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Sea Change: Students Set Sail for Ocean Research

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Two Stony Brook University students traveled to a remote part of the world this past summer with the hope of contributing to big global change.

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Alexandra Bonecutter aboard ship.

Ruthann Monsees ’16, Alexandra Bonecutter ’17 and 21 other crew mates set sail in a brigantine, the SSV Robert C. Seamans, from Hawaii to the Phoenix Islands Protected Area of Kiribati. Their assignment: to study the pristine atolls there and the effects of climate change. The ship on which they sailed is operated by Sea Education Association (SEA), which offers the SEA Semester program, an accredited study abroad initiative. SEA is based on Cape Cod in the oceanographic research community of Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

Ruthann, who grew up on Long Island, hails from Hauppauge, while Alexandra calls Cincinnati, Ohio, home. Despite their disparate geographic settings, these two young scientists were both drawn to the maritime from an early age.

Ruthann and Alexandra met for the first time in a physics class earlier this year. Ruthann told a friend in class she had been accepted to the SEA Semester program and Alexandra overheard her and told her she had been accepted as well.

“I have wanted to study marine sciences for as long as I can remember,” says Alexandra, an environmental studies major. “I believed that being landlocked had a prevailing influence on my desire to be as near to the ocean — and everything within the ocean — as possible.”

Ruthann, a coastal environmental studies major, is one of five lifeguards in her family. She was given swimming lessons every summer and has always been at home in the water.

Following two weeks of preparation at Woods Hole, the classmates-turned-shipmates began their ocean voyage, handling the ship’s lines until the skin on their hands turned raw and calloused. They also stood watches through calm, midday seas as well as lightning storms in the dead of night.

However, it was nothing for which either student could prepare.

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Ruthann Monsees (Photo: Panyu Peng)

“Countless times I was left in awe,” says Ruthann. “Tears literally came to my eyes as we departed Hawaii and I saw the massive sails push us out of our comfort zone and into a new world. We were immediately surrounded by 6- to 8-foot swells generated by storms off the coast of Baja, California, and as a large swell passed beneath our ship I overheard someone say,  ‘A surfer in Fiji is going to love that wave. ’ ”

Regarding her experience snorkeling, Alexandra said, “The coral reefs were unlike anything we had ever seen. We came across blooming and thriving reefs underneath every atoll. At the edges of the atolls we came upon hundreds of fish of innumerable shapes and colors. Sharks would emerge from the surrounded murky blue and cut through the water with magnificent ease, only to disappear in a phantasmal instant. Wondrous fish eyes met mine in a communal sense of curiosity.”

As with any return to the natural world, both travelers  reported feeling a sense of purpose.

“SEA Semester was the most authentic form of living I have experienced,” says Ruthann. “The clutter of terrestrial life was stripped away. I did not have to worry about my makeup, clothing or catching up on my shows — none of that nonsense. My purpose was twofold: to help maneuver the ship across the Pacific to carry the community I had grown to love and know as family, and to carry out my scientific duties, which will have a real and lasting effect on Kiribati.”

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SSV Robert C. Seamans

Alexandra also had a profound career-solidifying experience. “I found myself drawn to the wisdom of our captain and made a conscious effort to absorb whatever I could from conversations we shared on the quarterdeck,” she says. “He told me a story about his post-college adventures and how he took only jobs that he enjoyed to the fullest extent. He chased only happiness. I plan to do nothing short of following his lead.”

In conducting their research, the students made six daily deployments to two science stations. Ruthann studied the density and distribution of zooplankton, tiny creatures adrift in the current that are important for carbon sequestration and are a food source for larval tuna, while Alexandra focused on the Myctophids, or lanternfishes, among the most abundant and ancient of mesopelagic fishes in the world’s oceans.

The crew’s relatively hopeful findings were published in a New York Times article in August, “Giant Coral Reef in Protected Area Shows New Signs of Life,” but the students nevertheless observed the reality of mankind’s effects upon the oceans.

Alexandra says that two of the three atolls at which the crew anchored were uninhabited, but signs of humanity were present. “We walked atop the graveyards of ancient fossilized coral bits that made up each and every beach, and all were littered with shoes, plastic and glass bottles, tires, even a rusted refrigerator,” she says.

She adds, “The world is resilient and humans will not destroy it. But if we are not careful, we will destroy ourselves and those existing in tangent with us.”

Ruthann shares both her hope and her sobering outlook. “If the environment can learn to adapt, we should do our part and learn to adapt as well.”

— Glenn Jochum

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