SEA Currents: General
May 16, 2019
The Ocean as Classroom
An in-depth conversation with SEA Professor of Oceanography Jeff Schell on teaching at SEA, the health of coral reefs, and the mysteries of the Sargasso Sea
Professor of Oceanography Jeff Schell is the former director for SEA's Colonization to Conservation in the Caribbean program and led the creation of SEA’s Reef Expedition programs. A graduate of College of the Holy Cross (BA), SUNY Stony Brook (MS) and University of Wisconsin at Madison (PhD), his areas of interest include the ecology of marine and freshwater habitats with a focus on distribution, diversity, and species composition of plankton communities, the ecology of pelagic Sargassum and its associated community, marine environmental history, interdisciplinary approaches to teaching, science illustration and storytelling.
Q: Since joining SEA in 2003 you’ve sailed thousands of miles on research voyages and taught hundreds of SEA Semester students. What is it about our organization that keeps you so motivated – both in the classroom and aboard our vessels at sea?
A: Well, actually, this adventure began for me even earlier. Cruise W-134, I believe in the summer of 1994, I sailed as Third Scientist. I sailed for four years before going back to graduate school. Doing the math right now, that means for the past 25 years I have been connected with SEA. And that means quite literally half of my life – yes, I am turning 50 this summer!
So that is a good question, why am I still living this life, going to sea all the time? I suppose one answer is that my life has been transformed by my experiences with SEA. I have always believed in the mission of SEA and find great meaning and purpose teaching about the ocean. And tied to that, I am still learning myself. There are life lessons to be learned out there and I have come to embrace them all. Above all, the selflessness required to be a good shipmate. To place the ship and your shipmates above yourself, to sacrifice oneself for a higher purpose, I believe these are noble pursuits. And for me the ship becomes a metaphor I share with students as I scale up these ideas. The culture of SEA has inspired in me the desire to give back to society more than I take; and to make the world a better place. That sense of purpose, drawn from SEA’s mission, certainly is one of my motivations.
Then, of course, you have to consider the pleasure and enjoyment of working with like-minded, hardworking, generous crew and intelligent, optimistic, passionate students; no wonder I have been doing this for so long. Truly, I have been inspired by the many people I worked and sailed with over the years. The crew, the students, the campus staff. All dedicated and devoted, drawn to and driven by this important mission.
And to wrap up this question, on a more personal level, it really comes down to this simple fact - I am still enjoying myself. I could go on and on about all the things I love about a life at SEA and going to sea. Twenty five years’ worth of stories and examples - the things I love about being on a ship at sea, the purpose, pride and enjoyment I have in teaching. The appreciation and personal satisfaction I have for the freedom granted to pursue my many pedagogic and scientific interests.
Q: You’re deeply involved in studying reef ecosystems, having led both the Pacific and Caribbean Reef Expeditions and studied reefs in other programs as well. What have you observed about the health of reefs, and what’s your view of the future?
A: Thanks to SEA I saw my first coral reef while sailing in the Caribbean in 1994 and have, over the years, been fortunate to bear witness to the prolific beauty of coral reefs around the world.
Thanks to SEA’s repeated cruise tracks, I have returned to the same reefs time and again, year after year, and have come to consider certain coral formations good acquaintances of mine. However, sadly, I have also borne witness to tremendous change on many of these reefs - loss of coral abundance and diversity, and decline in fish size and diversity. I my lifetime I’ve observed changes across entire ecosystems driven by a multitude of negative pressures. I have watched island communities grow, the number of tourists increase, access to remote areas open up to commercial development, and watersheds become deforested in favor of alternative economic goals. Admittedly this is tough to discuss. I often keep many of these stories to myself so as not to diminish the students’ experience. But I’ve observed a shift in the baseline of what is considered a healthy coral reef.
Though this may seem disheartening there are many signs of hope. First and foremost, beauty still remains. The seeds of recovery are still present so there is still a chance to turn the tide. I believe there is enough beauty left in the world to inspire people to action - to value, to care, to hope and inspire the necessary action to protect all marine environments, including coral reefs.
