Sunday, May 31, 2015

*49.4'N, 159*48.3'W

Tabuaeran (Fanning Island) is shaped like a lima bean and the Robert C. Seamans was positioned yesterday morning along the southwest shore, right at the cinch of its belly. Here, a passage connects the open ocean to the lagoon within. Those of us who signed up to go ashore on the morning run put on our land clothes and loaded up into "The Defender"-the inflatable rescue boat that serves as a shuttle while we're at anchor.

The waves rushing in through the pass as we made our approach were incredible. We were surfing 4 foot waves in our boat and racing to stay in front of them as they broke behind us. Although a bit nerve-racking, our cockson, Scott, brought us safely to the pier on the southeast side of the passage and we all climbed happily onto land.

A group of children was hanging out on the pier when we arrived and we quickly got to work practicing the little bit of Gilbertese we've picked up since arriving in Kiribati. The most important word: mauri. To move beyond hello, however, I was glad to have a list of useful phrases that Tata, a girl my age who I'd met on Kiritimati, had written out for me.

Antai aram?

The tallest girl of the group stepped forward and told us her name was Mary.

Irana am ririki?

Eleven! She said. Then quickly told us the ages of the younger children around her as well. The night before, some of us had been marveling at the fact that from Bermuda to California, we all speak English because of a small island off the coast of Europe. Here we were on an even tinier island in the equatorial Pacific once again reminded of the far-reaching influence of what for many of us is our mother tongue.

We ambled on past the pier, peeling off into smaller groups as we all found different footpaths to follow. We saw no cars on Tabueran; only bicycles and a couple of motorcycles. We also noticed that the many fishermen of the island were in hand-carved canoes rather than motorized boats. This made a lot of sense as our engineer Josh began to inquire after gasoline to replenish the stock we keep on board for the Defender and the rescue boat.

He found that there was no spare gasoline on the island because they hadn't received supplies from the capital in at over four months and they didn't know when the next supply ship would arrive. Tabuaeran is certainly less dependent on outside supplies than Kiritimati and our own RCS.

The people here receive much more rain than the islands just 2 degrees south of them and they have large water collection tanks positioned under several buildings to attest to this fact. The lush vegetation also makes this change in climate quite obvious.  Taro, bananas, and breadfruit grow all around in addition to a wide array of non- fruit-bearing trees (on Kiritimati I saw mostly palms).
As we crisscrossed the peninsula where most of Tabuaeran's people live, we saw many different houses each with a pig or two tied to a tree out front. I also saw cats for the first time on this trip and several dogs. We eventually came to the church on the open ocean side of the peninsula. The church is the largest building on the island and it was in this area that we saw the most people; many people gathered together in the open-air public structures that surround the church, taking refuge from the sun. On Kiritimati I had seen similar structures and a man told me that most of the church's congregation chooses to sleep in these community buildings rather than in their own houses. Right there next to the beach, it did seem like the coolest spot to spend the day.

We spent some time combing the coral rubble beach, trailed by a group of curious kids who giggled at our attempts at Gilbertese but happily played hide-and-seek (no translation required). Then we made our way back to the lagoon side of the peninsula. There, Alicia, Doug, and Erica went for a dip and met some nice people and we found Hannah who had been exploring by herself. She and I walked a little further along the lagoon side, enjoying the sight of the calm, turquoise water and white sand, so different from the powerful, dark blue waves and coral rubble of the other side. Too soon, however, we had to turn back for our 11:30 pick-up.

I would have gladly stayed the whole day on land but once back on the ship, we learned that our gasoline shortage would make further recreational trips to shore impossible so the few of us that were lucky enough to be on that morning boat were extremely grateful to have had the chance to set foot on this beautiful island even for a short while.

The rest of the day was still spent happily. Snorkeling and swimming right off the side of the science deck at an anchorage point further north on the island. The 2 knot current made us feel like we were in an endless lap pool as we swam just to stay in place and took on the challenge of swimming at a full sprint from the ladder on the side of the boat to the anchor chain at the bow.

This morning, one final trip was made to clear the ship and its crew through customs and also to share some writing materials, books, and soccer balls with the 38-student primary school. We were all happy we could share things both useful and fun with the children who had greeted us so warmly. They sang four songs of thanks for the four representatives of our ship-Heidi, Nick, Ryan, and Francisco (weird to call my dad by his first name)-and immediately broke out into a spontaneous soccer game.

As we all gathered on the quarterdeck afterward hear this story and to reflect on our time here, one thing I was thinking about that I shared with the group is that often times when people like us come to a place like Tabuaeran, where life is organized differently than it is back home-taro plots instead of supermarkets, hand-carved canoes instead of cars-we often talk about how it's like "going back in time." And it's just not true.

Although these traditions of agriculture and fishing are in fact very old-tens of thousands of years perhaps-this way of life is just as much a part of the modern world as ours. In fact, they live a day ahead of the rest of us. As I write this, we have officially left Kiribati and just gone back in time.

It is once again May 31, 2015 and we're on our way back to the U.S.

Until next time,


Last Day in the Line Islands

The Seamans off Fanning Island, from a drone
I am enjoying my second leisurely Sunday in two days, as we have been on- Kiribas time, a day ahead of our time- and because we're leaving today for Honolulu- we're setting our clocks back - so theoretically we're getting two Sundays! One yesterday (Kiribati Sunday) and ours today (US time). 

Sunday in Fanning Island was spectacular. We were greeted by stormy weather upon arrival early in the weekend-the skies have now opened up to hot sun and tropical clouds.

Our time this past week has been spent in Xmas Island (3 days) - a place that enabled some exploration on shore runs, and for mission and rec projects- some enjoyable fishy reefs and Fanning Island (2 nights and 2.5 day. At the channel and shore we were greeted by rolling breakers that have hampered our ability to snorkel close to shore.  But we explored a new anchorage at this site- and have enjoyed two snorkel missions and a few lucky students and staff were able to get inshore to see this remarkable village.

