Dr. Chuck Lea
Chuck Lea, a bear of a man known as much for his signature pony tail as his sharp wit and loquacious manner, spoke recently about what has kept him enthused about teaching at SEA for 20 years. "Each time you do it," says Lea, a chief scientist, "It's like a new adventure."
On one cruise north of the Gulf Stream, Chuck watched in awe as a large shark chomped away at the ship's log while he was lecturing. "I could hardly believe it. I was looking aft on the Westward and I'm 'yap, yap, yap,' and I saw this big fin, just like on TV, flip around, come out of the water and flop onto the other side, right out there where the log was," he recalls. "And the log stopped spinning and I said, 'God, the shark ate the log.' "
A downside these days to his SEA life is juggling fatherhood with going off to sea. "It wasn't any fun saying good bye for six weeks before, but it is a lot less fun with kids," he says. "You miss the actual kid. We know this is how it will be as long as I do the job, and I'm not planning my escape."
On the upside, Chuck, 53, holds a nine-month position, affording him more time than most dads have with their kids. "His big hobby when he's home is playing with the toddler, particularly digging together in the yard," says Bette, 35, a stay-at-home mom who was working on her Ph.D. at Northeastern University until the birth of James.
A native of Bow Mar, Colorado, Chuck majored in organismic biology at the University of Colorado in Boulder. In 1974, after serving five months on active duty in the Army learning how to shoot artillery in Oklahoma, Chuck headed to Texas A&M for his doctorate in oceanography. "I really enjoyed my invertebrate biology course and there were lots of swell invertebrates in the ocean," he says. "Going to sea fed that adventure guy part of me."
In graduate school, he discovered deep-sea squid. "I fell in love," he says. "What isn't there about the squid? What more could one want from an organism? They are neat to look at, in all different varieties, strange shapes, doing all sorts of things we can only imagine."
In 1984, as Chuck's graduate school days studying squid distribution across the ocean finished up, he landed a job with SEA. "One of the things that always and continues to be fun is that each class is like an experience that has a beginning, a middle, and an end to itâ€”a complete unit of experience," says Chuck. "With SEA, you plug in with the students and you're going flat out with the students. "You try to get them to think and learn and you're learning about them."
His wife has fond memories of Chuck's teaching style, noting that some classmates likened him to a silverback gorilla, the leader of the pack you don't mess with. "I thought he was very intelligent and very funny; he has a very sharp wit," recalls Bette of her 1990 cruise with Chuck on C-113. "His lecturing is immediately engaging, and he is one of the best lecturers I've ever had."
Abigail Keene, an alum of S-184, admits that while students certainly respect Chuck, he is extremely approachable. "I was so impressed. There was no question he wouldn't help me with, he never hesitated," says Abigail. "The greatest thing about Chuck is his ability to make any situation funny and comfortable and that was wonderful, to have someone who would always make me laugh but also someone I respected."
Over the years, Chuck learned another lesson about his job with SEA: time stands still. "I've done, like, 35 SEA Semesters and they average about 2,800 miles. You can look at it and say, holy cow, I could have driven that in a couple of days," he says. "When you're doing all those miles at four knots, that's what makes it weird and interesting."