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How humans affect tropical coral reefs | Caribbean Sailing Association, St. Maarten

My tea cup and I explain to the Caribbean Sailing Association how humans affect coral reefs (St. Maarten, Oct. 2015).

I was invited to give this talk by the non-profit Sailors for the Sea as part of their environmental sustainability symposium at the Caribbean Sailing Association conference in St. Maarten (23 October 2015). It was great talking science and sustainability with such a genuine and engaged group of leaders from all across the Caribbean. With their efforts, coral reef conservation and sustainability will continue to gain traction in so ecologically and socioeconomically invaluable a region as the Caribbean. Spending the weekend in St. Maarten was pretty great too :).

Subscribe to my new series “Confessions of a Marine Biologist” for ridiculous adventures in exotic settings, from coral reefs and the open ocean, to mountain tops and Jack Johnson’s house: http://www.youtube.com/subscription_center?add_user=SciAllOrg

Learn more about my life as a marine biologist here: http://SciAll.org

Learn more about my research here: https://mikegil.com/research/

For speaking engagements/bookings, email mikegil@sciall.org

Fishbook: Do prey social networks influence predator effects on reef fishes?

This is a talk I gave at the Western Society of Naturalists conference in Tacoma, Washington on November 14, 2014

An unforgettable sendoff

After researching the coral reefs surrounding the island of Mo’orea, French Polynesia since 2009, and in my final hours on the island, I was fortunate enough to see a side of nature I had never seen before. This encounter made me feel a connection with these animals and, more importantly, reassurance that we are all connected.


Video: Mike Gil
Photo: Heather Hillard
Music: Starálfur by Sigur Rós

Spoiler Alert: The video features a pair of humpback whales that appear to be courting in the company of a group of spinner dolphins. Humpbacks migrate to Mo’orea each Austral Winter, usually arriving around July, but this is the first time I had ever seen one (or two!) up close. What a sight.

Epic science alliance: Euro-‘Merican adventures

Suddenly, I find myself smack dab in the middle of another summer doing field research on the island of Moorea in French Polynesia. I have been fortunate enough to have this place become a home away from home for me for the past four years, yet it still never ceases to amaze me. For example, this is what I saw on the first night I arrived:

One of main objectives this season is to complete a field experiment that colleagues and I started out here in January of this year. This is no ordinary experiment though: it is a cross-cultural collaboration (and a half!), among French, British, Italian, German, and American (me) researchers. This all started when I received a research fellowship from the French Embassy of the U.S. to continue my field research on coral reefs in French Polynesia and to foster additional collaborations with my European colleagues. Though I was happy to receive the funding, I was unsure exactly how the collaboration would go–Would I find the right collaborators with similar research interests? Would we work well together? Would we be able to work well enough together to complete a rigorous field experiment?

The answers are: Yes. Yes. And almost yes (since the experiment is not quite complete yet!).

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Some of the Euro-‘Merican crew, geared up and ready for some field work!

The pan-European research team and myself decided to ask the questions: What happens to a coral reef after a major disturbance,  and do these systems respond differently when they are exposed to different stressors associated with humans?

To answer these questions, we used small corals (collected from the field), and smooth terra cotta tiles, meant to resemble the barren rocks left behind in a recently-destroyed coral reef, to look at how small corals grow and survive and how settlement of new organisms may differ across different experimental treatments. For our experimental treatments, we tested the effects of three factors:

  • Nutrient enrichment (meant to resemble land-based nutrient pollution). We manipulated this by adding fertilizer to half of our experimental units monthly.
  • Sedimentation (meant to resemble increased runoff that would be expected when natural coastal wetlands are covered by cement). We manipulated this by dumping sediment on half of our experimental units weekly.
  • And the presence/absence of consumers (meant to resemble the effects of fishing). We manipulated this by placing half of our experimental units in cages, to exclude any fish greater than 1.5 inches tall/wide.

This design has resulted in an ambitious field experiment that will allow us to better understand each of these stressors (nutrient pollution, sedimentation, and fishing) and how each stressor effect may depend on the levels of the other stressors.

