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Voyage to a Coral Wilderness

Stetson University student Kathryn Benson, ’19, is spending her summer on a scientific research vessel in the remote Phoenix Islands in the South Pacific, studying one of the last remaining coral wildernesses on Earth.

Kathryn Benson works at a nautical chart

Kathryn Benson uses celestial navigation to plot the location of the SSV Robert C. Seamans in the South Pacific, although the sailing vessel also has sophisticated navigation equipment. Provided photos/SEA Semester

Benson, a Marine Science and Psychology major at Stetson, is aboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans until Aug. 11 – one of 24 undergraduates from U.S. colleges and universities who are collecting data on the under-studied region.

The Phoenix Islands Protected Area is one of the last remaining coral wildernesses on Earth, about which little is known. An expanse of ocean about the size of California, it is the largest and deepest UNESCO World Heritage site, with eight fauna-rich coral atolls.

Through an eight-week SEA Semester summer program called Protecting the Phoenix Islands, students are collecting samples from the marine environment to study the impact of El Nino, as well as the effects of climate change, including coral bleaching.

Data collected by students during the voyage will be reported to the government of Kiribati and contribute to the understanding of the marine ecosystem and environmental management goals, according to a SEA Semester press release.

The program began June 12 at SEA Semester’s campus in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where the students completed course work and developed research projects in ocean science or conservation policy. They were joined by a fellow undergraduate from Kiribati who is acting as the official scientific observer on behalf of the Kiribati government.

The 134-foot SSV Robert C. Seamans is the most sophisticated
oceanographic research/sailing school vessel ever built in the United States, according to SEA Semester.

On July 7, the students embarked on a five-week sailing voyage aboard the SSV Robert Seamans, a 134-foot brigantine owned and operated by Sea Education Association.

Through the program, Benson and the other students can earn 11 college credit hours through Boston University’s study abroad program, said Doug Karlson, SEA Semester Marketing and Communications coordinator. Besides conducting marine research, the students also learn skills such as finding their locations at sea using celestial navigation.

“Our grads see SEA Semester as a life-changing experience,” said Karlson, adding that the students rarely have internet access on the voyage. “They tend to become a close-knit group.”

The SEA crew started in Pago Pago, American Samoa, and are sailing approximately 800 nautical miles across open ocean in a roundtrip voyage to the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, where they are spending three weeks conducting research. The expedition ends in American Samoa on Aug. 11.

The Phoenix Islands Protected Area “is one of very few regions on Earth where scientists can study an intact ecosystem and its response to climate change,” said Paul Joyce, SEA Dean. “At SEA, we’re therefore extremely grateful to have the opportunity once again to work with the government of Kiribati and with our scientific partners to study this extremely isolated and important island nation, which can serve as a climate change benchmark on a global scale.”