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Watching the Phoenix Rise

April 20 2018

The Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) is the worlds largest and deepest UNESCO World Heritage Site. Discovered by science in 2000 to be replete with stunning, delicate, and mature coral reefs, they were devastated by bleaching in 2002-03, and have been slowly recovering amidst additional bleaching in 2010 and 2015. But getting out to one of the most remote coral reefs on earth to document their progress and ecological succession isn't easy.

However, we have a plan. We are going to use OpenROV technology to try to acquire photoquadrats aboard an oceanographic sail ship, using student power! If successful, we will have found a way to enable annual photo transects of one of the most remote underwater wildernesses on the planet.

April 20 2018


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Mission Underway

Into the Protected Area
Brian Desrosiers, C Watch, Northeastern University

Hello all,

Brian here again, and what an exciting few days it's been! My classmate and shipmate Andrew spoke about crossing the equator and what an experience that was. I didn't realize how much of a feat it was to cross from the Northern Hemisphere into the Southern and I was so enthralled with the festivities that I even allowed myself to get an equatorial haircut! Shortly after, we crossed into PIPA and now the real fun begins.

At exactly 1900 last night we reached our first waypoint in the Phoenix Islands and data collection began like clockwork. Luckily for me, I was in the lab last night and was able to witness the stunning productivity of these waters first hand. As we turned on the Science Deck floodlights and prepared our deployments, the water was illuminated and revealed a spectacular scene.

Hundreds of squid were swimming around chasing down myctophids for dinner. Occasionally, one would launch itself into the air in a desperate attempt to catch the elusive myctophids. Because of their acrobatics and bioluminescent properties, these squid have earned themselves the common name of neon flying squid. After watching in awe for a couple minutes, we got back to hard work deploying our Hydrocast and slew of nets in order to gather samples from the waters. A few hours later when our deployments were done, we were able to completely appreciate the productivity first hand. My shipment Sadie, who was also on lab duty, and I, spent what felt like forever washing all the biomass out of our Tucker Trawl Net.

When our chief scientist Gabo came over to inspect our work under bright white light, it was revealed that we still had a long way to go. We spent another hour washing all of the zooplankton and biomass out of the net into sample buckets and Gabo remarked how she has never seen anything quite like it. As 0100 passed and I headed below to crash in my bunk I looked off our stern and saw a solid glowing, green trail of bioluminescent water and this evening we were treated to a spectacular sunset that pictures do not do justice. We truly are in a remarkable place.

The next few weeks are going to consist of lots of hard work and lots of fun. We will continue to zigzag our way through the protected area deploying our gear at predetermined waypoints. Tomorrow, we will see our first sight of land, Enderbury Island. We will not make landfall there however, but it will be nice to know that in this vastness of the Southern Pacific Ocean land does exist.

By Friday we will reach Kanton and make our first island stop. I am beyond excited to explore the coral of its lagoon and hopefully will get to see a few small sharks! These next few weeks in PIPA will fly bye and I hope you all stay tuned to see and hear more of our adventure!


0 degrees North, 0 degrees South. The Equator!
Andrew Chin, A-Watch, University of Washington

The ship's company gathered on the quarterdeck today a little before 0700, with C-Watch bleary-eyed but excited from their dawn watch. Captain Rick gave the order to throttle back on the main engine, slowing to a steady 2.7 knots under sail power. With our four lowers and Brian at the helm, we watched the GPS tick down, down, down to 0°00.00'N, hold for a moment, switch to 0°00.00'S, then begin tick back up in latitude. We cheered! My name is Andrew Chin, and together with my shipmates, we sailed 1546 nautical miles to reach the Equator, a place of unique importance for both oceanography and mariners.

The Equator is a fascinating place in the global ocean, as it where the southern and northern hemispheres meet. The southern hemisphere is a place quite unlike the northern. The northern hemisphere has an abundance of land, the southern mostly vast ocean; the seasons are flipped; even the ocean moves differently. The Northern and Southern Equatorial Currents flow in opposite directions from each other (east and west, respectively), allowing deep, nutrient-rich water to rise to the surface. This creates an area of high primary productivity, supporting an abundance of life. In the days leading up to the crossing, we observed this richness firsthand: sighting flocks of seabirds feeding on forage fishes, peering into diverse 100-counts of zooplankton, and numerous hookups of tuna on our handlines (though sadly landing none of them). In order to directly examine this amazing productivity first-hand, we maneuvered back into the position over the Equator and deployed our sampling equipment. As I watched the hydrocast descend to collect water samples at different depths, it was humbling to know we were taking a hard look at such an important, but under-studied part of the ocean.