Putting this experiment into the field in January was a cultural experience for me. But this had more to do with working at CRIOBE, the French research station on the island, and less to do with communication (fortunately for me, all of my collaborators are English speakers!). CRIOBE is a very different station from Gump: for example, it is in Opunohu Bay (which is much less populated than Cook’s Bay, where Gump is located), there are resident scientists that oversee all of the scientific operations there, and (most notably for me) it is inland (as opposed to on the water) with limited boat availability. This last point really came into play when I went with my European counterparts to collect coral for our experiment. Bear in mind, January on the north shore of Moorea can be an intense time for weather–the swell is most often directly from the north, and storms are common. So when we were able to get a boat reserved, we knew we had to get out on the reef and get our work done as efficiently as possible, even if the weather was not ideal. Well, the weather was not ideal, and the day we went out to collect corals, the waters were raging in Opunohu Bay. At first, I thought nothing of this–I had gone into the field under much, much worse conditions, while working at Gump Station. What I hadn’t anticipated and what was revealed to me 5 minutes before we left the station to depart from the shore was that the boat we were taking was not moored out in the bay but instead needed to be launched from the shore (meaning directly into the waves crashing onto the beach). Also, the station truck we would use to do this did not have 4-wheel drive, so we needed to get the boat and trailer down the beach and into the rough waters manually (meaning by pulling/pushing it by hand). To spoil any anticipation of a major accident, I am happy to report that no one was seriously injured, but it was a pretty intense operation. After struggling to get the boat and trailer down the hill and into the water, I was then in charge of securing the boat (by simply holding onto the bow line) in chest-deep water to keep it from being thrown by the waves back onto the beach. This experience resembled a mosh pit at a Rage Against the Machine concert, and I took the hull of the boat to the chest on more than one occasion. Fortunately for me, the team got ready quickly, hurled the gear into the boat, jumped in, allowing me to jump in, and we were able to get the engine started and take off from the beach just before a wave ran us aground. This experience certainly gave me a higher appreciation for how tough the CRIOBE researchers needed to be to do field work in foul weather. Thankfully though, we got our coral collection done with no major issues, and we prepared an army of little corals to enter into our 6-month experiment.

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My German collaborator, Silvan (right) and I, after a successful coral collection (despite the foul weather!).

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Some of our tiny army of Acropora pulcra coral colonies, just before they were deployed in our field experiment.

Once we pre-weighed the corals (so that we can weigh them at the end of the experiment to measure coral growth), we were ready to deploy the experiment. We used cinder blocks to anchor both our corals and our settlement tiles, and since we ended up with eight experimental treatments (2 levels of sedimentation [high and low], 2 levels of nutrient enrichment [high and low], and two levels of fish abundance [caged and uncaged]) and 9 replicates, we needed to haul 72 cinder blocks, as well as 36 cages into the field.

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Stackenblocken: 8 experimental treatments X 9 replicates = 72 cinder blocks and a whole lotta heavy lifting! But nothing builds cross-cultural camaraderie like physical challenges.

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My collaborators, Anne (left), a French master’s student, and Suzie (right), a British professor, look to the horizon toward the site where we will deploy our experiment. At this point, as I am driving the boat it is just inching by, having been filled with countless cinder blocks and cages.

This was a very intense day, and we finished deploying the experiment just as the sun went down! Man, were we relieved.

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From left to right: Anne, Suzie, Silvan and I share a moment of relief as we beat the odds and got the entire experiment out in one afternoon. Go team!

My European collaborators maintained the experiment until I returned here (Moorea) last month to take over. Soon, we will end the experiment and see what our treatments have done to the corals and tiles over the past 6 months. The anticipation reminds me of being a kid on Christmas Eve–but now data are now my presents :). I can’t wait to see what they tell us! More soon…

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Marine Biology Maestro in Mexico

I spent the better part of last month in Akumal, Mexico, co-instructing a field course in marine biology for juniors and seniors at the University of Texas at Austin (my alma mater). This course and I go way back, actually: I was enrolled as an undergraduate in summer 2007, I was a guest researcher in 2009 (when it was held in Puerto Rico, due to swine flu…and the Mexican drug cartel didn’t help), and I co-taught it in 2011 and this year. Once again, it was a very special experience.

The location is a pretty incredible place to get introduced to marine biology the right way: in the field! For three weeks, we stay just steps away from your typical Caribbean white-sand beach, beyond which is a sheltered bay that is home to an extensive coral reef and seagrass meadow. This ecosystem supports so many sea turtles, it’s hard to not encounter one on a casual snorkel.

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Akumal Bay at sunrise on Day 1 of the class.

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A green sea turtle chomping on some Thalassia testudinum seagrass (aptly dubbed ‘turtle grass’), as I take his/her headshot.

This place is appropriately named: Akumal means “place of the turtle” in Mayan. In addition to the sea turtles (or ‘charasmatic megafauna’ as they are sometimes called by jaded marine biologists ;)), there is a whole suite of life for the students to discover in the reef. Each time I visit this place, I find myself enamored with the diversity of coral species that persist here, boasting colors and patterns that seem like they’ve been pulled from a dream:

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This coral, Porites asteroides, reminds me of golden hills in some surreal landscape.

