From the moment her father pushed her into her first wave on a surfboard at age 7, Caroline Bowman’s life has revolved around the ocean’s tides, including her academic studies. The Marine Science major spent the spring semester of her sophomore year on SEA Semester’s campus in Woods Hole, Massachusetts and aboard the Corwith Cramer as she sailed through the Caribbean with the SEA program.
Bowman received a scholarship to study her major while living aboard a 134-foot sailing vessel with 22 equally ocean-minded shipmates for six weeks through the SEA Semester’s Colonization to Conservation of the Caribbean program. Prior to setting sail, she prepared for the experience during a shore component on SEA’s campus in Woods Hole by conducting research on conservation and bathymetry (bottom contour of the ocean floor) that she later tested at sea.
Her Caribbean journey started in the U.S. Virgin Islands and led her through Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Jamaica. While living and learning on the ocean, Bowman said she learned more than she ever imagined about academics, herself and life.
As a surfer, sailor, kite-boarder and all-around water woman who grew up on a barrier island in Ocean City, N.J., working around the tides is second nature. However, ship life had its challenges. Learning the ropes meant understanding the operation of 136 lines and their associations with nine sails. In addition to academics, Bowman had standing watch shifts where her team would handle the sails to navigate the vessel and record hourly observations of the weather and sea conditions.
Each day’s hard work was rewarded with unforgettable sights and experiences. As the ship approached Cuba, shortly after the Obama administration eased travel restrictions and just prior to the presidential visit, “we were furling the main sail when a pod of 20 dolphins came to bring us into Cuba,” said Bowman.
“From the open ocean and into the shallow inlet, all hands were called onto deck to experience the mix of seaside homes followed by oil refineries followed by container ships and power lines stretching above us,” she explained.
In addition to science, the SEA Semester offers cultural experiences and incorporates historical studies. Exploring Cuba was like stepping back in time, and being the only Americans in the country made the experience even more unique, she explained. “We found that the old car tales are true and everyone was driving a 1950s car,” she added.
On a field trip she saw the countryside house where Fidel Castro’s secretive planning for the uprising against Batista’s government took place. “It is amazing to see evidence of all the history that we learned so little about in standard history books and from our grandparent’s generation,” she explained.
Prior to her visit, Cuba “felt like a mysterious, almost forbidden place.” She left with memories of the welcoming spirit of the Cuban people, conversations with the locals, a thriving art community and seven scoops of a grande helado (the best ice cream she has ever tasted).
During science labs the Neuston net was often deployed, which is towed alongside the boat to collect and survey Sargassum (seaweed) and marine life. The data they collected contributes to a four-and-a-half decade log of data documenting biodiversity. Among the highlights were crabs, marine water spiders and a flying fish. Bowman also saw a shark while snorkeling off of St. John’s Watermelon Cay. She has GoPro footage as proof.
While anchoring for class in the Silver Bank Marine Sanctuary off the coast of the Dominican Republic, a whale swam under the hull to scratch its back. “The whales must have known somehow that our class was about to begin. They wanted to check us out. From breaching to fin slapping, we saw every behavior possible,” she said.
The SEA Semester obtained a special permit to observe the whales during the peak of breeding season.
Swim calls were a student favorite. “Jumping off the bow sprit into the clear, blue ocean is the most amazing feeling in the world,” said Bowman.
When she returned home, she had so many great experiences to share with family and friends that she hardly knew where to start. Back on campus, she finalized the creation of a new surf club with her cousin Sean Bowman and his girlfriend, Cassandra Super, during the final weeks of the semester and hosted an Earth Day beach cleanup from North St. to Waverly Beach in Ocean City.
Bowman, who is a dean’s list student, is a defense sweeper on the women’s field hockey team, and with her teammates, she started a Love Your Melon Campus Crew. Love Your Melon is a non-profit that sells knit hats and with every purchase donates one to a child battling cancer. Campus Crews raise awareness for childhood cancer and represent the brand through sales events.
For Bowman, what started as a childhood curiosity of the world under the sea, has developed into an appreciation of the natural world, and now as a student, she is learning how she can work to preserve unique ecosystems and biodiversity.
After a semester on the sea, she said, “I hope to bring my new outlook on education, culture and ocean studies back to Stockton. Living in our own little world on the Cramer has taught me the most important lessons: live in the moment and appreciate everything.”