October 1, 2019
Sailing past the Block Island wind farm at dawn
Dear Friends and Family,
We sailed offshore yesterday and all night, having spent two nights at anchor off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. From the deck, we could see the village of Menemsha, home to the Vineyard’s last fishing fleet and one of the main shooting locations for Jaws. This end of the island — the western end — is full of remarkable things, some of which we could just about make out as we sailed past: the Gay Head cliffs, for one, and next to them the first land in North America that was ever set aside for Native Americans. Some of what has made the Vineyard so remarkable is no longer there to be seen. In the nineteenth century, the island’s rural western half was the site of an unusual genetic bottleneck. So many Vineyarders were born deaf that the island developed its own sign language, which almost all islanders could use, and deafness carried no stigma or social consequence. Islanders who had grown up on the deaf Vineyard used to tell long stories about older relatives without bothering to remark that Uncle Caleb or Cousin Ralph couldn’t hear. It didn’t seem like a marker or a shaping factor in their lives.
We’ve turned north for home, heading toward the near end of Long Island Sound in Mystic, Connecticut. Many are beginning to look back on the field seminar and take stock. One of us is overheard saying that the one thing he “keeps coming back to is the humming of the boat – the humming and other sounds. Especially when I’m in my bunk, and it’s dark, and the hum is the only thing that’s sensible — droning sensations coming from outside the boat.”
Asked what most stands out about the trip, one student responds: “There are the dumb things, like dolphins, which are a giddy joy.” An hour later, another student says: “For me, the unparalleled moment has been standing at the bow under the stars, across the entire sky, with the bioluminescent dolphins. That was the best thing ever.”
So about those dolphins: Even before we set sail, most of us could picture dolphins by day, arcing tightly out of the water, keeping pace with the ship, like a pack of Golden Retrievers trotting alongside their owner. It was great to see these in person, but most of us had already seen them in our mind’s eye. What most of us had not realized is that at night those same dolphins glow in the dark. As they swim, they fire the ocean’s bioluminescent plankton, which traces their bodies in fluid, flickering outline. In the dark, dolphins look like old-fashioned light-bulb coils jetting alongside the ship at five or six knots: zapping, squiggling, dimming whenever the Tesla-porpoises dive or drift across the bow, and then flaring back into green-electric profile, with jets of neon shooting from their tails, as the plankton in their wake churn into ember. Not dolphins, then, but the animated ghosts of dolphins, driven forward by rockets of light.
Just before midnight some fifty miles from shore, we lowered a net to near the bottom of the ocean and towed it for half an hour. We brought up a collection of bioluminescent organisms. In a bucket in the lab, they continued to glow when stirred. Then we stepped out on deck and looked up. The stars and the Milky Way glowed in equal majesty.
Tomorrow, we will complete this field seminar and disembark from our ship, SSV Corwith Cramer, in New London. As we return to our houses in Mystic, it is hard to believe we are only in the fifth week of our semester at Williams-Mystic. We have done so much come and together as a community of shipmates and friends. We look forward to many more adventures together!
— Williams-Mystic F’19
We will share updates straight from the Cramer as they become available. In the meantime, you can track the vessel’s progress here:
Please note that vessel tracking information is NOT updated continuously and the Cramer isn’t always able to provide updated location information. (Good reception isn’t a guarantee at sea!) If you notice that the Cramer appears to be in the same location for an extended period of time, it simply means the website has not yet been updated.
You can also look back at blog posts from previous Offshore Field Seminars here: https://williamsmystic.wordpress.com/category/field-seminars/offshore-field-seminar/.