Here a lush island with about 4 villages of about 3500  inhabitants is sitting in the tropics on the edge of a spectacular lagoon - they are harvesting seaweed, eating fish from the sea- and the reefs are in better shape then our last visit. With people we lose the sharks- and thus our snorkels are without apex predators.

The RCS is preparing for our leg home- uphill to Honolulu. The winds are still light and the temperatures are high.  Today we brought a collection of gifts, books and funding for the primary school at fanning after the teacher recognized us and we had a great greeting after two years of being here. We plan to head north this afternoon and once in deep waters- do some station work for students studying the physical and biological oceanography of the equatorial  north counter-current region to better understand the oxygen minimum zone that is ever present here.

Students are working on their data analyses and preparing for writing their papers while moving up in the leadership roles both on the deck and science side of the watches. The fishing continues to be incredible with Dr. Francisco Chavez helping to keep the good luck going- he captured a prize jack estimated over 30 lbs, and the fishing team fed the boat again after capturing a large wahoo and another yellowfin and skipjack in the productive waters around Fanning Island.  All is well and spirits are high aboard the RCS! But its nice to think we're headed home to the USA!

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Of Sweat and Sweating: How to Survive and Thrive Aboard the Robert C. Seamans

Sierra in the water at Millineum Atoll working
 (photo by R. Dunbar)
1. Think of sleep as optional.
“Sleep” is really such an overrated luxury. People can survive just fine on two naps a day, right? And don’t think that you need it just because you’ve been awake for 22 hours and on your feet for five and a half hours, or because you’re running to strike a sail you set a couple hours ago and you keep dozing off while collecting pH samples. This is all character-building.
2. Embrace sweating.
Sweating has two meanings on a tall ship. One is sweating a line, which means pulling extra inches out of a line (rope) that has nearly been pulled as tight as it can go. Doing it well can require about three people. Embrace it. Love it. The other kind of sweating is more familiar to people ashore, except that the variety here is the kind that pours into your eyes and nose while checking the engine. It’s the kind that comes back five minutes after a shower, that clings tenderly to your back and shoulders no matter what time of the day or night you wake up. After all, the lowest temperature of the entire trip has been in the low 80s so far, in the dead of night.
3. Shower every day.
This one is related to #2, and seems pretty straightforward. But it’s easy to skip a day, especially when trying to maximize your naptime. Don’t do it. One day you’re getting a whole 15 minutes extra sleep, and the next day you’re yanking on the clumped, salty knot of your hair as you attempt to brush it. And it’s easier on the other 36 people you live with if everyone tries to follow this rule.
4. Sing.
There’s no better time than 4AM when you’re on lookout to discover your long hidden talent of belting out songs from the sixties. Or when you’re surrounded by about ten people playing ukuleles, guitars, harmonicas, trumpets, violins, and drums as the sun sets. Or really any time at all. If singing isn’t your cup of tea, try humming. It goes a long way towards keeping you entertained and relaxed.
5. Find private time.
Climb the mast and watch the sun rising. Write in your journal on the headrig, the netting at the bow of the ship, while some flying fish zoom by underneath you. Take thirty seconds to lean over the rail at night (clipped in of course), and watch how the bioluminescence in the boat’s bow-wave looks like the Milky Way has been poured into the sea. You’re never really alone aboard the Seaman’s, but taking some alone time will keep you excited and ready for each new day.


New May 18 post

Hi everyone,

I just received a wonderful blog post from Meghan Shea, dated May 18 ("Karoraina and Kudos"). For some reason the attachment didn't come through first time around. I back-dated it May 18 so it will make sense to someone who is reading through the blogs later - but I didn't want it to get missed!

Best wishes,


Monday, May 25, 2015

Diving Deep Into Another World

Students and crew sport new haircuts in honor of their
equator crossing
At noon on May 24th, the Robert C. Seamans crossed the equator from the Southern Hemisphere to the Northern Hemisphere. As I observed some ceremonial hair-cutting by many members of our group, I thought about the human-created boundaries in the ocean – the equator, Exclusive Economic Zones, Marine Protected Areas, fishing zones – and how they are all defined at sea level. As these boundaries are now, they assume that if you took a square mile of the ocean’s surface and looked at all the space below that square, stretching to the bottom of the ocean, it would all look the same. As we have been learning in class, this is absolutely not true, and the ocean is a dynamic system with many vertical boundaries, migrations, stratifications, and communities.

One of the big reasons why we are so surface-centric when it comes to marine policy is the simple fact that humans live on land, not in the ocean. Although we can swim, we have a natural fear of the open ocean, and the many perils and predators associated with it. Very few people have ever been 500 feet below the surface, much less 7km down in the deepest parts of the ocean. We understand the surface of the moon better than we understand the ocean, which makes up 70% of the planet we call home. Especially in the regions of the ocean where light does not penetrate, there are amazing creatures beyond our wildest imaginations, just waiting to be discovered.

A neat thing about being on the Robert C. Seamans is that we are getting to do so much of our own discovery, in places where not many people go, and not many people know very much about. On board, every student is working on a research project, and through mine I’m exploring the topography and ecosystems of the deep ocean. I am studying seamounts, or underwater mountains, many of which are comparable in size to the Rockies in my home state of Colorado. Since we didn’t bring a submarine with us and no one on board can hold their breath for long enough, we have been finding seamounts using a system called CHIRP, which sends little “chirps” of sound beneath the boat, and listens for the sound to bounce off the ocean floor and back to the boat. Since we know roughly how fast sound travels in water, and we can time how long it takes for the sound to return, we can figure out the depth of the ocean floor right beneath us. Finding these seamounts has been a really exciting journey for me, and I have felt like a detective throughout the entire process, getting a small glimpse into another world.

As technology and culture shift more towards ocean exploration, we will keep discovering new things about the deep ocean – what it looks like, what’s there, and how we can protect it – and yet there will always be more to learn. We are so lucky to be on board the Seamans with so many opportunities to find out all we can about this amazing environment, and share it with the world.

