Wellesley on the High Seas

Amadi Mitchell ’23, Kyaralind Vasquez-Liriano ’23 and Macy Littell ’23 stand at the helm of the tall ship they worked on.
Author  E.B. Bartels ’10
Published on 

Wellesley offers many study abroad opportunities—everything from researching the ecology of Lake Baikal in Siberia to riding a camel in the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan. But the options aren’t all land-based: This fall, Macy Littell ’23, Amadi Mitchell ’23, and Kyaralind Vasquez-Liriano ’23 spent a month at sea, sailing on a tall ship in the Caribbean and studying coral reefs.

The Sea Education Association (SEA) program, based in Woods Hole, Mass., attracts students with an interest in hands-on marine research. In fall 2021, Littell, Mitchell, and Vasquez-Liriano, along with 15 other undergraduates, joined the Caribbean Reef Expedition. Following five weeks of on-shore preparatory coursework at Woods Hole, they set sail November 22 on the SSV Corwith Cramer, SEA’s state-of-the-art, 134-foot brigantine, from St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. They studied human impacts on Caribbean coral reefs and considered how different organizations and businesses can work together to conserve and manage these ecosystems, then returned to St. Croix on December 23.

While Littell, Mitchell, and Vasquez-Liriano are all science majors—biology, physics, and environmental studies respectively—none of them had any previous experience sailing, living, or working on tall ships. But all three were interested in a deep, hands-on experience studying marine science and looking for a new way to challenge themselves.

Aspects of the program certainly were challenging––both Littell and Mitchell were seasick daily. In addition to being seasick, Mitchell had to deal with the loss of a family member while they were sailing, and the toll it took on their mental and physical health made them consider going home early. But instead, they said, “I decided to finish the program, and I have no regrets.”

In many ways, the students found the experience deeply and personally meaningful. On the way to the airport at the beginning of the semester, Littell’s father told her he once worked on a sailboat in the exact location where she would be sailing. He said he wanted to make sure she saw flying fish and dolphins playing in the wake of the boat. “I was not a big marine mammal person before the trip,” said Littell. “I get frustrated when people only care about the ocean because of dolphins and whales.” But seeing dolphins and reading Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals by Alexis Pauline Gumbs changed her mind. “Every time I’d feel too sick or think it was too hard to keep going, we would see a pod of dolphins,” said Littell. “It was such a spiritual thing.”

Interactions with all kinds of plants and animals, large and small, were some of the students’ favorite memories. Mitchell swam with an enormous spotted eagle ray and a sea turtle. Vasquez-Liriano had two baby fish follow her around while she surveyed a reef. “I was surprised to learn that there are ‘mats’ of sargassum, which indicate where there is an upwelling in the current,” said Mitchell, about the large brown seaweed that floats like algae, never attaching to the ocean floor.

Littell, Mitchell, and Vasquez-Liriano encourage students of any major to apply to the Caribbean Reef Exploration program, which, along with other SEA undergraduate programs, will be offered in fall 2022. “It’s a once in a lifetime experience, and you meet some of the coolest people,” said Mitchell. “Not only that, but you learn so many things other than just how to sail or just how to conduct oceanographic research.” For example, Mitchell discovered many ways to apply their physics knowledge to oceanography and looks forward to using skills learned at SEA in the lab at Wellesley this spring.

“The most rewarding part of the program for me was learning problem-solving skills that allowed me to continue to experience joy even in the hardest moments,” said Littell. One time, she said, she accidentally spilled a bucket of zooplankton she was studying all over the ship’s deck and had to pick up tiny individual organisms with tweezers; she laughed the whole time.

“My experience with SEA showed me to be more daring and challenge myself to grow out of my comfort zone,” said Vasquez-Liriano, who is studying in South Korea this semester. “You will change, and whether that’s for the better or the worse is up to you to decide.”