The Ocean as a Destination


Most students planning a semester off-campus think of the ocean as something to fly over . . . a barrier between their home campus and their destination. But for a select group of students interested in a unique semester away, the ocean is the destination.

Isn’t it worth one semester to study three-quarters of the world?

The oceans cover most of our planet and have a major role in global climate, energy production, international trade, politics, biodiversity, and food production. Study of the oceans is an incredibly valuable component of any liberal arts education and can contribute to degree programs in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities.

Academic Opportunities to Study the Oceans

There are a number of programs that provide opportunities to study the oceans from different perspectives on a variety of sailing and motor vessels. They range in the balance between academic and experiential emphasis, coastal vs. open ocean routes, and science vs humanities credits, so there are programs that can contribute to every student’s education. Several programs provide a full semester of college credit, though course offerings and credit structure varies with the program. Canadian students participating in at-sea programs in the United States can apply for financial aid from the semester program they choose and can also apply for specific scholarships. Killam Fellowships are an example of scholarships specifically designed to promote undergraduate exchange between Canada and the USA.


One program in its 40th year of operation is SEA Semester in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, USA. Offered by Sea Education Association (SEA), an internationally recognized leader in undergraduate ocean education, each 17-credit SEA Semester begins with 6 weeks in Woods Hole, a world-renowned center for ocean and science exploration. During their time ashore students study oceanography (biology, geology, chemistry, physics), maritime studies (history, literature, policy), and nautical science (meteorology, physics, celestial navigation, ship operations). They also develop individual or small-group research projects in the sciences and humanities. After the preparation on shore, students join one of SEA’s two 134-foot brigantine sailing ships for a 6-week offshore sailing/research cruise to complete their research projects. The vessels look like traditional sailing vessels but are outfitted with sophisticated equipment for oceanographic research. There are no passengers on these U.S. Coast Guard approved training vessels; every student is considered part of the crew and rotates through watches in the laboratory, collecting and processing oceanographic samples; on deck, handling sails, steering, and navigating; and in the engine room and galley (kitchen). In a typical semester the ship stops once or twice in foreign ports for time off to explore and also to participate in organized activities to learn more about the local history, culture, politics, and environment.


Life at Sea

Preparation is important to get the most out of any off-campus program, but the only way to really learn about the sea is to go to sea. Living and working on a vessel out of site of land for weeks on end provides a unique and irreplaceable connection with the sea and your small community of fellow shipmates. Relationships are formed that will last for the rest of your life. In addition to the academic credits, there is valuable training in teamwork, communications, and leadership since students take on more and more responsibility as the voyage progresses. There is nothing quite like being at the wheel of a large sailing vessel charging across the ocean at night, with the only light coming from stars in the sky and bioluminescence of glowing organisms in the water.

Arriving in a foreign port aboard a ship is a completely different experience than arriving via air travel. Anticipation builds for days before arrival, giving students time to research, discuss, and learn about the country and port city they are headed for. The first sight of land, the first smell of vegetation, foreign vessels and people on the waterfront, finally dropping the anchor or coming along side the dock; these are all exciting events that unfold each time you enter a new port.


Now Is the Time

As our society becomes more aware of how integral the oceans are to the planet, from climate patterns to energy production to the origins of life itself, we must also understand how to conserve these important resources. Going to sea is an adventure that can lead to new insight not only about the world, but about yourself. To learn more about SEA Semester, visit

“Every moment of my time spent within the SEA program was full of boundless possibility. My financial situation would have made it difficult to attend, except for the willingness of folks in the admissions office to offer help. The resources available to the students in both the classroom/library on and offshore, and the vast sea of knowledge embodied in our teachers meant that all you had to do was ask a question and the oceans of knowledge would come pouring out. The people attracted to the program offered by the Sea Education Association share an energy for adventure, an enthusiasm for life, and a passion for learning about humanity’s place in the natural world. I would recommend this program to anyone.”

SEA Semester Alumna
McGill University, Montreal, Canada

By Erik Zettler and Katharine Williams
Sea Education Association

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