experience, I’ve learned a little bit more about my place in the world (Seaside Sarto is definitely coming out ahead of Seasick/Sailor Sarto), but for the most part I still feel like the same person who stepped foot on the Seamans a few weeks ago.

Instead of our authentic selves, I think we have discovered an authentic community, replete with diverse and wonderful people who are eager to look out for one another, assist with trying tasks, and put the needs and comforts of others before themselves. We’ve learned how to be more genuine, aware, and considerate towards our fellow humans.

To the cast and crew of the RCS – I love all of you and treasure the personal and scientific discoveries we were so fortunate to have made together. Thank you for making it difficult to go back to “real life.” This ending is bittersweet, but I wouldn’t want it any other way.

-Sentimental Sarto

Part of the Ship, Part of the Sea

At some point between overcoming mal de mer and obtaining worthy sea legs, the cacophony of sensations produced by boat and sea synchronizes with one’s internal rhythm. The rocking of the ship becomes the lilt of one’s step; the hull crashing into the waves falls neatly in time with one’s breaths, steadily lazing in and out, up and down; the crack of the sails is as measured as the beating of an eyelid. There is a music to the ship, and if one has taken care enough to listen, it has become part of our own inner tempo as the ship’s crew.

As we approach the end of our odyssey, the sensations of the ship have transformed into a familiar quotidian cadence as our symbiosis with the Bobby C. brings us ever closer to understanding her inner workings. From the rush of saccharine anti-freeze upon entry into the lab to the claustrophobic musk of a cabin whose butterfly hatches have been long closed to a squall, the ambiance of the ship is familiar, welcoming, and known. After fighting against the chaos of the first weeks while attempting to memorize sailing lines, get science projects off the ground, and fight against the all-crippling condition of sea sickness, attention to the ship herself, her needs, and her wants as the organism upon which we live was perhaps forgotten. Through time, we were able to make sense of the tempo of daily life onboard the ship and our responsibilities as crew, and the Bobby C. became less of a ship and more of a being whose authentic self we were only just beginning to experience. We now have instincts and an intuition about the ship: we know to jump straight to the JT Halyard  when the winds pick up, we understand which hatches need to be dogged down to keep the people and the ship dry during a squall, and we volunteer when a boat check needs doing. Over the past several weeks, we have matured and tuned ourselves into the rhythm of the ship. Through the initial chaos, we have internalized the cadenced order of the ship.

There is a pulse to the Bobby C., a throb of life generated solely by our cooperation with one another and with the ship herself. We live in time with the rise and fall of the waves, the gusting and waning of the winds, and the timely passage of a storm. And for perhaps the first time in any of our lives, these extreme conditions which have demanded equally extreme degrees of attention and vigilant observation have permitted us to transcend the perspective of an individual and plug into an experience built on synchronized camaraderie. With two days left until we greet land and soil once more, we have become part of the ship and part of the sea, for as much as we need the Bobby C. to set sail for new horizons, for science, or for whatever reasons brought us here in the first place, the Bobby C. has needed us to remain in perpetual harmony.

-Alessandra Santiago

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Working at Sea

So there we were. Winds force four out of the North East. 8 foot seas pounding the rail, spray covering the deck. Below, the smell of top ramen and coffee at 3 in the morning tells me  it must be the first day of finals week. Stepping on to the quarter deck for dawn watch, we are given our first test. “Set the fish!” Looking back 4 weeks ago when we walked onto this ship I would have stared down at my toes then into the faces of my watch wondering if anyone happened to speak sailorese or knew what was going on in the least. But now, after four weeks of being at sea, we are running this ship. Harnesses clinking under the starry night we stumble, bumping into rails and walls on a 20 degree heel, to engage in B watch’s favorite task: sweating the throat. Our cheerful TA Robbie is the first to get in there, fortunately someone had freshened the nips quite well before us. I grab on the line as John calls out the sail handling orders, and immediately half of B watch is sweating up the throat with Laura and Caroline buried under a mass of muscling bodies lifting our sail to a glorious climax above the wine dark sea.

 Back at Stanford some 3,000 miles away, our friends are cramming for an Ochem final, knowing that studying is futile when the Professor asks them to solve what earned someone the 1965 Noble Prize in Chemistry. Yet, they have much more relaxing next few days. If you think your Math 51 class was hard, try writing a scientific paper on a gimbled table on a starboard tack close reach into force 5 winds and 8 foot seas; the only thing keeping your laptop from hitting you in the chin or flying onto the soles is a fierce grip, furious typing, and your faith in the limited friction of teak. Our personal Meyer library is quite small but still has some of the same old charms. Faint light of computers reflected onto glaring faces in deep concentration, deep sea mining excel spreadsheets to find the secrets of marine snow, purple back flying squid, and whether parrot fish are really the pansiest fish in the sea. Markers and straight edges replace power point, as I try to recall my drawing skills which peaked in about 3rd grade. The noises of the waves on the starboard hull drowned out by the endless clicking of 45,000 coral point counts like some strange educational video game from hell. A rogue waves catches our scientist Tommy and the lobby with a salty surprise reminding all of us  that we are indeed still on the ocean. Normal is all relative. Our jib sail beginning to rip might have sounded frightening back in Palo Alto but its just another chance to jump out onto the head rig and get lifted from 6 inches above the swell to 20 feet in air like a dream see-saw. The rest of the library just looks up at the messenger before returning to the drone of data processing.

Students listen to a presentation

It  may sound like our own little hell, endless processing dissolved oxygen and net tow data,  but unlike on main campus, we are having a lot fun and all in preparation for our presentation marathon the next day because this is our own science. We all cram into the main salon, every space is either covered in left over fruit bars or sweaty Stanford at Sea students. Despite the PCO2 rising and creating our own OMZ, we are stunned by the 8 well crafted presentations. Sitting around 35 of my new family members, trying to avoid breathing through my nose and risk smelling the lack of showers and laundry, wishing someone had bleached their keens. Sitting on the sole listening about squid bursting with gonads, the sewage input onto coral reefs, praying I didn’t swim by any floaters on Fanning island, and about marine snow from robot lasers I realized how far we have come from learning oceanography in Monterey. After three hours of presentations, a serious lack of oxygen, and sunlight, we head up to the quarter deck, the sun setting over the deep blue sea we have called home for the past 4 weeks. Our orange ventilation tubas pointed toward the wind, as we have conversations of phrenmid amphipods and mantas, as in the background a guitar strums In the wind. The Life Aquatic.  “Happy llama, sad llama, totally rad llama. Super llama drama big fat mama llama. Baby llama, craaazy llama, Barak Obama llama, yes we can.” Okay maybe we are losing it just a bit out at sea, but hey its finals week and where else would I rather than be than sailing 9 knots under the fisherman heading straight for Walters special place; an eddy on a sea mount south of Hawaii, he glory of sailing for science.

