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Sustainability in Polynesian Island Cultures and Ecosystems

SEA Semester: Sustainability in Polynesian Island Cultures & Ecosystems

Pursue a more sustainable relationship with our oceans... Voyage to paradise in this place-based and comparative environmental studies semester. Visit several South Pacific islands to confront challenging questions of colonial conflict, cultural identity, and environmental justice, and to examine relationships between political structures, culture, and the natural environment. This program concludes with a shore component in New Zealand to compile and process research findings.

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Overview: Fall 2018 | Polynesia » New Zealand

Voyage Map

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Application Deadline: Rolling Admissions


This environmental studies semester at sea takes an interdisciplinary look at the people and islands of Polynesia in an effort to learn what they can tell us about the global issues of environmental sustainability and cultural continuity.


Cruise Track: American Samoa to Auckland, New Zealand
Destinations: American Samoa > Tonga > Fiji > Auckland
Port stops subject to change.


August 27 - November 14, 2018

Aug. 27 - Sept. 21: Shore I in Woods Hole
Sept. 24 - Nov. 5: At Sea
Nov. 6 - 14: Shore II in Auckland

Program Highlights

  • Share experiences through digital storytelling
  • Participate in collaborative stakeholder engagement
  • Explore Pacific island environments including Tonga & Fiji
  • Conduct on-site anthropological research

Who Should Apply?

This study abroad program is particularly appropriate for Environmental Studies/Science majors but students from any major are encouraged to apply.

Program Description

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The remote islands of Polynesia are some of the most special and significant places in the world. Their coral reefs and tropical forests are oases of biological diversity, and their human populations possess an equally rich diversity of histories, languages, and social practices. Western colonization brought about disruptive changes in the economies and cultures of island societies that, over many centuries, confronted and often overcame their own challenges of sustainable adaptation. Today, western values, consumer products, and cultural suppression have severely undermined the close connection between island cultures and the environment. More extraordinary, however, has been the many ways in which indigenous Pacific societies have either resisted imposed ideas and practices or incorporated them as their own. These societies, which span from Hawai’i to New Zealand to Easter Island, and everywhere within the Polynesian Triangle, confront global challenges while constantly reshaping, in local terms, what it means to be Polynesian.

In this semester, students will examine what the future holds for these islands, and whether they can offer solutions for how we manage our natural resources that may apply to other regions of the world. Developed by SEA faculty in conjunction with local partners, this semester is uniquely situated to immerse students in collaborative relationships with communities and agencies in the region working for environmental and cultural sustainability. The program will begin with a shore component in Woods Hole where students will be introduced to the history, culture, and geography of remote Pacific Islands. Visiting scholars will share their work on environmental science, Polynesian voyaging and navigation, and traditional art and cultural practices.

Students will then begin their sailing research voyage, visiting several South Pacific islands to confront challenging questions surrounding cultural identity, colonial conflict and exchange, and the complex connections between human communities, political structures, and the environment. They will explore issues of sustainability with local officials and residents while visiting historical, cultural, and environmental management sites, and investigate the complex factors that threaten fragile island ecosystems and the surrounding marine environment in an effort to pursue a more sustainable relationship with our oceans. The program will conclude with a shore component in New Zealand where students will assemble and present their research findings.

Program faculty place significant value not only on students’ informative interactions with sustainability projects and practices, but on their ability to function as effective communicators in public settings as well. An integral part of the program’s curriculum involves developing the required skills for persuasively communicating ideas and facts about sustainability to audiences of every size. Storytelling skill development takes place within the context of examining the role of oral narrative tradition in Polynesian cultures, coupled with explorations of the key factors in effective scientific communication in the age of podcasting and other digital audio media.

SEA Stories: SPICE Podcast

Course Descriptions & Syllabi

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Academic Credit

SEA Semester: Sustainability in Polynesian Island Cultures & Ecosystems (SPICE) carries 17 semester hour credits from Boston University for successful completion of the program.

Course Descriptions

Cultural Landscapes & Seascapes: A Sense of Place (300-level, 3 credits)

Prereq: Admission to SEA Semester. Sophomore standing or consent of instructor. 
Field-intensive analysis and documentation of dynamic relationships between nature and culture in specific coastal, island, and ocean places. Apply cultural landscape and related interdisciplinary bio-cultural approaches to place-based environmental studies.

Marine Environmental History (300-level, 4 credits)

Prereq: Admission to SEA Semester. Sophomore standing or consent of instructor.
Employ methods and sources of historians and social scientists. Examine the role of human societies in coastal and open ocean environmental change. Issues include resource conservation, overfishing, pollution, invasive species, and climate change.

Maritime History & Culture (300-level, 4 credits)

Prereq: Admission to SEA Semester. Sophomore standing or consent of instructor. 
Explore impacts of European maritime ventures on the societies they contacted in the Atlantic or Pacific, with focus on the resulting social, political, economic, and cultural changes. Investigate responses documented in the post-Colonial literature of indigenous people.

Nautical Science (200-level, 3 credits)

Prereq: Admission to SEA Semester.
Learn the fundamentals of sailing ship operation, in preparation for direct application at sea. Navigation (piloting, celestial and electronic), weather, engineering systems, safety, and sail theory. Participate as an active member of the ship’s crew on an offshore voyage.

Oceanography (200-level, 3 credits)

Prereq: Admission to SEA Semester.
Explore how interconnected ocean characteristics (bathymetry, seawater chemistry, biological diversity) and processes (plate tectonics, surface and deep-water circulation, biological production) shape global patterns across multiple scales. Discuss destination-specific environmental issues and hot topics in marine research.


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"SEA Semester was one of the most memorable chapters of my life. I was able to spend a semester among like-minded peers for one of the first times in my life, exploring new environments and cultures during port stops, merging old and new technologies together to navigate our ship and bring us safely to our next destination, and bringing a new view of the world to light."

Liz Stefany
Bates College
Environmental Studies Major