Claremont, Calif. (July 28, 2015)—Pitzer College student Karl Kiser ’16 is spending the summer sailing on one of the first scientific research voyages to the Phoenix Islands, a largely unexplored region of the Pacific Ocean. Through an eight-week Sea Education Association (SEA) Semester summer program, Kiser and 21 classmates are gathering data that will help scientists and policymakers better understand one of the last remaining coral wildernesses on Earth.
SEA Semester’s Protecting the Phoenix Islands program will help complete some of the first comprehensive oceanographic surveys of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA). PIPA, an expanse of ocean about the size of California, is one of the world’s largest marine protected areas and was recently named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The program, offered in partnership with the New England Aquarium, began in mid-June at SEA Semester’s campus in Woods Hole, Mass., where students took classes, met with researchers from the aquarium and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and developed their own research projects.
In early July, the class embarked on a six-week voyage as active crew members and scientists aboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans, a 134-foot brigantine operated by SEA. A week into the voyage, Kiser wrote on the SEA Semester blog that he was getting over the “initial shock of the pitch, yaw, roll and three other motions of this dynamic ship” and the purpose of the voyage “is back on the collective radar of the crew.”
“We are here to do scientific and policy research that will directly influence the management of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area,” wrote Kiser, who is majoring in biophysics at Pitzer.
After setting sail from Honolulu, Hawaii, Kiser and his classmates crossed the Equator as part of a two-week, 1,600-mile open ocean crossing to the Phoenix Islands. The crew members are learning as they’re sailing; during a graveyard shift, Kiser used a Neuston net to collect tiny organisms that flashed a “vibrant bioluminescent light show.”
“Just goes to show that every square inch of the ocean is precious and in need of a better understanding, care and management,” Kiser wrote.
After the SSV Robert C. Seamans reaches the islands, Kiser and other student researchers will document the oceanic ecosystem around seven small coral atolls, including pristine reefs filled with rich fauna of corals, other invertebrates and fish. A final leg to American Samoa will round out the voyage in mid-August.
“SEA Semester students have had a hand in developing most of the existing knowledge about the oceanography of this area,” said Jan Witting, SEA Semester professor of oceanography and chief scientist for the voyage. “It’s valuable knowledge that will go directly to help make management decisions about the future of PIPA.”
Sea Education Association (SEA) is an internationally recognized leader in undergraduate ocean education. For nearly 45 years and more than one million nautical miles sailed, SEA has educated students about the world’s oceans through its Boston University accredited study abroad program, SEA Semester. SEA/SEA Semester is based on Cape Cod in the oceanographic research community of Woods Hole, Mass., and has two research vessels: the SSV Corwith Cramer, operating in the Atlantic Ocean, and the SSV Robert C. Seamans, operating in the Pacific.