Hooked by Semester at Sea Opportunity

January 23, 2015

Scarborough resident Alexis Johnson was born for the sea. As a resident of Higgins Beach and native of Cape Elizabeth, Johnson has always felt at home by the ocean.

“The ocean has meant a lot to me,” said Johnson, a junior at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts.

In late December, Johnson returned from five weeks at sea aboard the Robert C. Seamans, a 134-foot research vessel as a part of SEA Semester: A Global Ocean, a study abroad program run by Sea Education Association.

While on board the vessel, which traveled 2,000 nautical miles, Johnson and the other 22 students in the program studied the environmental issues in and around the New Zealand coastline.

“I have been scuba diving since I was 11. I’ve been surfing since I was 12. The ocean has always meant a lot to me. This is just the start for me. The ocean will be something I will be connected with my entire life,” said Johnson, a dual math and environmental science major.

It was during a computer science course freshman year when Johnson first heard about the semester at sea opportunity. Her professor was a sailor and had mentioned it during class one day. Johnson was immediately hooked.

“From freshman year I knew I wanted to do the SEA semester. It really caught my eye,” she said.

To prepare her for the voyage Johnson, a 2012 graduate of Cape Elizabeth High School, went to the Sea Education Association headquarters in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, in late September to start six weeks of classes, which included oceanography, maritime history and nautical science.


In early November, the voyage embarked from Auckland and headed toward the west side of New Zealand’s north island. From there, the ship headed toward Cook’s Strait, where the students did field research in Wellington before following the east side of the south island to Dunedin. The trip made another stop in Christchurch before ending back in Wellington.

During the five-week trip, Johnson was tasked with collecting data on ocean currents and using scientific tools to measure speed, direction, temperature and salinity. Currents, she said, are a good indicator of ocean health and can affect local climate.

It was the first time SEA semester had gone to New Zealand and some of the first research ever done on New Zealand currents.

“There hasn’t been a lot of studies done on the currents in New Zealand. It was cool to be one of the first people to study the currents and see what is happening there,” Johnson said. The SEA semester program will retain Johnson’s research paper and data for future students to use as a comparison tool.

Data collection, Johnson said, was a 24-hour operation. The 23 students in the program were split into teams that would be on watch for four to six hours, either on deck, where they helped to navigate the ship, charting and doing boat checks, or in the lab deploying gear, analyzing and processing data. Students would have eight to 12 hours off before going on another watch.

It was not all research, however. Johnson said through a professor on the ship, Johnson and her shipmates were able to connect with the Maori, a people indigenous to New Zealand.

“It was a very, very cool experience. Everyone was so awed being able to connect with the Maori. No one knew what to expect. They were the nicest people. Everyone in New Zealand was,” Johnson said.

The group also went to Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, a cultural and art museum in Wellington.

Johnson said she would like to return to the sea after she graduates from Stonehill College in 2016.

“This has been the most incredible experience of my life,” she said.