I. Shipyard Point, Mystic, Connecticut. Soft wet wood, some kind of pine, stacked as lumber outside the carpenter’s shop. Sky swimming, reflected in small pools in the wood grain. Light rain glazing everything. The sun is an impression, a hazy glow through translucent evening clouds, sticking loosely to the sides of old buildings. Everything wooden waits in the sea-born mist.
II. SUBMERGE (v.)
Merge (v.): to cause to coalesce or combine; to blend; to unite gradually as to blur the individuality or individual identity of; to be swallowed up
Sub- (prefix): under, below, beneath
Submerge (v.): to conceal or obscure
under a layer of water; to sink or
under the surface;
to disappear from sight;
to undergo submission
III. Shipyard, again. Only this time, in the night, walking out past the Point. On the dock, we deploy a sensor to track temperature, salinity, and other oceanographic measurements in the river. Sometimes, shrimp and small fish turn this sensor, this bottle full of numbers, into their home. I look across the river and see houses lit up from the outside, the indoor lamps all shut for bed. In one yard, there is a tree, lit by lawn lights and shadowed by itself.
IV. A summary of ecology class, focused on the deep, deep sea: Every time a submarine goes down, we find new life; or rather, life that has been existing—and fighting, eating, color-throbbing—all along, so that it is not new to itself, but simply, new to us. Life that has been here, wherever here is, for a long time. Life that lives without us knowing. Life that adapts and evolves. We come across this life in the darkest part of the world. The part of the world with the unfamiliar lights. The living lights. The symbiotic lights. I wonder what will happen if we ever find all the deep-sea lights. What will happen if we name all of their bearers? How long we will give them before we shut them off?
V. Epistellar Body (n.): literally, “skin-stars;” describes a small photo-transmitting organ in some cephalopods that is thought to produce light and color at depths celestial stars cannot reach. This organ is likely vestigial.
Marine Snow (n.): the unending fall of organic matter from surface water layers to the deep sea. Essential in pumping energy from the light-filled photic zone down to the un-solar depths.
Pillow Lava (n.): round, puffy masses of rock that form following the subaqueous extrusion of lava. People study these structures, as well as the spaces between them.
Counterillumination (n.): a method of active camouflage utilized by some marine animals. Organisms use bioluminescence on their undersides to match the wavelength of light coming from above and seem to disappear when viewed from below.
I’ve just returned from the SSV Corwith Cramer—a tall ship—which I helped sail from San Juan, PR, through part of the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea. Over the course of ten days, a group of 17 students, 10 crew members, 4 Williams-Mystic faculty, and myself gained hands-on experience learning about classic sailing and navigational techniques without the aid of phones or internet, deployed numerous data-gathering, oceanographic and marine biological instruments, and had an opportunity to reflect on the interdisciplinary of the sea and its relation to humankind. Here are some notes and observations, largely unedited by my mind’s return to the mainland.
I. On board the SSV Corwith Cramer, docked in cloud-colored water on the outskirts of San Juan, Puerto Rico. For ten days, this ship is the world. Today, the world is full of rain and wet sneakers, squeaking foul weather gear, sweat and salt. Today, the world is unpleasant; today, the world is marginally tolerable. Thirty-two small bed fans are whirring against the heat; all together, they produce northing more than the illusion of a breeze. Seawater gurgles—anticipates—just beyond the walls of everyone’s cramped wooden bunk. I hear the faint ringing of raindrops as they slide down Cramer’s white steel hull, while magnificent frigate birds hover like black cross hatches in the sky, and stingrays silently sweep the seafloor below. Above all this comes the muffled unfurling of sails and the grunting calls to heave and raise them. Sleep falls heavily upon me before the ship is underway. I wonder where in the ocean I will be when I wake, I think. It is not often one gets to wonder this.
II. I wake, and it is almost-night. I check the charts to see where in the ocean I am—the last mark puts us a few nautical miles south of the Puerto Rico Trench. The world is roiling. Land now looks like a far-away shrub hung with faded Christmas lights; above me, stars leave their evening tables to dance shyly with one another. Seasickness hits hard, yet I keep my footing. No sitting on Watch, I think, as I chew ginger and saltines and the world continues to unsteady itself. For six hours, I stand, walk, climb, haul, name, shout, sweat, and dizzy myself to take care of the ship alongside other exhausted, yet diligent, sailors. Check the weather, coil the lines. Clean the galley, scrub the soles. Steer the ship, plot its course. Pull the nets, watch them glow. At midnight, I stand alone on the bow as lookout, making sure no other vessels get too close and no storm clouds turn the horizon darker than it already is. Constellations whirl slowly overhead; the Andromeda galaxy is a slight brown smudge on the blackboard sky. In the relative silence, I begin singing quietly to myself, to the ocean, to the darkness.