Crossing the Equator has tremendous significance for mariners as well. Charts are changed over, the stars to steer by and pinpoint latitude change, and the plain fact remains that we are a long way from home. Therefore, crossing the Equator is a milestone; those sailors who have crossed the line are known as "shellbacks." Those who have not crossed the Equator are deemed "pollywogs"; these pollywogs must "pay tribute" to Neptune and his court and pass his trials to prove their worth. As all of the students (and a few of the crew) were pollywogs, we wrote poems, sang, performed, and cut our hair, to celebrate the crossing. In the end, we proved ourselves to Neptune and tucked into a delicious shellback cake prepared by our steward, Sabrina. Don't worry parents and loved ones: haircuts were optional, and all are very stylish.

Tonight, as I am writing this entry, the Robert C. Seamans marks another momentous occasion: we cross into the borders of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, our long-awaited destination. Now, we begin our work in earnest, hoping to draw valuable data and first-hand experiences from one of the wildest and untouched places on Earth. The crew is excited to see land and beautiful coral reefs, but there is some apprehension. In the aftermath of the short-term climate shift known as El Niño, when sea temperatures rise dramatically, coral reefs can be greatly degraded and the life-giving upwelling nutrients can be cut off. Previous voyages have seen dramatic changes in PIPA in the wake of El Niño, (which occur on an irregular basis, from decadal to multi-year time scales), and the 2015-2017 event may have some lingering effects. However, PIPA has bounced back from previous El Niño events, reflecting a healthy, resilient ecosystem. Whatever we see, we will be among special company; few humans have the opportunity to give first-hand accounts to the beauty and changes in this slice of the tropical Pacific. Stay excited, and we'll see you on the other side!


My home away from home
Lucas Asher, University of Chicago

We continue to draw nearer and nearer to the equator-news that Sadie mentioned yesterday and will probably continue to be repeated until we actually cross (estimated to be sometime on Tuesday). We aboard are all preparing our "rituals" for the crossing: in some sailing traditions you shave your head when you cross the equator and in others a musical "offering to Neptune" is given by those who have not sailed across the equator before (the students and not a small number of the staff!) We've been making pretty good time, but it is incredible what the difference between making 6 knots (~8 land miles per hour) and making the slower, 2 knots speed required for our science deployments.

By now, you've heard a lot about what life at sea is like; from the science to the activities to the sail handling. What you haven't heard as much about is what life is like belowdeck. You may think that "going below" would be cooler-the sun isn't blasting you, you're safe from sunburn, and all of the work is happening over your head. On deck, however, has the beauty of a breeze, while belowdeck can feel a bit stifling. We fortunately all have fans in our bunks to keep us cool(ish) at night, but the heat below makes on deck truly the preferred place to hang out when you aren't sleeping or eating.

Speaking of sleeping, I think we've all found a new preferred way to wake up in the morning. To avoid alarms going off at all hours of the night and day, as one watch is getting up to take the deck and another is comfortably in the middle of their time to sleep, twenty minutes before each meal / an hour before you are due on watch, the current watch sends someone to gently awaken you by calling your name. These gentle wakeups are accompanied by a reminder of what time it is, when the next thing you should be doing is (the next meal or the start of your watch), and usually a weather report. Way better than an alarm clock. (Now. to my friends at college reading this. who wants to come wake me up before class every morning next year?)

I was on dawn watch this morning, so my eyes are starting to glaze over as I type this; I'm going to go collapse into my bunk until gently awoken for class.

Preparation Stage

Following the Trade Winds to Kiribati
Nate Johnson, Amherst College

Hello Everyone! My name is Nate Johnson and I'm here to bring you the fourth installment in the S-281 blog. For several days now, we've been able to cruise along the trade winds towards Kiribati, and today we just crossed the line marking 1000 nautical miles to PIPA. If all goes well, we should cross the Marine Protected Area's borders in one week! The sun continues to arc behind mostly cloudy skies, although that offers little respite from the heat, and the layers of sunscreen continue to pile up. Winds have started to pick up; forcing us to pull in some of the main sail, and with this change the boat has been running smoothly at 7-8 knots heading 200°, slightly southwest.