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Another coral, Montastrea species, with much larger polyps.

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This coral, Diploria labyrinthiformis, looks just like its namesake.

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A gorgonian (or ‘soft coral’) called a sea rod. You can see the tentacles of the individual polyps: jellyfish-like, wouldn’t you say?

It never ceases to amaze me that coral reefs exist because a bunch of tiny upside-down jellyfish (coral polyps) are able to form colonies (coral colonies) that essentially grow rocks (coral skeleton), allowing countless organisms to inhabit the reef environment. Here are some of those organisms–a few reef fish that we would regularly encounter:

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A butterfly fish, which uses its tiny mouth to eat the coral polyps shown above. They also use the corals for shelter, so essentially they eat their own house.

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A cowfish that seemed to like my camera. What an eye! Seems eerily similar to a cow’s…

Of course I love spending time in the ecosystem that I have come to study for a living, but introducing this system to people is a rare treat. There is something about working with students with genuine interest in a field setting that makes teaching this class feel like you’re being spoiled as an instructor.

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The whole gang of instructors and students for the 2013 Maymester in Akumal class.

We started out with a crash course in field-based scientific research and natural history and then broke off into student-led research projects. This translated to lots of time snorkeling in the reef and seagrasses of Akumal Bay. Some of the students even missed their formal graduation from the University of Texas at Austin to participate in the course. But we had them covered with a surprise commencement ceremony, complete with homemade cardboard graduation hats with seagrass tassels:

The college graduates of the 2013 Akumal class!

The college graduates of the 2013 Akumal class!

 An additional gem that lies in this area of the Mexican Caribbean (called ‘the Mayan Riviera’) is a series of cenotes, or underwater caverns that give rise to natural springs. These cenotes are formed when a part of the ceiling of the water table below ground collapses, due to erosion, revealing a hole from the surface into crystal clear and naturally filtered waters. We brought the students to several of these special spots, though my favorite of all has to be ‘Cenote Manatee’. Though there haven’t been manatees there in decades (rumor has it that there was one there once, hence the name) it is nonetheless an incredible spot. This is one of the rare locations where mangroves exist in so clear and calm waters that one can explore them with unique clarity. Snorkeling in these waters made me think of the movie ‘Avatar’, but underwater, and being in this system really makes you appreciate the abundance of life that teems among the mangrove roots, which researchers have shown are vital habitat for juvenile fish of all sorts:

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The two worlds of the mangrove forest: air and water.

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An emerald paradise.

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A wide-angle perspective from below.

Though our days were jam-packed with field work, lectures and discussions, on several evenings we (the instructors and students) found the time to unwind with beachfront acoustic guitar sing-alongs, led by my fellow instructor Dr. Phil Buccolo. Who knew a $20 guitar bought from a desperate man in front of a pawn shop could sound so good? We had the beach all to ourselves at night, to sit back, sing a few tunes, and watch the clouds and stars pass by in the clear sky overhead:

I would like to end with a side note. So, the main grocery store nearest the beach was a place called Super Chomak. We loved this place, and in particular, we loved the sign out front, which showcases an ancient Mayan sport.

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Dr. Buccolo and I demonstrate our athletic prowess and our sheer admiration for sacrificial Mayan athletes on the roof of Super Chomak (photo incredibly taken by Kathryn Thompson).

We later found out that this sport, though it may appear to be humorous, was in fact, serious business. Ancient Mayans believed that the very stars in the video above were actually demons that were kept at bay by sacrifices. So, to decide who would appease the demons, they created a team-based sport, in which players must hit a ball into a raised hole, without using their hands. The catch is that when the sun went down, the losing team was sacrificed. Like I said, no joke. But we still could not refrain from many a joke about how crazy it must have been to be on such a team; can you imagine how hard it must have been to recruit new teammates? “Hey Joe, so we are down a man for tomorrow night’s match. Are you in?” Thankfully, sports are less serious these days…

As many great experiences do, the class seemed to fly by, and before I knew it (4 days later), I was on a plane bound for French Polynesia, where I will spend the rest of the summer. Stay tuned!

Sailing through plastics, tsunami debris, and Hawaiian islands to Jack Johnson’s house

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Me at the helm, sailing through some squally weather in the middle of the Pacific. Photo by Marina Garland

It’s been far too long since I’ve updated this blog! So here goes: First, to bring you up to speed, I arrived safely back to shore (in this case, the Hawaiian islands), after sailing from San Diego through the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, or as the media often call it “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch”. Here is a very cool summary video of the research expedition by my shipmates Sabrina Schlumberger and Matt Ecklund:

(and if you would like to get more information on the expedition, check out http://www.sea.edu/plastics)

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My shipmate Tommy trying to hook the piece of floating dock!

