The Phoenix Islands:

The last coral wilderness on Earth






Protecting the Phoenix Islands

  • Explore the world’s largest coral archipelago, a UNESCO World Heritage Site
  • Make an epic 3,000-mile voyage from Honolulu to Pago Pago, American Samoa
  • Conduct research that adds to a longitudinal database on the effectiveness of the Phoenix Islands marine protected area
SUMMER 2023: June 5 to August 8, 2023

Summer 2023 Voyage:

Cruise Track: Honolulu to Kiribati  to Pago Pago, American Samoa

Destinations & Port Stops: This voyage is a deep water passage from Hawai’i to American Samoa during which we will cross the equator. We sample most of the way and a will make a couple port stops, likely within the Phoenix Islands group, such as Howland and Baker Atolls (U.S. Minor Outlying Island) and/or Nikumaroro, Orona, and Kanton Islands (Republic of Kiribati).

Port stops generally consist of anchoring near uninhabited or sparsely populated atolls and exploring the reefs, lagoons, and beaches. All port stops are highly dependent on weather conditions at the time of arrival. We do beach clean-ups as time and conditions allow.

June 5- June 23, 2023: Shore component in Woods Hole

June 26 – August 8, 2023: At sea

Application Deadline: April 15, 2023

Join us to contribute to our study of one of the largest and most important marine protected areas of the world, the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA). This summer’s deep water ocean passage is where oceanography, social justice, marine policy, and marine meteorology come together. You will be part of a long-standing research project where our sampling contributes valuable information to global researchers and to the scientists, policy-makers, and people of Kiribati, a Pacific Island nation that is on the front lines of climate change due to sea level rise, global warming, fishing policy, and loss of fresh water resources.

All of us will be studying oceanography, marine policy, meteorology, and learning how to work as a truly self-reliant community out at sea. We learn to sail and navigate by the stars and by modern technologies. We snorkel, explore, and learn modern oceanographic research techniques as we study first-hand the realities of global warming, coral bleaching, and intersections between marine conservation, fisheries, and the realities of climate adaptation. This is real research experience with real life consequences.

Marine protected areas are a hot-button issue in many parts of the world. Balancing the needs of the marine ecosystems with the economic and political forces at play in international geopolitics creates a need for ocean scholars, stewards, and leaders who are well versed in science, policy, history, and ocean literacy. This program is geared towards students who wish to be well positioned for future opportunities in academia, policy, or industries related to marine protected area conservation.

Program Highlights

  • See first-hand the results of marine protected area conservation efforts on equatorial atoll environments and ecosystems.
  • Collect oceanographic time series data to assess the impacts of climate change and El-Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO)
  • Contribute data and observations to potential changes in marine conservation efforts
  • Cross the equator on a sailing ship while living and working as an integral part of a self-reliant community at sea—where we all need and rely on each other
  • Snorkel, explore, and collect plastic trash in a part of the world that is nearly impossible to reach any other way
  • Observe whales, dolphins, and sea turtles in their remote natural habitats
  • If weather and political conditions allow, as we have done in the past, we hope to meet with a small group of I-Kiribati families who are stationed out on the remote island of Kanton
  • If we travel and sample in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, we will have a representative from Kiribati on board sailing with us, a special opportunity to learn

View full program description

Academic Credit

Protecting the Phoenix Islands carries 11 semester hour credits from Boston University for successful completion of the program.  View course descriptions & syllabi

Who Should Apply?

This is an excellent program for students at the intersection of science and marine policy, but is enormously valuable for any students interested in making a difference and learning about the ocean. We welcome undergraduate musicians, artists, activists, historians, writers, astronomers, computer scientists, economists—any and all interests make for a thriving diverse community of learners at sea on this important and exciting mission this summer! PIPA is a real-time issue in marine conservation and SEA’s data sets and policy work directly contribute to the dialogue and studies around marine protected areas. No sailing or snorkeling experience is necessary!

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.

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.

Program Description

Sailing through one of the last coral wilderness areas on Earth, this program covers over 3000 nautical miles from Honolulu, Hawai’i, across the equator, through the waters of Kiribati, and finishes in Pago Pago, American Samoa. Our primary destination is near or in the Phoenix Islands Group of coral atolls. Students will conduct science and policy research that will assist recent changes in marine protected area development and monitoring in the equatorial Pacific. During a three-week shore component in the oceanographic community of Woods Hole, MA, where we tour the famous marine science facilities, students will conduct background research and develop a research project proposal. Transitioning to the sea component, students will learn to conduct science deployments and safely operate a 134-foot-long research sailing vessel on a voyage to the Phoenix Islands archipelago, culminating in project presentations at the conclusion of the program and an issue of our student magazine SEA Writer.

Community partnerships – Sea Education Association partners with Boston University’s Rotjan Lab, the Boston Aquarium, the Republic of Kiribati, and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for various collaborations in the equatorial Pacific, including the Phoenix Islands Group. We will hear from officials and community members of Kiribati. At the start and end of the trip, we plan to meet with colleagues at the University of Hawai’i and those representing the US National Marine Sanctuary in American Samoa.

Activities – Depending on the exact voyage track, which is subject to weather, pandemic conditions, and international policy decisions, students may participate in projects such as oceanographic drifter deployments, microplastic analysis, larval tuna sampling for biomonitoring, marine protected area research, ethnographic research, environmental history research, fishing effort monitoring, and other related activities. Students will explore the reef, lagoon and terrestrial environments of a variety of Pacific Atolls.

Featured Blog

Elliot Hayne, B watch, Denison University

And so as quickly this trip began, it ends. With the ship back in harbor right where we set sail from five weeks ago at a glance it can seem like we never left. Thankfully, we still have the memories, photos and friendships left over to remind us of this amazing experience. The whole “once in a lifetime experience” phrase never held much weight in my opinion, as least until now that is. Visiting the islands and reefs of PIPA, conducting research in a place so very few will ever get the chance to see, spending over a month at sea, and saying that the experience changed me is a gross understatement. While I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t exhausted and looking forward to getting home, I can’t think of a better way to spend time than out here in the Pacific.

When I first saw this ship, I had no idea I could become so familiar with an environment like this that I can still picture it with ease. Part of me feels there should be more to this entry, some grand statement to end this voyage, but what? How could I possibly explain what I’ve seen to those who never have? What could I say to those who have that would change their recollection in any way? I suppose I’ll just end it with a classic: hope. I hope that the memories I’ve made here will never fade. I hope that the bonds I’ve made with everyone on this trip will last forever. I hope that I will not be last to see what I’ve seen here in PIPA, and that there will be more who follow, driven by curiosity and hope. I hope that there will always be a place in the world for summers like this one.

Course Descriptions & Syllabi

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.

Sample Syllabus

Prereq: Admission to SEA Semester. Sophomore standing or consent of instructor. 
Comparative and issue-driven introduction to managing human uses and conserving coastal and ocean places and resources.  Explore concepts of technology, governance, sector and ecosystem management, and marine protected areas through expert content lectures, topical seminars, and field trips.

Sample Syllabus

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.

Sample Syllabus

(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.

Sample Syllabus

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, the 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 your experience at sea. You’ll develop original research projects, 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

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, journaling, star-gazing, climbing up to the masthead, and watching dolphins play across our bow. 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. You will be joining a new community of over fifty years worth of SEA alumni, now professionals in every field imaginable, a vast network of connections. You’ll also now be able to get references from faculty that will now know you better than almost any other faculty member back at your home institution, having worked with you conducting real-world research out in the field.

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

Go to Top