-Zack Gold

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Continuing Our Uncommon Dialogues

The past week of uncommon dialogues has been brought about some fascinating discussions on the topic of conservation, covering many points that merit dissemination past the hull of our wandering ship. As we know, conservation is a group effort, and although the SSV Seamans is currently carrying a very promising group of individuals, we can always do better to bring our ideas of sustainability and conservation to the wider world.
For her uncommon dialogue, Alexis Woods presented us with a novel, utilitarian view of sustainability. She had us imagine it was the year 2300 and the world as we know it had been wasted away by our harmful actions. In order to preserve our species, the remaining humans set off to a fresh, unexploited planet capable of sustaining life. With this scenario in mind, Alexis asked us, what should we bring, both in terms of our practices and our material possessions, to sustain ourselves in this new world? The class was quick to eliminate all sorts of disposable materials we use today, but we came to this conclusion in an interesting way. At first, we decided that bringing plastics of any kind would be a bad idea, but as the discussion progressed, it was clear that some plastic are extremely useful and necessary to our society. The question of food was also a point of debate. Although it was agreed that grains would be extremely useful as a stable food source, how to go about supplying protein to the population was more complicated. Bringing livestock seemed the obvious choice but it presented the problem of the very low caloric return we would receive in exchange for the food we would have to supply the livestock with. This led to the suggestion that if we are being purely utilitarian and ignoring factors like preference and taste, should we do away with animal protein all together and focus only on plant sourced protein? The practice was a revealing one, posing us with the question of whether or not true, perfect sustainability is possible without sacrificing our preferences and pleasures in life.

                The following uncommon dialogue was hosted by Alessandra Santiago. Alessandra talked to us about using concepts of sociology and anthropology to promote conservation. Although many of us were familiar with the concept, it is admittedly one that too often slips from the minds of those absorbed in the scientific community. In an age when communication of data is arguably becoming a more dire need than the accumulation of the facts themselves, the powers of sociology and anthropology can be an extremely powerful tool. Through a few examples, Santiago reminded us that information is much better received when delivered in the right cultural context. For example, one Stanford sociologist studied the most effective ways of disseminating advertisements in Kapmandu and found that the most frequently viewed form were those aired on karaoke videos. This example highlights just how drastically things can change across cultural borders, because as you and I both know, karaoke advertisements would not be very effective here in the united states. With this in mind, we began brainstorming the best possible ways of providing the parts of the world that we do not necessarily fully understand with conservation and sustainability information. Alessandra’s ideas were received very positively by the group and we were soon discussing the place of proactive behavior in science. As we gather information about the instability and frail nature of our planet, is it our responsibility in turn to do something about it? Or, should the answer to the problems we as scientists point out be left to a different community to figure out? In the end the students agreed on one point. What is the point of being a scientist if you are not part of the change you hope to bring about?

-Lucas Oswald

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Come So Far

                It’s been a rough couple of days for sailing. We've been encountering squall after squall and some rough seas on our last leg towards Oahu. With the gray skies unleashing their frequent downpours on our ship as it heels to the mercy of 9 foot swells and blasts of variable winds, it’s almost hard to believe that this is the same ocean that brought us sunny skies and smooth sailing on our south-bound leg to Palmyra. The storms and the starboard tack have changed the gravity that we came to know, making maneuverability a bit more rough and tumultuous; the increased force in the rolling of the ship has made sleeping more adventurous as our motherly ship ever so gently sloshes our unconscious bodies back and forth in our bunks; and rogue waves have made bow watch less a time of a serene, internal reflection and more one of an extreme, splashy connection with the Pacific. While it would seem that in these pitching conditions the last place I would want to be would be staring at small-print in a word document below deck, I found some inspiration and perspective.
Opening up my laptop to write another blog post, I encountered something on my desktop that made me realize just how far we have come on our journey—a picture of the Stanford@SEA class of 2013 on the all too familiar steps of the Agassiz building at Hopkins. Agassiz is where this experience all began for us. There we readied ourselves for sea, studying oceanography to help prepare our research projects, learned nautical science to become familiar with ship and sea functionality, and got to know the people that would become our shipmates. But looking at this picture now at sea, that place—that time in our lives seems so far away, and the people in this image are difficult to recognize.
Since then we've experienced so much. We've traveled over 2000 nautical miles on the Central Pacific. We've hauled lines, set sails, and manned helm. We've deployed CTD’s, towed meter nets, and gathered samples. We've cleaned heads, scraped up mung, and scrubbed soles. We've seen the beauty of pristine nature in Palmyra, walked the trails through the villages of Fanning, and witnessed unsurpassed human compassion in Christmas. We've observed fluid disturbances, analyzed data, and ran hundred counts. We've gasped at shooting stars, been captivated by the bioluminescence in turbulent waters, and watched land ascend from the horizon. We've run transects in coral reefs, swam among dolphins, and tagged mantas. We've cut each other hair, undertaken new hairstyles, and shaved each other’s backs. We've shared incoherent conversations after mid watch, sang songs at sunset to the chords of ukulele, and showered by fire hose on the science deck. We've basked in our sweat, smelled each other’s dirty laundry, and cleaned our clothes in buckets. Together, we've learned and laughed in a collage of new experiences, marine research, and ship life.
Being separated from mainland communication, news, and luxuries, we have seen life and each other in a whole new perspective. Being present in the moment, we have come to know one another, and have come to know our authentic selves. This is why it is so hard to recognize the people in this picture: they seem too clean, a bit naïve, and they’re wearing jeans. As a class and as a community, we have come a long way since then, developing a deeper understanding of each other and a worldly perspective.  While the people in this picture are the same people I have come to know as friends, peers, and teachers, they are far more dynamic than this picture gives justice to: they are shipmates, they are scientists, and they are sailors.

So while we are met with rough seas as we continue on our last leg past the ITCZ,  we’re not in poor spirits. The squalls are testing us, pushing us past our lengths, and taking us out of our comfort zones, but that’s exactly what we wanted out of this experience—to live in new ways, to learn in a new classroom, to sail to new horizons. Given that leaving the life you knew for a different one is not always easy, it’s through the struggles, just as much as the joys, that come the rewards. If it was easy, it would just be a vacation, this is an adventure.

-Brian Leahy

The Junior Watch Officer Reporting

                “Anja, Anja, it’s 0600 and it’s time to get up.” Ugh, it was one of those mornings when the wake up seemed to come way too soon. I stumbled into breakfast still half asleep and already counting down until our watch would be over.
                “Oh hey there JWO.” I looked around confused trying to slowly piece together what the watch officer was saying to me. JWO. Junior Watch Officer. I was racking my brain, what does this mean? Coffee. Definitely coffee.
                Walking onto deck I prepared myself for what I could only anticipate would be the longest most stressful watch so far as I was entirely responsible along with the guidance of a part-time amnesic watch officer who seemed to “forget” answers at the most inconvenient times. As I mustered my watch on the quarter deck I quickly realized my shipmates were not waiting for me to bark orders and tell them what to do, they were waiting to help me. The first words spoken were, “Anja, whatcha need?” It quickly dawned on me that I was not in this alone. I had an amazing knowledgeable trustworthy group ready to help me shine as the JWO. And that is exactly what they did. Instead of passing by painfully slow and stressful as I had anticipated, the watch flew by with more things being packed into a morning than I thought possible. Sail handling, squalls, science stations, updates, sail plans, shooting the sun, and all the hourly needs of the ship seemed to magically happen with an unimaginable ease.
                To say I learned a lot in my first watch as Junior Watch Officer would be like saying the 35 knot winds we were hitting were just a little gusty. I learned how to brief the captain, how to maneuver the ship to the right point of sail with the wind at the correct point off our bow, how to shoot Local Apparent Noon, how to call a sail set, and so so so much more. Yet all these details and the vast amount of ship knowledge I gained all seem inconsequential to the real lesson I learned as JWO.
                With supportive dedicated shipmates at your back, anything is accomplishable. Sails can be set, squalls can be faced head on, and a first time mariner who still can’t walk the deck without tripping can keep the boat sailing happily to Honolulu.

 -Anja Brandon

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Haiku: Saltines

What taste of flesh, crunch?
Glistening square salty, safe
Meet my mouth again.