- Emma Hutchinson

Sunday, May 24, 2015

At 9' south of the equator and Neptune is calling....

Tomorrow we're anchoring in Kiritimati, or Christmas Island. We are also halfway done at this point! This is a celebratory mock-poem I wrote for the occasion, based on "Twas the night before Christmas."

Twas the night before Kiritimati*
And all through the ship
All of the students
Were loosing their grip.

Their laundry was flung
By the bowsprit to air
They were smelly and tired with knots in their hair.

Some of them sweated all cramped in their beds 
As visions of ice cream cones 
Danced in their heads.

Others stood watch and watched the flag flap 
As the captain lay down for a very brief nap.

As two shooting stars went by in a flash 
I passed the forestays'l, 
then heard a small splash.

I went to the rail and peered at the swell 
When what to my wondering eyes did appear 
But a little old tuna, without any fear.

Its tail was strong, its scales on fleek 
And to my surprise, it started to speak:
"Yo Barb! And Pamela! A Watch! And Kels!
C Watch, B Watch, and everyone else!
Although you are tired and potentially sick of each other,
 And miss your pet dog, or boyfriend, or mother, 
And smell worse than mung 
And want a long shower, 
And haven't had private time for even an hour, 
Remember how lucky you are to be here,
And that the end is soon drawing near.
So treasure each moment, each callous and bruise 
And the respite from internet, cell phones, and booze."

The tuna swam off into the west,
And left behind it the great RCS*.

*Robert C Seamans


Friday, May 22, 2015

The Mystery of Malden Island

The Seamansjust off Malden Island, from a Phantom drone
The Stanford@SEA 2015 class has arrived at Malden Island a relatively desolate coral island that is fringed by a reef. As we learned in our maritime studies class from Professor Mary Malloy the European discovery was by Captain Lord Byron on the HMS Blond on the 29th of July in 1825 and one wonders what the crew and the Captain saw. The reef here now is in unusually poor condition with much dead coral and small areas with 35% coral cover. I saw one spur with 100% but it was a rare find.  

In the mid 50s and early 60s this island was used for nuclear testing by the UK and USA and while it is now on shore a protected wildlife sanctuary on shore under the Kiribati government it is clear something is amiss. The reef was throughout most of the shallow areas impacted greatly-with poor coral cover- virtually a dead reef- but in deeper portions of the spurs it came alive again.  Although fish diversity in some areas was high- the overall impression is a place either impacted by the environmental factors of equatorial environment or large waves, or potentially damaged by mankind. Maybe nuclear testing left an impact we just don't know.  

While our first approach suggested it was not very sharky- a mystery is evident here too. We have sighted many larger grey reef sharks and some healthy white tips- perhaps year class 3 or so- they seem thin compared to the plump sharks we saw down at Caroline atoll. Surprisingly there are few pups in the areas we've visited thus far- one year olds are missing of the Grey reef year class thus far (note we may find them all tomorrow) and very few white tips or black tips. The Lagoon is inaccessible so perhaps nursery areas are not prevalent and the Grey reefs dominate. So overall its just one year class of grey reef shark all in the 5-6 ft class. 

So  in this uninhabited place we see a reef in decline- and odd year classes of sharks, turf covered reef and surgeon fish abounding. I will say the parrot fish and snappers, while often few in numbers, are among the largest we've seen but live coral cover is limited to small regions of the reef.  We'll continue exploring today- and hopefully find a region of Malden that is a bit more lively- project time has been ample for our snorkeling teams and both the fish biomass team and coral teams have been obtaining new transects.

Hypotheses are numerous about what has occurred in this location and will surely be a point of discussion in the next few days.  The heat of the equatorial sun can be felt by all and efforts to remain covered up in this hot climate abound.

We once again flew the Phantom drone across the landscape and have some beautiful pictures from above to share with all of you from Malden- winds are light-and seas are warm!

Barbara Block 

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Life at Sea

“I am assistant steward. Do not wake me up.”

I clipped the sign in front of my bunk before I went to sleep. Since coming aboard, alarm clocks have been abandoned by all crew members; we rely on our shipmates from the previous watch to wake us up on time for our duties. For the night, all my fellow C watchers were expected to report to deck or lab by 2:50 am for dawn watch turnover. I got to sleep in until 5:30 am because it was my turn to serve in the galley (folks ashore call it a kitchen) to help prepare the 6 meals for the 38 of us.

“If the sea status allows, we can make PadThai.”  Vicky, our wonderful steward, said. Although I had gotten used to the gimbled tables, I never realized that what we were able to cook was also affected by the sea. In so many aspects, life aboard is somehow different from that ashore. You yell out “knife coming across” whenever you take a knife to the cutting board; you secure bowls and tomatoes and everything that tends to roll easily when you hear “galley, we are gybing.” The rolling sea does bring challenges that we never had to think about ashore, both in daily routines like cooking and in bench operations like pipetting. Meanwhile with the mentorship, support and care from our captain and mates and faculty, we are not only taking better care of our personal safeties but also taking up more and more responsibilities to the operation of the ship day by day.

10 days ago, I still could not believe it as I held the helm in hand steering a 135 foot ship. Today, I was shadowing our 2nd Mate Scott and discussing when and how to heave to for a science station, and calling out the commands for striking the Jib sail. And yes, 10 days later, every one of  our classmates-21 students, will have the chance to serve as a Junior Watch Officer and report directly to the Captain. As Captain Pamela says, our learning has been exponential. From cooking to steering, from deploying the science Carousel to cleaning the heads (folks ashore call it a bathroom), each and all of us take up our own responsibilities to the ship, and the rotation watch system makes us feel comfortable doing any of the above, at any time needed in the 24 hours of a day. We choose to make the efforts because we love our Mama Robby C.; we chose to come aboard because we love the ocean. For us, the best reward for 6 hours’ hard work in the lab is a complete set of scientific data, and the best retreat for our sweats hauling away the sail lines at 5:00 am is the gorgeous sunrise that follows.

