• Like Sea Education Association on Facebook
  • Follow Sea Education Association on Twitter
  • Follow SEA Semester on Instagram
  • Watch Sea Education Association on YouTube
  • Read SEA Currents
  • Listen to SEA Stories
  • View SEA Semester campus visit calendar

Current position of the SSV Robert C. Seamans. Click on the vessel to view position history. Use the tools, top right, to change the map style or view data layers.

SEA Currents: SSV Robert C. Seamans



Holding my Breath

Barbara Ann Heerken, B Watch, Northern Arizona University
Protecting the Phoenix Islands

#watchmepipette (Left to right: Maddi Boettner and Barbara Ann Heerkens)

Ship's Log

Current Position
4°30.38’ S, 172° 13.2’ W

Anchored on the leeward side of Orona Island

Ship’s Heading & Speed

Sail Plan
All sails furled

Pleasant, warm, and humid conditions. Seas and wind from the east

Souls on Board

I’m holding my breath, because I have been asked to find the green orb and place it on the horizon. I’m holding my breath, because I’m navigating through an endless-blue-nowhere by the light of the star that is mine, because I picked it; I know its name, and it’s the only one I can see out of the black waves stretching a thousand miles in every direction and the black sky stretching millions of miles in front of me.

I’m holding my breath, because I’m clinging to life, laying on the deck feeling like a wet cat trying to ice skate, or a fawn who decides to go to the caravel and ride a roller coaster that she can’t get off of. I’m holding my breath, because I can’t throw up when there is important work I need to do.

I’m holding my breath. I’m crying, trying not to be too loud. I’m afraid that I would scare away what I’m seeing and hearing, because I’m not really here, listening to twenty-nine souls sing and dance as they welcome us to their home. I watched as their voices and movements transformed the Island of Kanton from rubble and shacks that the rising sea ripped at, into a place of family, a place that was someone’s home where they learned, laughed, and loved. Did they know? We had spent our time debating their destruction, writing our papers. It was then that the disconnect between what is known and who does not know it became vivid: does the rest of the world know they are here?

I’m holding my breath as I ran, chasing and chased by ten or so barefooted children. I was it, and they ran me to exhaustion, at which point I yelled “Donkey” causing the swarm of laughs and sticky fingers to conglomerate around me. A new little human was chosen for my spot. It was a lighthearted chaos that broke the beating waves on both sides on the atoll island, the scurry of hermit crabs the size of your fist, the swaying palm trees. The village teacher appeared out of the hut where she hid from the sun on her hand-woven mats and instructed the children to line up. She wanted to take a picture with her children.

I snapped the picture. Moments before I was with her in her hut, laughing, holding back tears, touching her woven mats with my soft pink fingers. It took me a long time to build up the courage to find her, all too aware of my blonde hair and blue eyes for the first time in my life. I was greeted inside, not meeting a face but a soul. I held my breath, because I wanted to remember how easily she smiled.

I’m holding my breath, because I’m diving under into an older world of the Island Kanton, from the real world I had barely gotten to know. It was like nothing I could hope to explain. Light reflected off the table top corals in pinks, green and purples. The water was only a bit colder than my blood. Fish of all shapes, colors, and sizes were above me, below me, hidden in the coral, hidden in the ship wreck. The scientist in me understood this place to be incredibly unique with diversity I have never seen, but the human in me could breathe. I breathed with the sea turtle with wise eyes.

I breathed in the day. Today, on July 26th, we got a break from our rigorous watch schedule to check out the reefs around Orona and catch up on some lab work. I learned how to prepare the phytoplankton samples for my size fractionation project with acetone to lyse the cells. It was a lot easier pipetting while the ship was anchored, when the rolling sea wasn’t knocking me about. In exploration, some went to the inner lagoon, but I had just gotten back from the outer reefs. They were different from Kanton. At Orona, rocky corals established themselves on rocky protrusions and caverns, a screen shot into the volcanic action of this location. The fishes and their diversity are hard to explain; it’s like a scene from the movie Finding Nemo. The black tip reef sharks swam around us, not really caring that we were there but keeping their distance. The sea turtles normally stayed at the bottom, except the three turtles that we saw very much exercising their sexual liberty, rolling around on the surface, like fifty shades of sea water. The biggest green sea turtle I have ever seen met my face right as we were preparing to go.