Here we are motor sailing under the four lower, under a starboard tack, full and by for the JT. We’re turning 1400 RPMs, keeping above 9 knots with winds from the NE bye E, steady force 7 gusting 8.

Read as: “We are using the engine to go really fast through big winds, so it’s something of a puke factory for y’all seasickies hanging out below deck.”

The unforgiving ocean doesn’t want you to succeed. It seeks to drown you and dehydrate you and make you crazy. It is not warm and soft, but will break your back and give you hypothermia. It wants you to hurt and to be frustrated, and to never leave it. It also wants you to vomit. It wants to take you to the leeward side (“lOO-wERd” side; the side downwind) and either toss you over or keep you indefinitely lurched with dizziness over her side. But, the sea, she will not win.

It’s been approximately 2 days since we left Kirimati Island, our final port stop before heading ourselves towards the North Star and Hawai’i once more. As I mentioned, lovingly before, the present conditions aboard our floating home are trying. Don’t let me get ahead of myself; let me and my brain take you back to Kirimati for a moment…. Do me a favor and close your eyes (well, close one and read with the other). Imagine the brightest, warmest day you’ve lived through and a long, dusty-white road. On this road, picture all 200 of your closest friends and family throwing a party. Not just any party, but the biggest party of the year. There are balloons and floats with 20 people riding in the back of pick-up trucks. Now imagine that no one has shoes, it’s Sunday morning, and the finale will take place in a 50m aluminum hut, AKA church. This is the annual processional during which about half  the island population walks from one Catholic church in Tabwakea to the other in London People travel from far and wide, namely the villages of Poland, Tennessee, and Banana (yes), to participate.  After walking against the grain of the parade for some time, Nicole S., Christina, Jason, and I found ourselves in front of the Tabwakea church. We walked into its wall-less aluminum hut to greet the people living under handmade banners featuring the Virgin and Holy Cross. Of course the first to say hello were children. Who else but the most curious uninhibited little girls and boys will run up to strangers to demand to know them?

Nicole Sarto with some of the children that greeted us as we approached the Tabwakea church. They were dressed specially for the procession, ready to leave their home under this aluminum hut.
Before too long, the final group of the procession was leaving and they graciously offered us a place in their loaded truck bed. We thanked them with a “corapa” and hopped in.  The stares were not mean, just interested and amused. Our light complexions, short hair, enormous smiles, and excessive-looking foot attire probably amused them more than we could tell from occasional giggles and constant smiles. The mass that followed was unlike any other Catholic mass. No incense, large glimmering cross with a bleeding Jesus, or pews. Just the hundreds of harmonic voices of the I-Kiribati people singing hymns and prayers.

I reflect back on this now because of the local primary school’s motto, as noted by Martini and Walter: “Struggle to succeed.” Though it could most likely be attributed to poor translation, the slogan embodies the journey of the people of Kirimati Island, in constant struggle with their environment. And to a much lesser extent, it embodies our journey thus far on the trip.

Kirimati Island has few of the natural resources  we consider necessities to sustaining a population, like freshwater and agrable land. Yet, the people are happy and have a thriving culture there. They struggle, but win for their culture and people. Here aboard the Seamans, we face rough conditions and greet them kindly. Despite illness of the body, mind, or dysfunctional projects, we work hard and will come out on top. This might be the most exciting homework situation ever, but we’ll get it done. We have to. C’mon. We’ll be alright. 

-Alexis Wood

Saturday, June 1, 2013

At Anchor off London, Kiritimati Atoll, Kiribati

On small wonders –

Over the first three weeks of this voyage, I’ve found that the sensory and emotional panoramas with which we’re blessed are a product of countless details. Having chosen to observe at nose’s length for most of this voyage, I’d like to train a microscope on life out here and give some consequential tiny things their due.

Several of us aboard S-247 have been geeking out on the miniscule. Projects range from fishes’ blood cells to tiny mollusks called pteropods to plankton’s daily vertical migration, sinking organic particles called marine snow and medically valuable cyanobacteria (formerly blue-green algae.) Sub-centimeter phenomena like these act on a global scale; they represent livelihoods for millions of species and affect the contents of our larders, our medicine chests, and the air we breathe.

Grand implications aside, we temporary inhabitants of the Pacific feel the effects of small wonders daily. Some are intentional: when walking the deck, one notices sharp corners padded or filed down, hooks and latches to tame entropy and expertly stitched leather shields to keep lines from wearing through. These thoughtful touches keep us intact. Many small wonders are whims of nature to which a scientist must respond: swarming zooplankton means applying zinc oxide war paint, winding miles of hydrographic wire and jigging for squid in the dead of night. Others are a confluence of artifice and chance: this afternoon, taut fishing line sang in the wind, making music for a placid day at anchor. Most small wonders just are: somehow, waking to bioluminescence swishing by my portlight redeems all four hours of dawn watch and ship cleanup after breakfast.

 Such brief thoughts and stories are the drifting fodder for each whale of a day that passes at sea. Though they don’t all make it to the blog, small wonders will continue to stack up, stick with us and shape our mindsets on the return leg.

There’s nothing quite like the open Pacific and its sky to remind one that we ourselves are tiny and that size is so relative it ought not be tied to significance. With this in mind, the tiny creatures aboard the SSV Seamans begin their migration north, bringing with them all the experiences we can carry.

Thanks for reading,


What a Week!

For me, it feels like our journey on the Seamans accelerated over the past week. In my last update, I wrote about our very first day of manta observations. Since, I have had some amazing experiences that I will never forget.

Dr. Block and I looking for mantas

First an update on my manta ecology project. Continuing on our initial success, Team Manta conducted three more focused manta observation settings with fantastic results. In total, we had over 50 interactions with manta rays. We saw smaller rays that quickly darted away from us, and we saw a few much larger rays silently gliding along. We saw a huge variety of patterning on both dorsal and ventral sides of the rays, and we observed rays heading into and out of the channel we were observing. In total, we deployed 7 acoustic tags and 5 satellite pop-up tags. The pop-up tags will record the ray’s position and depth and send the data to us after a set number of days. One of our tags already popped off (sometimes that just happens), so we have some very preliminary data. Meanwhile, on the acoustic side, on our final day in Palmyra, we deployed a floating acoustic receiver that listens for mantas with tags to swim by. Then, when it hears a manta, it uses satellites to send an e-mail back to Hopkins that they forward to us on the boat. We have had some very exciting results over the past week. We are hoping to correlate time of day and tidal phase with manta movements in the channel, but to see those results, you’ll just have to check the cover of Nature in a few months.
Robbie and me returning from a successful tag of a manta
Our next destination after Palmyra was Fanning Island, a small atoll in the island nation of Kiribati. I spent a morning on-shore and can honestly say that I have never felt more out-of-place in my life. I was taller and of course, paler, than anyone on the island. Fanning Islanders live mostly through subsistence food gathering, fishing, and foreign-aid supported imported products like rice. Some of my classmates were also struck by how different Fanning was from our lives and that’s been echoed elsewhere on this blog.

That very same afternoon, I had one of the coolest experiences I’ve had all trip (probably a close second behind swimming with mantas). Aloft training. We strapped on full body harnesses and hopped onto the shrouds (those black net ladders you see running up the side of the Seamans). Safety is a major concern and we were exceedingly careful but I had the great joy of climbing to the very top of our forward mast and looking out over all of Fanning Island. It was an incredible experience to get above the boat that I have become somewhat familiar with and also a stark reminder of just how small we humans are compared to our natural surroundings.

