Bio Bay and Back Again

Wednesday 11 February 2015
0830
50 nm north of Puerto Rico, sailing in 7,500 meters, above some of the deepest water in the entire North Atlantic

A-watch has the deck now as the rest of the ship finishes up their science projects or catches a nap before this morning’s science “conference,” during which students will present and interpret the data we collected during our three primary stations during our voyage: one in deep water, one in slope water, and one in more shallow, coastal water. Rani Onyango (Williams) is at the wheel as I write, steering the ship. The other members of her watch, Aramis Sanchez (Williams), Kevin Ferreira (SUNY Maritime), Stella Klema (Smith), and Emily Volkmann (Smith) are up forward with the first mate and their assistant scientist striking, setting, and adjusting sails in order to alter course from sailing downwind, to a more westerly course that is closer to the wind.  As of this morning we have used the engine for only about five hours, and most of that time was coming in our out of port. As we spend more time onboard, standing lookout, steering the ship, and working the sails, the awe of moving this 258-ton steel ship with only the power of the wind is starting to sink in.

This is Richard King, and I teach the “Literature of the Sea” course with Williams-Mystic. Tuesday morning we were at anchor in Sun Bay, Vieques. We had done a lot of reading before we arrived to learn about the controversial history of the US Naval presence in Vieques. Much of the island was an exercise ground for bombing practice until a civilian was killed in the late 1990s. We had discussed how the island had been occupied by plantations worked by slaves to grow sugar. Like so many of the other islands in this area, it had been deforested for this labor-intensive crop. We had also read about “Bio Bay” in Vieques, a small inlet that boasts some of the highest concentration of glowing bioluminescence in the world. So when charismatic Mark Martin, a field scientist and educator for the Vieques Conservation and Historical Trust joined us for dinner and spoke to the group about his over twenty years on the island, his experience and perspective had particular resonance.

After Mark’s introduction, we went back ashore in the ship’s small boats. Through the dark we rode in a small school bus along an unlit narrow road. Branches clicked into the windows. We came to the launch at Bio Bay. Here we got on an electric boat and powered into the center. We were extraordinarily fortunate to have Mark as one of our guides on the boat. The bioluminescence glowed blue-green in every direction. A strong breeze blew whitecaps and every wavelet glowed. The wake of the boat was brilliant blue-green and every ripple from the hull glowed, too. Bioluminescent darts flickered constantly, revealing the shape of fish skittering away from the ship-some tiny, some large, some lumbering, some like sparks of lightning under the surface. The crew thumped on the boat to reveal still more bioluminescence from ripples and fish skittering out from underneath. Meanwhile a clear sky above was packed with stars from horizon to horizon. There was a lot to take in! And this was compounded with the overt complications of an increasing eco-tourism presence in the bay and the discussion of an unprecedented die-off about a year ago, where the bay went simply dark for a few months. The primary organism that emits the bioluminescence, a dinoflagellate the size of pen tip, which normally thrives here within the mangrove shores in fantastic concentrations, had simply disappeared. Fortunately for us and the local business owners, Bio Bay did come back toward the middle of last year. Through public funding and citizen science projects, Martin has been trying to find out the reason for the die-off. He took us around to his monitoring sights, and he recruited our students to help with sampling.

We’re back at sea now, though, still processing that experience as we take in brand new ones. “Ready on the jib halyard?” shouts the chief mate to A Watch-and everyone now knows exactly where this is and where to go. Science presentations will be later this morning followed by classes on weather at sea, Melville’s understanding of plankton, and a tutorial on how to splice and whip rope. Tonight will be our last full night at sea under sail before we head back to San Juan to anchor.

Before our visit to Bio Bay, Mark Martin of the Vieques Conservation Trust speaks to the ship's company about the intersections between field science and public policy on the island. That's Tom Roseblatt from Bowdoin College in the background.
Before our visit to Bio Bay, Mark Martin of the Vieques Conservation Trust speaks to the ship’s company about the intersections between field science and public policy on the island. That’s Tom Roseblatt from Bowdoin College in the background.
Members of A Watch set the jib as the sun rises. Stella Klema (Smith College) tails the line off the pin, while Kevin Ferreira (SUNY Maritime) and Emily Volkmann (Smith College) work together to sweat the halyard.
Members of A Watch set the jib as the sun rises. Stella Klema (Smith College) tails the line off the pin, while Kevin Ferreira (SUNY Maritime and Emily Volkmann (Smith College) work together to sweat the halyard.

The Offshore Adventures Continue

Monday 9 February 2015
0800
~10 nm south of Sun Bay, Vieques

Our equipment aboard the Corwith Cramer constantly monitors sea water temperature, salinity, surface currents, and depth, but the majority of our scientific sampling mission is over, now that we have been sailing for four nights and sampled the geology, physics, chemistry, and biology at three major “super” stations. The next stage is that we are divided into groups to analyze and interpret what we’ve found.

We are currently approaching our anchorage at Sun Bay, which is on the southern side of Vieques, a small island to the southeast of Puerto Rico. We are now in our routines. After eating their breakfast (pineapple, grapefruit, biscuits, and gravy!), C Watch took the deck and is getting ready to furl the sails as we approach the anchorage. B Watch, having sailed the ship from 0300-0700, came off the deck, had their breakfast, and most headed to their bunks to catch up on sleep.

