GoAbroad Interview

Marina Knapp - Mate, Dive Instructor, & Scientist

Marina Knapp began at Global Expeditions as a student in 2006. Five years later she began working with ActionQuest and eventually began working with Sea|mester in 2014. She has a degree in Marine Biology from Florida State University, is a PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer, and a Wilderness First Responder. She has spent the last year working on Argo as Mate/Dive Instructor/Scientist/Medic.  

Squid dissection

You’re a Sarasota, Florida native; how did you originally get connected with Sea|mester?

Both of my parents work full-time, so they had always sent my sister and me to summer camps to keep us busy. I was searching for marine science camps and came across Action Quest. I showed my mom and we saw they had the same area code as us and their office was only two miles down the road from my parents’ office. Two weeks later I was sitting between my parents in Mike’s office learning about ActionQuest, and the next day I signed up for camp as well as my Open Water course so I could partake in the dolphin program which is only open to certified divers. The more we researched the program the more I knew this was something I wanted to make a part of my life.

What does a typical day as Sea|mester’s Mate/Dive Instructor look like?

 Life seems to be sectioned in two ways: life underway and life on anchor/dock. Underway we rotate through watches and classes on a set schedule of four hours on and eight hours off. As a mate, I help lead our watch which means being present for the watch handover briefings and monitoring the boat’s progress during watch. As the semester progresses, students take the lead on running each watch, however it is still the staff’s duty to ensure each watch is run successfully and safely, as well as making any decisions to weather or boat traffic. Mates also assist in teaching, and eventually overseeing, other boat activities such as docking, anchoring, and raising or lowering sails. It is important to be comfortable with how the boat runs and seeing the bigger picture so you can help direct students to where they need to be. 

Pre-dive excitement

Dive lectures are often held underway, so as a dive instructor you are expected to teach just as the other professors on board. Once we reach a destination, especially one we are diving at, the dive instructors begin planning along with the program director the dive schedule and groups for that area. Some dive sites are not suitable for new divers, so we will split students up according to dive level and dive separate sites. Additionally, some certifications require specific dives (such as a night dive or a deep dive) in which more detailed planning is required. Instructors are also responsible for maintaining dive gear while on board, as well as the filling of tanks. Both Argo and Oceanstar have compressors onboard to fill our own tanks. On Argo specifically, we have 18 tanks which take about two to three hours to fill. 

You spent time on Sea|mester’s dolphin voyage in 2006, how has the program changed over the last nine years?

The program has grown a lot over the years. Students still create, complete, and present their own research projects in groups, earn four specialties (research diver, night diver, underwater photography, and fish ID), and participate in a sea turtle research program run by BVI Fisheries. A few new additions have been added in recent years. We now do two dissections, a starfish and a shark. The gear available to students to complete their research projects has also been greatly updated. Students now have access to over ten water quality test kits, as well as are able to use digital cameras and download photos for projects such as fish ID and benthic coverage. The program still very much resembles the voyage I did as a student, only it has grown with technology as any science program needs to do. 

What makes Sea|mester such a special program for students?

Its usually the dive certifications, locations, or sailing miles that initially attract students to Sea|mester. What students don’t realize is that, while interesting and fun, these are not the things they will remember most years after the trip is over. Sea|mester has a unique way of teaching students things without them realizing they are even learning.

Students learn both how to lead and how to be a team member, how to work through adversity (especially in a small space), and how to hold yourself accountable.

Students quickly learn the boat cannot run on her own and it will take all of them working together to cross that ocean or raise all of her sails. If one person is not pulling their weight, it is put on the rest of the group to pick up their slack. Sea|mester also teaches students confidence. We call the ocean the great equalizer because no matter what your experience before, almost no one onboard has sailed a boat this size this many miles. Everyone comes onboard nervous about something, whether it’s sailing, meeting new people, or going on your first night dive--at some point everyone gets sweaty palms. The important part is that in your sweaty palms moment, you have friends around you helping you and cheering you on. You are able to not only survive your sweaty palms, but succeed. Sea|mester gives you the opportunity to do things you may never have considered possible. 

Watch team three underway

What are the typical characteristics of Sea|mester students

It takes a certain type of person to apply to a program like Sea|mester. They must have a huge sense of adventure or maybe they simply want a change. Many students have never been out of the country before and want to see the world and experience new people and cultures. Most students enjoy the water, though some may have never even set foot on a boat before Day One. One of the best parts about working for Sea|mester is that every student is different, every trip is different, every trip you learn new things. 

What makes a participant particularly successful on a voyage?

Being open minded and hard working are two of the best skills to have to be successful at Sea|mester. Boats are hard work and require a lot of attention, however some of the most fun I have had has been doing some of the dirtiest jobs onboard. It may be hard to see why we do certain things at the beginning, but everything is done for a reason. 

You have an academic background in Biology, and you also are a PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer, and have several other certifications. How do you apply this knowledge and these skills in your role with Sea|mester?

One thing we try to instill in our students is that learning happens on board, all the time, not just in lectures. Sea|mester is largely about experiential learning, and sometimes it may be hard for students to connect the dots that our increase in speed is related to oceanography as we come into a new current. Having more training in many fields helps for us to see those connections more clearly and therefore make the hands on learning more effective. 

What’s the most important thing someone can know about diving?

Keep breathing. Whether you are nervous on your first night dive or so excited to see that green turtle swimming by to high five you, keep breathing slow. It will calm you down when you are nervous and help you think to overcome the problem. Breathing slow will also give you more bottom time to hang out and experience as much of the reef as possible. 

Hindu Temple in Bali

Hindu Temple in Bali

What’s the #1 tip you would give to a prospective Sea|mester student?

Live in the moment. 90 days will never go faster in your life than they will during your Sea|mester trip. It is hard to do, especially when you have so many cool things to look forward to during your program, but enjoy every single dishy session, every single watch, and every sunrise you are lucky enough to enjoy. 

You’ve been with Sea|mester since 2011, what has been your biggest achievement in the last four years

When I first started working for ActionQuest in 2011, I knew only the little I remembered from my Sea|mester trip over a year before and most of those skills were a little rusty. Now, I skipper my own boat at ActionQuest and teach students and staff how to sail. It was a huge goal for me when I first began, and one that terrified me at the start. 

What are your primary goals for 2015?

I was recently accepted to a masters program at the University of Southampton in England. I am planning on attending the program in the fall and returning the next year to Sea|mester so I can teach the marine science classes onboard. 

What is favorite part about working for Sea|mester?

The people. Hands down. The best part of this job is that you get to meet so many interesting people from all walks of life and have conversations and experiences with them that no one else in the world except for those on the trip can relate to. Both staff and students are the main reason why I keep coming back. They have become my family.