Ready for an adventure with a purpose? Request info »
  • Search SEA Semester, Summer and High School Programs
SEA Currents Blog

SEA Currents: Robert C. Seamans

August 11, 2015


Christina Quinn, Sewanee: The University of the South

Protecting the Phoenix Islands

Zooplankton 100-count on a petri dish. Photo by Quinn.

13° 40.3’ S x 169° 51.6’W

Sail Plan
Motor sailing under 4 lowers

Ship Speed / Course
6kn / 160° True

Sunny skies, winds ENE Beaufort force 2

Souls on Board

We will be casting our last science deployment in the morning, American Samoa is just over the horizon, and we are looking out for shipping lanes. The end of the trip is drawing near, and it seems like it came slowly until it came all at once.

We gathered today for our usual afternoon all hands meeting around chief scientist Jan Witting as he pulled out colorful graphs showing the results of all of our measurements. He laughingly pointed out a line of a deployment, saying "wire lower, wire lower faster," mocking the tedious but serene moments each day when we dropped the heavy carousel of scientific equipment 600 meters into the deep blue sea to measure temperature, salinity, chlorophyll-a fluorescence, and nutrient content of the water column below us.

The graphs show striking currents and stratification of temperature and salinity and water masses moving in opposite directions, partially predictable yet containing interesting anomalies which are specific to this region. The Phoenix Island Protected Area contains numerous seamounts, coral atolls, and islands. These formations disrupt the flow of salinity and nutrients in the ocean; as the currents encounter the underwater obstructions, the water becomes turbulent and deep water is driven to the surface, much like when water runs over a stone in a river. This causes the upwelling of nutrients from deep in the ocean into the sun-warmed upper portion of the ocean where phytoplankton thrive.

This upwelling, referred to as the island mass effect, explains why there is such biodiversity around islands when compared to the open abyssal ocean. The phytoplankton are fueled by the increased nutrients stirred up by the islands' mass. They bloom in impressive numbers in the wake of the island, supporting the impressive abundance and diversity of fish that we saw as we snorkeled in Kanton and Orona.

We talked about this biodiversity as one of the reasons that PIPA is an important area to protect. These isolated, generally unharvested coral islands are beautiful havens for marine life. It is important that intrepid scientists (and burgeoning scientists) such as ourselves make the effort to quantify this biodiversity and ecological significance in order to further convince the various global players who keep this marine protected area that it is important to maintain it into the future.

I was mesmerized by the fact that these graphs, although they look something like previous graphs we saw in class, are entirely new knowledge to the scientific community and to the managers of PIPA. They are our data. No one can know what is happening with phytoplankton abundance, fish reproduction, or nutrient upwelling unless someone invests the time in taking these careful measurements. And careful they are indeed, I've learned after numerous meticulous deployments, cleaning, and stowing of the carousel, collection of the samples from 13 large vials of water, running said water samples through different machines to slowly filter chlorophyll or measure pH. Even more careful analysis of the patterns that emerge ensue.

Why doesn't humanity listen to the scientists when they worry about the health of the oceans or of the climate? Scientists focus their passion and a majority of their time to understanding what is happening in the natural processes around us. When the scientific community is nearly unanimously giving a warning or a suggestion, why don't we incorporate their advice in a real way? We listen when the president tells us there are nuclear threats or when the economists tell us there is a recession, and I worry much more about their motives and inspiration. What's their reason for not listening to the scientists?


Categories: Robert C. Seamans,Protecting the Phoenix Islands, • Topics: s261  science  research • (1) Comments
Previous entry: An Update from S-261    Next entry: Ahoy friends & family


#1. Posted by The Beatties on August 12, 2015

Good work to all the scientists (burgeoning and otherwise) on the Robert C. Seamans.  Let’s all hope that your hard work will be viewed and recognized by the larger scientific community and the rest of us who inhabit this fragile planet.  Effort like yours does make a difference even it you can’t see it right away.  Your knowledge and passion are your greatest scientific tools.  Continue to use them after you all return home from your fantastic adventure.

The Beatties



Add a comment:

Notify me of follow-­up comments?

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