This is Catie Alves, and I am the Marine Science Teaching Assistant and Lab Manager with Williams-Mystic.  I was on “dawn watch” with B Watch this morning, and seeing the sunrise over the water with the students after a night of sailing is one of my favorite moments aboard the Corwith Cramer. I’ve been most impressed by how everyone is starting to feel more comfortable on the ship.  Yesterday was the Pin Chase, which was a friendly competition between watches to test everyone’s knowledge of the pins and their paired lines.  One person from each watch was shown the name of a line, such as the fisherman staysail sheet, and they raced to find the location on the ship where the line was “made fast,” or secured to the ship on a pin.  The students worked closely with their mates and assistant scientists to prepare for the Pin Chase, and they all did a great job!  In the end, the members of C Watch won the Pin Chase!

Now that everyone has demonstrated their developing proficiency at handling the ship, we’re spending the next day at anchor in Sun Bay, Vieques. We plan to go ashore this afternoon to snorkel and then this evening to tour the famous Bio Bay and its extraordinary concentration of bioluminescence! I’m looking forward to the adventures that await us in these next few days aboard the Corwith Cramer.  Time to strike some sails!

C-Watch.2
The victorious C Watch – Nathan Whittle (Williams), Gar Secrist  (SEA Assistant Scientist), Lilia Trissler (Wheaton), Sasha Langesfeld (Williams), Kathryn Wheeler (UMass Amherst), Kevin Hernandez (Williams), and Darcy Cogswell (Trinity), proud of their knowledge of the ship’s lines!
Lilia.2
Lilia Trissler (Wheaton) steers the Corwith Cramer toward Sun Bay. Captain Virginia Land McGuire (Williams-Mystic S’90!) gave directions to Lilia and then Darcy Cogswell to sail the ship all the way into the safe part of the bay and dropped the anchor without using the engine.

S15’s Offshore Adventure Begins!

Saturday 7 February 2015

0900
~18 nm northeast of San Juan

Hello from aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer! We have now been underway and sailing for over two nights. We are currently just north of Puerto Rico and “hove to,” holding stationary with the use of our sails, in about 700 meters of water to deploy a Shipek grab. This instrument is a specifically designed spring-loaded scoop to get a sample of the ocean bottom.

My name is Richard King, and I teach the “Literature of the Sea” course with Williams-Mystic. We arrived in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Wednesday and quickly dropped off our bags at the hotel and went back out to explore Old San Juan. As we walked, we spanned over five hundred years of history, from Ponce de Leon’s contact in the harbor in the early sixteenth century with the native Taino peoples, to the contemporary contact in the harbor of thousands of cruise ship passengers a day. We walked around the old cobblestone streets, touring a few of the oldest churches and forts in the Western Hemisphere, and had some free time for dinner before returning to our hotel early to get a good night’s sleep and a final long, hot shower.

We woke up early on Thursday and spent the entire day on the ship doing safety drills and learning about our new home, the Corwith Cramer, before we cast off the dock lines and sailed past El Morro at the mouth of the harbor, the same fort we had clambered around the day before. By Friday, most of us had got our sea legs, and by Saturday, in an extraordinarily short amount of time, we feel like we’ve been aboard for weeks. We are “learning the ropes,” literally, and learning about navigation, weather, and how to take care of the ship and ourselves at sea. We’re learning how to steer, how to set and furl sails, and how to stand lookout safely. As we write in our journals, we’ve been talking about how Hemingway sailed in similar waters and converted his decades of experience at sea into fiction, notably his novella The Old Man and the Sea, which we’ll be studying when we return. Now we’ll be able to read his novel with a sense of the marine biology and seamanship background that Hemingway had, which he subtly injected into his story.

On Friday night we had a gorgeous night, with 4 planets visible just after sunset: Venus, Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter. These were followed by a bright moon, the moons of Jupiter visible with binoculars, and a light wind enabling us to set our topsail. A few students steered during their “trick” at the wheel with a star or two as a guide.

As I type, B watch, made up of Nicole Nason (UNC Wilmington), Cornelius Chandler (Williams), Miranda Cooper (Williams), Luis Urrea (Williams), Jane Jeong (Williams), and Tom Rosenblatt (Bowdoin), are working with Erik Zettler, our chief scientist, and the other assistant ship scientists to retrieve the Shipek grab with a sample of the muddy bottom. They are examining the consistency and geological origin, discussing its color, and the reason for its grain size. They’ll then deploy a variety of other types of equipment over the side in order to get a snap shot of this body of water’s physical, chemical, and biological characteristics, data which the students will help organize and interpret here at sea, but also bring home to incorporate into the Marine Ecology and Oceanographic Processes courses back in Mystic.

All’s well, we’re all safe, and learning tons. We’ll write again in a few days, as we continue to sample these local waters and make our way toward the island of Vieques.

C Watch
This on deck on Friday morning, with students from C Watch–Darcy Cogswell (Trinity), Sasha Langesfeld (Williams), and Kevin Hernandez (Williams)-preparing to deploy the CTD carousel, which collects water samples from various depths. They collected sea water from over 1,500 meters deep!

IMG_5899

This is from Saturday morning’s Shipek grab. B Watch gets their hands dirty, feeling the texture of the ocean bottom here, as Jane and Luis work with Professor Zettler to record the color for a standardized data description.
Off camera, Cornelius has taken a sample which we’ll bring back to Mystic for further analysis. The rest of the students, C and A Watch, are down below napping, since they were up from 1100-0300 and 0300-0700 respectively, sailing the ship to our station under the guidance of the captain and their individual watch captains.