At the very moment, I am sitting above the doghouse, enjoying the surrounding big blue ocean. I would like to take some time to appreciate the innumerous efforts made by the professional crew and scientists. When all of our attention is drawn to learning the detailed techniques of making fast a line or filtering water samples for chlorophyll a measurement, it is them keeping track of the bigger picture of where we are heading to. And as we learn, it is their mentorship and encouragements that have got us so far, in terms of the learning process as well as the geographic position. Like magic, in the middle of nowhere, tomorrow we will find Malden Island.

A boobie just flew by.


Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Thoughts Between Islands

Today, we anchored off Caroline Island and resumed snorkeling operations. I must admit I was a bit grumpy today trying to get as many snorkeling spots as possible, but in the end, my efforts were not necessary. I loved the three snorkels I did today, but it was just too much.

Anyways, I want to take advantage of this blog space to write down some thoughts I’ve had after what has been a little more than a week at sea. It would be useless to explain the beauty of Caroline Island. It’s beauty simply cannot be expressed in words or even pictures and video. One must take the effort to get here to truly understand how magical this place is. It is definitely one of my favorite places in the world now.

My first thought pertains to unlocking the key to immortality. It’s been said that twenty year olds feel as if they are immortal. Even when they do get injured, they heal quickly and resume “dangerous” activities. I don’t believe this is the case for me. I fully understand my limits.

Besides having a love for the ocean, I have a love for whitewater kayaking and I have progressed to the point where there have been situations when I could have lost my life. And I know others who have not been so lucky. I love gaining extreme experiences, but I’ve also experienced enough to selectively choose my adventures wisely. That being said, I still do believe I am immortal-but in a much more roundabout away… Let me explain.

We’ve only been out at sea for nine days or so, but everyone agrees it feels as if we’ve been at sea for months or even years. It’s not that we’re not busy doing anything and time feels as if it’s passing by slowly because we’re bored. On the contrary, I’ve never worked as hard as this in my life. There have been days when I have worked 17 hour days for the ship-albeit voluntarily.
Being in class, on the other hand, is different. Sometimes, I think I just graduated elementary school last year. School via classrooms has blazed quickly and has often felt like a blur. From my experience, whenever I’m having adventures and pushing myself out of my comfort zone, time slows down. When I kayaked down the Grand Canyon, for example, I can clearly remember each of the 6 days and can even give an hour by hour synopsis of what I did in the canyon. So if we choose to keep having adventures, to keep expanding our horizons, and to keep having near-life experiences, perhaps we can feel as if we have lived forty lives in one life. To live and not to breathe is to die in tragedy.

So it seems like there’s only room for one mind-blowing idea for this blog post. Tonight, we will get underway for the next 4.5 days and head to Malden, another pristine, uninhabited island. I’m looking forward to having more adventures and becoming more immortal!

-Bryant Irawan 

Monday, May 18, 2015

Karoraina and Kudos

The view of Caroline Atoll from aloft
(Photo by Meghan Shea) 
It’s 20:18, the winds are force 3 from the East, and we’re motor sailing up from Caroline Atoll headed for Malden Island. Here in the library, I’m being lulled to sleep by a blissful combination of the delicious butternut squash soup I just consumed (thanks Vickie and Melanie!), the general exhaustion of just coming off of afternoon watch, and the gentle rocking of the Bobby C. Drowsiness aside, I’m still finding it almost impossible to process the surreal past several days we had anchored outside Caroline Atoll.

Caroline Atoll (also known as Millennium Atoll or Karoraina) is widely considered one of the most pristine reefs on the planet, inhabited for only a short fraction of its history and visited by few explorers, entrepreneurs, and scientists. And from our two days snorkeling on the fore reef, the characterization seems accurate—from almost 100% coral cover to dozens of shark sightings on every snorkel to over 100 feet of visibility, Karoraina was the most spectacular underwater ecosystem that I have ever had the opportunity to explore.

Caroline Atoll, above and below water
(Photo by Meghan Shea)
But what does it mean to be pristine? In a world where humans have dramatically altered the atmosphere and the oceans, it seems silly to suggest that there might be places on this planet truly free of human impact. And what of the implications of the term—that nature is in some way tarnished by the mere presence of humans. What does that mean for our own short stay in this place?

If anything, the past several days have made me think about how extraordinarily lucky we are. It seems almost inconceivable that a large sailing vessel crewed in part by neophyte Stanford students could have made it to a remote coral atoll in the middle of the Pacific. We have seen a place on this planet that few have laid eyes on. We have snorkeled on reefs that even the most avid underwater explorers may never have a chance to visit.

So, I use these few words I have to the outside world to give thanks. To Captain Pamela, who against all odds found us a safe anchor on the steep slope of Karoraina so that every single person onboard could get in the water. To the entire crew of the Bobby C, who has kept us safe and challenged and fed (we love you, Vickie!). To the nation of Kiribati, for granting us passage through her waters. To everyone at SEA and Stanford who has contributed to making this experience possible. And to Caroline Atoll, for calm seas and manta rays and spectacular reefs and learning opportunities.

But more than that, we are standing on the shoulders of so many people who can’t be here with us—teachers, parents, siblings, friends, and mentors without whom we wouldn’t be on this adventure in the first place. I wish more than anything that I could share every moment of this voyage with all those who made it possible.

Sitting aloft yesterday and watching dolphins and sharks circle the ship as Caroline Atoll began to fade into the sunset, I couldn’t help laughing at how ridiculously surreal this whole journey has been. I am so humbled to be a member of this crew, a visitor to these places, and a student of this program.

