In one week, I will be starting one of the most exciting adventures of my life. For the past four weeks, I have been studying at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station (which you can learn more about by reading one of my past posts here) in a program called Stanford at Sea. The program is associated with SEA, Sea Education Association, and it teaches students about the ocean in a very practical, hands-on, and immersive way. We have one more week of the shore component, in which we have been taking classes and preparing for the sea component, which will start during the first week of May. Next weekend, I will be flying to Tahiti and boarding our ship, SSV Robert C. Seamans, in the capital city of Papeete.

Here are some pictures of our majestic ship, courtesy of SEA:

Once we board the Robert C. Seamans, we will chart the ship from Tahiti to Hawaii, stopping at many islands in between. Our first stop after Papeete will be Rangiroa, a large atoll in French Polynesia famous for its black pearls. Next, we will make our way to Millenium Island, also known as Millenium Atoll, Caroline Atoll, Caroline Island, and Karorina. Confusing, I know! It is called Millenium Island name because it was one of the first locations on Earth to reach the new millenium (year 2000) first. Even though it is technically east of the International Date Line, Millenium Island is part of the nation of Kiribati (pronounced “Kiribas”), which contains islands thousands of miles apart. The International Date Line actually has a small section that stretches east to encompass Millenium Island so that all of Kiribati is in the same time zone, like so:


Millenium Island is uninhabited by humans, as is our next stop in Malden Island (a.k.a. Independence Island), and is considered to be one of the most pristine tropical ecosystems on the planet. After Malden, we will cross the Equator and stop in Christmas Island, or Kiritimati, the biggest island in Kiribati. Christmas Island has a population of over 11,000 people, and I am looking forward to meeting many new friends on the island and learning about their culture and way of life. Next, we will go to Fanning Island, also known as Fanning Atoll and Tabuaeran, which is also in the Republic of Kiribati, and has a population of about 2,000 people. After that, we will enter a stretch of continuous blue ocean and end our voyage in Honolulu in mid June. Here is a picture of the path of our voyage:

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Image courtesy of Google Earth

As you may have noticed, we are visiting many atolls on our voyage, and an atoll is very different from an island. For comparison, here is a satellite image of Christmas Island and a satellite image of Rangiroa:

Atolls are not made up of much solid ground at all – most consist of a very thin band of land around the outside and have a blue freshwater lagoon on the inside. The width of the land is often small enough to walk from the ocean side to the lagoon side in under five minutes! This is such a unique land formation, and I’m very excited to see it and experience it very soon. It is also sobering to think that I will be visiting Kiribati, a nation that will be completely underwater within 50 years due to sea level rise caused by climate change.

During the shore component, we have been taking three different classes to prepare for our time at sea:

  • Maritime Studies – Discussed the relationship between humans and the ocean, starting with European exploration and going through modern regulation and decision-making. It was especially interesting to learn about the history of European and American involvement in the Pacific, and the impact that this trade and exploration had on the environment and the native population.
  • Oceanography – Learned about the biology, geology, chemistry, and physics of the ocean, from tuna physiology to ocean circulation. We also developed research projects that we will conduct on the ship. My project is about the ecosystems around seamounts, which are underwater mountain ranges.
  • Nautical Science – Gained the practical skills we will need to be crew members of the ship, including navigation, safety, sail theory, and weather observations. We got to use all sorts of neat things like sextants and plotting tools that were invented centuries ago, and still remain extremely accurate and useful today.

I thought I’d explain a little more about what we learned about navigation in my Nautical Science class. After all, the title of my blog is “Navigating Nature” and this voyage will be the first time in my life that I am actually navigating my way through nature to this extent. There are four main types of navigation:

  1. Electronic Navigation – Before Stanford at Sea, I was only familiar with this type of navigation. This includes radar, radio, and satellite navigation. Although we do use electronic information, and are required to report our satellite position to the Coast Guard and Weather Service, this information is occasionally inaccurate, and we rely much more heavily on the other three types of navigation.
  2. Dead Reckoning – Short for “deduced reckoning”, this method of navigation, along with the remaining two types, requires a very accurate chart (of which we have hundreds on board). To do a dead reckoning, say you knew that you were at a particular position one hour ago. You then use the ship’s compass to determine what direction the ship has been steered for the past hour, and use a distance meter called a “log” to determine how far you have traveled in that hour. On your chart, you draw a straight line in the measured distance and direction, and the end of that line is your current position.
  3. Piloting – This method of navigation is only used when you’re in sight of land, and can use landmarks whose positions are known and shown on your chart. You need at least two landmarks, and you take a bearing over the ship’s compass (basically the direction you need to look from your ship to see the landmark dead-on) for both of them. You draw lines in the noted direction from both landmarks, and your current position is where the lines intersect.
  4. Celestial Navigation – This method of navigation relies on the sun, moon, planets, and stars. The first step is to measure the height above the horizon of whatever celestial body you are aiming for. You do this with a sextant, which is a very cool instrument invented in 1731. You then perform all sorts of calculations and corrections on this height, and then look up the declination (or angle above the horizon) of the celestial body based on the time of year. The height and declination are used to determine your latitude. To determine your longitude, a quick trick is to remember that the earth rotates 15˚ to the west every hour. 0˚ is in Greenwich, England, so if you compare your local time to the time it is in Greenwich, and multiply by 15, you will get your longitude. This can be done with a sextant as well, which is pictured below:


Starting next weekend, I will not have phone or internet access until I arrive in Honolulu. Therefore, I cannot actively blog while I’m at sea. However, I have prepared two ocean science posts that will automatically come out during the time that I’m on board, so don’t run away! If you’re following my blog, or if you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you will receive notice when those posts come out. There is also a Stanford at Sea blog that will be updated daily with posts from my classmates and me, and you can access that blog here.

This voyage will bring together oceanography, biology, geology, navigation, community development, travel, team-building, and personal growth. I am looking forward to exploring places that very few people in the history of the planet have been, and meeting people that come from a very different background than I do. Living on the ocean will pose all sorts of new challenges and opportunities, and I look forward to sharing my experience with you all in June. Until then, keep an eye out for my two ocean posts in mid- and late May!

“A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.”

― William G.T. Shedd

*Cover image is courtesy of SEA