Caribbean Reef Expedition






Take a multi-pronged approach to effective reef conservation…

Chronicle the state of coral reef ecosystems in the Caribbean in response to human impacts. Develop and refine snorkel-based reef survey techniques while documenting the effects of environmental change. Assess the effectiveness of Caribbean reef management strategies and contribute to local conservation policy efforts.

FALL 2023: October 5, 2023 – December 23, 2023
Reef diving

Fall 2023 Voyage:

Cruise Track: St. Croix, USVI to St. Croix, USVI

Destinations & Port Stops: St. Thomas, St. John, Dominica, Montserrat, and Antigua (stops will be evaluated based on current CDC guidance for COVID-19 travel.)

October 5, 2023 – November 8, 2023: Shore component in Woods Hole

November 10, 2023 – November 20, 2023: Shore component in St. Croix

November 21, 2023 – December 23, 2023: At sea

Program Highlights

    • Develop and refine snorkel-based reef survey techniques
    • Conduct research at sea and at Caribbean island reefs
    • Contribute to marine conservation policy efforts
    • View full program description

Academic Credit

Caribbean Reef Expedition in Fall 2022 carries 18 semester hour credits from Boston University for successful completion of the program.  View course descriptions & syllabi

Who Should Apply?

This hands-on coral reef studies program is ideal for undergraduate students with an interest in conservation policy and/or marine ecosystems. Students will approach solutions to effective reef management in the context of history, policy, and science. We welcome students of all majors to apply.

SEA Admissions and Financial Aid staff members offer individual advising and assistance to help students complete the application process. We encourage you to contact one of us to learn if SEA is right for you.

Corwith Cramer
Moored ship
Class on ship

“My time at sea was the best educational experience I’ve had since entering college. I collected water and the accompanying environmental data which I would then use to analyze microbial genetic diversity. SEA is a truly unique experience for undergraduates to cross over major oceanographic features, understanding them in a way that many specialists in related fields do not.”

Kate Hyder, Stanford University

Program Description

Program Goals/Learning Outcomes:

  • Understand ecological and socio-economic importance of coral reef ecosystems
  • Study impacts of local and global change on oceanic and coral reef ecosystem processes
  • Effective team leadership and membership, particularly environmental leadership
  • Human interactions with coral reefs including fundamental drivers of local, U.S., and international policy affecting coral reefs

Skills Gained

  • Practical experience in oceanographic data collection, analysis, and reporting
  • Effective team leadership and membership, particularly environmental leadership
  • Policy evaluation and critique
  • Collaborative research and writing, including a peer revision process

Throughout human history, coral reefs and their intricately linked ecosystems have protected islands from eroding and provided food resources for growing human populations. Coral reefs attract tourists and drive economic development, and force us to take pause and marvel at their natural beauty and abundance. A healthy reef is not only part of a healthy ocean but also a thriving, successful island community. Nowhere is this truer than in the Caribbean.

Unfortunately, coral reefs face many threats related to human excess. Overfishing, reduced water quality, physical disturbance, invasive species, and rising temperatures and lower pH due to climate change all threaten the health of reef ecosystems, and reduce their ability to provide the important ecological services that the Caribbean people have come to rely upon.

Effective solutions to the management of coral reefs requires an understanding of the historical context underpinning the economic, political, and cultural landscape of the Caribbean today alongside the scientific foundation of how the oceans and climate interact and leadership skills enabling decisive, effective action and engagement. During this program, students will examine how a variety of local and international organizations, communities, and businesses have joined together to protect, conserve, and sustainably manage coral reef ecosystems in the Caribbean.

Beginning on shore in Woods Hole, you will develop the background knowledge to understand history, science, leadership, and policy strategies, and design your comparative reef project to be carried out in the Caribbean. You will then develop and refine your reef survey techniques and collect observations for your comparative reef project at a field station on St. Croix. Then during a month aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer at sea, you will learn how to crew a tall ship and hone your leadership skills, all while continuing your reef research and surveying the ocean environment. The results of your detailed coral reef surveys will allow you to assess the effectiveness of different approaches to coral reef management.

Sand Dollar

Course Descriptions & Syllabi

Prereq: Admission to SEA Semester. Sophomore standing or consent of instructor. 
Be an effective leader while leveraging the individual strengths of a team. Use leadership theory and case studies to understand how decisions affect outcomes. Participate as an active member of a ship’s crew, progressively assuming full leadership roles.


Prereq: Admission to SEA Semester. Sophomore standing or consent of instructor.
Employ methods and sources of historians and social scientists. Examine the role of human societies in coastal and open ocean environmental change. Issues include resource conservation, overfishing, pollution, invasive species, and climate change.


Prereq: Admission to SEA Semester. Sophomore standing or consent of instructor. 
Culture, history, political systems and science can shape ocean policy. Practice current strategies to build, analyze, and communicate about diverse policy issues. Examine the power, use and limitations of science and the scientist’s voice in determining ocean policy.


Prereq: Admission to SEA Semester. Sophomore standing or consent of instructor. 
Ocean ecosystem change in the anthropocene: warming, acidification, fisheries depletion, and pollution. Review principles of circulation, seawater chemistry, nutrient dynamics, and biological production to understand causes and consequences of change. Conduct field measurements for contribution to time-series datasets.


Directed Oceanographic Research (300-level, 4 credits)
Prereq: Admission to SEA Semester. Three lab science courses (one at the 300-level or higher) or consent of instructor.

