The Online Magazine of Sea Education Association

SEA’s Evolution of Ocean Research

“Science research is geared more to real world problems. We’re moving from collecting data and archiving it to working with government agencies and NGOs in places where we go to answer the questions that they want answered,” said Joyce. “The future is developing stronger collaborations with the places we go, from islands in the Caribbean and Pacific including New Zealand.

This article is reprinted from the summer 2022 edition of Following SEA.

We are “a global teaching, learning and research community dedicated to the exploration, understanding and stewardship of marine and maritime environments.”  Our interdisciplinary, academically rigorous curriculum is focused on science, history, and policy as well as personal development and leadership.

But in 1971, when SEA was founded, the mission wasn’t so well defined. Sea Education Association, or the American Sailing Education Association as it was called then, was an embryonic organization that was still figuring out what it was and how best to operate.

Would it involve high school or college students, and what sort of instruction and scientific research would they do? Would scientific research be conducted by outside scientists doing their own research or would it be done by scientists employed by SEA?

“We were constantly trying to figure out whether we were involved in character building… teaching 19th century skills… or teaching some science aboard a sailboat, what were we trying to do?” recalls Dick Hawkins, former board chair and one of the earliest employees of SEA.

Government regulations helped settle the issue. Complex rules govern the safety, design and operation of ships. Specifically, the Jones Act forbids foreign-built vessels (such as Westward) from carrying passengers between U.S. ports. After much discussion with the United States Coast Guard, in 1972 the R/V Westward was allowed to operate according to a legal loophole: it had to be an oceanographic research vessel.

On the first student cruise of the Westward, from San Diego to Puerto Rico, SEA contracted with scientists from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and the Smithsonian, to collect scientific data for a variety of research projects.

Recollecting events from those early days, Jack Merrill, former president of the board of trustees, wrote that at a meeting in August, 1971, the board decided to employ SEA’s own scientists on cruises and form a scientific advisory board which would include a prominent scientist. This, suggested Merrill, marked a “slow, almost tentative move towards emphasis on education in general and science in particular.”

Early Ocean Research

SEA’s Annual Report, published in December, 1972, noted that during the previous year, “24 research projects were undertaken for scientists from 15 different institutions. Six Visiting Research Fellows sailed with us and supplemented the teaching and data collection efforts of our own resident scientist with their own special interests and projects.”

The “Scuttlebutt #5” Newsletter, published in January, 1973, described the research conducted aboard the Westward en route from Lisbon to Puerto Rico:  “Our scientific work on the crossing consisted of 34 plankton tows, spaced 60 miles apart, roughly along the 12th parallel.  The tows were done with a double net with fiberglass frame and 100 lb. weights attached, along with two flow meters and a bathythermograph to determine how well the nets had fished.”

“General Information for Prospective Apprentices,” a document written in the early ‘70s, identified examples of early SEA oceanographic research: “Collecting Biological Specimens via middle-depth dredging, tide-line exploration, skin diving, trawling, etc…. Study of Submarine Topography via recording fathometer and careful navigation…  Study of Water Circulation and Distribution using Nansen bottles, bathythermograph, etc…. Collecting, Recording and Reporting Meteorological Information…” and “Work with Underwater Sound.”

Association with Boston University

Perhaps one of the most important events in the evolution of ocean research at SEA occurred when Dr. George Fulton, chairman of the Boston University biology department, became interested. He proposed that BU give academic credits for SEA’s program.  The name “SEA Semester” was born.

After SEA entered into an agreement with BU in 1974, the program evolved to include a shore component. According to an early SEA Semester proposal, students would receive instruction in “marine and nautical sciences and oceanic law and literature” on shore followed by “training as an apprentice seaman/oceanographic technician aboard a research vessel.”

Despite the real interest in studying the ocean, when Susan Humphris joined SEA as a staff scientist in 1979, scientific research, she said, was still “primitive.”

She recalls that students used mostly surplus or cast-off equipment from other organizations including an assortment of nets to collect biological samples from the ocean, very old Nansen bottles to collect water, and a clam dredge grab to collect sediment. There was just a small lab on the ship that held microscopes, a fluorometer for measuring chlorophyll, and a titration instrument to measure oxygen.

Research was limited by the ship’s hydrowinch, which was used to lower equipment over the side, explains Humphris.  The Westward’s winch used ¼-inch wire, and couldn’t undertake heavy operations, such as rock dredging.  That limitation largely restricted research to the ocean’s water column.

“SEA became very good at collecting samples on the surface of the ocean, leading to the long-term studies of ocean plastics and the water strider Halobates” remembers Humphris. “During that time… we tried really hard to improve the science … we had to somehow ensure the academic rigor of the program if students were going to get university credit.”

New Technology

When the SSV Corwith Cramer was designed in the mid-1980s, it was a perfect opportunity to integrate science into the design of the ship.  That meant a new hydrowinch, a larger lab, and more modern gear, much of which was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

“That was the point at which we could begin to demonstrate that SEA could do a variety of types of research well even though it was a from a sailing vessel,” says Humphris.

