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Raising Environmental Scholars of the Sea

SSC Robert C Seamans, SEA’s state-of-the-art 134-foot brigantine.   ©Sea Education Association (SEA)
SSC Robert C Seamans, SEA’s state-of-the-art 134-foot brigantine. ©Sea Education Association (SEA)

Students are embarking on incredible ocean voyages, thanks to the long-standing work of the Sea Education Association (SEA). Through the organization, they are building nautical skills and enhancing their knowledge of all things affecting the sea—making them true advocates for the ocean environment.

Founded in 1971 by renowned sailor Corwith Cramer Jr., and Edward MacArthur, the SEA aims to educate students through hands-on maritime experiences and rigorous academic programs. It is one of six scientific and oceanographic research institutions in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, and represents disciplines cutting across oceanography, history, anthropology, public policy, and natural science.

The Ocean’s Critical Role in the Environment

Douglas Karlson, SEA director of communications, explains why sea education is so important: “The ocean is 70% of the planet, and it plays a critical role in the environment and the climate of the planet Earth. Our students are very much aware of that.”

Since the SEA’s beginnings, more than 10,000 alumni have explored the ocean on one of its three tall ship research vessels. The organization’s programs are for everyone—from high school pupils and young people on a gap year to undergraduates and adults. Upcoming courses offer students with a background in science, the environment, culture and history a variety of study options. They cover topics such as climate and society, shifting coastlines, food and water security, and environmental justice in the Caribbean.

Building Ocean Stewards

Karlson says: “We have one program called marine biodiversity and conservation, which is a pretty science-heavy program. And it's followed by a symposium on the Sargasso Sea, where we have experts from all over who are interested in conservation. The students report on their research projects, and they develop mentorships, and they meet people. Not all students are biology or environmental studies majors, some study a variety of other majors. Some programs are more geared toward maritime history.”

He adds: “Students learn about the carbon cycle and ocean warming, and they're very concerned about what's happening to coral reefs. They're interested in conserving fish populations. So, they get to delve into those topics.”

There is also a focus on personal growth, Karlson says. “It’s also about empowering students, teaching them leadership skills, and helping them to develop as ocean stewards.”

SAE students conducting research at sea.   ©SEA
SAE students conducting research at sea. ©SEA

Mareike Duffing Romero, an SEA alumnus, believes her experiences are invaluable: “In the little amount that we have been in the program, we have been sponges absorbing incredible amounts of knowledge. The challenges we face, the hard work, the different work hours, the classes, the research projects and the boat life during our SEA semester are all incredible life and educational lessons, which I believe will bring us far as ocean advocates and scientists.”

On Board a Tall Ship

Undergraduate students spend six weeks on campus learning nautical science or ocean science, depending on which program they opt for. They gain accreditation through Boston University.

They also prepare a research project that they'll complete while they're at sea, which can be for up to six weeks. The seafaring element typically takes them to islands in the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean.

Once on board the vessel, students carry out tasks like adjusting sails, helping in the galley, standing watch, and inspecting the ship. As the ocean passage progresses, “they actually end up taking charge of running the ship,” explains Karlson.

Contributing Research

But that’s not all. The ships have a lab on board so students can examine specimens taken from the sea or measure the salinity and temperature of the water. In addition to working on their research reports, they also “muster” on the quarterdeck to have discussions with SEA’s faculty of oceanographers, anthropologists, nautical scientists, and historians.

Spooning through plastics recovered from the ocean.   ©SEA
Spooning through plastics recovered from the ocean. ©SEA

Students’ research contributes to a wealth of scientific information. For instance, when the world began to recognize plastics in the ocean as a serious problem, “it turned out that we had the best dataset of ocean plastics,” says Karlson, adding that SEA students “still sample for plastics, so we have these longitudinal studies.”

SEA also conducts special plastics cruises—on one such expedition, twenty-one college undergraduates went on a month-long blue water voyage from Honolulu, Hawaii, to San Diego, California, gathering data on marine plastics pollution. Their data was added to information gathered over decades and is now part of a plastics lab website dedicated to this critical problem.

When the world began to recognize plastics in the ocean as a serious problem, “it turned out that we had the best dataset of ocean plastics.”

Some alumni have contributed to SEA Writer, a journal that highlights different scientific topics. The latest issues cover coral reef and climate change, and plastics and oceanography.

Life at Sea

Adam Ziegler took part in an SEA undergraduate program. In his blog written while on the vessel, he describes life on board: “Each day, you are on watch for six hours. Depending on the schedule, the six hours you and your assigned group work will vary in the day. During those six hours, you will be plotting the boat course, conducting science deployments, adjusting sails, and steering the boat. After the six-hour shift, you have the rest of the day off.

“You can do assignments from your classes such as policy readings, data processing, work on your independent research, or just relax. Once a week, in addition to your daily work shift, you will have a policy class discussing readings on the upper deck and a brief lecture class on different scientific topics.”

“Whenever you are anchored next to an island, the schedule differs, but you are guaranteed a day to explore the island and snorkel on the coral reefs—which are the best days.”

He adds: During the time at sea, all of the information you learned on land is applied in your independent research and policy discussions. Actually, being inside of a marine protected area and seeing its ecosystems while discussing how to better protect them provides more depth and gravity to the topic than just a lecture in a classroom.”

Kate Hyder, another former student, is equally enthusiastic. “My time at sea was the best educational experience I’ve had since entering college,” she says. “I collected water and the accompanying environmental data, which I would then use to analyze microbial genetic diversity.

“SEA is a truly unique experience for undergraduates to cross over major oceanographic features, understanding them in a way that many specialists in related fields do not,” she says.

Building Skills for the Future

Some 92% of SEA’s alumni have applied their skills in careers such as conservation, environmental policy, medicine, law, sustainable energy, and oceanographic research.

Karlson sums up: “We do produce a lot of people who go on to have careers in science, but they're not all scientists. Some of them are humanities majors who may be interested in communicating about the environment, or they may go on to become businessmen. But at least they're interested in the ocean environment. It's a good opportunity for people who want to explore a career in science or in policy.”


*Yasmin Prabhudas is a freelance journalist working mainly for nonprofit organizations, labor unions, the education sector, and government agencies.

Editorial Note:

To enroll in courses at the Sea Education Association contact the admission office at Contact Admissions - Sea Education Association


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