Design and conduct original oceanographic research. Collect data and analyze samples. Compile results in peer-reviewed manuscript format and share during oral or poster presentation session. Emphasis on development of research skills and written/oral communication abilities.


Practical Oceanographic Research (200-level, 4 credits)

(Previously titled Practical Oceanography II)
Prereq: Admission to SEA Semester.
Introduction to oceanographic research. Design a collaborative, hypothesis-driven project following the scientific process. Collect original data. Conduct analysis and interpretation, then prepare a written report and oral presentation.


Life on Shore

At the beginning of every SEA program, up to 25 students from various institutions across the U.S. — and often the world — come together on SEA’s residential campus in Falmouth, Massachusetts, on scenic Cape Cod, just down the road from the village of Woods Hole, a world-renowned hub of oceanographic research and discovery.

During this initial shore component, you’ll undertake coursework with SEA faculty that will prepare you personally, academically, and practically for the second part of your experience at sea. You’ll develop an original research project, explore the connections between humans and the ocean, and learn the principles necessary to crew a tall ship. You’ll also have access to some of the world’s foremost scientists and policymakers addressing the leading environmental questions of today.

Living in fully furnished private cottages on our campus, you’ll share all of the responsibilities of community living including grocery shopping, cooking, and cleaning. From day one, your class will begin building skills in teamwork, communication, and collaboration, all of which will prepare you for the demands of living and working together at sea. Everyone will play a role in meal planning, provisioning (each house gets a pre-paid grocery card on a weekly basis), and meal prep, which is a great opportunity to hone your organizational and budgeting skills – not to mention putting your culinary skills to the test!

Morning and afternoon classes take place a short walk away from the cottages in the main academic building, the Madden Center. This facility also hosts the library, computer lab, science lab, faculty offices, and is home to the SEA administrative offices. A midday break allows time for lunch, a pickup game of frisbee, soccer, or volleyball, or a run along the local beach. Then it’s back to the classroom. The course schedule is intensive, with academic activities scheduled from roughly 9am to 4pm, Monday through Friday. Evenings and weekends are usually free, though sometimes community activities are organized by your faculty or the Head Resident on campus.

The shore component is one of the hallmarks of SEA programs. It prepares you to be effective in your roles as researcher, crewmember, and shipmate at sea, and equips you with the tools to embark upon a successful ocean voyage.

C-300 Class at Woods Hole
Volleyball on campus

St. Croix Shore Component

The Second Shore Component of SEA’s Caribbean Reef Expedition will be held at the Feather Leaf Inn, located on the west coast of St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, with field work done at many sites across the island. For each site we visit, we will offer both historical and local context prior to arrival and opportunities for discussion. Working intentionally with the local community and prior students, SEA continually learns from our experiences and as an organization is committed to being good academic partners, travelers, and allies.

SEA has worked cooperatively with local communities in the both the Atlantic and Pacific for nearly 50 years; we acknowledge the painful legacy of colonization that has included genocide, the enactment of forced assimilation, enslavement and the violent support of plantation regimes, and efforts by many to eliminate indigenous cultures. We respect and honor the Taino and Kalinago peoples along with their cultures, and the descendants of forced migrants still connected to this land. SEA faculty, staff, and students are willing to learn from the way of life which has existed in this area for nearly 15,000 years. We also recognize that words are not enough and we are committed to an ongoing effort to decolonize our curriculum and engage in antiracist practices.

Student at helm

Life at Sea

While the shore component is one of the hallmarks of SEA programs – providing important preparation for a successful ocean voyage – not surprisingly, students look forward to the day they ship out.

As your time in Woods Hole comes to an end, you’ll feel a mix of excitement and perhaps some trepidation as well. You and your shipmates may ask, “Can we really do this?” Because of the intentional design of all SEA programs, you can be confident that the answer is, “Yes!”

The sea component of SEA programs immediately immerses you in applying practically what you have just learned in the classroom on shore. As you set sail, you take on three roles: student, crewmember, and researcher. Life at sea is full as you take ocean measurements and samples; participate in classes; stand a watch as part of an around-the-clock schedule, on deck and in lab; and assist with navigation, engineering, meal preparation, and cleaning. Depending on the voyage, you may also make port calls – an opportunity to break from the rhythm of life at sea and to visit a foreign destination, not as a tourist, but as a working sailor and researcher.

Privacy and sleep are both limited aboard ship, yet there is always time for personal reflection. Teamwork takes precedence as you assume increasing levels of responsibility for the well-being of your shipmates and the ship itself. “Ship, shipmate, self” will be your new mantra, representing a shift in priorities for all on board. A phased leadership approach over the course of your time at sea will allow you to gradually assume the majority of shipboard responsibilities under the watchful eye of the professional crew. Near the end of every program, each student will lead a complete watch cycle as part of a rewarding final capstone experience.

When you step off one of our ships, you’ll take away academic credits, self-confidence, lifelong friends, a toolbox of skills and knowledge, and a sense of direction that will serve you far beyond your voyage.

Life at sea is concentrated: every moment holds more substance, texture, and complexity than I am ever aware of on land. Tapping in to the rhythms of a ship, you slip like a cog into a well-oiled machine: each part has purpose, and together things run smoothly. This environment is one where actions have meaning, repercussions are real, and each moment teaches the meaning and value of hard work done well. At sea I learn that I am capable of much more than I give myself credit for.SARAH WHITCHER, Clark University, Biology Major


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