Second, life in the sea is resilient. I’ve observed reefs in the Pacific that were decimated by an unprecedented El Niño event and recovered a few years later. But there is a caveat, this recovery is inversely correlated with the number of additional negative pressures in the environment. When you add in coastal pollution or overfishing, the capacity to recover is diminished. These observations give hope, they provide a pathway toward positive change, but only if enough people care and value these ecosystems and make responsible, sustainable decisions regarding marine resources. Of course, this comes back around to your first question and SEA’s mission, where science and education can play a role, where I see myself playing my part in helping the oceans.
Third, I know I am not alone. With every island I visit and every class of students I sail with, I meet other people similarly motivated to make a difference, to help in the effort to fight and preserve the abundance, beauty, and diversity of the oceans.
“I believe there is enough beauty left in the world to inspire people to action - to value, to care, to hope and inspire the necessary action to protect all marine environments, including coral reefs.”
Q. You are part of a team of SEA oceanographers studying Sargassum. What is it about these algae that you find so interesting?
A: That’s easy, Sargassum is the only floating ecosystem on the planet! There’s nothing else like it on our planet. Can you imagine a forest, a mountain, or a coral reef for that matter, moving around from place to place with all the plants and animals with it? That would be crazy right? I should explain a bit first. Sargassum is a type of marine algae with several species, most of them are benthic, growing attached to the sea floor. But there are a few species that are found perpetually drifting around the North Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea. This unique ecosystem of drifting Sargassum has an entire community of organisms drifting with it - shrimp, crabs, fish, snails, nudibranchs, hydroids, worms, etc. - a little oasis of biodiversity drifting through the ocean. It’s a fascinating ecosystem of great ecological importance. I really could go on and on about Sargassum but instead will encourage folks to check out our research page on the SEA website and read some of our papers. Though we have learned much about the Sargassum ecosystem thanks to thousands of SEA students who have helped process Neuston tows and dip nets over the years; there is still much to learn, with many interesting questions we have yet to answer.
I guess one last point regarding Sargassum, a preview of an idea I hope to write more about in the future - I believe the western concept of utopia was originally inspired by drifting Sargassum. From the lost city of Atlantis, to the hidden island of Thomas More’s Utopia, to Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis and Jonathan Swift’s floating island of Laputa, the western concept of utopia has always been some elusive, ephemeral entity hidden in the far reaches of the sea; and once the seas had been explored, up into the sky. Utopia was always some place just out of reach, a moving target. For anyone who has sailed on SEA ship’s and tried to dip net for Sargassum you are familiar with this idea of your goal being just out of reach!
I have seen patches of drifting Sargassum that span the area of several soccer fields and windrows tens of meters wide extending from one horizon to the next. And the next day, not a single clump of Sargassum to be found. I believe sailor stories of this phenomenon are the precursors to the manifestations of utopia as an island hidden at sea. This hypothesis is supported by contrasting western concepts of utopia with the eastern version of Shangri La – a hidden mountain utopia. Coincidentally, there is no drift Sargassum in the Pacific or Indian Oceans, only in the North Atlantic!
Anyway, as you can tell, I have many thoughts about Sargassum, but for now I will leave the rest of the story for another time.
Q: What do you think are the most valuable lessons that SEA Semester students take away from the programs you teach?
Well, I suppose you should really ask my students! As I mentioned earlier, SEA ships, the culture onboard, the sea, these are all excellent teachers. I personally have benefited in my life, learned valuable lessons from my time at sea. My work with SEA helps to ensure that each and every student reaps the benefits from their experience – realizes the value of teamwork, interdependence, and personal growth that comes with the responsibility of true accountability. And no one can go sea on our ships and not return with a healthy respect, regard, and concern for nature and the oceans; in essence to love the sea. But none of that is unique to me.
For me, as an educator, it is certainly not just about the facts, the details, but rather the process. The process of scientific inquiry and showing the paths one can take to explore the natural world and make new discoveries. I encourage and engender academic independence. I don’t want students to look to me for all the answers but rather feel empowered and confident in themselves to find the answers to their own questions.
I strive and aspire to this goal by harnessing each student’s inherent curiosity and encouraging their inherent creativity and inclination toward play. For me, science, discovery, exploration is simply a structured form of play.
You can be disciplined, organized, thorough, meticulous in your pursuit of a scientific question, you can work hard and feel exhausted, but you can be having fun at the same time. Rigorous science doesn’t have to be tedious and a chore. The goal of true scientific discovery makes all the hard work worthwhile and meaningful. Simply put, science should be fun. Yay SCIENCE!