III. The world is constant movement, night and day. Everything, a delicious, thrumming blue. I alternate between feeling slightly drunk or mildly hungover—I am hazy, spinning, holding onto walls slick with sea spray and railings coated in blue-green rust. Daily life is strange here. Poetry class is interrupted by a young Minke whale, lolling gently back and forth through the water. My circadian rhythm is shot, but at least I see every sunrise and every sunset. I eat all the time; yet all the time, I am hungry. There are so many names—names for lines and clouds and currents and countless tiny living things that float without a will. But there are nameless things here, too, like the color of the sky at dawn and dusk, or the feeling one has while running on land for the first time in days.
IV. Landfall, St. John, USVI. The relief of green. Sprinting along the beach, while tourists balk at us as if we were mad. We are thrilled. The world is anchored in an emerald bay, yet I am still spinning, experiencing what the ship’s crew calls landsickness. I cannot walk in a straight line; it is like the rocking sea has followed me ashore. We hike in the heat and listen to birds and point at the colors that are not-blue. We climb stairs to a long-abandoned sugar plantation, shadowed by wind and unsigned by the slave owners who left their terrible mark on this beautiful island. Enormous heads of calcified brain coral hold up the walls of the plantation where tropical plants now grow, and anole lizards scuttle somberly across patches of sunlight. We hike down through canopy overhangs and past soft rockfaces to a trail made of coral rubble. Abby, a sketch biologist, teaches us how to draw from life and not get mad at ourselves for imperfections. We reach a small bay and don snorkels and fins. Young barracuda lurk in the shallow water; schoolmaster snapper congregate under floating pieces of wood; seagrass sways, and baby parrotfish school, and a peacock flounder pretends to not be itself. The sun warms, and we laugh and splash. An egret flies audibly over us. Laugh and splash, please, say its wings. But please, do not forget where you have just been.
V. 3 a.m., on lookout, my harness fastened before the bowsprit. On the dark horizon, a cruise ship. Our instruments reveal its name: Norwegian Dawn. From here, it looks like its own city, with its own crew and passengers and fears and dreams. Suddenly, I am remembering the old cobblestone wall my friends and I used to drive to late at night, atop the hill with the ivy vines and the purple-brown skylights and the view of New York—all its eight million people and all its buildings; all its worries and hopes and problems and birds and books and longings—and I recall reaching my arm out toward where the Hudson River cradles the city’s edge, so it felt as if I could hold all of New York in the palm of my hand. I stretch my hand out to cup Norwegian Dawn. There are only thirty-two of us on the Cramer, I think. How many people are on that cruise liner? What are they dreaming about? Why are they here, on this ocean? For a long time, I stand with my arm held out, wondering what Voyage means to them, what it means to any of us.
VI. It is odd that I have known my shipmates for less than two weeks; though, out here, each single day feels as long as a month. There is a veritable sense of community in the mutual suffering, the common joys, of life at sea. Many times, I wish I could share moments of this trip with old friends and family. I wish they knew the how far through the blue it is possible to see; I wish they were beside me while the dolphins spun, and the plankton sparked, and the moonlight glittered across the night-bound waves. I hope there are things I can take back with me, things common to life both on and beyond the ocean. I hope I can bring back types of clouds and names of stars. I hope I can remember how much one can accomplish, and share, in every azure, remarkable day.
When I was first deciding where I wanted to spend my fall semester, I remember reading reviews from past Colby students for Williams-Mystic. One review said that the best part about their WM semester was the aspect of communal living. I remember reading that and thinking that if the best part was just the housing, that this program couldn’t be all that great. But having completed my own WM semester, I whole heartedly agree with my now fellow WM alum. I learned so much and had so many new experiences in Mystic, but what made that all so incredible was the people I did it all with.
I remember sweating a line on the Cramerwith Devon. It was dawn and the sky was a vibrant pink, surrounding and bathing us in its soft glow. We were all laughing about something I can no longer remember, and struggling to pull the line as we were doubled over and in tears. A northern gannet flew by our port side and I pointed and yelled, causing Devon to crack up even more at my nerdy outburst.
I remember watching grey whales feed from the shore in Oregon. My classmates and professors and I stood leaning over the guard rail to peer down to the water off the cliff face below us as 3 grey whales lazily explored the kelp beds.
I remember kayaking through the bayou, watching the birds and admiring the meanders in the stream, all the while racing my classmates in our tandem boats.
I had the most incredible time this semester. I learned so much, and experienced so many things I otherwise never would have done anywhere else. But what made it so special were the people who were by my side every step of the way. I pulled all-nighters in the science building with my policy group. I sang sea chanteys with my professors. I met my best friend in my living room.
I write this sitting on my bed at my house in Maine. I’ll need to get used to not referring to my Mystic house as “home” anymore. This semester was one of the best experiences of my life. I pushed myself further than I thought I could, I learned more than I could have anticipated, and I made connections that will last a lifetime. I’ve been home for two days and I’m dying to be back in Mystic, walking the seaport grounds or studying in a cafe with my friends. I never thought that my “abroad” experience, just 4.5 hours away from Colby, would impact me in the way it did. I grew so much during this semester and I can’t wait to see where that takes me.
Until then, I’m taking this time to reflect on my days spent in Mystic, and to get ready for the next adventure. I’m home for two months before heading off to Valparaíso, Chile, for my spring semester. There are lots of sea chanteys about Valparaíso that I’ll be sure to freshen up on before heading off.
