Pursuing knowledge on the high seas

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Courtesy of Brent Hoots

Time in the water, whether it’s a beach, pool or lake, is often a big part of most people’s summers, but it rarely means weeks spent in a boat at sea.

This past summer, Katie Hoots ’18 and Ben Lehr ’16 participated in two very different SEA (Sea Education Association) programs. SEA is an organization that coordinates a va­riety of sailing and ocean education trips during fall, winter and summer semesters.

Hoots’ program in particular was called “Aloha ‘Aina: People and Na­ture in the Hawaiian Islands. It was a collaborative study abroad program with Sea Education Association and Hawaii Pacific University” (press re­lease).

During her five week long pro­gram through the islands of Hawaii aboard a 134 foot sailboat called Robert C. Seamans, Hoots said, “We spent the first few weeks on land do­ing coursework and island hopping to learn about the culture and environment on the Hawai’ian Islands. During that time, we were based on the west side of O’ahu.”

Once the sailing journey began, it took them to the Big Island, through a channel created by the island trio of Lana’i, Mau’i, and Moloka’i. Hoots added, “We went onshore Moloka’i for an amazing day at the world’s only function­ing Hawai’ian fish pond and then sailed back to O’ahu where we would spend our last week putting together papers and presentations to summarize our life changing journey.”

Hoots plans on declaring a Biology and Greek and Roman Studies double major here at Vassar. She commented, “My time at SEA made me further realize my passion for biology and the natural world. The program’s synthesis of humanity studies with the natural sciences in­spired me to pursue a double major in a natural science and a humanity.”

She went on, “For me, the combination sparks my varying interests and allows me to delve into seemingly contrasting areas that have more overlaps than one might think–that’s the beauty of a liberal arts education!”

Hoots’s trip taught her a lot more in addition to reigniting her passion for biology. She added, “We were able to see and experience in person a taste of the ancient Hawai’ian culture and practices that we had studied in the classroom. Every person we talk to enriches our under­standing of the deep connections between the resource management and spirituality of the ancient Hawai’ians.”

Her group had the opportunity to work on a water system belonging to an anciet Hawai’ian people, the Ahupua’a. Hoots commented, “We sang the ‘E ho mai’ chant as a way of asking for permission to enter sacred territory.

The ‘E ho mai’ chant is literally asking ‘for knowledge from above, knowledge hidden in the chants,’ and as I sing it, I hope that my shipmates and I can immerse ourselves in this experience and further absorb the values of the Hawai’ian people.”

This connection with Hawai’ian people in­spired Hoots’s passion for a cause called #Pro­tectMaunaKea. Mauna Kea has been a sacred site for Hawai’ian peoples for over one thou­sand years, and is now being considered by for­eign entities for the location of a billion dollar TMT (thirty meter telescope).

Hoots recognizes that this telescope could lead to scientific discoveries, but she said, “It is yet another example of foreign peoples des­ecrating sacred land and taking advantage of a native population.”

Hoots’s semester at SEA was much more than an academic education for her, but a spiri­tual one as well. When she swam to a small islet called Mokoli’i she said, “I looked back at the setting sun and felt an overwhelming sense of Aloha ‘Aina (love of the land).”

“Surrounded by ocean water and lush moun­tain ridges, I thought that maybe I had caught a glimpse of the powerful and intimate rela­tionship the Hawai’ian peoples have had of this land for over a thousand years,” She added, “In that moment, among my shipmates, the warm breeze, and the rolling waves, I knew that if we could spread that sense of pride and love for the earth, we could change it for the better.”

Hoots had an unforgettable summer. She said, “Overall, my summer with SEA was one of the best experiences of my life. I am so lucky to have gotten the opportunity to work with an incredible crew of shipmates, professors, and sailors. I would absolutely recommend SEA to anyone.”

While Hoots spent a good amount of time on land, Lehr had a very different experience. His SEA trip consisted of a thirty day journey from Woods Hole, Massachusetts to Cork, Ireland through the north Atlantic.

Lehr said, “Spending a month at sea with no land in sight was an amazing experience. The community that formed on-board was un­like anything I have ever experienced. We saw whales or dolphins most days, often just a few feet from the ship. At night, dolphins would play under the ship’s bow, their bodies glowing magically from the bioluminescence and trail­ing shooting stars.”

Being at sea for thirty days meant a lot of work for Lehr and the other students on-board. He added, “Three ‘watches’ rotated through a twenty-four hour schedule on deck and in the oceanography lab meant that most days were ten hours long, not including class and course work.”

The hard work proved useful, and Lehr add­ed, “I hope to be a leader in climate change and conservation movements in the future. Learn­ing about my own leadership capabilities and the ocean environment in the context of sailing a tall ship was very relevant for me.”

He concluded, “I learned that life at sea on a sailing ship is completely different from life on land, in ways that are both indescribable and, I believe, critically important to understanding Western and particularly American cultures and experiences. I learned to appreciate every­thing that I have and everything that I can do on land in a different way.”


  1. TMT is NOT “foreign peoples des­ecrating sacred land and taking advantage of a native population.” I appreciate your support for the Hawaiian people but you and others like yourself need to realize that TMT is a project that Hawaiians support. We were astronomers, that’s how we arrived many generations ago. Many of us respect Maunakea and see no conflict between TMT and our culture. Please don’t follow the foot paths of apologists. Hawaiians are not indigenous people on the brink of extinction and our culture thrives. As a matter of fact it’s for sale in Japan to the highest bidder for license to teach hula in the name of a kumu hula.

    Remember that depriving our astronomy students and our people of better jobs and careers is actually being a neo-colonial. You decide you have the authority and right to decide what we can and cannot have. When you support denying us TMT you are taking away our chances to learn with the latest technology, the best chances for a solid STEM education and careers in astronomy. No one has the right to do this. You have the right to study as you please, and choose a career that you dream of. Hawaii’s astronomy students have the same right as you.

  2. This article and this person is just another example of people outside of Hawaii`i thinking they know more about Mauna Kea and the TMT then us locals do. What Veronica stated above is absolutely true. A student who has spent a short time in Hawaii`i and then manipulated by people who clearly don’t stand for the majority is something that needs to stop.

    I have lived on this island my whole life and NOT ONE person EVER went up there to pray and/or perform ceremonies until the last few months. This “protest” is more about angry locals who want their sovereignty back under the false pretenses that it was taken away illegally (COMPLETELY false!) NOTE: I challenge anyone to debate me on this massive lie but that’s another story.

    My people founded Hawaii`i because of astronomy and to take away the exploration of the universe from myself, my children and my children’s children is selfish and irresponsible. You have NO right to be MY voice because of your ideals. The majority of Hawaiians and others are silent because they have been harassed, ridiculed and shamed into being so. So please, stop voicing your opinions about “foreign people desecrating land” because you my friend are a foreign desecrating our future.

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