And my final crazy adventure this week took place just yesterday on our second day on Christmas Island. I had spent the first day exploring the island and securing an ice cream cone. (There is a distinct lace of ice cream onboard for my tastes. Side note: I was amazed that I was able to buy a Drumstick here on Christmas, more than 1000 nautical miles from Hawaii or Australia for $2.20 AUD, about $2.50 USD.) Then yesterday morning, we hopped onto a Dive Kiribati boat that looked kind of like a large outrigger canoe with a patio lashed on top and an outboard motor slapped on the back. We brought fishing poles and lures and set out in search of tuna. We trolled the oceans off Christmas Island all morning and were lucky enough to catch 5 skipjack tunas and a kawa kawa. There were 6 students onboard and we each had a chance to reel in a fish. On my first attempt, the tuna managed to escape the hook at the last minute so I was feeling bummed that I might miss my chance. But then, on our last troll before we needed to head back to the boat, both of our lines got a bite at the same time and I got to race Christina to see who could reel in their fish faster. I was a close second, but still so excited to have caught a tuna.

Christina and me with our skipjack tunas
Tonight, we depart Christmas Island, and point ourselves north towards Honolulu for a final ocean leg back home. I’m looking forward to getting back into the rhythm of the ship, but I will never forget the amazing week I had in the line islands. Check out pictures below from our adventures this week.


The Fine Line

     There is a fine line between passion and obsession, the difference being that one fulfills you while the other eats away at you. Although I am convinced that it is still a passion, my constant need and love for documenting is at times worrisome. I love to memorialize moments, to inscribe them into permanence, whether that be in the form of writing, recording, photographing, or filming. However, this trip has made me more aware of the fact that when an opportunity to document is missed, I cant shake the feeling that it is a moment wasted. And so I think to myself, “Why cant the experience of a moment be enough in and of itself for me to feel fulfilled?”
            There are many people on this boat that are clearly untroubled by this issue. I can see it in their smiles, a lighthearted kind of smile that does not require recognition and can just as contentedly fade away as it can grow. These people lean over the rails and watch a sunset with a calm and placid mind, instead or rushing below deck for camera gear or pen and paper. Their experiences build upon their characters instead of weighing them down.

The galley wall
            Recently one night, I had been assigned to mid-watch galley (kitchen) duty. Let me tell you, there are few more glamorous jobs than this one. You are given the privilege of being woken up in the dead of night to crawl around on your hand in knees in the kitchen with a moldy floor-sponge, scraping out the bits of soggy carbohydrates and fermented meat-juices from various corners and crannies. However, you do get to change the page on the calendar that resides in the kitchen, the page-a-day kind that gives you a new quote every day. This night it read, “All that is required to feel that here and now is happiness is a simple, frugal heart.”
            The quote seemed curiously relevant, but something about it was off. How can there be value in a “simple, frugal” heart? It seemed to clash against everything my privileged, profundity-prizing, liberal arts education and depth-seeking western society had taught me.

A family on Fanning Island

            The next day we arrived at Fanning Island. Walking between homes that could wash away on a rogue tide, I was struck by a foreboding sense or transience in everything I saw. I couldn't shake the feeling that despite their cheery perseverance, these families seemed doomed. Fanning Island may very well be completely uninhabited in our lifetimes, with its ability to support its population quickly waning. From the perspective of someone who sees little value in anything that is not remembered and recorded, I felt a deep sense of guilt as I questioned why a society like this carries on at all. I looked at my feet and wandered around, wondering all the while if a few pictures on some college student’s old computer would someday be all that remained of an entire society.
            The villages’ ephemeral future, however, clashed against the constantly fulfilled expressions of its inhabitants. There were smiles on the faces of not just naïve children but also full-grown adults; people who likely have a complete understanding of their fragile homes and likely fate, who work hard to keep their children’s names on the list of “top students” scrupulously posted to the school wall with left over tape from old morphine bottles. Seeing this, I was able to connect the dots: they bore the same smiles worn by those I envied on board our ship, and in this context I understood what it meant to have a “simple, frugal heart.”

            There is nothing wrong with delving into the profound, but it is a task that should be appointed to the mind alone, not the heart. It is the difference between exploring the big ideas and being concerned with them. This is not to say that those that truly enjoy each passing moment, those with a “simple, frugal heart,” are simple-minded; that was my mistake. It is to say that they know what merits contemplation of the heart and do not waste it on unproductive pursuits. They let the present moment contribute to their hearts, where as people like myself are prone to pile it upon our minds. For the heart is not like the mind. It does not concern itself with the past or future. The heart does not value memories; it values what we gain as individuals from experiences instead of the specific experiences themselves; it values any action for the worth of the act itself and not how it fits into the larger picture; more than anything, the heart values the simple, frugal joys of life in and of itself instead of scouring it for arbitrary reason and meaning. It may take me some time to fully embrace this understanding, but at least I now know what I am looking for, and surely if the people of Fanning Island value the passing moment enough to enjoy what may be a transient society, I can find a way to do so as well. I cannot guarantee that I will not continue to document and record the moments I value most, but I will at least now try to spend some time experiencing them in the present moment, rather than solely through the lens of a camera.

-Lucas Oswald

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Fighting Sleep at Fanning

I fight against my eyes gradually closing. The whole universe seems to be revealing itself in every new star that glimmers into sight. Yet my eyes are slowly betraying me in favor of sleep after a long day. I’m curled up in the mainstays’l on the house top before my watch starts, procrastinating sleep for just a few more minutes of star gazing.
Out in the middle of the subtropical Pacific anchored at Fanning I am in a completely new world. Yet I am overcome by a feeling of home. Surrounded by with lush coconut trees, coral reefs, and a blazing sun, which leaves enough heat so that even now in the middle of the night I am comfortable in shorts and a tank I am clearly a long way from home in Seattle. But in my sail “hammock” I’m being rocked ever so slightly by the usual swing associated with being close to shore. The familiar chirp from the depth sounder and the noise of sails creaking have become as comforting as my puppies snoring peacefully at home. Its remarkable how three weeks on the ship have simply flown by. The Seamans has truly become our home and we’ve learned it like the back of our hand -well someone else’s hand that doesn’t seem to be constantly plagued with new cuts and scrapes- boat checks are completed with a sense of ease from knowing how the boat should be looking. Number of steps from the bunk to the head memorized so that even before the night vision kicks in, we can still get ready for watch without stumbling about the ship. This comfort surrounds me in a way I’ve only experienced before at home. The Seamans has certainly become home. Only this home is always guaranteed to have the best sunsets and views from the rail. 
Gazing out into a never-ending universe my thoughts are running away with me. After Evan’s uncommon dialogue about the vastness of the universe, I can’t stop gazing into the stars with amazement and awe. This feeling has come over me a lot this trip. A nearly inexplicable feeling of pure joy so overwhelming that I can’t help giggle and smile. From when we first set sail, the first sunset, making our way into Palmyra, the swimming hole, spending time at north beach, to now - laying out on the boat willing sleep to wait just a few more minutes, these moments overtake me and remind me why I am doing Stanford@SEA in the first place. For the adventure, for the fun, for the people, and to reconnect with my most joyous self.

My eyes close briefly. Then a distinct splash of the port side – dolphins. I’m falling asleep on a beautiful ship, in the middle of the Pacific next to an incredible new island to explore, surrounded by dolphins. I feel asleep with a smile, one that I haven’t been able to shake off since.