One of the pillars of the Williams-Mystic experience is the aspect of communal living. The 17 of us live split between 4 different houses. With our housemates, we plans meals, grocery shop, cook, eat, and clean together as a house. Many of us have no experience living in a house with roommates like this, while many others of us have lived in similar communal situations before at their home campuses. The differences in our backgrounds can lead to tension, but have also lead to us being able to learn about one another and grow closer as a result.
I live in my house with 4 other people. I have one roommate, and the other three are split between one double and one single. Our house is old and historic and fairly small. We call it quaint. While our living quarters may be more cramped than most of us are used to, we have been living successfully as a cohesive unit for the last three months. Of course, we often do run into problems. The floors get dirty, the dishes pile up in the kitchen sink. When we have a lot on our plates, we tend to skimp out on planning meals and eating together as a family. However, we find ways to recover and make it work. We all do our part to make the house function, and we sit around the table to enjoy a warm meal together.
It’s hard to believe that as I’m writing this, we only have three weeks left together. A housemate and I are currently sitting in an academic building on a Friday night doing work together. The fact that we all live together and take the same classes adds an aspect of bonding that I have not found at Colby. Here in Mystic, I can come home and vent about an assignment or a particularly boring class, and I know that I have four people right there who can truly relate. The fact that we are all in this together adds to our cohesion as a house and as a class. That feeling of comradery is what has made the communal living experience so special, and is what I will miss the most. Five strangers were thrown into an old house together and have become family.
These next three weeks will be tough. We have finals looming in the distance, and assignments are piling up. Will we get sloppy and not plan a few meals ahead of time? Definitely. Will the dishes pile up in the sink after a rushed breakfast? Of course they will. But ultimately, I know that we’ll be doing it side by side and enjoying living with each other while we can, with all the ups and downs the experience has to offer. These people have become my family, and I know that I will cherish my time with them for years to come.
This past Friday we held a whaling panel during our regularly scheduled policy class. The whaling panel is a Williams-Mystic tradition, where all of our professors give short lectures in regards to how whales connect with their area of expertise.
My literature professor discussed whales in early texts, my science professors discussed the evolution and distribution of whales today, my history professor lectured on the history of whaling in the Americas, and my policy professor led a discussion on the whaling ban and why we as a society valued whales so much.
This was a four hour class. Usually, I would not be able to sit in the same seat for that long, listening to a lecture on one topic. However, this was one of my favorite class periods thus far. Hearing all of my professors talk about whales in their different subjects reaffirmed my decision to attend this program. No problem is ever solved from looking at just one angle, and this whaling panel was the perfect example of how we need to look at things from an interdisciplinary view in order to even try to get a full understanding of it.
I am at the point in my Williams-Mystic semester in which my research projects for three of my classes are in full swing.
For my marine ecology class, I have designed my own experimental study. I intend to determine how human development affects bird behavior. Our Williams-Mystic campus is situated directly on a marine estuary; a diverse ecosystem home to a wide variety of species. During the next few weeks, I will visit locations all over the estuary and observe bird behaviors there. The ability to design our own experimental studies is something on which the WM program prides itself. This has been an incredible opportunity to see what really goes into experimental design. I’ve been out in the field on cold and windy days where there haven’t even been any birds to show for it. I have seen the elements that go into a sufficient scientific proposal, and I look forward to being able to use this knowledge moving forward. I know that by the end of the semester my confidence in the lab and in the field will be greatly improved.
For maritime history, we are conducting our own primary research. The Mystic Seaport hosts incredible archives that are at our disposal. We are able to have access to ship logs from the 18th century, journal entries, and a wide variety of other sources, all of which we’re able to touch and explore with our own hands. For this project, I intend to look into female lighthouse keepers of the 1700s and 1800s and examine the challenges they faced in their profession due to their gender. Again, getting more practice designing a project proposal has been incredibly valuable. Learning to use more primary sources has also been an incredible experience.
Finally, for my marine policy class, we are in a unique situation. I am working in a group with 3 of my classmates. Each group of students has been assigned to a real stakeholder, for whom we will conduct research and draft a policy brief regarding the specific issue they want us to look at. My group is working with Save the Bay in Narragensett, Rhode Island. Our policy brief on fisheries management will be used by Save the Bay to present to state and federal governments in order to enact real change. The opportunity to do real work with real organizations has been one of the highlights of my experience at WM thus far. We have conducted interviews with real people who are being impacted by the issues that are facing the bay as we speak. We have contacted Senators, Congress people, and the RI state governor in order to get a better view of the scope of the issues at hand. It has been so valuable to see all the factors that go into policy making. The fact that this project will have a direct impact on the lives of so many who depend on the health of the bay and of its fisheries makes it so much more enjoyable and important.
All of this research going on at the same time has been a little overwhelming, but being so passionate about each and every aspect of all of them has made the work manageable and even fun. My classmates and I all agree that this is the first time in a while where we’ve felt so passionate about learning. Coming into this semester, I never could have anticipated what I would gain from the experience, and I’m excited to use what I have learned once I leave.