The expedition was certainly a success: our eclectic crew of 38 came together as a tightly knit team and sampled and surveyed a whole lot of plastic garbage, ranging from tens of thousands of tiny (< pinky-nail sized) pieces, all the way up to a piece of floating dock and a capsized dingy (small boat). We even camacross a refrigerator floating by with food still in the freezer! (Don’t worry, our food supplies on the ship were more than ample, so no one was tempted).

The mid-ocean floating fridge (just before we pulled the food out of the freezer). Image courtesy of http://www.sea.edu/plastics

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Small plastic toy ball with what appears to be a Japanese cartoon character on it, now covered in barnacles and crabs.

Nearly every piece of plastic with discernible markings on it was of Japanese origin and likely ended up in the middle of the Pacific after Japan’s devastating Tōhoku tsunami in 2011. It was a somber feeling analyzing the marine life that had accumulated on a child’s toy ball, knowing that the owner may have been a victim of such a tragic natural disaster. At the same time, I was astonished by how much of this debris made it so far south of Japan, just by bobbing on the surface of the sea.

Tyson, Laura and I examine a Japanese fishing buoy that was covered in a whole slew of critters from thousands of barnacles and hundreds of crabs to giant isopods and polycheate worms. Shocking how much life can occupy so small an object! Photo by Marina Garland

We are now in the midst of processing the expedition data, but in case you were wondering: No, there is no island of plastic in the middle of the Pacific Ocean! This is certainly a relief, but unfortunately we are not out of the woods , because what we did find out there in the middle of the ocean were countless tiny pieces of plastic. Everywhere! These small pieces are the result of weathering and breaking up of larger pieces of plastic that have been floating around the ocean for who knows how long. What does this mean? What can plastics, small or large do to natural ecosystems in and around the ocean? The answer: We do not know. But we hope that the data collected from this expedition will help shed some light on this mystery.

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My watchmates Cina, Tyson and Whitney. Shortly before this photo was taken, we had a shipboard mock presidential election, in which Tyson and I (“Mike Tyson”) won by a narrow margin. Cina and Whitney were our secret service agents during the debates, hence Cina’s earpiece.

After 32 days at sea with no land in sight, we finally sailed into the Hawaiian islands from the NE and made landfall on the west coast of the Big Island at dusk on November 5th. As I remembered from my previous sailing adventures, setting foot on dry (and more importantly stable!) land after living on a constantly moving–sometimes violently–object is something you never forget. It was a great feeling, and the first steps that my watch mates and I took onto the Hawaiian shores just so happened to be at the very spot where Captain James Cook was murdered in 1779. Not the most cuddly of historical sites, but an important one nonetheless. Fortunately for us, we were not fleeing from aggressive natives but were instead running freely up to the lookout point and then snorkeling gleefully in cool, inviting waters thick in a rainbow assortment of corals and reef fish. It was an impressively healthy system, and it was an absolute pleasure of a stop over. We even got a surprise (and much appreciated) swim call from the captain–finally, we got to jump into the beautiful waters that we had been sailing through for over a month!

Swim call!: We were rewarded by the Captain with a rare swimming opportunity while at anchor in Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii. Photo by Marina Garland

But good things are never meant to last when you’re out adventuring on the high seas, and we set back out on our course after one day at anchor. We departed the bay at dusk, and much to our surprise and amusement, we were closely escorted out by a lively pod of spinner dolphins, complete with hyper babies doing flips and gainers off of our bow wake. So perfect a photo op is difficult to find:

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Baby spinner dolphin does a backflip off the bow as an ecstatic crew cheers him on. (Click to enlarge!)

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Me and Gary Borda (a.k.a., “Gare Bear”, a.k.a. “Honey Butter”), my workout partner on the ship and retired lawyer for NASA. Gary had the energy of a hyperactive 18 year old and really helped bring out the silliness that was A Watch.