Sending love and thanks and positive Pacific vibes,
-Meghan Shea

Caroline Atoll

A drone photo of the Seamans at Caroline Atoll
Stanford@SEA 259 has enjoyed a magical weekend at Caroline Atoll. The southern Line Islands are one of the last great coral reef systems that thrives oblivious of mankind. The entire ship's company was wowed by the site of a spectacular coral atoll rich with wildlife in abundance and corals as pristine as the Stanford Faculty and SEA staff have ever seen. The reef was alive with a high biodiversity of coral reef fish- and top predators swam about  our transects freely curious but not alarming. Large schools of colorful parrotfish, snappers as large as small tunas, and Bluefin crevally swam by in peace. Fish were curious not afraid of humans. The fish biomass and coral projects had excellent snorkeling conditions as the weather cooperated with little surf and gorgeous light breezes.  The entire ship's company went snorkeling to experience this once in a lifetime site. This was the place we dreamed about coming to- and as we head on to Malden we are feeling the delight of having been to a place equivalent in the oceans to Yosemite that few people ever get to experience. We have light breezes and fair winds as we head up to Malden continuing our journey.

The pictures are from our drone that has been excellently piloted by Jan
Witting- the shots we're getting will make a fine and dramatic video for future classes to see. Even in compressed formats you can appreciate the remarkable site of this spectacular fringing reef.

-Barbara Block

Chief Scientist of the Week otherwise known shipboard a the COW Stanford University

Caroline Atoll

Sea turtle photo by Heidi Hirsch
            As the constellations faded away among rose-tinged cumulus clouds this morning, we saw it. Caroline Atoll, Millennium Atoll, Karorina—whatever you call it, the tiny atoll is a top contender for being the most pristine and remote place on earth. I watched the ship approach it from halfway up the foremast, and could see several dense green strips of land embroidered by sand. It could have been a postcard for a tropical getaway—except there are no people on Caroline. On the open sea a gathering of more than a few seabirds at a time was a spectacle, but boobies, turns, frigatebirds, and others fly above Caroline Atoll by the hundreds.
            It took us several hours to anchor, because the sea floor drops off so steeply. We finally made a temporary anchorage close to the reef, and a group of students working on reef-related research projects were the first to enter the water. The reef here is a snorkeler’s paradise. The coral crackles a loud symphony below the surface, and covers almost every inch of the bottom. Sharks and fish are everywhere. A few later groups saw large yellowfin tuna, others saw turtles. Some fish and other animals we saw are larger than our smallest student. Even the professors were amazed. This reef makes Tahiti and Rangiroa look bland by comparison.
            Everybody on the ship got 30-50 minutes in the water, but the presence of one the world’s most isolated coral reefs is not enough to stop the day-to-day running of the ship. Most of us are at the point where can set and strike sails without a mate supervising. The togetherness of our 38-person universe coalesces more each day. If I don’t know a knot or seaman’s term, I can count on my fellow students to help me (B watch!) Phrases like “Haul away fisherman halyard” or “Get the pig blanket from the wet lab” make perfect sense to us by now. Everyone has acted as somebody’s alarm clock, everyone has squeegeed the sole (floor), everyone has become familiar with the engine room’s many gauges and valves, and everyone knows how to deploy a net 600 meters below the ocean’s surface. It has been five days since I’ve seen any sign of human life outside the ship, aside from occasional satellites at night. We count on each other because we have to, but also because we’re coming to trust each other and our own abilities more each day.

Hoping all is well back home,

-Sierra Garcia

Friday, May 15, 2015

Approaching Caroline Island

Ahoy, readers! We continue our journey through the South Pacific, and after a couple days of open ocean we are now expecting landfall in the next 3 hours. It’s been almost a week since we arrived in Rangiroa, and tomorrow morning we should be arriving at Caroline Island (or Karoraina in iKiribati). As you have probably gathered by now, the Mama Seamans is a very demanding ship and requires attentive hands at all hours of the day. I am writing this having just come off mid-watch, a 4-hour watch period between the hours of 11pm and 3am. It sounds brutal, and sometimes it is, but for the most part our sleep schedules have adjusted to life on a ship. You get your naps in whenever you can, so the actual time of watch ends up having little importance.

As I was sitting on bow lookout during this mid-watch, I was thinking about what I should write here. When you’re on lookout you’re pretty isolated from everyone else on the ship, unless people are handling sails near the bow. For the most part, people are either in the lab or near the stern of the boat while working. When I’m on lookout I always go through a cycle of thoughts in my head – it starts with “WOW” as I look around and appreciate where I am, then I get to thinking about life, and eventually I hit boredom when I realise I’ve run out of songs to sing to myself and don’t actually know the full words to any. So on this fine night, as I tried to entertain myself, I looked up at the night sky and was amazed. It was the clearest night I’d seen yet, not a cloud in sight and a waning moon. The stars were absolutely incredible and I saw more shooting stars then ever before in my life.

We had been doing a lot of science stations in the last couple of hours (more about our science deployments to come in future posts, I’m sure), which means the boat was hove to (not moving). This limits the responsibilities of the people on deck since we aren’t sailing during stations, and so Scott, our watch officer and 2nd Mate, was sharing his knowledge of the stars with us while we waited to get back underway. I’ve always had a very difficult time discerning constellations and have thus found astronomy to be very frustrating. But last night was like an epiphany – I finally could see the horse in Centaurus, or the tail of Scorpio. Most satisfying was the feeling when I went over to be lookout and as I looked up at the sky I could find the stars and constellations Scott had taught me on my own. I could find the big dipper, trace it up and arc to arcturus and then speed over to Spica. I could find Vega, the star we had been using to navigate by at night sometimes, and find the summer triangle she forms with two other bright stars whose names escape me. Not only is it satisfying to understand and recognize constellations, but also many of these are navigational stars and will come in handy when we start shooting them with sextants to obtain our geographic position (known as celestial navigation). It was a great feeling to look up and see an uninterrupted sky, horizon to horizon, filled with stars and planets, and appreciate the natural beauty of our universe. The most amazing things occur naturally, and on this voyage with just our patch of sea for company, I am really beginning to grasp how amazing Earth’s natural wonders are. Hopefully my astronomical knowledge will continue to grow in the next few weeks as the Seamans brings us across many more night skies!