As the bouts of seasickness have all but passed for the whole crew, and our sea legs have gotten under us, we have been able to sink into a consistent schedule of scientific deployments. I have been able to work on two of these so far, both including a hydrocast, which collects water samples from a carousel that gets dropped down to ~600m and a Neuston tow, which collects fish larvae, plankton and all kinds of biomass. Unfortunately, we have also been picking up a significant amount of plastic. This has not, however, dulled the excitement of the deploying crews.

The evening deployments are a sight out of Fantasia, as bright blue flashes emanate from the bioluminescent plankton washing out of our net. This morning's deployment, made challenging by the heavy winds and hefty swells, was no less exciting. As we pulled back the net and peered into the collecting and saw endless wriggling copepods, flying fish and anchovy larvae, our 2nd scientist, Gabo, nearly grabbed a Portuguese Man o' War, a gelatinous organism teeming with excruciatingly painful stinging cells. Luckily, her vigilance and experience paid off and she was able to spot it and end any possibility of a painful end. As we continue to run twice daily deployments, our data set will fill out and state of PIPA in 2018 will begin to paint itself before us.

As we have started to grow accustom to the schedule, the rest of the students and I have begun to explore ways to enjoy this 134' beauty, instead of sleeping the hours away in between watches. My watch (C watch) had the morning shift today, and after being relieved by A watch at 13:00, we decided to spend the hour and a half break before class lounging in the bowsprit. For those of you who don't know, the bowsprit is a ~12ft hefty steel beam that extends off the bow of the ship and which houses the two forward-most sails on the Seamans, the Jib, Jib tops'l and their accompanying lines. Underneath this beam is a precarious bundle of netting that extends about 4ft out to either side, just wide enough for two people to lay side-by-side. Those of us who didn't retire to our bunks below deck were able to climb out and laze in the net, mere feet above the rolling seas beneath us. The cool sea breeze was a welcome departure from the hot, tiring work on deck. The serenity of the moment was only occasionally punctuated with an anxiety-inducing (especially considering I had my Nikon DSLR in hand) roll over a particularly large swell. As we sail ever closer to PIPA, these moments of calmness and beauty will certainly only continue.


Adjusting to Life at Sea
Annabel Spranger, Denison University

Hi y'all! It's Annabel, or AB, as I'm known on the ship. We are on our fourth day at sea, and honestly I'm starting to lose track of time. When I'm not on watch, I'm in class or eating. And when I'm not in class or eating, I am curled up in my bunk, being rocked to sleep by the waves.

Adjusting to life at sea has been interesting. We never get to sleep at the same time and sometimes I'm crawling into my bunk just as the sun comes up, while other times I'm getting woken up at midnight to go stand watch. I have realized very quickly that being on my feet for 6-12 hours a day is much harder in sandals and on a boat that is constantly rocking side to side. I also really overestimated my sea legs- they were not as good as I thought they were, but they have gotten better. And unlike some very fortunate people on the trip, I did succumb to sea sickness the first couple days. Luckily, I think that storm has passed. But getting to have a little break from smartphones and social media has been good. I've had a lot of time with my thoughts, a lot of time to write, and a lot of time to take in all the sights.

I am also lucky because I chose a very exciting day to choose to write the blog. Today during our ship meeting/oceanography class, we were discussing sea birds, when we saw a dozen of them feeding on the horizon, likely on a school of fish underneath the sea surface. Just as we were all looking to them, someone announced that we had a fish on the line. After a lot of reeling, we pulled a small Mahi Mahi onto the boat! And that's what we had for dinner. It was delicious, as is most of the food our steward cooks.

I think my absolute favorite part of the trip so far is lookout on night watches, being up at the bow all alone, with millions of stars above, and bioluminescent plankton below. I know it's an important task, being the eyes of the ship, and it also gives me some time to think about how small we are and how big this world is. It makes it a lot easier to not miss my loved ones at home, because I know we are all under the same sky, watching the same sunsets and sunrises. It reminds me to be thankful for this experience because it is a once in a lifetime chance, and we have access to people, things, and places that not many other people get. In my time up at look out, I have been spending it thinking of gratitude.