Spirits were high as we continued to make our way west through the Hawaiian islands, toward our final destination of Honolulu. The islands were quite a site to see from the ship, and all the more breathtaking since we had not witnessed land in a while. The part of this leg of the trip that was a bit unexpected (though we were forewarned by the captain) was the sea conditions. They were intense! In some areas, the currents really rip around the islands, and we felt this full force. I recall trying to work in the lab during one of the rougher periods, and I (along with a good deal of lab equipment) was getting tossed around like a rag doll. Let me tell you, it is next to impossible to efficiently enter data into a (bolted down) computer under these conditions! Needless to say, it was an exciting passage, and we were able to make one more stop before going to port. We dropped anchor for an afternoon ‘field day’ (which is a euphemism for a top-to-bottom scrubbing of the ship) near the shores of the island of Lanai. Though we never set foot on

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Trent hanging on the quarterdeck and taking in the sunrise as we sail from the Big Island to Lanai.

the island itself, it certainly looked pretty cool from the ship. Actually, it is unclear whether we would have been able to legally enter anyway, since 98% of the island was recently purchased by billionaire Larry Ellison. Either way, we were content with admiring Mr. Ellison’s property from a distance, while we got the ship ready for her public entrance into the harbor in Honolulu the next day.

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The island of Lanai from the bowsprit of the SSV Robert C. Seamans.

The end of the expedition happened very quickly. From the moments when our Captain skillfully guided our 134′ ship into a narrow port space in Honolulu, to our final goodbyes and flights off the island, time went by like a whirlwind.

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The whole crew of Plastics @ SEA 2012: North Pacific Expedition just after making landfall in Honolulu, Hawaii. (Photo by Jon Waterman)

We celebrated our first night on land in 36 days with the whole crew at a local pub. The captain bought the first round, toasting to his crew, before we unleashed our pent-up fury on the bar, with gratuitous acts of group dancing and un-solicited karaoke (including the original shipboard track “Don’t Stop 2-6 Heavin’!”). I’m sure we were a sight for the regulars, but it was all in good fun. The next day, we took in the beauty and culture shock offered by the very crowded but undeniably picturesque Waikiki Beach. That is, until I got a text message from my buddy Trent… Trent is part of “The Four Amigos” (pictured below), who have a rich history of high seas adventure together.

Saily bros: From left to right, Bart, me, Trent and Tyson reunited to once again sail the Seamans across the Pacific Ocean in the name of Science!

Saily bros: From left to right, Bart, me, Trent and Tyson reunited to once again sail the Seamans across the Pacific Ocean in the name of Science!

Over the course of our friendship, Trent has had a history of great things waiting for him at the dock: in Tahiti in 2008, it was his girlfriend holding his surfboard, ready for a campin’, surfin’ safari, and this time it was his parents who decided to come spend some time with their son on Oahu’s North Shore.

Anyway, in Trent’s text, he mentioned that we should join him on the North Shore at Jack Johnson’s house. This seemed like a joke at first, but the North Shore did seem like an awesome place to check out, so a crew of us decided to take Trent up on the offer. Well, he wasn’t kidding, and not only did we get to hang out and have a delicious BBQ at Jack Johnson’s (childhood) house and meet Jack’s mom (who is super sweet by the way) and family dogs, but we got to post up on the most incredible spot on the North Shore–the Bonzai Pipeline.

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Sunset from our secluded spot on the North Shore or Oahu, Hawaii.

No one was around except pro surfers and the women who love them, so the beach was virtually ours! And what a beach–I can see how Jack and others were so inspired by that break in the waves, which was literally right outside of their windows. It made me wish I was a better surfer, and it also gave me a higher appreciation for the skill that these world-class athletes posses. Some of them were just tiny kids with tiny surfboards! Incredible. But instead of surfing, we just kicked back, relaxed and took in the unique scene.

Some of the gang hanging at Bonzai Pipeline on the North Shore in front of Jack Johnson’s house.

Tyson and I stayed in a hostel that night, which was a funny experience that showed us the less appealing side of the surfing culture in the form of a very inconsiderate and heavily under-the-influence ‘surfer dude’ room mate. The next day, Tyson and I held up our long-standing tradition of renting shoddy bikes to ride around remote Pacific islands and had a fun time exploring the beaches of the  North Shore.

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“Mike Tyson” toasting good bye in Honolulu.

Before we knew it, it was time to fly to our respective corners of the world. Tyson and I had a chance for one last toast at the resort hotel where some of our more pampered shipmates had been staying, and then, just like that, I parted ways with the crew of the SEA 2012 North Pacific Plastics Expedition. It’s a strange thing, how the extraordinary conditions of sailing a research vessel across a wide expanse of open ocean can bring a group of people together. I am grateful that I was able to be a part of such an impressively diverse and caring crew of individuals. I know that I’ve strengthened old bonds and formed new, lifelong friendships as a result of this expedition, and once again, SEA has showed me just how powerful teamwork can be. Fair winds to the shipmates (old and new) with whom I’ve been privileged enough to share the deck of the SSV Robert C. Seamans. It’s been a blast!

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The undeniable force that is A Watch (minus Hillary), ready to eat (as always) after running the deck all afternoon. Photo by Heidi Hirsh