Wednesday 11 February 2015
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. Yesterday 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 recruiting 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.