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SSV Corwith Cramer Blog

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Date: Monday, July 04, 2011
Time: 20:30 or 8:30pm
Location: 41deg 26.9min N x 069deg 05.1min W
Heading: 340deg
Speed: 4.5 knots
Weather: Partly cloudy with a lovely pink sunset

Image caption: Night view of the portside.  “Dog house” to the right.

It was the darkest night watch I’d done yet.  Deep, dark clouds cloaked thousands of stars that had mesmerized us every night before.  The wind was damp and cold.  Lightning lit up the horizon as Roman (our watch scientist), Deepak, Nick, and I swapped stories on the deck while we waited to bring up the net we were towing.  We were the “blind labbies” of the watch - a factor adding to the darkness that night.  Our eyes were used to the white light in the lab that allowed us to fill out data sheets, count diatoms and dinoflagellates under a microscope . . . oh, and watch two isopods mate .... and then, without separating, eat a fish.  Life as usual in the lab during the 2300-0300 watch on July 4th.
The cry went out from the lookout at the bow.  Within a minute, I stumbled through near-blackness behind my shipmates towards the front of the ship.  Pretty much everyone on watch that could get away was there.  We lined up on the port side and leaned over the edge.  My eyes slowly adjusted till I could make out the glowing bioluminescence that highlighted the waves along the sides of the Corwith Cramer.
Silence.  We were too late again?

Another cry went out among my shipmates and I involuntarily gasped as a glowing form streaked out from the ship like a meteor.  Sure enough, four or five dolphins were keeping pace with us, their bodies faintly outlined by the bioluminescence as they gracefully weaved in and out of the waves. Glued to the side of the ship in captivation, we took in the strange, awesome sight.  Three dolphins shot away from the ship as one stream of light and then broke into three curving branches, leaving a lingering, glowing trail.  Much like the Air Force Thunderbirds.  Or fireworks.
“Happy 4th of July!” someone shouted.

The activity died down and we went back to our tasks.  Data entry, spooning jellyfish, counting, cleaning up after an overflowed aquarium.

Brian, our watch officer, poked his head into the lab.  “When you get a chance, come on out.  We’re going to strike the mains’l.”  The mains’l is a large sail that takes a ton of people just to raise.  I was surprised to hear that we were going to strike or, lower it, since we’d never done this before.  Outside the lab, the ship was now lit with a strange yellow-white light that made the ocean and sky seem darker and eerier.  Some raindrops were in the strong, brisk wind.  The captain was awake and on board in his foul weather gear.  The combination of these signs gave a tone of urgency to the situation.  I almost expected the heavens to open up and pour down sheets of rain.

“Ready on the halyard!”  “Ready on the downhaul!”  “Ready on the sheet!” There’s something comforting about hearing your shipmates call out where they are and what they’re doing.  Especially in dramatic situations.  I held the mains’l sheet steady and waited for Brian’s orders.

“Two six!”  “Heave!”

As the mains’l came down above me, the ropes on its sides lashed out at my head.  I dropped to my knees.  “Haul away the main sheet!”  I began to pull on my rope.  Brian soon came to help - his one hand could heave the same load that took me two.
Soon, the mains’l was down and the boom straight over the “dog house,” the little cabin which held the navigation instruments, radios, and maps. All together we climbed up onto the roof to fold the gigantic sail.  Brian jumped up on the railing and shouted directions.
“Up!  Aft!  Down!”
We shouted each command back to him as we pulled a fold of the sail up, then towards the stern, and then leaned over the boom to push it down. Start over.  Stormy, cold wind whipped at our hair and clothes.  It was epic.
We turned the watch over to B-watch and mustered on the starboardside deck boxes for a short meeting before we went back to bed.  Not to put words in everyone’s mouths but I think we were all proud of us.  I was proud of us.
Brian said on the first day that we would soon understand what that word meant.

I’ve seen dramatic episodes like these bring out the best in people.  I have a deep respect for each shipmate on the Corwith Cramer.  But it’s not just in the crazy moments.  They’re just a great bunch to be around, whether eating around the gimbled tables or hanging out on the bowsprit.
  But enough with the gushy stuff.  After a quick meeting we all brought our hands in.
  “What’ll we say?”  Brian asked.  “Ok.  On three.”
  “One.  Two.  Three.”

Anna Wargula




Saturday July 2 2011
39deg 45min N
70deg 15min W
Heading: WSW
Speed 4.3 Knots

Image caption:  From extreme pressures a mile below the ocean wrapped only in a pair of pantyhose, styrofoam buckles but a chicken egg survives.

Day 5 of the 2011 MIT/WHOI SEA Cruise began, for myself, quite briskly at 2:30 AM. The sun was about to rise and there was no wind or wave to speak of. Really, there was no indication that this would be the most exciting day of the cruise thus far.