-Isabella Badia-Bellinger

Thursday, May 14, 2015

One Week Out

Members of A and B watches stand on the quarterdeck in
anticipation of the beginning of the line chase.
After a week on the RCS we are less than 48 hours from our second port stop at Caroline Island. Even taking an amazing two days to explore Rangiroa and its lagoon, which Andreas described in his blog post several days ago, we've adjusted to the rhythm of the watch schedule and life aboard our floating home, lab and classroom. It feels to me like our time on shore was ages ago, much more than the 6 days and change since we left port in Papeete and much much more than two weeks ago we left our long days in the classroom looking out at Monterey Bay (more on that in a minute).
Shortly after leaving French Polynesian waters--Kiribati here we come--we reached an important moment. It was, in a way, a test of all our previous nautical science learning. Hours of toil on land, many pots of coffee brewed to make it to nautical science at 8am sharp in the beautiful (and very familiar by the end of our five weeks taking classes there) Agassiz building at Hopkins Marine Station, sunburns earned after pantomiming setting and striking sails with Canadian geese and harbor seals looking on skeptically, knots-successful and unsuccessful-tied and undone and long periods studying diagrams of our faithful Brigantine the RCS, had prepared us for what was-for me at least-one of the most exciting moments of our journey thus far: turning off the main engine. WE WERE SAILING BABY.

After three or so days of motor sailing, during which we used our main and fore stay sails for balance, setting the squares was thrilling. It was also good incentive to learn not only the positions of the lines along the rails, but also their purposes in preparation for some healthy competition during our daily class session. Class onboard the RCS includes announcements and reports from different places around the ship: engineering, weather, navigation, science as well as more variable activities. Today's was the much anticipated line chase. A, B and C watches competed against each other to correctly locate each line and return to tag the next member of their watch in the relay. I have to take a moment to brag about my own A watch team-sporting some pretty rad colored mustaches courtesy of our TA and teammate Heidi-coming in well ahead of the rest of the competition. Thanks to lots of guidance from our watch leaders Chief Mate Ryan and Third Assistant Scientist Laura we're getting quicker and more comfortable setting and striking sails (which is a good sign since we'll need to lots more of that in the next month before reaching Honolulu).

Our triumph during the line chase is just one example of the way our classroom learning on shore translates to our daily lives on the ship. Even though Monterey seems far away, and there are certain things, like how to tend a sheet or steer by the stars rather than the compass at the helm or stay upright as the ship rolls while we are hove to on science station, things absolutely make more sense having learned some background on shore.

Our geology, biology and navigational backgrounds continue to come in handy for our next task: the great seamount hunt. Our fellow crewmember Emma, who wrote our first blog post from shore, is working on a project examining the effects of seamounts on the surrounding pelagic environment using a number of different metrics. Our cruise track passes almost directly over a line of little-known and little-studied seamounts. As a result, pinpointing their exact, or near exact locations has meant a number of jibing and tacking maneuvers-allowing us to practice sail handling-as well as having a set of eyes glued to the CHIRP sonar system in the RCS lab, which provides information about the sea floor surface bathymetry.
We successfully located and sampled at one seamount late yesterday evening and will hopefully do the same at another in the next hour or so. There's a tangible camaraderie tying the whole crew together, which means we all get excited about each other's project, offer to pour each other's iced tea at lunch and take things to one another's bunks during the day. We all do our part to make the RCS "sail for science." I like to think of the RCS as a self-contained, wind-driven, productive (and sweaty) utopia-which isn't something I've been able to say about any of my other classes at Stanford.
Thanks for reading and stay tuned for further updates on seamounts, Caroline and our small ship on the mighty Pacific.

Wishing you all fair winds,



The Great Yellowfin Adventure

A yellowfin tuna finning at the surface, swimming right.
The second dorsal fin sweeping back and the top of
the caudal (tail) fin visible.
Yesterday, in the early hours of the evening following class on the quarterdeck, I spotted a flock of birds wheeling in the distance. They were close enough that, with Captain Pamela’s permission and patience, we changed course to take a look. Birds are the sentinels of the sea – if there is food, they find it. I was sure it was  some pelagic predators pushing their prey to the surface that attracted those birds, and we were not disappointed.

We made one pass through the school of Yellowfin tuna, exclaiming as we saw them finning at the surface. The view from aloft was incredible – Hannah and Andreas acted as spotters, watching for the most tuna activity and guiding the ship. As the sun sank lower in the horizon, we motored through the school three more times, watching these breathtaking creatures do what they do best – hunt.
But we were also on the hunt. While I think I would have been happy with this gorgeous view regardless of a catch, there was also science to be done, and a salivating crew. I study tuna biomechanics – what gives these fish their swimming power, efficiency, agility, grace? Specifically on this cruise, I’m interested in the tail joint, tendons, and driving muscle groups. And so, for the time being, the SSV Robert C. Seamans turned fishing vessel.

On our fifth pass through the school, professor Barb Block called out, “Alright, one last try here.” A moment later, just as the sun touched down on the horizon, a shout went up from the quarterdeck – we had a hit! Nick seized the fishing rod, and a record struggle began, rod arching and spool singing. Night falling, Ryan switched in, followed by Robbie as we launched the small boat with Jan, Ethan, and Ryan. Several hours and sweat-soaked shirt later, Robbie stepped down to Nick. Ryan came back aboard and Robbie joined the small boat, and relieved Nick. Don took a turn. Nick picked it up once more. What a fish, to fight us for five hours, well into the darkness, and through seven shifts of fishermen!

The prize catch- the largest yellowfin ever
 landed on the RCS
At long last, we landed the tuna in the small boat, prompting a roar of cheers from the restless crowd. The fish was brought in by roped tail to the science deck-and what a beauty!  155 cm curved fork length, which puts him (a male) at around  130 to 140 pounds and about 4 years old. We laid him out and started the science and sashimi process. Our resident tuna expert and all-around pelagic predator expert Dr. Barbara Block dug in. We took samples for genomics, mercury, and stable isotopes, and also collected the fins for hydrodynamic analysis in a water tunnel upon our return to land. Amazingly there were two skipjack tunas in the Yellowfin’ s tummy.  Finally, we filleted the fine fish, saving half of the tail for my biomechanics work the next day, but plenty to fill the bellies of all aboard for many days to come.

