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CCU Atheneum: Dan Abel, shark biologist and sustainability expert, on the deck of the MV Explorer during four months of Semester-at-Sea.
Dan Abel, shark biologist and sustainability expert, on the deck of the MV Explorer during four months of Semester-at-Sea.

Around the world in 120 days and no sharks in sight

by Mona Prufer
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Dan Abel just returned from a four-month trip around the world, and even though he crossed three major oceans – Pacific, Indian and Atlantic – he didn’t see a single shark.

Abel, a shark biologist who answers to the nickname “Sharkman” and wears shark shirts, shark ties and a shark hat on occasion, was nonplussed.

“I saw sharks in the Osaka Aquarium, and in the Oceanographic Institute in Nha Trang, Viet Nam, but none in the wild,” he says. The scarcity of sharks was such a sore spot with him that his wife, a colleague and a student at Semester-at-Sea filmed a video showing a hotdog-sized toy shark attached to a stick stalking Professor Abel around the ship.

Semester-at-Sea (SAS) is a floating university operated by the University of Virginia (UVA) in partnership with the Institute for Shipboard Education, a nonprofit academic association that tours close to a dozen countries twice a year. Every semester about 700 students from 270 colleges and universities sign up for this unique academic adventure, which is led by 30 handpicked faculty from around the world.

Abel was one of the SAS faculty members on the spring 2010 voyage designed around the theme of worldwide sustainability. He taught marine biology, oceanography and environmental issues aboard the MV Explorer, whose passengers numbered nearly 1,000 people including lifelong learners, students, faculty and staff for a global experience.

“It was a defining point of my life – more amazing than words can describe,”says a tanned and relaxed Abel, who had recently returned from not only Semester-at-Sea, but also from his annual May trip to Bimini in the Bahama Islands to teach Coastal Carolina University students about sharks. (He did see sharks there – lots.)

How Abel came to be aboard the 25,000-ton floating university was a “perfect storm of events.” In 2008, the marine science professor was giving a talk at a sustainability-across-the-curriculum conference in Raleigh, which a UVA professor happened to be attending. The UVA administrator was so impressed with Abel – a marine biologist and a sustainability expert – that he called shortly thereafter to offer him an onboard faculty position.

“Those 30 positions,” Abel says, “are very sought-after and competitive.”

Since Abel’s requested sabbatical for the spring of 2009 at CCU had been canceled at the last minute, he was free to accept the position with Semester-at-Sea.

Dan called his wife Mary, who urged him to “say yes!” The only hesitation, he says, concerned an aging family dog. Neighbors offered to care for Lily the dog (who died before they left), so plans began in earnest. Mary took off from her physical therapy job at Georgetown Hospital and joined her husband for a global semester that took them to nine countries and Hawaii between January and May.

Coincidentally, Abel was joined by a CCU student, Patrick Samsel, who was in one of Abel’s marine science classes last year.

“I decided to study abroad with Semester-At-Sea when Dan Abel told theMarine Science 111 class that I was in that he would be sailing with SAS,” says Samsel, a senior marine science major from Brick, N.J. “I then knew I needed to go on this voyage because he was teaching marine biology and biology of sharks. That, and this would be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to sail around the world with one of my favorite teachers. It was an amazing experience.”

On the Semester-at-Sea voyage, Abel taught two undergraduate level classes of oceanography and marine biology and an upper level course on biology of sharks, as well as lectures on environmental issues in the global studies courses. His classes were among the first to fill. Toward the end of the trip, on a giant poster where students wrote about why they loved SAS, Abel was high on the list. (He also won the Best Smile Award from students.)

Abel led field trips in Japan, Viet Nam, China, Mauritius and Hawaii. They spent two to six days in each location, soaking up the sights and sounds of the culture. They visited the Great Wall of China (some students slept overnight there), they met a Hiroshima survivor, and they met a Nobel Peace Prize winner whose entourage happened to be passing by. They watched a Shinto wedding reception and helped build Habitat for Humanity houses. They toured recycling dumps and plants. They took a field trip to learn about shrimp farming. They went to an Hawaiian fish auction.

In March, Dan wrote this on Mary’s blog:

I took my marine biology class outside this morning, and taught in full sunlight on a calm Indian Ocean with the coastline of Africa as background (about three miles away). I don’t have any words to describe the emotional high I’m experiencing. No words. Period.

And from a later blog:

Yesterday, I saw Chinese white dolphins, apparently a very highly endangered animal (only 50 or so left, so a species or subspecies doomed to extinction or extirpation). Also, I saw more dried shark fins than a healthy ocean can continue to provide. I tried to explain to our Chinese guide why eating shark fin soup was harmful, but he did not understand. I desisted because I felt I had no credibility lecturing him about a part of his culture, however environmentally destructive it was, especially considering the huge environmental impact that I as an American have on the planet.

“I’ve seen the best and the worst of this world,” says Abel, who is still digesting the experience and trying to make sense of it. Some of the best images included the splendid sunrises and sunsets from the ship’s deck, plus the natural beauty and different cultures he was able to sample. He and Mary brought home thousands of images to download and categorize. A long-wished-for safari in Africa was another highlight.

The worst would include the staggering poverty of India and the electronic recycling dump next a trash heap in Ghana where children were sorting through garbage for items to reuse. And then there was the orphanage in Brazil where the three-year-old child who Abel picked up cried when he put her down again.

Seaboard classes were limited to 35 students, and they were highly motivated to learn, Abel says. “It’s all about that ‘transformative experience’ that Semester-at-Sea promises – and delivers!”

Even the less pleasant ship traditions made for Kodak moments. One initiation that caused great hilarity was Neptune Day, the celebration of crossing the equator. “You got fish guts dumped over your head, and you kissed a fish,” says Abel.

Faculty pay for the tour isn’t great – only $9,000 for the four-month semester – but that includes room and board and an unforgettable academic adventure, what Abel calls “the purest teaching experience.” Cost for students begins at around $25,000, about the same as a year at a private college or university. A fund of $3 million in financial aid is available to students who would like to go but can’t afford it.

This excerpt is from an invited essay Abel wrote to go into a photo book that Semester-at-Sea was putting together for participating students and faculty.

Celebrating my birthday on the Indian Ocean to a surprise Jack Kerouac reading about the sea and adventure, accompanied by jazz; A pod of humpback whales, not 25 meters starboard, interrupting an oceanography lecture as if on cue; Fulfilling a lifelong dream of setting foot on Africa and going on a safari; entering cities by ship (I’ll never be able to arrive another way); teaching all of my classes with a clear line of sight to the ocean.

Abel’s only wish is that faculty at Coastal could have the same experiences he had and be rejunvenated by the enthusiasm and love of teaching.

“I am so reinvigorated by this experience,” says Abel. “If every faculty member here could make this trip, we would have the most effective faculty ever!”

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