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Finding My Way at SEA

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Two people lower an object from the side of a boat
SEA Semester students deploy the water sampling carousel from the science deck of the SSV Robert C. Seamans.

Within every aspiring scientist there is a desire to conduct their own research that will astound the scientific community. Sea Education Association (SEA) allows students to do just that. They offer many SEA Semester voyages to choose from that can take you across the Atlantic towards the Caribbean, or to uninhabited islands in the Pacific Ocean.
The chance to sail aboard a research vessel is a recent addition to AU's abroad program that was brought to my attention my first year at AU. I was excited to be accepted in SEA's Protecting the Phoenix Islands summer course. My voyage began in Woods Hole, Massachusetts where I met my at-sea professors, the captain, and the rest of the class. This is where we developed our original research projects that we would focus on throughout our voyage and learned the basics of sailing. The first thing they tell you when you arrive is that the minute you step foot aboard the ship you are no longer just a student, but an active crew member. We were placed in watch groups and were charged with driving the ship, tracking our position, keeping lookout, and gathering biological samples twice a day. 

After two weeks at the Woods Hole campus, our real journey began as we continued to Hawaii where we met the ship and the rest of the crew. We spent the night on board the ship docked at the pier and got to know the crew and the visiting scientist who would join us on our journey. The following morning, we set sail toward the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) in the Republic of Kiribati (pronounced Kiribas). As the island of Oahu turned into a speck on the horizon, we were joined by sea turtles who accompanied us until we could see nothing but the span of the Pacific Ocean. 

As we adjusted to our new schedules and daily life out at sea, the mundane almost insignificant stressors of everyday life on land vanished. None of us cared about our outfits, makeup, who did what on which show, what was posted on Facebook, or any of that stuff that we worry about in our day-to-day lives. We had jobs to do: discover, learn, and drive the ship. We gathered our biological and water samples twice daily, sorted and classified any marine specimens we caught in our nets, and worked on our individual projects. The day-to-day routine of standing watch and writing our reports also included daily lectures and the occasional squall that forced us to jump into action, closing the hatches and lowering any sails that could be damaged in the sudden storm. 

We finally reached our first island after a week of sailing and it was a sight to behold. It was nature at its most pristine state and we were among only a handful of people that will ever have the honor to experience it. We enjoyed our well-deserved time off exploring the islands or going on snorkeling adventures. The marine life had maybe never seen a human before so they were not afraid of us. We swam with the schools of fish and glided along with giant manta rays. The abundance and variety of life there was like nothing I had ever seen before. Sharks approached us with intense curiosity, but would just as quickly return to the depths of the ocean. 

However, the magnificence of wildlife and nature was over-shadowed by the presence of mankind. Aside from the scientists who surveyed the islands in 2002 and students like myself who conduct research there, these islands are uninhabited and have not seen people in a long time. But as we walked along the beaches we noticed discarded shoes, plastics of all kinds, shards of glass, and even a refrigerator that had washed ashore from faraway lands. Despite the growing collection of man-made waste, the wildlife on these islands adapted and have overcome the alien stressors that wash ashore daily. 

The research opportunities, the amazing sunrises and sunsets, and life aboard a ship for six weeks would be nothing without the support and friendships of the people I quickly learned to call family. We met ashore in Woods Hole and were nothing but strangers to each other. Even after two weeks of classes and engaging with each other daily we would not understand just how strong the bonds we would form would be until the day came when we had to say goodbye. On the ship we lived in close quarters, bunk style, and had no one to interact with but each other. This allowed us to drop our defenses and really open up to each other within a matter of days. This type of transparency would take weeks to develop on land considering all of the other distractions we face daily.
On this trip there were many birthdays to be had with no relatives to wish us happy birthday on our special days. However, those birthdays were not spent alone. Surprise celebrations always seemed to lift everyone's spirits and make the birthday boy or girl feel special, even in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. 

The day of departure arrived, and as we sat on the dock no one was spared of tears. It was at that moment that we realized just how much we all truly loved each other. When no other form of communication was available we relied on each other for that kick-in-the-butt or emotional support we each needed. We promised each other right then and there that we would always keep in contact and never forget one another. To most people this seems like a superficial promise that would undoubtedly be broken within the first couple of weeks of getting back on land. However, during my graduation my crew members travelled from all over the country to celebrate with me without hesitation. Those that couldn't make it called in or face-timed in to what we called a family reunion.

During my voyage I doubted whether being a scientist was the correct career choice for me. But the advancements I made in my education, the places I visited, and the wondrous creatures I saw reassured me that I am on the right path, but it is one that I cannot travel alone. The strangers I met who quickly became my family showed me that passion for science alone is not enough to conquer the doubts we face when embarking on a difficult journey. Onboard the ship, with limited resources and no outside communication, we turned to each other when we needed help or support. Now, during these times of uncertainty we must look to each other within the science community and support one another. 

SEA Semester is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit places and see things that most people only dream about. It is also the opportunity to get to know a group of strangers in the most natural, unfiltered, and undistracted way possible that creates bonds the likes of which most people never experience.