Peace, love, and fish tales/tails,


Marina Dimitrov

UPDATE: post-dissection leftovers GLOW! WHAT? – will be investigating. This fish just keeps surprising us!

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Rubble, Rod and Reel

Last Sunday a few of us were able to take one of the Seamans’ small boats over to a motu called Tiputa at Rangiroa. ‘Motus,’ are the emergent islands that form a larger coral atoll. After a breathtaking church service, our second in French Polynesia, Gabby Chavez and I made our way over to the Pacific Ocean side of the motu where we perused a beach of coral rubble. Amongst the cobble-sized grains were a variety of organisms, dead and living, including hermit crabs and calcareous shells. There was also an extraordinary amount of garbage. It appeared to be foreign in origin as most of it was so worn as to imply a voyage across seas from far away. It was disturbing to witness the effect that our modern means of production have on even the most remote environments on Earth.

Today we enjoyed a sunset with schools of jumping tuna and dolphin in the foreground. Carefully navigating the Seamans into the school, we cast fishing lines. It was not long before we had a bite. We have spent the last several hours trying to reel in what appears to be a yellowfin tuna over 100 pounds in weight. More news to follow.


-Andreas Ratteray

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Making Our Way to Kiribati

Rangiroa and the French Overseas Territory of Polynesia are now well off our stern as we sail east northeast towards the Republic of Kiribati. Today we are getting into the rhythms of work and life during a long blue water passage. But we are also reflecting on our time together in the Tuamotu chain of seamounts and islands. Rangiroa was a wonderful stop for all aboard. We started our coral reef projects with teams studying parrot fish interactions with coral and algae as well fish biomass. With the help of locally-leased speed boats driven by wild French drivers we surveyed several widely separated reefs within the world’s second largest atoll, including a stunning little motu (islet) sitting all by itself in the center of the lagoon. One of the very best reefs is known as “The Aquarium” and was a 5 minute small boat ride from the Robert C Seamans anchor site. Nearly everyone on the ship had a chance to spend an hour or two in the company of Picasso Triggerfish, Flutefish, Banded Sargent Majors, and many more spectacularly colored “Poisson de Tahiti”. A few blacktip reef sharks cruised by, but their bellies were full and they had no interest in us gangly creatures from the land.

Those going ashore were treated to the sights and sounds of a sleepy Polynesian village full of coconut palms and fruit trees. The French influence is strong here – even at the edges of civilization one can find baguettes and good coffee. Rangiroa even boasts a vineyard and winery – unusual for a hot tropical isle and we were told the product suffered some deficiencies. A number of students and staff woke early Sunday morning for the board ride to the village of Tipatu where they attended a church service given in Polynesian. On Monday, May 11th, we terminated scientific missions and shore leave at 1100 to prepare for clearing immigrations and customs out of French Polynesia. After all aboard were seen by the authorities, passports were stamped, and the ship was prepared for sea. Leaving Rangiroa can be tricky. The main navigable channel connects a very large lagoon to the open sea. Tidal currents regularly exceed 6 knots in the channel, producing 5 foot standing waves and massive whirlpools. For our departure, we balanced a waning ebb tidal bore against the onset of dusk. At 1735L, with Stanford@SEA students at the helm, Captain Pamela safely guided the Robert C Seamans out of the lagoon and into deep waters north of Rangiroa.

Winds are light and sea is glassy as we sail towards Kiribati. All aboard seem to have acquired their sea legs and appetites for the fabulous food prepared by chef Vicky. Everyone aboard is safe, healthy, and happy and we send all you landlubbers our fondest regards.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Adventures on Tiputa

Sunday mass on Tiputa
Ia’ Orana! The time is 0434 on May 11th, and we are currently anchored off Rangiroa. There is a light NE wind, with alto-cumulus clouds blocking the view of most stars. I am just coming off of anchor watch from 0300 to 0420. Today will be our last day in the Rangiroa lagoon, and we will be sailing towards Carolina Island by 1800 tonight. Yesterday at 0815, Andreas, Gaby, Lara, Nick, Heidi and I suited up in our Sunday best and headed toward Tiputa, a smaller motu (island) of Rangiroa that houses a sleepy town with the same name. Our destination was the small Catholic church of Tiputa, where mass began at 0900. Since European contact and the arrival of missionaries, Christianity has heavily influenced Polynesian society. Yesterday morning some of us we were headed to church to experience how people on Rangiroa practiced Christianity.

We arrived at the church just as singing voices began drifting out. Seemingly simple and white from the outside, the church interior was painted a vibrant light blue. White pendant flags hung from the ceiling and colorful stained glass windows let light into the large room. Most of the churchgoers wore white, and many children crawled on their parents’ laps or sat patiently in the front rows. The service consisted mostly of songs, which, despite our deficient knowledge of Tahitian language, we were able to follow along because the words were projected on a small area in the front of the church. Each time it was time to sing, a tall woman in white stood up in the front row, and conducted the congregation. Her infectious smile was accompanied by an impressive set of pipes. Last Sunday, a group of students including myself attended a church service in Pape’ete, the major city of Tahiti. In comparison to the service on Tiputa, the service in Pape’ete was mainly spoken in French, and included an older and larger crowd. During that service, one of the members of the church asked us where our group was visiting from. She then acknowledged our presence during the announcements portion of the service, and had us all stand up. Though we clearly stood out during the service at Tiputa, only curious gazes from children indicated the unusual nature of our presence.   

Sitting in the church yesterday, my vision started to get dizzy. At first, I thought that I was dehydrated, so I quickly drank more water. However, I soon realized that I was experiencing what sailors call “land sickness”. My brain had grown accustomed to the heaving and sighing of the ship and was continuing to correct for that motion even while on land. I later found out that other students also experienced land sickness that day, including shipmate Anna. Are we real sailors yet? Only a few days into the trip, and our bodies were more adapted to life on the sea than on land. Robert C. Seamans, or Bobby C., has become a home for many of us. The prevalence of bare feet and musical jam sessions on the top of the doghouse suggests a level a comfort associated with home. Bobby C. allows us dream, while still demanding our devotion during watch hours. Mau Ruru for reading, and until next time, this is shipmate Erica Knox. 