The cruise objectives are balanced between the main disciplines of oceanography, but today, biology stole the show. In list form, we saw: humans (us), dolphins (gliding under bow and leaping from afar), yellowfin tuna (caught, cut, then wrapped in seaweed), unnamable small fish, a mildly lazy manta ray, a mysterious land bird that settled onto our rigging (henceforth named Joe), and lots and lots of plankton from yesterday’s plankton tows.

But really when I say biology stole the show, I mean that a chicken egg stole the show. I could have said breakfast stole the show and would have been just as accurate. But the question arises: How did such an unlikely star emerge? By 13:00 today, the Cramer reached the deepest section of ocean to be encountered on the trip. Beneath the glossy and eerily still surface, the sea extended over 1600 m downward before reaching solid earth and, to commemorate such an occasion, all of us began ferociously coloring Styrofoam cups to be tied to a 50-pound weight and dragged down and then up this great distance. One of the remarkable things about the deep ocean is the tremendous pressures that are reached when traveling to these low places. When scientists build submersible vessels like Alvin, a tremendous amount of effort goes in to making sure that it can withstand such forces so that the operators inside will not be crushed. The principle behind this is simple: at higher pressures gases will compress, along with any structure surrounding these gases if not designed properly; and upon returning to shallower depths (and less pressure) these same gases will expand, often with horrible results (also known as the bends). Submerging Styrofoam causes the gases imprisoned in the material to be released and the cups return morphed and shrunk. At the last minute however, we decided to add an egg to the descent for the simple reason that no one really knew what would happen. Fully expecting the egg to buckle under forces hundreds of times greater than the hand to skillet motion that many of us perform daily, we were absolutely stunned to see the egg emerge completely intact, championing over the bent and bested Styrofoam. And inside:  a completely normal egg with yolk intact, perfectly edible and not the least bit contaminated from traveling 20,000 leagues under the sea. So far we can only guess at what contributed to this stability. Gas exchange through the shell? Superior architecture? And even if the ultimate cause becomes unknowable, a chicken and egg scenario, we at least know that the latter is one hell of a diver.

Nick Hawco




Tuesday, 28th June 2011
1800 or 6PM
Anchored in Menemsha Bight, Martha’s Vineyard
Weather conditions: Foggy, but a comfortable 22.5deg Celsius

Image caption:  The crew and students of B Watch learn how to don their safety harnesses. 

Good day and welcome to the MIT_WHOI Joint Program summer sail with Sea Education Association; this is Dr. Jeffrey Schell, Chief Scientist for this research cruise which began today in historic Woods Hole, MA and will conclude in ten days time in Boston, MA.  In pursuit of our various scientific goals we will sail across the New England continental shelf, across the steep sided Atlantis submarine canyon, over the productive waters of Georges Bank and through the fog and mists of the Gulf of Maine. 

Once again a group of bright, curious, and enthusiastic students have joined the professional crew of the SSV Corwith Cramer to initiate their graduate school experience by going to sea for science.  In so doing these students join the ranks of an illustrious community of scientists that began their careers in the Woods Hole area; names such as Spencer Fullerton Baird who was responsible for the creation of the US Fish Bureau which would later become the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), Louis Agassiz whose Anderson School of Natural History would serve as the precursor to the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), Henry Bryant Bigelow whose interdisciplinary approach to the study of the Gulf of Maine ecosystem would serve as the model of oceanographic research for decades to come and thus earn him the honor of becoming the first director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI).  And one final example must be included, Rachel Carson, who is best known for her popular books on marine biology and conservation, began her career in Woods Hole working for the US Fish Bureau and MBL, and was also the first woman to go to sea for science on a US funded cruise to study the Georges Bank.  These are just a few of the many men and women that have begun their scientific careers in Woods Hole, and as we cast off the dock lines of the Corwith Cramer on a bright, sunny afternoon, these student have become apart of this historic legacy. 

The language and customs aboard a tall ship are foreign to most, and safety is of the utmost importance.  Thus, the professional crew has dedicated a greater part of the afternoon and evening teaching their new shipmates the ins and outs of life aboard a sailing research vessel.  Boat checks, weather observations, timely and accurate logbook entries, safe line handling skills, safety procedures on deck, in the lab, the engine room and the galley; these are just of few of the necessary training steps that will transform these new students into working members of the crew.  There is much to learn before we can safely set sail tomorrow afternoon in pursuit of our scientific goals, but as far as I can tell this new cohort of MIT_WHOI graduate students appear to be rather quick. 
The adventure has just begun, so be sure to stay tuned. 

Jeff Schell, Chief Scientist, Sea Education Association