The construction of the Cramer coincided with the arrival of scientist, later dean, Paul Joyce. He recalls standing with Humphris on Dyers Dock, where both the Westward and the newly arrived Cramer were tied up. “We looked at the lab on Westward and the lab on Cramer and we knew the two had to be brought into parity,” says Joyce.

The Westward was refurbished in 1988. A larger, more efficient lab was added. CTDs  and Niskin bottles (instruments that measure conductivity, temperature and depth) replaced the old Nansen bottles and reversing thermometers, and new winches were added, as were transducers and a bottom tracking precision depth recorder, among other things.  Computers were added too, replacing the typewriters used by students to write their papers.

The construction of the SSV Robert C. Seamans in 2001 added still a new level of scientific advancement. That meant automated data collection and multiple computer screens. Rather than spending time doing rote data processing, students had more time to analyze data.

“We added more sophisticated instruments, including many that recorded data on screens in the lab – the Chirp, ADCP, flow through system. Yet, even as we were designing new instruments and the new lab, we wanted to give students reasons to go out and observe the ocean. Some of the now replaced mechanical instruments, like the mechanical bathythermograph, weren’t good for data but were great for teaching. We kept bucket thermometers and later added timed observation periods of the surface ocean,” explains Joyce.

“With more advanced equipment we could ask and answer more sophisticated questions, the data were higher quality, too, so students spent less time figuring out data artifacts or flaws,” explains Joyce.

Cramer was upgraded in 2001, and as technology evolved, the programs did too. Years  later, with the introduction of the Marine Biodiversity & Conservation program, students began using complex molecular techniques to measure the DNA in Sargasso Sea organisms.

Still, maintains Joyce, imagination and curiosity are more important than equipment.

Instruments merely extend our senses and allow us to measure where we can’t go, to look at the ocean and ask – and maybe answer – challenging questions.

Real World Problems

Over the years, Joyce observes, interest has shifted from merely collecting data to helping to solve real world problems.  Whereas students collected and counted ocean plastics during the 1980s, now Research Professor of Oceanography Kara Lavender Law and others are using those data to help form national and international policy to reduce plastics pollution.  Similarly, student research in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area and the Sargasso Sea are informing conservation efforts, as is research being conducted on reef degradation in the Caribbean, and ocean warming in New England waters.

“Science research is geared more to real world problems.  We’re moving from collecting data and archiving it to working with government agencies and NGOs in places where we go to answer the questions that they want answered,” said Joyce. “The future is developing stronger collaborations with the places we go, from islands in the Caribbean and Pacific including New Zealand.

In addition, Joyce credits key collaborators like Stanford University and the University of Chicago, to name a few, with helping SEA gain a broader perspective and shaping the scientific work conducted aboard ship.

But in the end, the value of experiencing ocean research extends even further. Says Humphris: “Apart from producing, in some cases, many really good scientists, I think one of SEA’s greatest contributions is developing in students an awareness of the role of the oceans and the need for stewardship of the oceans. And that extends way beyond the science component that SEA offers.”

Wigglesworth served as a science technician for Asjian’s biology team. His primary role was responsibility for the deployment of the Video Plankton Recorder and helping with the deployment of a variety of plankton nets. Wigglesworth had many other responsibilities as well. He engaged in educational outreach with schools and was the shipboard coordinator for the Float Your Boat program [www.floatboat.org]. He also taught a celestial navigation class.

He also coordinated a program called Float the Boat. Students around the country received small wooden boats which they decorated. 300 such boats, each with an ID number, were brought to the North Pole and launched on the ice.  The fleet of small boats had a GPS tracker that allow students back home to track their position on the ice as the Arctic currents move them to open water.

420 feet long, Healy is 16,000 tons and has a diesel electric propulsion system capable of 30,000 horsepower. This enables the ship to break through four-and-a-half feet of ice at a continuous speed of three knots. The SEA alumni boarded the ship in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, on Sept. 2nd for the month-long voyage. In mid-September the ship got into the ice, and on Oct. 1st it arrived at the North Pole.

“We are excited to reach the Pole!” announced Ashjian, a scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Wigglesworth explained that the expedition was scientifically important because it replicated cruise tracks dating to the 1960s, allowing comparisons to data collected on those voyages as well as to data collected on the Healy’s SAS expedition in 2015.

“We have little information from the ocean and seafloor at the top of the world so what we collect here is very valuable. It also fills in data from a region, the western Central Arctic, which was not sampled by other ships in the S.A.S. Our joint efforts with the Healy crew are producing important science results,” reported Ashjian.

North Pole Expedition

Five SEA Alumni Join Scientific Team in Research Voyage to North Pole

The Synoptic Arctic Survey is an international effort to collect physical, biological and carbon data from across the Arctic Circle from 2020 to 2022, and to detect ongoing climate change and its impact.


SEA’s Evolution of Ocean Research

Today, Sea Education Association’s mission is clearly spelled out.  We are “a global teaching, learning and research community dedicated to the exploration, understanding and stewardship of marine and maritime environments.”

Jeff Schell

Dr. Jeff Schell Seeks to Unlock Mysteries of Vital North Atlantic Ecosystem

The paper, In situ observation of holopelagic Sargassum distribution and aggregation state across the entire North Atlantic from 2011 to 2020, was published last month is the online journal, PeerJ .