-Anja Brandon

Sound and Conversation: Two Ears, One Mouth

            Snap. Crackle. Pop.
            Snorkeling in a coral reef sounds a lot like pouring milk over a morning bowl of Rice Krispies. I never would have realized that if I hadn’t stopped to listen. And now I find myself listening to everything: the whoosh of the wind, the creak of the sails, the whirring of the 16th Street cabin fan, the clatter of the anchor, the splash of the bow, the half hourly chime of the clock. And those are only the sounds of the ship. Palmyra was rife with the sound of birds, Fanning of children, and as we sit anchored and waiting for clearance, I look forward to listening to the sounds of Kiritimati.

In focusing on the sounds of my environment, I find I’m a better listener in conversation too. Where I once constantly felt the need to one-up others, to tell the better story, to fill the silence – never quite listening to those around me, but always thinking of what to say next – I’ve taken on a more observant role. Rather than asking someone how they’re doing out of social due diligence, I find myself actually interested in the answer. Rather than inputting the sound of my own voice, a sound I am already much acquainted with, I gravitate towards the voices of others.

In listening, I’m learning a lot from my shipmates. I’m learning about their personalities and individual histories; I’m learning about their opinions and leadership approaches. In turn, I’m more aware of the ship’s community dynamic and emotional atmosphere.

Alexis and Don the engineer enjoying a conversation at sunrise

Of course, life aboard the Robert C. Seamans is a little different than the life many of us lead ashore. We don’t have midterms to study for or bike traffic to navigate. We don’t have appointments to schedule or office hours to attend. That’s not to say that life aboard the ship isn’t stressful at times, but our situation does allow us to be more in tune with the natural world around us.

So I ask, how often do you stop and listen? How often do you listen and really pay attention to those around you, to the world around you? While not all of us have the opportunity to sail for five weeks on a tall ship, all of us have access to nature. So take a step outside, close your mouth, and open your ears. There’s a whole world of sound out there if only you stop and listen.


Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A Peopled Atoll

            From a distance, Fanning’s landscape matches Palmyra, both isolated circular atolls surrounding lagoons, low lying strips of green surrounded by infinite blue. Unlike Palmyra, a protected reserve, Fanning atoll is part of the Kiribati nation with a population of just a few thousand people. Just as Palmyra offered an eerie lens into what a world without people could look like, Fanning is an equally eerie lens into the rapid changes brought with a human presence.
Notably, Palmyra’s protection and Fanning’s population are both recent phenomena, yet the changes in this short blip of time are all too apparent. While birds dominate Palmyra’s soundscape, a more silent island greeted us as we pulled into the waters surrounding Fanning. A walk around Palmyra guaranteed encounters with countless crabs and dense, unwieldy forests, while a similar path on Fanning is lined with pigs, cats, wild dogs, concrete and aluminum structures, and plots of land growing taro.
            As we extensively discussed in our time on the shore, though it is nearly impossible to appropriately define “sustainability” in its overused buzzword status of today, it is easy to spot sustainability when you see it. Similarly, it is easy to discern its lack. Fanning, given its small population and geographic area, is a tragic example of such a state. Many of Fanning’s staple food items are imported, brought on ships just a few times each year. The entire nation of Kiribati depends heavily on foreign aid, and most of this foreign aid comes only from countries with interests in fishing in Kiribati’s abundant waters, including Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. At the same time, climate change and sea level rise are expected to impact Kiribati’s very near future. While it will take longer for the islands to be entirely consumed by rising sea levels, classmate Walter discussed the more pressing issue during our on shore conservation policy discussions: that many of the islands that make up Kiribati could lose their freshwater lenses due to sea level rise in just two years.
            It is unfathomable to imagine a nation with no freshwater resources, yet this question has already tangibly entered Kiribati’s political scene. The Kiribati government has already begun dialogue with New Zealand and Australia on the potential need to move its entire population away from the original landmass of the nation to foreign nations.
            The horribly apparent paradox is that this issue is spillover from our industrialized world. Last night, our first night in Fanning, the lights illuminating our ship alone heavily outweighed any light coming from the island, of which I saw only a single bulb close to the church. While our gas-powered generators ran through the day and night, wind driven vessels outnumbered those powered by engines in all the lagoon boat traffic I observed at Fanning.

            There are important lessons in timeliness in this tragedy from which to glean hope. As we saw at Palmyra, an atoll can transition from heavy human alteration to a proud consideration as “pristine” in just about 60 years. Nature can and will bounce back. While it is likely too late for Fanning or even Kiribati as a whole to counteract its devastating reality, it is invaluable today to effectively learn from these examples and appropriately proceed into our future.

-Jason D. Kaufman

Monday, May 27, 2013

The First Day in Kiribati

Melon-headed whales as seen by Evan and Jacob’s robotic submarine, ROV Beepity-beep

Our calcium finger nails stroke the strings, hum of vibrating metal and wood sing forth in a harmony of fifths, palms slap wood, voice-box resonates:

All my life I’ve been waiting for,
I’ve been praying for,
The people to say…

Red moon rises over the horizon, Halloween orange, color of spiced apple cider, cake doughnuts, and autumn. Today is our first day in Kiribati, the tiny Fanning Atoll, and earlier we welcomed the kind customs officials onboard with our song:

That they don’t want to fight no more,
There’ll be no more wars,
And the people will say…

We have been in our own little world aboard this ship, and it feels strange to now be in someone else’s. To see other people – a reminder that the world we have created for ourselves is not the only one that exists. Sometimes on bow watch, it is easy to believe that the world consists of only a blue circle covered by a blue dome. Everything we know and use is onboard our little steel boat at the center. It feels like a fairy tale where we create our own rules and customs. I am reminded of Lord of the Flies – I wonder if this is why the rules of the ship were laid out so painstakingly beforehand, whey they are followed with such attention to detail…

But what is this human Earth we live in anyway, if not one where we have created arbitrary rules – rules of ownership, borders, customs of trade and politeness and warfare? I recall our song to the customs officials.
The Milky Way splashes above me like the spilled paint of a free-style abstract artist, stars as liquid as in the night of my high desert homeland. Just beyond the rail comes a breath, a drizzling of droplets, and a sleek grey form slips back beneath the waves. There exists a world beyond our human Earth, with no rules put in place by reasoning, just laws that are. We sail to study this world, Nature, the intricate dance of organisms and ecosystems, push and pull of geology and time, vibrations of atoms and molecules. In the water, the phosphorescent flashes of bioluminescence do their best to mimic the stars.

One day,
One day,

One day-ay-ay-ay

-Evan Clark

Lucas on Uncommon Dialogues

            Before I break into an account of our recent scintillating Uncommon Dialogues, I would like to break the ice with a brief anecdote (or a quick yarnin’ if your feeling piratey) to give you all an idea of what our stint here on Palmyra Atoll was like.

For me, Palmyra turned out to be slightly more leisurely than for most because my research project can only be conducted while in open waters. This gave me a lot of free time to explore the island, and I’ll admit what I craved most after 2 weeks on a 135 ft boat with 40 people was some solitude. Also, having just finished the book I had been reading for our conservation class, Four Fish (which is by all means a fantastic read, and for all you amazingly supportive parents who secretly wonder why half your salary is paying for your child to research the mating behavior of the wart-footed stump snail or something of the likes, this book will convince you their education is more than worthwhile), I was eager to crack the binding of my new read. Solitude and a leisurely read, however, would prove to be not as feasible as I hoped.

