SEA Currents: Robert C. Seamans
A Microscopic Planetary Perspective
10°11.8’ S x 171°41.9’ W
Description of location
206 nautical miles from American Samoa
Weather / Wind / Sail Plan
Force 5 winds from the southeast sailing us over 5 ft seas under a shallow reefed main, the stays’ls, and the jib.
The 2016 Phoenix Islands Expedition prepares to draw to a close. I and my crewmates boast the calloused hands and sun marked skin from almost six unparalleled weeks of calling the SSV Robert C. Seamans home. At the forefront, we are guided by our magnificent Captain and Chief Scientist, Rick Miller and Jan Witting respectively; I cannot help but draw a constant stream of inspiration from the fierceness and stoic elegance within their collective wisdom. The sense of wonder which draws me to the world below the waves, however, has never required much outside encouragement. Alongside us in the lab are the ship’s assistant scientists, who luckily have yet to toss me overboard for all the questions I’ve hurled at them, or the excess amounts of excitement pouring from me at the end of each station when the words “Net’s on board!” is echoed through the deck.
My directed research abounds in the mysteries of the fish within the Deep Scattering Layer below our hull; this layer of living organisms remains between 200-600 meters of depth during daylight hours, and travels to the surface waters of the world’s oceans come nightfall. This ship is equipped with an impressive amount of equipment for our observations- just enough to heed the curiosity within me that began rooted deep in my childhood years.
Especially curious are the specimens caught in our net tows, and brought to the science deck of the Seamans each night of our passage through PIPA, finally making their way to the microscope in front of me. At first glance, the fish of the mesopelagic zone (that 200-600 m of ocean depth) are startling in appearance. Aside from their monstrous- like faces, many exhibit enormous eyes relative to body size, as well as upward facing mouths sporting rows of fanged teeth. The stunning shimmer of their deep blue-black scales is studded in the photophore organs that illuminate the darkened seas. All of these adaptations allow the fish of the mesopelagic to thrive between the borders most extreme environments.. And have I mentioned that these formidable fish are smaller than the size of my very own pinky finger?
I feel an intense gratitude towards the oceans for allowing me just a glimpse into the water world below; and to the fish, whose voided eyes stare back towards me through the scope. What wonders those eyes might have seen before my curiosity affected their end will fixate within my imagination forever as one thing my microscope can never answer.
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Addendum by Assistant Scientist Nick:
I was flattered by Bonecutter’s invitation to contribute to the end of her blog and, having read her narrative, it is a pleasure to tie into the perspective she’s shared. Sailing as a first-time Assistant Scientist for SEA, this cruise has been a beaming reminder of how formative my student trip was in catalyzing a career in science and—for this next generation of students—what it means to discover science. Five years ago, I was the student gazing into a microscope at the lustrous photophores and alien body forms of mesopelagic creatures, elated to behold life forms I’d known only from my frayed copies of National Geographic as a kid. Written in the journal I kept on my student trip, there is an entry befitting a sentiment that I’ve heard more than one student aboard express: “I cannot say that I know what a career in science would truly entail, but I do know one thing—this experience has ignited a sense of scientific wonder in me that will prevail. I feel that I’ve arrived.”
It seems I was right. The wonder of the SEA Semester experience, along with conversations at the ship’s rail (with a TA—my soon-to-be undergraduate mentor) initiated my journey down a path that connected me with an advisor who encouraged my interest in aquaculture, which took me to Stirling, Scotland for an MSc in Sustainable Aquaculture and recently to Monterey, CA, where I’ve worked as a scientist on Bluefin tuna and yellowtail aquaculture projects.
In the past 35 days, this voyage has transected over 3,000 nautical miles of the Pacific, conducting over 50 scientific stations in and around the Phoenix Islands Protected area. Each and every student on the ship has operated deployments, drawn water samples (nutrient, pH, chloraphyll-a, etc.) from the carousel, and sorted marvelous organisms from net tows, all the while taking increasing control of the ship’s operation. They have set foot on remote, uninhabited atolls, snorkeled in a sea of coral wonders, and formed friendships and memories that will last a lifetime. And though this adventure soon draws to a close, I sense that for Alexandra and 22 other bright, young students aboard, a grander adventure is just beginning.
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An adventure story worthy of telling, this trip has been. We have seen all from giant scorpions in the stars above, to fantastic reef sharks below; and even a few icarian flying fish that landed at our feet. But the real stories are lying in wait to be told as they should be; in the company of all of you who wait for us patiently upon the shore.
A quick thank you to Nick for his beautiful words. And to Cathy, Maddy, and Sam: Cap says hello.
To my sister Danielle, I can somehow say that I have traveled to the world of our collective childhood imaginations; perhaps it wasn’t so imaginary after all. I’ve been reminiscing about you with JB, Cody, and the waves today; missing you dearly and wishing you the happiest of birthdays!
To my sister Savannah, wishing both you and my new nephew a safe delivery and a happy birthday, too! (Whenever that may be- or may have been.)
To my siblings Gabby and Maxy, I haven’t forgotten you! Thinking of your little smiling faces often.
Finally, to family in Ohio, Florida, and New York: Thank you for your undying love and support. Looking forward to seeing you all very, very soon.