Junior's summer research takes him to rare coral wilderness

July 27, 2017

Spider Pride

Summer research for Richmond students means asking difficult questions, searching for elusive answers, and often going on adventurous expeditions around the world.

This July, junior Will Moreno is on a five-week sailing voyage aboard a research vessel called the SSV Robert Seamans. Their mission? To collect samples while assessing the impact of El Nino and climate change on the ecosystem, including coral bleaching.

Moreno's research crew is exploring a largely under-studied region of the world. He's part of the Sea Education Association’s expedition to the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, a remote area of the Pacific and one of the last remaining coral wildernesses on Earth, about which little is known. An expanse of ocean about the size of California, it is the largest — and deepest — UNESCO World Heritage site, with eight spectacular and fauna-rich coral atolls.

Moreno, an interdisciplinary physics major, and the research crew are collecting data to share with the government of Kiribati, a small island republic in the Central Pacific, to enhance their understanding of the marine ecosystem and environmental management.

Moreno, pictured at the helm of the SSV Robert C. Seamans, says he was inspired and encouraged to take on this particular adventure by biology professors Malcolm and April Hill, his faculty mentors. The few students who are part of the trip not only are collecting samples and conducting research, they’re also helping run the research vessel, a 134-foot brigantine touted as the most sophisticated oceanographic research sailing vessel ever built in the United States. 

But the high sea offers more to Moreno than the research experience and hands-on sailing instruction aboard the vessel.

“This trip allows students-turned-crew to have impeccable moments of reflection as there is nothing like the constant roar of the ocean, the roll of the boat, and a gap in watch duties at that night hour to invoke introspection,” Moreno writes. “Whether that means pondering personal struggles such as life purpose or particular societal problems like water sustainability, the time during the ship component of the course ushers in not just a great workload and increasing responsibility for ship functions, but also time to ask oneself more difficult questions.”

We’re looking forward to hearing more about what Moreno’s learns. Also, we love he’s wearing his Spider Pride all the way across the sea.

Track Moreno's journey through the SEA Semester blog.