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My SEAmester experience

By Leila Nefdt, DST-NRF Intern at SAEON Egagasini Node / UWC student
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"SEAmester" - South Africa's first “Class Afloat”, is a floating university experience that took place on the polar research vessel, the SA Agulhas II, from 5 to 15 July 2016.

This novel learning experience was aimed at increasing awareness of the ocean's response to climate change... and that is exactly what it did.

SEAmester was initiated by Professor Isabelle Ansorge (Head of Department of Oceanography at the University of Cape Town). The 10-day voyage created a learning platform where young researchers (comprising mainly postgraduate students, interns and some undergraduates) were exposed to various aspects of global change and the effects that it may have on our oceans, while developing our capacity and professional skills in the relevant fields of investigation.

ASCA - exploring the Agulhas Current

An international oceanographic project, ASCA (Agulhas System Current Array) ran in parallel to the SEAmester programme, where we as the students got an opportunity to work on deck with the scientists involved in the project. The research that took place on board focused on climate change, exploring the Agulhas Current on the East coast of the country.

The ASCA project comprises 15 moorings (three short coastal moorings, seven tall moorings and five CPRIES - Current and Pressure Recording Inverted Echo Sounders), and a high-resolution CTD (conductivity, temperature and depth) transect across the Agulhas Current. The ship sailed from Cape Town to East London and then 300 km offshore along the ASCA transect.

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The SEAmester students comprised postgraduates, interns and some undergraduates

NOT a holiday cruise...

Our time on board the SA Agulhas II was certainly not a holiday cruise as we were put to task to complete daily written assignments, compile a video presentation of our SEAmester experience and partake in practical activities on deck in the afternoon, which included taking measurements.

The deck work comprised working with the CTD, Expandable Bathy Thermograph, weather station, bongo nets and various other instruments. With the aid of these oceanographic instruments we were able to profile conductivity, salinity, temperature, biological matter and other measurements along the water column at various depths across the Agulhas current.

In addition to the scientific and technical lectures during the day, we had evening lectures that focused on birding, photography and climate change. To top things off, we had a pirate party on the last night to celebrate the amazing experience on board the SA Agulhas II!

Multi-faceted learning experience

The SA Agulhas II was home to 40 SEAmester students, 15 academic lecturers, about 30 ASCA scientists and interns, some of whom experienced sailing for the first time, just like me. I am so grateful to have been granted this opportunity and to share it with so many other young researchers from all over South Africa.

It was an unforgettable experience. I got to meet people from a diverse range of fields of science, mostly ranging from oceanographic and marine biology studies to ecology, geography and meteorology. The programme was set up in such a way that we could interact with one another on a theoretical and practical base.

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The start of my SEAmester experience

My tour of the bridge

Out of two streams in the SEAmester programme, I was selected to participate in the stream that focused on oceans in a changing climate, whereas the other stream was called “Tools of the trade”. Students from each stream felt challenged in some way or another by the content covered in the programme, especially when it came to the application component of completing and submitting assignments on time!

In my case, coming from a more biological background made it a little tough for me to fully comprehend the content of the work, considering that it was primarily focused on oceanography. However, through the completion of daily assignments and with lecturers being available throughout the cruise for extra consultations, I was able to explore my thinking and comprehension of the way the ocean works as a whole.

All in all, this course has helped me link up key concepts on oceans and marine life that I have learnt throughout my studies at university. I am hoping that the floating university "SEAmester" will become an annual learning experience as it could give so many more young South African researchers an unforgettable and invaluable experience that could benefit them in the future.

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