Student Blogs Begin!
Brian Desrosiers, Northeastern University

Hello all!

Brian Desrosiers here to kick off our student-written blog posts. Currently, we are three days underway and are making great time. Adjusting to life at sea has been a cumbersome task. Irregular sleep patterns, only seeing water as far as the eye can see, and sea sickness are all things that we have to get used to. Luckily for me, I seem to have escaped the sea sickness curse (no medication necessary) and have won the price of a Dunkin iced coffee in the process, thanks Makaila. Unfortunately, others have not been so lucky and are continuing in "making their donations to Poseidon". As we sail towards the Phoenix Islands, a wealth of knowledge is being transferred from brilliant minds to us, the students. At times it can seem overwhelming and the thought of getting a few hours sleep, even if it's in the middle of the day, is what seems like the only thing that keeps us moving. However, we all know how amazing and unique this experience is and take every task and hardship with a smile and an optimistic mindset longing for the day when we finally get to see one of Earth's last undisturbed marine habitats.

Last night was my first dawn watch taking place from 01:00 to 07:00. This has been by far my favorite experience thus far. After being woken up at the earliest hours of the morning, we headed on deck to survey the scene and take over from the night watch. What we saw was incredible. Looking up at the night sky felt like I was dreaming. Having spent the majority of my last few years living in the beautiful city of Boston, being able to see the stars encompass the whole night sky only ending at the horizon was breathtaking. The Milky Way, stars, and planets that I had never seen before faintly lit up the deck and a sudden peacefulness fell over me as I looked out at the waves gently rolling across the seascape. I felt like this is exactly where I am supposed to be. However, the coolest part wasn't what you saw when you looked up; it was when you looked down. In the wake of the Robert C. Seamans was thousands of bioluminescent plankton. The sea seemed to sparkle almost as much as the sky. This is a phenomenon that I have only heard about and I cannot put into words how beautiful it looked. As the watch came to an end, we were treated to the faint glow of the sun on the horizon and the relief of the next watch. As C watch descended below to grab a quick breakfast before collapsing in bed, we took a brief moment to think and talk about how truly lucky we are to have this experience and how much we are looking forward to continuing this adventure.

It is currently 16:20 and I have a long night watch ahead of me so I need to go try and steal a few hours of sleep. I look forward to you all following along with our adventure and am excited for you to here from the perspectives of other students. If I'm lucky, I'll be able to write more blogs to share my experiences! Best wishes to everyone in the outside world and we will all see you soon!


For a few hours now, we've been sailing at steady 8-9 knots with a fine
trade wind on our backs. Squeezed between the tall Hawaiian Islands, the winds funnel into the jets that are now speeding us along toward the Phoenix Islands. With 25 knots of wind come commensurate seas, and the Seamans is lunging down some waves as the bigger ones catch our stern and we accelerate away. It has been only a few hours out of the bustling port of Honolulu, and we're already in the middle of the ocean, alone, a ship going about its mission.

Our mission is to sail to the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA), a huge marine reserve set aside by the Republic of Kiribati to protect a tropical archipelago of coral atoll islands and the ocean around them. The area, about the size of California, is also the deepest UNESCO World Heritage Site, and as such a place well worth visiting. The trouble is it is very difficult to get to, and because of this difficulty it has remained very poorly studied and consequently poorly understood until late. And yet with these protections, surely, we want to know what is being protected?

Our expedition, launched by the Sea Education Association in partnership with Boston University and PIPA managers in Kiribati, is the fifth of its kind on board the Robert C. Seamans. Our expeditions have been the only oceanographic surveys within PIPA, and these 19 undergraduates and 15 scientists and crew on board now will add the next chapter in the knowledge of the ocean inside PIPA. We will be using the ship's sophisticated oceanographic tools to explore the area, and the results of our voyage will add to our five-year data set exploring how the ocean in PIPA might be changing in this time of warming global climates and rising sea levels.

