Travis Ramos, an environmental engineering student, was selected along with 21 undergraduates from diverse institutions to spend a fall semester as part of the study abroad program, Sea Education Association (SEA). Ramos spent six weeks onshore in the oceanographic research community of Woods Hole, Massachusetts, before spending another six weeks on a 135-foot tall vessel studying the sea creatures below him and traveling between the islands of New Zealand.
We asked Ramos about his experience at SEA, what he learned and what he has planned for his remaining time at Mines.
Why did you apply for Sea Education Association Semester?
I chose to apply for Sea Education Association (SEA) because I wanted a travel experience on top of an academic adventure. SEA offered a domestic component in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, a premier scientific research community, and an international component sailing on a 135-foot tall ship. That combination, paired with the ability to earn academic credit, made SEA hard to ignore.
Why did you choose this particular program?
This particular program, The Global Ocean, tied together science, history, and leadership in a very attractive way that fit well into my environmental engineering track at Mines. Having the shore component first and then the sea component second also made sense to me from a learning progression standpoint. The opportunity to visit different parts of New Zealand through various port stops was also a factor.
What did you learn in Massachusetts?
In Woods Hole, Massachusetts we completed the shore component of the program. During the shore component we did our initial work for our research projects at sea. My project was based on ocean currents, seawater chemistry, and the bathymetry of the northeast waters of New Zealand. Throughout our classes, we focused on the Ocean Health Index (OHI)—a tool developed by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) to access the health of the world’s oceans annually, and prepared work to take with us to sea to gather data for the OHI. We also learned about ocean navigation, oceanography and sailing techniques. For all of the five classes we took onshore, we developed drafts of our papers and had to perform all our initial research, as there was no Internet access on the ship.
What was it like doing lab work on a research vessel?
Lab work on the research vessel was very demanding. The lab room was constantly swaying with equipment shifting and your balance was a challenge to maintain. But being able to process samples directly from the ocean next to you and see creatures under a microscope that you scooped out of the water literally minutes ago was thrilling. We would deploy meter, Neuston nets and the Hydrocast (big piece of equipment that would measure seawater chemistry parameters) during the day and in the middle of the night. The ocean was our lab and our ship was just a means to process anything we gathered. It was a blast having the opportunity to collect data in a way much different than I’ve ever done before.
What was it like studying with students from different schools?
In my program I was the only engineering student with everyone else majoring in fields ranging from environmental science to communications. I was able to bring an entirely different perspective to the group because of my academic background. At Mines, I’m used to constantly studying and doing schoolwork, which prepared me well for what was demanded of us at SEA. Most others were accustomed to different workloads, but they taught me to relax a little in my studies and enjoy the experience. It was great to have different backgrounds mix together to learn about different approaches to not only enjoying the SEA life, but also appreciating other opportunities of the academic experience.
What kind of food did you eat on the ship?
The kitchen of the ship was known as the “galley,” which had a stewardess that did the cooking for the entire crew. Each student got the turn to be assistant steward for an entire day, helping the stewardess prepare all the food. When my turn came around, we made burritos for breakfast, Buffalo wings for lunch, and steak with mashed potatoes and salad for dinner. The typical meal schedule would consist of breakfast based on your “watch,” snack around 10 a.m., lunch based on your “watch,” snack around 3 p.m., dinner based on your “watch,” and then midnight snack prepared for each “watch.” We ate all sorts of things—from tuna poke to shakshuka (a dish of eggs poached in a sauce of tomatoes, chili peppers and onions)—it was always a surprise at mealtime. For Thanksgiving, we had a huge feast, with everyone contributing their favorite recipes as well as three whole turkeys for the crew and guests. I can say with certainty we did not go hungry on the ship.
What were some of the rewarding parts of the trip?
The most rewarding parts of the trip came with the small victories in integrating into the ship’s company. We had to learn how to tie knots useful for sailing, the locations of lines, names of sails, conduct boat checks, prepare weather and navigation reports for the ship, and perform oceanographic research all while attempting not to let seasickness get the best of us, balancing with the swaying seas, and managing our time with our demanding watch schedules. Being able to do these things not only individually, but also with others was definitely a challenge, but something that we all felt a reward in accomplishing. It was also rewarding to arrive at a port stop after working hard at sea and to take in the sights and get some well-deserved rest.
What challenges did you encounter?
By far the most difficult thing to get accustomed to on the ship were the watch schedules. Our ship’s crew was divided into three “watches”—A, B, and C—in which we took turns operating the ship through steering the helm, being on bow lookout, running boat and engine room checks, navigating, preforming lab research, and helping man the engine room. The watches would rotate through the shifts, each getting different times when their turn would come around. I always thought that “night watch” (1700-2100) was the most taxing, because then your next turn would be “morning watch” (0700-1200) and you would only realistically be operating at a maximum of six hours of sleep. Finding time to rest up was the real challenge, and I was constantly finding ways to sneak naps in throughout the day.
Other challenges included balancing our academic workload with the ship life and growing our “sea legs” (the ability to walk steadily on the deck of a boat or ship) during the first week onboard.
What did you learn in your research on the vessel?
Through the research we did onboard I realized how abundant our oceans really are. In our net tows we captured so many zooplankton that it gave a generous indication of the diversity and quantity of life in that region of the global ocean. We were also able to observe how water chemistry parameters were associated with productivity and abundance parameters—for example how water temperature was linked to chlorophyll-a concentrations.
My particular research project looked at how variations of water chemistry, bathymetry, water masses, and ocean currents were connected in the northeast Pacific Ocean region of New Zealand. My partner and I were able to use depth sensing programs and other interesting equipment onboard to collect and relate all the data. It was definitely a big learning curve but we were able to understand it all by the end with the help of the chief and assistant scientists.
What was your favorite place to travel and why?
My favorite port stop along the trip was at Bay of Islands in Russell, New Zealand. It was our first port stop of the trip, but it was nice to get on land for a little bit and stretch out our legs. The area has such a rich whaling and traditional Maori history and it was very apparent throughout both towns with museums, sculptures and community identity.
What wildlife did you see?
At sea we saw all sorts of mega fauna and zooplankton. There were birds such as shearwaters and albatrosses; fish such as Mola mola, pilot whales and tuna (which we caught a few of to eat); and zooplankton such as salps, crab larvae and jellyfish.
It was also breathtaking when we would have dolphins swim along with our ship and jump out of the water. But the thing I was most fascinated with was the bioluminescence of the plankton in the oceans at night. When the conditions were right at night, our ship would hit swells in the oceans and light up the water along with organisms that would be floating along. It was almost surreal to be out in the vast open ocean and yet be surrounded by so much life.
Do you think this experience will change your studies or experiences at Mines?
This experience has certainly made me think about plenty of new things—from graduate school options in ocean engineering and oceanography to my passion for sailing. It was an adventure but also an academic challenge that pushed me to rely not only on myself, but my shipmates as well. I’m not sure if I would have gotten the same experience in such a dynamic environment anywhere else. It will give me an outlook at Mines to take everything in that I can, to not be afraid to rely on others, and to keep my head up through the hard times.
What do you have planned for this semester at Mines?
At Mines I plan to continue pursuing my environmental engineering degree. New experiences and this trip have also made me strongly consider double-majoring in civil engineering, so that is something I might soon turn my sights to as well. I also plan on continuing to be involved with Blue Key, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE), the Harvey Scholars Program, and the Phillips 66 Shield Scholars Program—as well as exploring other clubs and organizations that interest me.