I decided to hike to Strawn Island, the far end of the Atoll. I began down the trail and within 5 minutes encountered my first obstacle, a boulder sitting in the middle of the pathway, brandishing club like claws up at me. It was one of the notorious Palmyra coconut crabs, hermit crabs that have outgrown the luxury of a shell and now scamper about the island gorging themselves on coconut meat, which has given them the renown of tasting just like coconut. But this crab was a monster, at least 2.5 ft across while in its wide-gaited, “bring-it-on you measly human” stance. It could have wrapped one of those pincers around my ankle and taken a foot if it was so inclined. After ample prodding and poking with a long stick, I managed to push the crab out of the way and I heard it hissing angrily as carried on.

A menacing Palmyra coconut crab
Not long after, I found I was again not alone, but this time being besieged from the air. Two, stark white birds were repeatedly swooping dangerously low to my head. At first I feared I had disturbed the birds from their nest, and having been warned that preventing certain birds from their nest for more than a minute causes their eggs to denature, I hurried off on my way. But the birds refused to dissipate and soon their numbers had doubled and then tripled and I was suddenly brandishing my arms, stomping through unknown terrain as a blitzkrieg of ironically dove-like birds harassed me from all direction.

A protective bird

Breaking out of the palm forest in a frenzy, I found I had stumbled upon a beach, and luckily the air bombers followed me no further. Before me lay a long shallow sand bar, and at its end was a series of dilapidated WWII bunkers slowly sinking into the sea. Atop the largest bunker was a small tree. “Where better than a bunker to protect me from the onslaught of the natural island residents?” I thought. The Japanese may have never made it to Palmyra, but surely all their constructions afforded the navy personnel stationed there shelter from crabs and birds. Oh how wrong I was.

Atop the bunker and beneath the tree, I finally began to enjoy my book as the crashing waves soothed me from afar. Deciding to top of the situation with yet another indulgence, I reached into my backpack for a home made oatmeal bar I had brought, and lifting the bar up to my mouth I found that it had sprouted wad of gesticulating arms and claws. I screamed and threw what I thought had been my bar, but in reality was one of 4 fist sized hermit crabs that had crawled into my bag in the few moments I had been there, heaping themselves over my delicious snack. After emptying out my bag, I turned around to see that a migration had begun; from every direction atop the bunker, swarms of hermit crabs were narrowing in on my bag. I spun around and the crabs must have known that their secret swarming had been disclosed to the true beholder of the bar (myself) because they all abashedly popped back into their shelves and pretended to not exist.
And so I was finally able to enjoy my book on Palmyra, but only between intermittently chucking a few handfuls of hermit crab out of my bag.

Professor Joe Bonaventura looks on

After a four-day pause while in Palmyra, we resumed our Uncommon Dialogues with a talk hosted by our resident fisherman, Martini Arostegui. Martini comes to the world of marine conservation from an interesting perspective, as he is currently ranked as being the third highest record setting fisherman in the world. Martini introduced his topic by telling us about a man he met while at Palmyra, one of the 11 current residents. Martini believed this man to be an excellent fisherman, “probably one of the 20 best anglers in the world” as he put it, yet for some reason this man lived and worked in one of the strictest Marine Protected Areas (MPA’s) in the world, a secluded island where no wildlife of any kind can be removed except for the occasional rare specimen for scientific purposes. However, for Martini, this seemingly counterintuitive individual represents the most practical and worthwhile sort of fishermen you can be, one who seeks out a future for fishing while still enjoying the sport.

This is not always the case. As Martini put it, the fishing community can often be “ stubborn.” Their position, however, is not lacking in justification. As the conservation movement progresses and the borders of MPA’s expand, they are slowly zoning off the waters that the fishing community has come to enjoy and love. For this reason, many fisherman have become adamantly opposed to marine conservation, citing the lack of evidence that MPA’s are effective and claiming the ocean as an open, unlimited resource. Martini, coming from both the fishing community and the scientific community, can easily relate to both perspectives, and according to him the solution can be found in effective communication.

The manner in which the conservation community goes about protecting the oceans is often lacking in public communication, the kind of communication that is needed to persuade the people that care most about these regions, their fishermen. Not only this, but the data showing the effectiveness of MPA’s needs to be collected, consolidated, and stringently evaluated so as prove their worth once and for all. Without showing that MPA’s help to preserve the future of fishing, the fishing community will continue to be completely justified in vying to keep the oceans of the world open and available. Although the situation is frustrating, it makes our mission as conservationists and scientists clear: to establish the facts, and more importantly, establish a network of trust between those who study the world’s natural resources and those who use it.
 Our next talk was hosted by Zach Gold who told us about something called the Global Warming Paradox. The Global Warming Paradox is a theory that states that the countries that will be most negatively affected by the effects of climate change are those that are developing. Conversely though, the best way for any nation to best defend itself against the adversities associated with climate change is to burn fossil fuels. This is because many studies have shown that there is a direct correlation linking countries’ GDP’s with their consumption of fossil fuels per-person.

Hopefully you now see the paradox - that the developing countries attempting to buffer themselves against a changing climate have little choice than to increase their contribution to the problem, creating a positive feedback loop that ends in our demise. Zach then posed us with the question, what should we as Americans, being the largest burners of fossil fuels in the world, do?

The conversation that followed soon turned to one of effective international aid. How do we tell people in much more precarious socio-economic positions to do what we are infamously not doing, conserving our energy resources? Many of the group believed that the best option was to bring the skills, materials, and technologies necessary for sustainable development to the countries that needed them. Others in the group were also quick to remind us that this approach still relied on us to act as hypocrites, and that few would be willing to accept our help in such a situation.

 To solve this problem, it is important to keep the right perspective. We must not mistake countries’ need for basic human rights and services for a desire to buy into the American way of life. What the people of developing countries want are the benefits that come with our lifestyle; they are not seeking to be American, and trying to help them by assuming this is a mistake. The comprehensive solution lies in separating “development” from the way we were able to achieve it. However, as individuals, the solution is in our actions. How do we prove the GDP-fossil fuel assumption wrong? By being more efficient.
Zach left us by redirecting our focus to our own personal day-to-day decisions. One example was eating less meat! Until next time, this is Lucas Oswald. Reporting on Uncommon Dialogues aboard the RCS.

-Lucas Oswald

Sunday, May 26, 2013

20:30 Somewhere Between Washington and Fanning Island

            Dark red squid dart about the port side of the Bobby C with many eager scientists hoping to catch one on their elaborate jigs. This species, Stenoteuthis oualaniensis, is characterized by a large dorsal photophore. Chilled squid tubes, or motels we jokingly call them, are ready to receive these cephalopods for respirometry experiments. I currently have an 80 lb monofilament conventional fishing outfit down 200 ft with a glow stick and whole flying fish in the hopes of catching a swordfish, Xiphias gladius. Hove to in the middle of tropical Pacific, fishing and science go hand in hand.

            Earlier today the whole crew surprised me with ice cream cookie sandwiches for my birthday. Some prior scouting by Frido and Anja let Sayzie know exactly what type of cake I love. A beautiful hand drawn card with fish and all from Erin and signed by everyone really made me feel at home. I can’t thank everyone enough for making my day special, even though we couldn’t drive towards the birds hovering above hordes of yellowfin tuna near Washington Island.

Between the five weeks ashore and the two already passed at sea, I feel as if we are all part of a family. The love and support aboard the ship make the tough days nonexistent and the great ones even better. We are all so fortunate to go on this unbelievable journey to learn oceanography, ecology, and nautical science in the tropical Pacific. Yet, what I find myself most thankful for are the people around me who make this experience so unique and fun. While there is still much left to do on this trip that I am eagerly awaiting, I also am looking forward to spending time with all of my new friends next year.