Though we just left, our mission began in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, on SEA's campus on June 11th. For three intensive weeks, the students received a torrent of information about oceanography, marine policy and seamanship. The last topic looms large now, as the students are challenged to be an integral part of our sailing ship's crew. They'll participate in all of the work of the ship carried on in three watches, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

These are our first hours at sea, ahead more than 3000 nautical miles of sailing and another 37 days of hard work. Also, ahead many sublime sights; starry skies, bioluminescent wakes at night, remote coral reefs with countless fish. In the coming blogs, you'll hear the voices of our crew telling you about the voyage, our ship, each other, PIPA, and the important work we'll carry out there.

There is a lot of excitement about finally getting underway all that lies ahead, and I know everyone is equally excited about the opportunity to tell you about our voyage through the entries of this blog yet to come. I hope you'll join us and read on!

Jan Witting Chief Scientist, Sea Education Association / SEA Semester


Airports are such funny places. I travel a ton, and every single time I travel I always think to myself: "gosh, there are just SO MANY DIFFERENT human faces and phenotypes out there". It really is amazing. 7.6 billion and counting, and we all are unique.

So, it's really amazing when you run into someone in the airport. I always do a double-take, wondering if that person is the person I'm looking for, or just a doppelganger. Well, as it happens, I was transiting home from Tarawa, and I just happened to be at the airport at the same time as Jacob, from my lab, who was heading to Honolulu to depart in a few days for PIPA. In essence, as he's heading out to Kiribati, I was heading back from Kiribati (you can read more about that here. Small world!

The SEA team has been busily working and preparing for their trip here in the Atlantic (see pic below), but now as they all head off to the Pacific, there is excitement and buzz all around with last minute prep, travel, etc.

After 40+ hours of my own travel, I headed back to the airport a mere 6 hours later to see Rosie & Moamoa off to HI as well.

For this trip, I'll be supporting from Boston, while Moamoa, Jacob, Jan, and others journey to my favorite MPA in the world: The Phoenix Islands Protected Area. But until then, I'll keep my eyes open... not everyone has left for HI yet, and ya never know who you might run into next....

Happy 4th!


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Class has begin! Prior to sailing, there is a 2-week shore component. The students have arrived, including an i-Kiribati student and Observer, Moamoa. She is hard at work learning navigational charts and the science of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA), but she is up to the task.

My favorite part of the shore component is meeting all the students, telling them the story and history of PIPA, and watching the whole room get goosebumps at the same time. Me too!

The story is really that good. After all, when a least developed nation makes a marine protected are the size of California... BEFORE everyone else did.... that was a giant act of conservation. I should tell you the story in more detail, and I will, I promise, when I'm in a goosebump-y mood and I'm not crazy busy packing. But until then.... I promise, it will be worth the wait. :-)

Expedition Background

Since 2014, Sea Education Association (SEA) has worked in partnership with the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) to bring ~20 undergraduate students from the US and abroad to PIPA as part of their SEA Semester study abroad program. In partnership with collaborators at Boston University and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, this team has committed to 10 years worth of study on the basic physical, chemical, and oceanography of PIPA. In parallel, PIPA scientists have been studying the coral reefs at irregular intervals, due to funding and logistical constraints, but have nonetheless managed to maintain a database of photoquadrats dating back to the year 2000. With almost two decades of data and three bleaching events, this is an incredible natural laboratory to study reef resilience. SEA has the ship. SEA and BU have the students. SEA, BU, Scripps, and WHOI have the collaborative scientific expertise. And now - we have the tech to try to enable students to take the data we need without SCUBA. The Phoenix Islands have been rising from the ashes.... and now we hope to be able to watch the process.

This expedition will leave from Honolulu, HI on July 5 and arrive in Pago Pago on August 13.

Project collaborators: Jan Witting, SEA; Randi Rotjan, Boston University; Jacob Jaskiel, Boston University; The Republic of Kiribati; Stuart Sandin & Jen Smith, Scripps Institution of Oceanography; Sangeeta Mangubhai, WCS; Simon Thorrold & Anne Cohen, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; The Republic of Kiribati and the Phoenix Islands Protected Area

This is so awesome Randi! Did you know you can add your collaborators directly to the expedition so they can post too?

I had no idea. Thanks David - I'll add them to both projects!