Reunion brings together seafaring students, old and new

Mike Swift Te Vega

The Te Vega, a converted luxury yacht, provided a classroom at sea for students and faculty at Hopkins Marine Station in the 1960s. A reunion took place this month.

Hannah Hickey Reunion

David Gudai (seated left), a junior who is participating in the 2005 Stanford@SEA program, talks to ichthyologist Daniel Cohen (Ph.D. '58), a veteran of the classroom-at-sea Te Vega in the 1960s.

Graduates of Stanford's historic classroom-at-sea program in the 1960s gathered for their first reunion April 16-17 at Hopkins Marine Station. For some, it was the first time they had seen each other or returned to the Pacific Grove campus since their high-seas adventures as graduate students aboard the Te Vega, a converted luxury yacht used by Hopkins students and faculty from 1963 to 1968.

Some 40 participants attended the two-day event, which included a potluck dinner and presentations by Hopkins faculty and alumni. While they reminisced, a newer generation of student-sailors was looking to the future. Participants in this spring's Stanford@SEA program soaked up the old stories as they got ready to embark on their own voyage in May: a five-week cruise in the South Pacific.

High-seas talesRepresentatives from 18 of the Te Vega's 20 historic cruises attended the weekend reunion. One after another, they traded stories of ship breakdowns in exotic locales, stormy weather, crew strikes and near misses diving with whales and sharks.

Some of the most hair-raising tales came from the Te Vega's earliest voyages, when the ship was sent to be an American presence in the International Indian Ocean Expedition. Marine scientist Jim Nybakken recalled standing on deck on Nov. 22, 1963, the day John F. Kennedy was shot, when he noticed "little things hitting the water." Someone was shooting at the Te Vega, and the scientists on board suspected the gunmen were connected to Indonesian President Sukarno. The cruise was aborted and the researchers fled by the only means available: a flight via wartime Saigon. That experience didn't prevent Nybakken from returning, however, as the Te Vega's chief scientist. He went on to a research career at California State University's Moss Landing Marine Laboratories.

"It was a fantastic adventure," recalled John Pearse (Ph.D. '65), professor emeritus of marine biology at the University of California-Santa Cruz. He and his wife, Vicki Pearse (A.B. '64, Ph.D. '68)—also a Te Vega alumna and an expert on marine invertebrates at UC-Santa Cruz—organized the reunion. "For almost everyone who was on the Te Vega, it was a peak experience in their lives," she said.

The ship spent two years in the Indian Ocean before returning to Pacific Grove. Subsequent voyages traveled up and down the coast to Alaska, Baja California and Ecuador.

Bruce Robison (Ph.D. '73), now a deep-sea biologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing, went on two Te Vega cruises: once as a student traveling around the Sea of Cortez and once as a teaching assistant.

"We served as teachers, we served as chief scientists, we served as mechanics," Robison recalled. "It was a very broad education." He also described how a misunderstanding in Guaymas, Mexico, led to his spending three nights in jail. A narrow escape rescued his future career in science.

Friend and shipmate Tom Malone (Ph.D.' 71), now a professor at the University of Maryland, said the experience at sea launched his research career. After being given so much freedom to conduct marine science aboard the Te Vega, Malone said, "we went out in the world pretty confident of what we could do."

Many participants went on to become renowned marine biologists. However, this weekend it was sometimes hard to match the gray-haired professors with the tan, lean adventurers pictured in their photos.

"This is primarily going to be a warning to you young fellas to see what happens after 40 years," joked Robert Beeman (Ph.D. '67) as he addressed the students in the audience.

The Te Vega's association with Stanford lasted only five years; after 20 cruises the National Science Foundation grant money ran dry. The program continued for some time on a fishing vessel before classes moved back to land.

Stanford@SEAIn 2003, Barbara Block, the Charles and Elizabeth Prothro Professor in Marine Sciences at Hopkins, and Rob Dunbar, a professor of geological and environmental sciences on the main campus, revived the concept of a floating classroom. Known as Stanford@SEA, the biennial Hopkins-based research program is run jointly by Stanford and the Sea Education Association (SEA) in Woods Hole, Mass.

"There is a history of science and sailing at Stanford, and I wanted our students to know that," Block said. She suggested the Te Vega reunion as a way to bridge the two generations. Now a leading researcher on large migratory fish, Block added that she hopes her students are as inspired by their experiences at sea as she was as an undergraduate at the University of Vermont in the 1970s.

The first cohort gives the program rave reviews. Val Scharf, now a senior in earth systems science, sailed from Hawaii while examining the stomach contents of tunas caught in different locations. Scharf is attending veterinary school next year. She's considering a focus on marine mammals.

"The experience was amazing—I think the most amazing thing I've done," Scharf said.

This year's adventure will begin on May 8. Block, Dunbar and Fiorenza Micheli, an assistant professor of biological sciences at Hopkins, will join 19 Stanford students (mostly undergraduates) and three SEA faculty on a 135-foot steel brigantine, the SSV Robert C. Seamans—a combination oceanographic research vessel and classroom-at-sea. The group will sail from Honolulu 1,300 miles south to the Line Islands and back. Each participant will conduct a research project while on board. To prepare, the students are required to spend five weeks at Hopkins taking courses in navigation, oceanography and maritime culture.

Simon Yang, a first-year graduate student in electrical engineering at Stanford, said he's exploring a new field of science. He and his classmates spent the weekend attending the reunion, going over logbooks and interviewing the original Te Vegans.

Yang was not deterred by the old-timers' misadventures.

"After hearing all these stories," he said, "I kind of hope something happens to us."

Hannah Hickey is a science-writing intern at the Stanford News Service.