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CAS Students Sail the Pacific for Science

SEA Semester 2017: Protecting our Oceans

By Patty Housman

CAS students Devin Kuhn and Jacob Atkins aboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans.

CAS students Devin Kuhn and Jacob Atkins aboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans, July 2017.

What a way to spend your summer vacation—sailing halfway around the world to study the spectacular Phoenix Islands in the Pacific Ocean, one of the last remaining coral wildernesses on Earth.

And the best part—it's all for the advancement of science.

Two CAS undergrads, Devin Kuhn (BS neuroscience '20) and Jacob Atkins (BS mathematics and economics '20), are taking part in an eight-week SEA Semester program named Protecting the Phoenix Islands. Along with 24 undergraduate students from universities across the United States, Kuhn and Atkins are sailing on a tall ship and conducting scientific research to contribute to a growing data set of this largely under-studied region.

Protecting the Phoenix Islands, Protecting the Ocean

The Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) is an expanse of pristine ocean, around the size of California. It's located in the Republic of Kiribati, a nation in the central Pacific, approximately halfway between Australia and Hawaii.

PIPA is also the largest and deepest UNESCO World Heritage site—officially recognized by the United Nations for its scientific significance.  Because of PIPA's relative isolation, its marine life is abundant. The area features eight fauna-rich coral atolls. Scientists have identified more than 500 fish species in its waters, along with nearly 50 bird species, 200 coral species, and 18 marine animals. It's also a critical stepping stone habitat for migratory marine life.  

The area is considered one of the last intact ecosystems on Earth. This makes it a unique place to study its response to climate change—it can serve as a benchmark for climate change across the world.

The Voyage and the Mission

Kuhn and Atkins's journey began on June 12 at SEA Semester's campus in Woods Hole, Mass., where the students spent five weeks preparing research projects in ocean science or conservation policy. They were joined by a fellow undergraduate from Kiribati, who is acting as the official scientific observer on behalf of the Kiribati government.

On June 12, the students began their five-week journey aboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans, a 134-foot brigantine. The ship is the most sophisticated oceanographic research/sailing school vessel ever built in the United States. It set sail from American Samoa and travelled 800 nautical miles across open ocean to the Phoenix Island Protected Area.

When the students arrived at PIPA, they began three weeks of research, collecting samples from the marine environment to study the impact of El Niño, and assessing the effects of climate change. In particular, the students will try to determine if coral bleaching is affecting the area and its marine ecosystem.

About SEA Semester

To apply for a semester at sea, Kuhn and Atkins submitted applications and transcripts, academic writing samples, and two-part essays explaining what they expected to gain from the experience and how the program will complement their AU educations. They also submitted academic references and interviewed with SEA Semester counselors.

The Sea Education Association offers programs each spring, summer, and fall. It is an internationally recognized leader in undergraduate ocean education with the mission of equipping students with the tools to become environmentally literate leaders prepared to address the defining issue of the twenty-first century: the human impact on the environment. While the academic focus of each SEA Semester varies, each program offers an interconnected suite of courses designed to explore a specific ocean-related theme using a cross-disciplinary approach.

To track the students' expedition through daily posts, visit their blog.