Exploring the Phoenix Islands Protected Area with SEA Semester

Drone image of the Seamans alongside Nikumaroro.
Jan Witting
The SSV Robert C. Seamans alongside Nikumaroro.

On a deserted island in the middle of the Pacific, a group of young scientists uncover an unassuming hunk of metal, called a FAD or fish aggregating device, that stranded ashore. Rumor has it famed aviator Amelia Earhart was also marooned on this very island over 80 years earlier during her ill-fated trip to circumnavigate the globe.

Today, however, Nikumaroro Island is one of many valuable research sites for students in the SEA Semester program offered through the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Andrew Chin, a University of Washington senior majoring in Aquatic and Fishery Sciences and Marine Biology, and his classmates in the program are combing the remote beaches of the island looking for more FADs —evidence of illegal fishing in one of the largest marine protected areas in the world.

A dynamited cut through the coral stone on Nikumaroro
Christ Romero (UMass-Amherst/Central Michigan University)
A dynamited cut through the coral stone on Nikumaroro. The island used to be a coconut plantation; this cut was made to allow small craft to land.

During a month at sea (following three weeks of study on shore at Woods Hole), the class of 19 students hone their sailing and scientific skills aboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans as part of the intensive program.

Departing from Honolulu HI, the path of the SSV Robert C. Seamans takes it south-west toward American Samoa, sailing through the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA). The PIPA is roughly the size of the state of California and is comprised mostly of open blue water save for a few uninhabited coral atolls.

Cruise track of the SSV Robert C. Seamans
Cruise track of the SSV Robert C. Seamans

“There’s a lot of history on those islands and walking around and seeing that history is really cool. You take a small boat up to the beach and you get off… and just knowing nobody is there. There used to be at different periods of time, but now you’re the only people on this island. You’re just walking along the edge of this atoll and there’s birds flying all around. It’s really spectacular,” says Chin.

Aboard the vessel, Andrew and the other students will spend the summer working alongside the ship’s crew, engineers, scientists and lab hands. During this time, they will collect and analyze oceanographic data; investigate our impacts on ocean and coastal health; critically evaluate management practices; and identify significant relationships between economics, technology, government and the environment.

The FAD Andrew and the other students found on Nikumaroro is one of 16 recovered that day along a three-mile section of beach.

“We received a letter from the PIPA office which said they were getting reports of fishing vessels along the border using FADS and that currents were diverting them to Nikumaroro Island,” says Chin.

He explains commercial fishermen deploy these circular floating objects, which are about two foot around and resemble spotlights, on the outskirts of the PIPA and let them drift through to the other side. As the FADs move through the water it acts as an oasis in the vast open ocean, attracting fish and other marine life like a magnet. The fishermen can track and monitor how many fish are beneath the FAD and then harvest the catch after it passes through the protected waters.

Kerry-Anne Rogers (Muhlenberg College) is exhausted on the deck after a FAD (Fish Aggregating Device) recovery mission on Nikumaroro.
Mackenzie Meier (University of New Hampshire)
Kerry-Anne Rogers (Muhlenberg College) is exhausted after a FAD (Fish Aggregating Device) recovery mission on Nikumaroro.

Sometimes the FAD never completes its intended journey and the ocean currents wash them ashore the atolls dotted across the PIPA.

“They’re really sophisticated, Chin says. “We pulled them apart and were able to look at all of the circuitry. They have a GPS transmitter, fish sonar, solar panels and an iridium chip you can actually use to track where it was manufactured and who bought it.”

Discovering these FADS and the implications of their use is just one of many examples of how students can engage in real-world conservation and management issues during their summer with the SEA Semester program. Research they collect will assist in the ongoing development of an effective conservation plan for the region.

Another draw of the program is to provide students an opportunity to learn how to operate and sail the 134-foot SSV Robert C. Seamans. A daunting task for many who arrive on board with little or no sailing experience, but become quick studies under the crew’s guidance and the daily routine of life at sea.

“At one point the professional crew hands the ship over to us,” says Chin. “We had to run the ship, do navigation, do the deployments and stuff like that. We had to learn in that type of kinetic environment and then actually do it and take responsibility.”

Heading out to the next snorkel spot on Nikumaroro! From left to right: Andrew Chin (UW), Chloé-Rose Columbero (Harvard), Brian Derosiers (Northeastern), Makaila Lyons (McDaniel College)
Lee Fenstermacher (Dickinson College)
Heading out to the next snorkel spot on Nikumaroro! From left to right: Andrew Chin (UW), Chloé-Rose Columbero (Harvard), Brian Derosiers (Northeastern), Makaila Lyons (McDaniel College)

Safety was always paramount while at sea. The entire ship would practice and participate in different drills to be prepared for an unlikely event such as a fire or person overboard. Each crew member would be assigned to a different team and have certain tasks they must be ready to perform during an emergency situation.

Various oceanographic studies also became routine: from CTD deployments which measure the conductivity, temperature and depth of the water to night-time tows where the students would use nets to collect fish and plankton specimens and catalogue them in an ongoing effort to monitor the biodiversity in the PIPA.

“The nighttime pelagic tows are really exciting because you pull up all these mesopelagic fish like bristlemouths, lantern fish and salps that are still glowing,” says Chin referring to the bioluminescence many deep sea creatures exhibit.

The SEA Semester experience provides students an exciting opportunity to explore the pristine waters, coral reefs and islands of the PIPA while also building a strong foundation in science, management and policy. Learning in such a dynamic environment opens amazing networking possibilities and lasting friendships.

“There’s so many small wonders that happen on the ship.”

“You’re out sailing through all these really cool places and you get to see a lot of the world,” says Chin. It’s also another way to connect with people who may not be doing science, but connect with them in such a personal way.”

A young green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) encountered in the offshore reefs of Orona.
Andrew Chin
“A friend and I were snorkeling off one of the reefs and we were on the edge where it drops off because we were looking for sharks. All of a sudden my friend pointed behind me and there was this little green sea turtle. It came up right behind us, just checking us out. She posed a little bit and then swam off.”
Giant clams on a reef in the Orona lagoon
Andrew Chin
The Orona lagoon showed unusually high densities of giant clams (genus Tridacna), with varying hues and combinations of green, blue, black, and gold. The reasons for such high densities are unknown.
The students assemble on the quarterdeck for 1400 (2PM) class. Discussions varied from sea birds, meteorology, tuna fisheries, and Pacific Island nation policy.
Lee Fenstermacher (Dickinson College)
The students assemble on the quarterdeck for 1400 (2PM) class. Discussions varied from sea birds, meteorology, tuna fisheries, and Pacific Island nation policy.

What advice would you have for students considering SEA Semester?

“Dive head first into it. You’re going to be on this ship with these people in this very small space for like five and a half weeks. Be really open about making friends and talking to people and being involved. It’s a really awesome experience and you only get out of it what you put into it.”

“Apply early because there are a lot of folks are interested in this. Also don’t be scared by the high price tag because SEA Semester gives you a lot of scholarship opportunities along with UW Study Abroad and the Gilman Scholarship.”

For more information about SEA Semester visit their website at https://www.sea.edu/ and speak with your advisor.

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