Our morning science station today was off Baker Island, a little green-white sliver on the horizon with radio towers poking up into the sky. “Everything changes, the whole seascape changes when you see land,” said student Autumn Crow this morning. The area now, even when out of sight of these tiny islands, feels to have more shape, and certainly more variety and texture, with a half dozen different species of seabirds. Our last pair of red-footed boobies have left the ship, but we have had an occasional sooty tern as a hitchhiker at night. From four miles off Baker, we continued south, motor-sailing across nearly calm waters. Afternoon class included a student presentation on the Coriolis Effect (by Autumn and medical officer/deckhand Thomas Devereux) and a short class by Chief Scientist Blaire Umhau about sea mount formation, including what is known about the geological formation of the Phoenix Islands. The rest of afternoon class was time for student research work, meeting with individual mentors about their oceanography projects. This was soon interrupted, however, by the shout of “Whale!” The firt sighting was quite close to the ship, and then we saw several strong low bushy spouts off in the distance, likely from one individual. After yesterday’s class about historical whaling in this exact area and the status of sperm whale populations globally, we wanted it to be a sperm whale; but various clues suggest we saw a Bryde’s whale. Then, only a half an hour ago as I write this, we crossed the equator officially. The ship’s company huddled around the GPS to watch the switch from north to south latitude. Minutes later we celebrated the birthday of student Abby tenBroek with chocolate cupcakes and a song by the assistant engineer Duey Keohane.
I’m Richard King, teaching marine conservation and management on board, and as we near the half way point of this voyage, I’d like to give family and friends a bit of a longer update here on our cruise track and what we’ve been studying more broadly. If you’ve been following our track over the last few days, you might have been wondering about why we’ve been zig-zagging around in recent days as we’ve approached Howland and Baker Islands. You’ll see us doing this for about another week and a half or so, before we begin to head south toward Fiji.
Before our cruise track, though, a note about our student group. I mean this in all sincerity, and I write, too, on behalf of Captain Rick Miller and Chief Scientist Blaire Umhau: we could not be more fortunate with the student corps we have on board. At only nine in number, they are enveloped in a way that’s less common on a typical SEA voyage. They are so fully integrated with professional crew and scientists, professional-crew in training (deckhands), and visiting lab techs and our marine policy researcher/teaching assistant, all of whom are all standing watches and running the ship and the lab beside the students. Within all this energy and research our students have been continually positive and quick to learn, individually and collectively, embracing each other’s eccentricities, supporting each other and their various interests, academic and otherwise. Sam, for example, brings a light-hearted humor, while he is always thinking sharply and deeply about engineering forces and physics—the ship and engine room and galley regularly tripping his thinking. Julius rocks his poetic enthusiasm and infectious curiosity about all things, walking around the ship with an armful of books and journals. Abby’s enthusiasm for birds, whales, and even the basic march of the ship’s 24-7 routine is gregarious and always earnest and full of passion. Elijah brings his clever and kind sense of humor and cerebral, thoughtful outlook; he’s on galley today, working hard with a smile, and talking with the stewards about the names of foods I’ve never even heard of! Autumn, also with a sneaky dry wit, puts an inspirational level of care into seemingly everything she does—such as her admitted love for entering the weather reports that we send in regularly to international forecasters. Olivia, projecting at first quiet reticence, has been excelling everywhere around the ship, both in lab and on deck and in class, learning celestial navigation and declaring this morning that she wants to go aloft again to look at Baker Island from up in the mast—even if it makes her a bit nervous. Noah, who has been studying in Hawai’i for college and been a tech at Palmyra Island and even a commercial fisher, brings an uncommon level of background and knowledge to this cruise track; yet he wears it all so gracefully, only interested in learning more. Caleb’s smile when learning that we had a swim-call lit up the entire quarterdeck; the ship’s community loves his willingness to learn everything and anything, yet he’s always mellow and even-keeled and thinking deeply while he stands and shadow-boxes on lookout. Our ninth student, Hallie, is finishing up her last credits in college on board. She brings such a positive carpe diem energy; she’s self-effacing, friendly to all, and always energetic—whether in the galley, deck, lab, or class.
A voyage on a sailing ship of oceanography in equatorial waters, for weeks at a time with the same group, is difficult—physically, emotionally, and intellectually--and all of the ship’s crew, especially our students aboard for the first time, are being stretched in ways they didn’t even know they could go. Maybe they’re hiding it well, but as far as we can tell, the student group of S’310 are absolutely thriving, individually and collectively. No one is without thoughts of home or lows of endurance, but the highs, as the blog entries have revealed, can be otherworldly. In short, we could not be more impressed with this small but mighty class of students this summer. Their academic work will increase in the next half—final projects for Oceanography and a magazine article for Conservation and Management—and they will be given more leadership opportunities on deck and in the lab, too--but we have no doubt that this group is ready for the challenge!
Right now we are conducting research, a first for SEA, within the borders of the US Phoenix Islands, Howland and Baker, within a fifty-mile-from-land no-take zone. This is within the broader marine protected area of the Pacific Remote Islands National Marine Monument, which was established in 2009. This marine protected area was expanded in 2014 in coordination with Kiribati after they established the bordering Phoenix Island Marine Protected Area. (There’s a current proposal this year, as we’re out here, to expand the PRINMN even farther—out to the 200 nm US exclusive economic zone of Howland and Baker, as well as Palmyra, and bring this all into the US Marine Sanctuary system.) Through the US Fish and Wildlife Service, we have a permit this summer to conduct scientific sampling up to three miles of Howland and Baker.
Dr. Blaire has been working with Captain Rick to set our sampling schedule and locations, to best benefit the variety of student projects on board. We are zigging and zagging around to examine the different sides of the sea mounts, down and up stream of ocean currents, in this compelling part of the central Pacific. We are examining depth, temperature, water chemistry, primary and secondary productivity (phyto and zooplankton), fauna at different depths, effects of upwelling, currents, and prevailing winds, all with a particular eye toward the marine ecosystems and oceanography around this ridge of seamounts (which are all submerged besides the little poking coral tips that are Baker and Howland).
We’ll be sampling again tonight—for the next week or so we’ll be aiming to get a full suite of sampling during the day and at night. But this doesn’t mean we don’t break for a party. Tomorrow afternoon will be the official Equator Crossing ceremony, the celebration of 23 new “shellbacks” on board, crossing the equator for the first time at sea. Neptune, Amphitrite, and Davey Jones are busy preparing their costumes.
Class time on the quarterdeck with student Autumn Crow (Knox College), left, presenting with med officer/program assistant Thomas Devereux, far right, about how to calculate local impact from the Coriolis Effect. Chief Scientist Blaire Umhau, standing, and lab tech Allie Cole, look on.