SEA Semester: Adventure with a Purpose
In the fall of 2016, I had the opportunity to enroll as a student in a SEA Semester program called The Global Ocean.
SEA Semester is a non-profit educational organization whose mission is dedicated to the exploration, understanding and stewardship of marine environments. SEA Semester operates two tall-ship sailing vessels, the SSV Corwith Cramer and SSV Robert C Seamans, which operate out of Woods Hole, Massachusetts and serve as sites for field research expeditions, with students attending from undergraduate institutions all over the world. Each ship is equipped with scientific gear of deployment in order to collect oceanographic data for research projects, designed by students throughout their study.
The captains, faculty, and crew involved with these voyages promote a deep connection to the ocean by immersing students in the maritime traditions of traveling at sea, while simultaneously conducting and learning about oceanographic research and navigational strategies.
Ultimately, as part of the SEA curriculum, students are expected to become full-time participating crew members and scientists while at sea. Apart from all general academic responsibilities throughout the at-sea component of the curriculum, students have the unique opportunity to form intimate friendships, observe spectacular wildlife and fauna, and witness breath-taking landscapes and seascapes with support from the SEA Semester staff members and crew. The SEA Semester experience changed my life.
As an undergraduate student and later a professional crew member with SEA Semester, I sailed Caribbean Sea and Northern Atlantic Ocean, collecting scientific data and cooking for over 30-40 crew members, students, and faculty each day. I learned much about the necessary sacrifice, daily routine, and highly focused communication style that is required for the environmental dynamic of a tall-ship to function appropriately. Meanwhile, I also learned about the deeper environmental impacts of our human dependency on the ocean, historical shifts in maritime policy and culture, and how food preparation can play a central role in fueling the ability for a ship’s community to thrive.
A Unique Perspective: Sailing Through the North Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea
My particular cruise track extended from Barcelona, Palma de Mallorca, Cadiz, to Gran Canaria – all Spanish port cities. We, as students, had already set up our research projects and academic materials to bring with us for this voyage during the land component of the SEA curriculum in Woods Hole. We were keen to finally be putting into practice everything that we had been learning about in the classroom, which included collecting data, sail-handling techniques, and teamwork dynamics within our watch groups.
Upon arrival, I remember feeling slightly nervous (mostly about sea-sickness), yet also enthusiastic for the chance to immerse into an unknown territory – a vast, watery one that was about to become our home. At certain points, we were told, that there would be no visible point of land in any direction! We would ultimately be responsible to maintain an indispensable hierarchy of the ship, our shipmates, and ourselves at various points at sea during this six-week educational journey.
The first major step for any new mariner is to overcome the initial sea sickness… It took some of us a few hours, and others a few days, to gain our ‘sea legs,’ which essentially signified our bodies’ natural adjustment to the ship as a dynamic point for circadian stability. Our bunks were as simple as a hole in the wall (literally), and we were required to place all of our belongings in this small space. When I saw this new temporary ‘room’ upon my arrival, I immediately wished that I had packed less clothes and more essential materials! I soon would learn that living on a vessel requires a minimalist and conservative mentality in order to preserve essential resources, energy, and time that make community living more organized and enjoyable for everyone aboard.
While at sea, the students, scientists, and crew conducted many scientific deployments throughout our voyage. The captains and professional crew would coordinate our projected path along a series of vectors that ensured all data points for student research were secured and included, while also taking into account natural daily factors such as currents, winds, and weather. Navigation was an important concept, and students were required to make hourly log entries and navigational plots – by practicing and reading maps/charts with skills obtained from prior coursework. Classes, presentations, lectures, and safety drills were usually held in the afternoon, while the science team would report the days findings and report upon the surrounding atmosphere and oceanographic conditions.
My watch group (C-Watch) during this student program consisted of some of the most spontaneous, bright, and cheerful companions I could have ever asked to work alongside – some of whom also ended up becoming very close friends after the program was finished. Together we steered the ship, set and struck sails, ate delicious snacks, climbed aloft (up the rig), and watched the stars reflect against the body of bioluminescence floating in the water beneath the bow of the ship.
My personal favorite time of day was mealtime - breakfast, lunch, and dinner – which occurred on a set schedule. The professional stewards prepared home-made and family-style meals that were served on gimballed tables, and all portions were shared equally amongst students, crew, and any others.
Particularly on this program, I remember eating delicious homemade breads and biscuits (because processed bread would mold too easily) and fresh caught octopus/seafood (from the markets in various port stops), which elicited a deeper sense of maritime tradition and connection to the ocean. I also believe that all students quickly learned how important food was to both our collective nutrition, health, and cognitive morale, which needs to be sustainable, adaptable, and diverse for this type of learning environment.
Two years later, I returned to work as an assistant steward for SEA Semester, this time as a certified professional crew member. In 2018, I was offered a position to work alongside one other steward in the galley during two student programs for Williams-Mystic and Penn State - plus a yard (or maintenance) period, in and around the port of San Juan, Puerto Rico. The cruise track for both of these programs included a 10-13 day circumnavigation of Puerto Rico. While I had never been to Puerto Rico before, I was also looking forward to immersing in and exploring a new seascape. I soon was able to recognize the strong level of professionalism and commitment that all captains, scientists, stewards, engineers, mates, and deckhands possessed, while personally aiming to foster a connection between the deep ocean and the ship for new incoming students. This passion I met in the workplace was tremendous and remains something I am very grateful for to this date.
SEA Semester: Changing Paradigms
As climate change risks, threats, and damages confront more coastal communities, I believe that understanding and learning about the fundamental principles of sustainability, oceanography, and maritime history and culture are a necessity – especially for scientific organizations that advocate for evidence-driven solutions. It is now critical to discuss the ways in which community-driven educational initiatives are enabling positive global change, especially in response to the denial of credible science from current political administrators and other national lobbyist groups.
While humans have been the driving factor behind these major issues, it is also within our power to work together to become a source of inspiration, knowledge, and capital that may reverse and mitigate these environmental problems through advocacy and education. Making the global shift toward a sustainable set of values that promote the well-being of the environment, and ultimately our species, represents a herculean but surmountable challenge our community currently faces.
SEA Semester works with various oceanographic institutions, agencies, businesses, and non-profits to extend this philosophy into the broader community of marine research – with the aim of informing policy makers and enabling positive change in this field. My experiences with SEA Semester are evidence that it does a highly successful job of educating the public sphere on critical issues, while also adding the benefit of a multi-cultural, unique sense of immersion that other programs simply do not offer.
It is my hope that this program will continue to inspire people to invest in the conservation and protection of natural resources, while also looking into ways to get involved with organizations that already support, enable, and advocate for positive environmental change.