Having been aboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans for close to three weeks now, it’s easy to hold your breath when you have no idea what is going to happen next. It’s easy to feel helpless, trapped, stranded, and suffocated when the wind picks up at 3am, and you feel the squall hit and rock the ship with fury while you’re hauling at sails…when you miss your loved ones so much that you look up to the stars at night realizing you are so far away, they are not looking at the same stars. You are thousands of miles away from them in every direction. When you eat, sleep, clean, haul, collect, and analyze when someone else tells you to. But, we are not here to do what is easy. We are here to learn to breathe.

Breathe in the whales, dolphins, and turtles that swim with the ship from time to time out of curiosity. Breathe in the music we only get to hear once a week, the music that reminds me of my father. Breathe in the knowledge that the organisms we collect hold. Breathe in only what you can control, because you can’t control the mystery that is the wildly unexplored equatorial South Pacific. You can’t control how other people act, either good or bad. You can only control yourself and what you do with each breath, so breathe in this experience.

To my very best friend in the whole wide world, Athena Angel: you remind me of the stars out here. I’m not sure if it’s because of your name, your spirit, or your stupid obsession with horoscopes. As much as I am thankful to be here, I miss Flagstaff, Arizona and the home I share with you. I’m so lucky to be able to come home to such a perfect scene. If here now is my reality, then coming home to my best friend is my dream and my adventure.

To my sweet heart, Anthony Porter: you are always telling me to make the people I love my home. I think I have finally figured out how. You have been the most supportive and kind gentleman a woman can ask for. I miss your humor and your adventurous spirit enough to kill me. Although you know I’m dramatic, I can’t wait to travel the world with you.

Special thanks to my grandma Barbara, to Betty, my aunt Jenny, the Honea family, and the Porter family. Lastly to my father, who read me the book “All the Places You’ll Go” when I was a little girl. Thank you for giving me the chance at this wonderful life. Thank you for your patience that I have been able to extend to the thirty-seven other people with whom I live in very close quarters. Thank you for your thoughtfulness as maybe I don’t swim too far, dive too deep, or go off alone because of it. Thank you for watching all those documentaries with me and waking up my curiosity; I am living my own now.

- Barbara Ann

Previous entry: Bucket Lists    Next entry: Orona’s Lagoon


Leave a note for students and crew to read when they reach their next port and have access to the internet!

#1. Posted by Kinsey on July 29, 2017

Hey Jessima!
Hope all is well. Girl, I cannot tell you how hard iit was to find a communicate with you. I had wish I known this sooner. You gotta thank your mom. If I hadn’t added her on facebook, I wouldn’t have figured it out. (It happened deal with it)

I miss and love you. It’s weird not talking to you every day. It’s a struggle but we manage. I know you have limited Internet access so here’s some text tumbler posts so you have something to laugh about:

Sextronaughtt: how can lawyers agree without crying
Lightspeedsound: I’m a lawyer and let me tell you it gets like super close dude

My mum just bought our cat a Christmas stocking even tho we are Muslim and don’t even celebrate Christmas?? She was like ‘we don’t know what religion he is we can’t force him to be Muslim’ hes a cat?

Not super funny but hey it’s something. Keep up the good work the good work. You’re doing a fantastic job. How do i know if you are or not?. Because you always do good work.

#2. Posted by Elinor Kuhn on July 29, 2017

I so look forwaed to your blogs and your life altering experiences.When they are late, I am concerned!
The last weeks cannot be here already. Safe sailing and even greater experiences to come. Looking forward, Devin, to seeing you and hearing tales of wonder. Weekend in Richmond (with laundry, of course!)coming up.
Love O and O

#3. Posted by Skip Heerkens on July 29, 2017

To Barbara Ann—Great writing-just what we wanted to hear—so glad you’re doing your thing—we do miss you ms—and can’t wait to see you & your pictures and tell us more in person—love you,Lezy & Dad

#4. Posted by JB Pitts on August 07, 2017

Loved this personal insight. Awesome post.

#5. Posted by Barbara Gruber on August 10, 2017

Dear Barbara,
What a wonderful surprise to hear from you and hear of your experiences! We really look forward to seeing you soon.  Keep up the good work.
Much love,
Grandma Gruber

#6. Posted by Jenny Steffes on August 10, 2017

Barbara—this post gave me waves of goosebumps!  So insightful and revealing of your feelings.  The experiences you describe are so real from your words—
You know how much we love you and miss your presence, be it on facebook or a phone call.  So strange to think how you are a world away from us! 
Cant wait to have you back safely and w all the wonderful knowledge you’ve gained. <3<3<3



Add a comment:

Notify me of follow-­up comments?

I would like SEA to keep me informed about news and opportunities.