Tomorrow morning we will arrive at Fanning Island of the Kiribati nation. More project work will be conducted and visits to land will be cherished. Walter and I will be fishing buddies for Fanning and Christmas, searching after fish of the flats and shallow reefs.  Bonefish, trevally, triggerfish, snapper, and sharks will be our primary targets and if we find any that are as big as those at Palmyra Atoll then a few world records may be in store. If we catch any solid fish they will one day be celebrated with the drink Chief Scientist Jan Witting and I have been designing called the Black Pearl, which is made unique by a pearl of frozen squid ink suspended in coconut rum. Until then we will be conducting more science, setting sail, and all becoming better friends.
-Martini Arostegui

P.S. – Love you Mom, Dad, Dani, Ali, and Rossi!!!!

MacGyver Science

            From the beautiful paradise of Palmyra to the enjoyment of sailing it is easy to forget we are on the Seamans for a reason – we are sailing for science. It is that extra motivation we all need to get up at late at night and set up for a station and it is that driving force behind every mile we jet past. Yet science on a boat, especially a sailboat, looks remarkably different from science on land.
            Stuffy white lab coats are frequently replaced by bathing suits, high tech tanks are constructed mainly of colorful zip-ties and luck, and doing hundred counts on the microscope is a full-contact sport. I hadn’t quite appreciated how well adapted I was to the moving lab space until we anchored in Palmyra and the world stopped moving. I sat down in the lab the first morning we were anchored and positioned myself as usual – petri dish taped in place, knees locked in a knee-bar (for all the non-climbers, picture entrapping your legs in such a way that it keeps you from rocking), one hand bracing the microscope keeping the eyepiece a safe distance from my face, and another hand poised ready to switch between dropper, forceps, and pencil at the turn of a dime. These precautions seem excessive at best but time at sea has taught me what it takes to keep the pteropods in the petri dish and not in my lap. This seemingly awkward position came naturally to me as I sat down at Palmya after 10 days of working with the motions of a moving ship.
            Yet as I sat and started working through my sample I realized my knees were not suffering their usual bruising, my hand could relax from the microscope without the instrument becoming an impalement hazard, and I could count my species with an ease I had never before experienced on the ship. While I might have been a bit more productive when I didn’t have to fight my microscope every roll, I would never give up the fun we have making science work (and occasionally not work) on a moving vessel.
            From masking tape, to zip ties, to using the roll of the ship to help swirl down for pteropods, MacGyver would be proud of the perseverance and creativity in the science lab. It’s not always pretty, and it’s definitely not always easy, but it is always fun.

Until next time – we continue to sail for science!

-Anja Brandon 

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Soap? Who Needs Soap?

                I have not used soap in 6 days. In any other community, eluding a proper shower would liken us to untouchables of an old caste system or modern-day hippies letting nature’s smells take over. The main reason we can’t use soap during this port stop is that we’re not allowed to let any chemicals into the waters of the protected atoll. Any shampoo, conditioner, or body wash entering the delicate marine system would affect the ecosystem balance and potentially have a negative impact on the living organisms and nutrient flow. We also have to limit our allotted shower time because we can’t turn on the water-makers in this protected zone, so we won’t be able to produce freshwater until we’re back out at sea. As students of biology, earth sciences, and conservation, we completely understand this and obviously prioritize the health of the lagoon and reefs of Palmyra. However, under the scorching heat and penetrating humidity, we’ve all been yearning for a nice shower. Raised in a tropical island myself, I’m accustomed to taking several showers a day in this climate (my dad takes at least 6). Now the ship’s crew has transitioned from 60-second Navy showers to zero showers down below deck. Nonetheless, there’s a silver lining - we are able to take deck showers in our bathing suits on the forward deck, generously with saltwater and conservatively with freshwater. Though we can’t use soap, these showers are a real treat! I save this amazingly refreshing experience for the time right before I climb into my bunk to sleep, and treasure every drop of freshwater.
                Since I’ve been surveying coral reefs and running underwater transects for my project on coral disease ecology throughout most of my time in Palmyra, I was in the water more often than not anyway, so I didn’t start missing real showers until about the beginning of day 5. Plus all the minerals and nutrients in the ocean must surely provide a cleansing experience, right? The overall solution for most students has simply been to spend more and more time in the ocean – not a bad trade-off, especially when it means diving into the pristine, clean and clear waters of Palmyra.
                Before this trip I never would have thought I could survive for a week without soap. But it turns out it’s actually quite doable – especially if everybody smells the same. At some point in the trip our baseline for decent smells has collectively shifted, it’s all relative anyway. There’s all sorts of smells – food odors, trash smells, people – things pile up on the ship and we can’t just toss garbage overboard. Parents, relax, we do an excellent job of cleaning the boat everyday and these smells and contained. It’s just interesting to think about how nearly  everything is still on board… somewhere. Mildew has slowly been creeping  up on us and is now trying to take over. We also couldn’t do laundry within a 12 mile radius of Palmyra – but we’re underway now and soon enough we’ll be able to do both laundry AND take real showers! We’re even going to get to pump out the poop today after our first station stop. It’s going to be a great day.

                Though this whole situation might sound gross and grimy to anyone reading this blog from land, it’s totally fine out here at sea. In a way, the smells have brought us all closer, we’re all experiencing them together, battling them, and doing what needs to get done on the ship as we go. Superficial things like showers begin to seem meaningless when compared to the depth of our friendships, the significance of our scientific research, and the commitment to successfully sailing the Robert C. Seamans.

-Nicole Rodriguez

Highlights from Palmyra Atoll

A reef community in Palmyra atoll

For the past four days the Seamans has been anchored at Palmyra atoll and we have taken advantage of our time near land. Long hikes through dense Pasonia forests littered with Strawberry and Purple Hermit crabs with the occasional large land crab, snorkel transects on Penguin spit coral reef, rope swimming off palm trees into turquoise waters, and yes even venturing onto the internet. Atoll based project have taken off with flying colors. My research project comparing the change in herbivory and coral cover across the four islands has gone swimmingly. We finished three sites of transects on Penguin Spit coral reefs recording the abundance of reef herbivores, percent coral cover, and conducting focal fish follows recording the bite rates and amount of territorial behavior. Saying that the coral reefs were spectacular is an understatement. I have never seen a coral reef more vibrant with colors, large corals, and fish. Convict tangs schooled in the hundreds weaving between the heads of branching Acropora picking off the crustose and turf algae from the sea floor. Within seconds the school is bombarded with predators. Large iridescent blue fin trevallies dart into the fray trying to grab a late morning snack, snappers lurk from below the school waiting for the tangs to drop their guard, as a four foot black tip reef shark lingers over the school surveying the frenzy. As the school moves past, queen parrot fish the size of a small child begin to take the reef apart. You can almost hear the sounds of the corals screaming as their powerful beaks scrape the coral into rubble. Its any wonder how there is a reef even left intact. Beautiful red and green ruffled soft corals sway in the current surrounding a giant clam peering back into our masks with their dozens of eye spots. We watch in shear amazement as a hawkfish, as camouflaged as a ninja assassin, darts out of the coral to grab an unsuspecting damsel fish. Even as half the damsel fish is in the hawkfishes belly, it futilely tries to swim to safety, only to be swallowed whole with the next bite.