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Happy Mother's Day from Rangiroa

Happy Mother’s Day! We’re all thinking of you and are all so thankful to be here, at Rangiroa — thank you for everything! (And yes, we’re all putting on lots of sunscreen and drinking water and getting as much sleep as possible.)

That's a moray...
The highlight of my day was the snorkel trip to the nearby motu, followed by a short walk around the town of Tiputa. Although Doug and I had already snorkeled at the motu, we were eager to return for the breathtaking abundance and diversity of life. I recognized some individuals, such as a moray eel poking its green head out of its nook in the reef. Today, some fish were cleaning its teeth! The aptly named Christmas tree worms decorated the hard corals. Whenever I dove down to get a closer look, they would yank in their bristly appendages. The trip to the motu left me humbled by the intricacy and dynamism of the reef ecosystem.

Christmas tree worms
After a quick soldier’s shower (60 seconds or less of running fresh water), we took the Defender from the S.S.V. Seamans to the nearby Tiputa port. It being Sunday, not many people were around. Doug and I unsuccessfully searched for a baguette, on which he could spend his last Polynesian Francs. The journey ended up, as all good expeditions do, with a walk along the length of the oblong motu, talking about life (naturally, issues in the American education system and the importance of a multi-faceted approach to confronting environmental awareness) and marveling at the local flora and fauna (apparently there are pine trees in the tropics!). We returned to the S.S.V. Seamans at sunset, just in time for journaling on top of the Dog House, accompanied by three ukuleles, a guitar, and singing. No one remembers the lyrics to Vance Joy’s “Riptide.”

In other important news, I had my first ever TimTam Slam today. Vickie set out the New Zealand, chocolate-covered wafer cookies for ‘midrats’ (midnight rations). To properly slam a TimTam, one nibbles off the ends of the rectangular cookie. Then, using the TimTam as a straw, one dips one end of the wafer into a drink of choice and sucks on the other end. Second Mate, Scotty (shout out to B-Watch!) recommends coffee or hot chocolate. Once one has sufficiently saturated the wafer of the TimTam, one pops it in one’s mouth for a mouthful of TimTam Slam. It’s life-changing.

Heading to Rangiroa

The seventh Stanford@SEA class arrived in Tahiti and after loading aboard students, equipment and lots of food is headed for an adventure in French Polynesia and Kiribati. We cast off our lines at 16:00 from the port and headed out towards Rangiroa. The students are full of enthusiasm and along with Stanford faculty Rob Dunbar, Barbara Block and SEA chief scientist Jan Witting the science and nautical instructors are looking forward to an ambitious sail plan. The seas are relatively calm, weather is balmy and the trip ahead looks fantastic.

We plan to conduct reef surveys at populated and unpopulated islands and atolls, blue water oceanography and deployments across the equatorial regions that are experiencing above average oceanic warming associated with a significant El Nino event. Stanford students have prepared for the trip for five weeks at Hopkins Marine Station and practical oceanographic experience will begin within a day.

I know I am looking forward to a great cruise with a fantastic group of students a wonderful instruction team from SEA in Woods Hole, Mass.

-Barbara Block

Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Journey Begins

The Robert C. Seamans at port in Papeete, Tahiti
It feels as though months have passed since I flew to Tahiti just one week ago.  With my friends back at Stanford bogged down with week-six midterms, I thought it couldn't get much better than living in a bungalow in Moorea and spending my free time exploring the island.  But these last couple of days have proved me wrong.

I'll admit - I had my reservations when I first saw my tiny bunk with a single drawer and shelf and felt the sweltering heat in the cabins below deck.  I sweat out all the water I had drunk on Thursday as I unpacked, only to realize I would inevitably need to sleep with my backpack and some of my clothes in my bed.  And whether it was fatigue from a lack of sleep or the beginnings of seasickness, I wasn't very hungry when dinner rolled around and woke up shaky from my nap before my first watch.  But the nausea went away quickly after a chocolate chip cookie and some time at the helm, and I soon found myself enjoying every minute of midwatch.

In the last 24 hours, I've steered the Robert C. Seamans using only the stars, seen a flying fish glide for several meters over the water, and felt the luffing of a sail as I handled its line.  I don't think I'll ever get tired of standing lookout at the front of the ship and watching the swells shift colors under the clouds as we barely skirt the storm clouds overhead.

And another unanticipated perk of life on the Seamans: the food is delicious
- thank you Vickie!

To briefly recap our first two days on the ship, we set sail around 15:45 on Thursday evening, and all three watches have had at least two shifts so far.

We caught our first fish, a wahoo, this morning and brought in a skipjack tuna this afternoon during class.  Today we held our first class on the quarterdeck and ran two emergency preparedness drills, and while I've been fortunate enough to avoid seasickness (knock-on-wood), others have not been so lucky.  Despite the heat, I've found that sleeping comes pretty easily after a busy watch, and learning the stars under a beautifully clear night sky has been much easier than identifying them through the clouds and city lights in Monterey.

Tomorrow morning we'll arrive at Rangiroa, and I'm looking forward to being on dawn watch when we first sight the island (so I guess I should probably get some sleep).  The next four and a half weeks are going to be challenging, especially without contact with family and friends (we miss you Zach!), but I can't wait to spend the rest of this quarter on Mama Seamans getting to know her 38 amazing crew members.

Until next time,

Friday, May 8, 2015

The Voyage is Under Way!

This is a quick note to all of you who are following this voyage. My name is Randy Kochevar and I will be updating the map (to the left, if you are on, as well as posting blogs and photos during the voyage. I will link blog posts to the map as well as I can - but as you will see, the blogs tend to come along a day or two after the map is updated.

Best wishes,