SPRINGFIELD — Wildlife biology student Liz Harris had never sailed the ocean before she adopted a 135-foot brigantine sailboat as a classroom.
Harris conducted first watch on deck as she and her fellow classmates set sail before dawn. Navigational stars and the Milky Way blanketed the dark sky.
“I had never seen that many stars before. I realized, wow, I’m really in the middle of this thing,” Harris said.
Harris and her fellow classmates spent the next four weeks at sea conducting oceanic research as part of the Caribbean Reef Expedition Program.
About her research
Coral reefs serve as natural barriers against hurricanes, which are becoming more prevalent in the islands as the climate changes.
But these reefs are threatened by coral bleaching.
Coral bleaching occurs when warm or polluted water turns corals white by causing them to force algae out of their tissue. The loss of algae makes bleached corals more susceptible to death.
While in the Caribbean, Harris studied coral reef exposure and resistance to bleaching at four sites in the Lesser Antilles.
“Knowing which corals are more resistant to bleaching may help local reef management know what to expect from predicted mass bleaching events,” Harris said.
About her voyage experience
During her time at sea, Harris learned the deck-related duties of sailing, including steering the helm.
She and her fellow classmates balanced running the deck with their roles as lab hands.
As part of her lab work, Harris learned to deploy a hydrocast, which used connected bottles to gather water samples at different depths.
“We had the ability to analyze these samples to provide an oceanographic data set for this part of the world,” Harris said.
Harris discovered clear differences between the waters of the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic.
“While I had been to the beaches by the oceans, I had never considered that the oceans themselves could be so distinctive. We could see that the two bodies of water were different colors,” Harris said.
Harris also found the constant view of the oceans and the horizon from the ship to be perfect. Almost too perfect.
“The lighting always looked fake when we had someone stand at the edge of the boat. The view behind them just looked like a green screen,” Harris said.
Despite these discoveries, the greatest surprise to Harris appeared on deck: Most of the students and crew members present for the voyage were women.
“It was really cool, because it was like ‘Yeah, we’re females, and we can sail this ship. We can do this science,” Harris said.
About her inspiration
Harris’ cousin served as a former deckhand for the Sea Education Association (SEA) and introduced her to the program.
As Harris’ cousin died shortly after Harris applied, the program held special significance for her.
“I wanted to get as much as I could out of it because I knew that he would’ve wanted me to keep going. He was the reason why I was there,” Harris said.
About the Caribbean Reef Expedition Program
Participants conduct research for their original projects.
The program begins with six weeks of preparatory coursework on-shore. After, students continue their studies with four weeks of conducting research at sea.
SEA accepts undergraduate students of all academic fields who have an interest in the oceans and their ecosystems.
Learn more about Sea Education Association
Sign up for SEA Semester: Caribbean Reef Expedition
About Missouri State University
Missouri State University is a public, comprehensive metropolitan system with a statewide mission in public affairs, whose purpose is to develop educated persons. The university’s identity is distinguished by its public affairs mission, which entails a campus-wide commitment to foster expertise and responsibility in ethical leadership, cultural competence and community engagement.
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