            Yesterday Martini and I went on an expeditin across the island to find the elusive coconut crabs. We assumed that these beasts which can reach a weight of 30 pounds a a length over over 3 feet would be quite easy to find, seeing as they make up a pecentage of the small atoll. However, despite our efforts of trekking through miles of palm forest we were foiled in our plans. However we did see a huge 7 pound Triton trigger fish, moray eels darting onto shore from 2 inches of water hunting damsel fish, the potatoe chip of the coral reef, and a black and white banded sea snake that darted into a layer of sea foam to never be seen again. In the afternoon I returned to the island to jump off the rope swing into the turqoius watrs of the swimming hole, collect cyanobacteria Lyngbia majescula for Jacob’s summer research, and begin a second expedition to the southwestern portion of Cooper and Strawn Islands. This time Frido, Anja, and Christina joined me in my mission in the afternoon tropical heat. We followed the trail to an abandoned movie theater with views of the whole island from the roof. We passed an abandoned WWII bunker as well but no coconut crabs insight. As we approached the end of the trail we found the endangered curlew and nesting red footed boobies hanging out around a marsh. The highlight of our expedition was hanging out with baby black tip reef sharks circling our knees before heading back to the Seamans. It was a great farewell.

-Zack Gold

Friday, May 24, 2013

Last night in Palmyra

We’ve spent an unforgettable four days at Palmyra Atoll. Between snorkeling, tagging manta rays, crushing coconuts, and swinging into the swimming hole, this is one of the first opportunities I’ve had to rest and reflect on my experiences here. A ship at anchor is very different from a ship at sea, not just in the ease of walking from your bunk to the galley without slamming into a wall, but also in the structure of our days and in our interactions with one another. Each morning and afternoon we sign-up for a “mission”, be it focal-following at Penguin Spit (keeping tabs on a single fish to observe its behavior for an extended period) or touring the lagoon with our ship’s Palmyra expert, Ana Guerra, one of our TAs. I had an incredible experience yesterday focal-following a blacktip reef shark, which wasn’t one of the study species, but I couldn’t resist. Observing one animal for more than just a quick glance provides insight into its ecology and behavior; you begin to develop an emotional attachment to your fish before too long! Back on the ship at night, we serve shorter watches, just two hours during the night with one shipmate, and this too has been an interesting way to experience the ship and to form closer relationships to some of the other students (I swear I’m not focal-following you, Jason!). It’s also great stargazing time – from here we can see both Polaris and the Southern Cross!

We were invited to dinner at the station last night by staff from The Nature Conservancy and US Fish and Wildlife, who now control the marine park. Katie, the resident steward (aka cook), and Sayzie, the amazing steward of the RCS, prepared ahi tuna steaks fresh caught by our tuna tagging team! After dinner, we said goodbye to our visiting scientists Joe, Elliott, and Kakani with a bonfire at North Beach. After a moonlit game of soccer, everyone gathered to sing “Leaving on a Jet Plane” along with a handful of ukuleles and guitars our crew’s musicians brought aboard. Their flight left today from the Palmyra landing strip, which was constructed during WWII when the atoll served as a Navy base. Each has provided wisdom and guidance to all of us (not to mention Joe’s amazing focaccia), and their ever-present smiles will be sorely missed.

Tomorrow morning we set sail for Fanning Island, and though we will miss those who have left the ship, we did manage to pick up a hitchhiker along the way: Professor Gilly, our squid expert! I’m sure his warmth and laughter will fill the void that we now feel so acutely.

-Caroline Ferguson

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Moonlight BBQ

We took the familiar steps up the doghouse staircase only to be greeted by a fresh torrential downpour to the face.  No need for a cup coffee, the thousands of drops that pellet you in face were a sufficient wake up.  The ITCZ had moved straight over us and with it came intense periods of wind and rain.  Despite the weather project groups still mustered and went out to the various corals, another group went to tour the lagoons and handful stepped onto land.  

As the moon the rose in the sky the real festivities began, a Palmyra bbq that would serve both as a celebration and farewell to friends.   When we say bbq of course we mean tropical bbq.  We did not have angus burgers but fish burgers,  no chips but instead sashimi soaked in a ginger soy sauce.    We sat and feasted together in the Palmyra galley with its roof giving everyone reprieve from the rain but as our bellies satiated the rain dissipated and we moved the bbq to North Shore.  With no rain in sight we built a bonfire furled with a combination of spare wood and coconut husks.

 As soon as people got settled and flames of the fire danced around the pit,  Walter Torres pulled out his soccer ball and soon the first ever Palmyra North Shore Soccer Game began.  The goal posts were sprouted coconuts and the boundaries were the ocean and a line that marked the high tide. Students  dribbled the ball dodging not only the opposing team but hermit crabs that littered the beach.   With only moonlight lighting the pitch the game went on for an hour with students rotating between the game and gazing into bonfire.

As the night was drawing to an end and moonlight futbol finished we all gathered together for some closing thoughts.  With the first leg over Its time for a few of our friends and mentors Joe, Elliot, and Kakani to say goodbye.  With the rays of the moon serving as pseudo spotlight loving goodbye and speeches were spoken.  Shortly afterwards with all musicians assembled Elliot and the others lead us in beautiful rendition of “I’m leaving on Jet Plane”  and the crackle of a dying  fire masked all of our own crackled voices as the reality of goodbye finally sank in.   

-Francisco Martinez

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

First Excursions on Palmyra

            While I’m jealous I didn’t get to be the one to yell “Land Ho,” I’m happy to be the one to share with you all about our first landfall and first excursions away from the ship.
            Last night, as we sat anchored in front of Cooper Island, bungalows and satellite dish in view, the antsy-ness was palpable. Walter wanted to run, Soda wanted to swim, and many others wanted their Wifi connection. After a good night’s sleep, we woke up to a rainbow over Penguin Spit, a popular project and snorkel site, shining a good omen for the day. And a good day it was.
            For those studying island-based projects, progress was made. Zack, Laura, and Erin laid six coral transects, Jason secured his hydrophone and is currently recording acoustic soundscapes of the reef, and John saw eleven manta in one day – the number of rays he hoped to see for the entirety of his project. On the ship, Frido processed blood, Anja caught up on pteropod swirls, and others continued to stand watch to ensure safety and security of the vessel. As for me and a few others, ahead on project work, taking a break from project work, or pretending we didn’t have project work at all – we went ashore. 
            Being ashore was surreal. I took a dip in the swimming hole, admired crab on North Beach, and after much inner conflict about whether or not I wanted to stay off the grid (because really, it’s only been eleven days), I indulged myself in a few minutes of email catch up. First of all, the swimming hole is the image of paradise. The weather is warm, the water is clear, and palm trees are rampant. Then, there was North Beach – a place where every pretty seashell was inhabited by crab, the sand lively with crustacean traffic.
However, even a paradise in the middle of nowhere still feels the long reaching fingers of civilization thousands of miles away. Washed ashore, we found plastic bottles – the kind I’m sure many of us have enjoyed a cold drink from on a hot summer day or served soda out of at birthday parties and barbecues. Thankfully though, the disruption in landscape was minimal. We only found and properly stowed six or so bottles, letting the sand caress our toes all the while.
           Not many people get to experience the beauty of Palmyra Atoll, but I hope that my blog and those written by others in the following days adequately share with you the splendor surrounding us as well as the importance of Palmyra’s presence. Once a naval base during World War II, transformed into a wildlife refuge since, Palmyra may be the closest example of a pristine coral reef ecosystem left on the planet. I’m excited to be here. Tomorrow, weather permitting, I will snorkel for the first time and I will see my first coral reef. Beacons of climate change, I’m excited to finally see the subject matter I’ve learned about in many a lecture. Wish me luck.

Penguin Spit awaits,
-Christina Morrisett