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Setting sail to study one of Earth’s last coral wildernesses

Last updated January 11, 2016

By News administrator

Sam Hill ’16 didn’t see as many neighbors as he’d hoped during his 1,600-mile summer sailing trip.

“From Hawaii to the equator, there was nothing but a turtle and a pod of whales,” said Hill, a computer science major from Richmond, Va.

As part of an eight-week Sea Education Association program, “Protecting the Phoenix Islands,” Hill spent six weeks sailing aboard the 134-foot-long Sailing School Vessel (SSV) Robert C. Seamans, from Honolulu to the Phoenix Islands in Kiribati and on to American Samoa.

The focus of the trip was The Phoenix Island Protected Area (PIPA), a largely-unexplored expanse of marine and terrestrial habitats in the Southern Pacific Ocean and the largest designated Marine Protected Area in the world, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

The stretch of ocean, about the size of California, contains about 200 known coral species, 500 fish species, and 18 marine mammals. It was recently named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. SEA, based in Woods Hole, Mass., has described the area as “one of the last coral wildernesses on earth.”

“Between our expeditions last year and what we’re up to this year, SEA Semester students have had a hand in developing most of the existing knowledge about the oceanography of this area,” said Jan Witting, SEA Semester professor of oceanography and chief scientist for the voyage. “It’s valuable knowledge that will go directly to help make management decisions about the future of PIPA, and helping to gather it on board our ship is also a terrific learning experience for our students.”

Hill’s research with four other undergraduate students centered on Winslow Reef, an underground sea mountain in PIPA with a unique topography. They created a three-dimensional model of the reef and assessed current flow, salinity levels, chlorophyll a concentrations, and zooplankton density around the area.

3-D Model of Winslow Reef

3-D Model of Winslow Reef


“It is important to begin to consider the effect seamounts such as these may have on current flow and productivity and diversity levels on the oceans ,” Hill and his fellow researchers wrote in a 22-page paper of their findings. “Further studies around Winslow and other such seamounts will be the vital next step in understanding more about the dynamics of ocean environments.”

Hill also received an introduction to the basics of oceanography and learned how to navigate the ship the old-fashioned way, plotting points on a map, using the stars, and mathematical calculations.

“An average day is hard to come by and is surely not missed… One day was with our main engineer where I learned about the engines and the build of the ship, then promptly after applied these skills to help fix a leak on our starboard generator,” Hill said. “In this first week aboard, the crew and myself have learned to sail and handle the ship as well as perform the scientific deployments and processing needed for our research.”

While aboard the vessel, Hill assisted in deploying three Argo floats, oceanographic monitoring buoys that collect data over several years and help scientists to understand the oceans.

“If you want to learn about the ocean, it’s the most-hands on you can get,” Hill said of the program.

During his trip, Hill also had time to enjoy the simpler things of life, including playing his ukulele and cloud watching on the deck.

With all those miles of open sea, “it makes looking at clouds very interesting,” he said.

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