A week ago, I stepped off the Robert C. Seamans for the last time. This beautiful ship, which had been my home for the last five weeks, had carried me safely from Tahiti to Hawaii, along a stretch of open ocean traversed by few others, and dotted with islands that most people haven’t even heard of, much less would visit in their lifetimes. I was on this voyage through a program called Stanford at Sea, which sent 21 students on a journey to explore and research the ocean.
To learn more about the first half of the program on shore and our cruise track, read my introductory blog post here. I can’t think of an experience in my life that has been as intense, immersive, and incredible as Stanford at Sea. Five weeks is a long enough time to get in a rhythm, and the ship and the voyage became my entire life. We had no communication with the outside world – no internet, phones, or even smoke signals. Besides, for many parts of our cruise track, we were days away from the nearest ship, much less the nearest inhabited island, so smoke signals wouldn’t have helped us anyway. It was so nice to be in our own little world, sailing for science and exploring some truly spectacular places on this planet.
From day one, I felt completely safe on the ship, even though we were sailing alone in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Our captain, Pamela Coughlin, was incredible and we all did our part to make sure that we were taking care of the ship and each other. A third of the ship’s company was awake at any given time, and we were separated into three watches that rotated according to the following schedule: Morning (7am-1pm), Afternoon (1pm-7pm), Evening (7pm-11pm), Mid (11pm-3am), Dawn (3am-7am). I was part of B Watch, and we would be on during a watch, and then get the next two watch periods off as C Watch went and then A Watch. So if you do the math, you’ll quickly realize that we were sleeping at a different time every day. We basically slept when we could, and especially towards the end of my trip, when I was working on my final paper, I got used to surviving on just 3 or 4 hours of sleep a night. But every three days after finishing Mid Watch, we got a Sleep of Kings (the longest consecutive sleep built into the watch schedule) in which a 9 hour sleep was possible. In addition to learning how to sail the ship, we also learned how to do a lot of science – the lab was running 24/7, and twice a day we took measurements on the deep ocean and deployed nets to sample the water. The students got to try almost every job on the ship, from using radar to steering to counting plankton. Even though I was tired most of the time, somehow couldn’t seem to stuff enough food down my throat even though we had six meals a day, and was exposed to the relentless Equatorial sun, heat, and humidity all day long, I never wanted to be anywhere else. I’ll never forget the myriad of different colors that the ocean can be, from relentless gray to mystic purple to dazzling deep blue, or the way I felt the first time I got doused by a wave while on lookout during a squall. I’ll always remember climbing aloft and seeing nothing but ocean for miles, and watching amazing animals like pilot whales, dolphins, flying fish, and bioluminescent plankton follow our ship for miles. I’ll never forget how brilliant the stars looked, with the Milky Way fully illuminated, and how amazing it was to see the sun rise and set over the open ocean.
And then there were the islands. Every time we stopped an island, we got to explore the local reef, and we went on land at every place except for Caroline and Malden, since we did not have the necessary permits. Rangiroa was our first stop after Tahiti, and it was very cool to see my first real coral atoll. It was shaped like a donut – the inside lagoon was so big that you couldn’t even see the other side of it, and you could walk across the land from the ocean to the lagoon in three minutes. I enjoyed hitchhiking to the local village and seeing lots of small fish. Caroline was our next stop – a spectacularly beautiful uninhabited island with the most incredible and pristine reef I’ve ever seen in my entire life. Although the island appeared to be untouched, we knew it had a history of human habitation, copra farming, and fishing, which definitely made us rethink our mental definition of “pristine”. And even at Caroline, with 90 to 100% coral cover, I looked down and saw a coral that had been bleached. (For more info on coral bleaching, see a previous blog post here.) Next up was Malden, which is hands-down the weirdest place I’d ever been in my life. It was completely barren except for maybe five trees and a few cargo containers left over from the nuclear age. Malden was used as a nuclear testing site in the 1950s, and knowing this definitely made the place feel a little spooky (you can read more about this here). It was uninhabited by people, and the coral reef was almost non-existent: there was no more than 15% coral cover in most areas. Surprisingly, though, the number of fish we saw was absolutely massive. We then crossed the Equator, and many of the students shaved their heads (not me though!) to transition from a polywog into a shellback. We arrived at Christmas Island (Kiritimati), which is the largest island in the nation of Kiribati (pronounced Kiribas). Kiribati is a nation under direct threat from climate change, as all of their islands will likely be underwater from sea level rise in the next forty years. It has created a lot of questions as to how to move the residents as “climate refugees” to other parts of the world, and how to keep their cultural identity in tact during this transition. It was very sobering to actually visit Kiribati and to feel partially responsible, as an American, for the damage that climate change has and will do to this nation. The Kiribati people were some of the most friendly and generous people I’d ever met, and I enjoyed waving to schoolchildren and talking one-on-one with people I met on Christmas Island. Fanning Island, or Tabueran, was our last island stop, and it is also in the nation of Kiribati. I didn’t personally get to go on land at Fanning, but I was amazed at the size of the breaking waves that we could see from the ship, and had fun snorkeling on the reef.
What an extraordinary experience it was. I’m so grateful to have seen this exceptional places and met such amazing people. It was truly the adventure of a lifetime and it made me so happy to know that there are still places on Earth where you can see spectacular coral reefs. Even here though, humans are having an impact. The ocean seems really big – believe me, it seemed really big when I was in the middle of it – but it’s not big enough for humans not to affect it in enormous and often unpredictable ways. Exploring these coral reefs and studying the deep ocean gave me a much clearer sense, not of how much we know about the ocean, but of how much we don’t know. There is so much out there – an entire world full of life and amazing complexities – and we may be destroying it beyond repair before we can even get to know it. This trip absolutely solidified my love for the ocean realm, and I want to do everything I can to protect it and conserve it for future generations of humans and giant squid alike. *If you’d like to read more about my trip, you can visit the Stanford at Sea blog, which we were updating along our cruise track, at this link.