Sailing, Science, and Saving the World

By Mike Gil

I’ll never forget the first time I turned green at sea.

The SSV Robert C. Seamans, on which I was part of two trans-Pacific scientific research expeditions (photo: Mike Gil)It was the fall of 2007, and we just left Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, aboard what appeared to be a ship out of a fantasy novel: a 134-foot brigantine. We set the main sail as a crew, but eager to dive into my new shipboard life, I led the effort. I was immediately amazed at how physically demanding hauling sail can be, and when we finished, I was hit with nausea like a punch to the face. One of the mates turned to me and said “Whoa, you’re looking a little green — I’ll get you some water.”

Fortunately, a little bit of sea sickness was but a small price to pay for what I got out of that trans-Pacific passage, which ended in Tahiti. This was a validation of what was the most significant decision I’ve made in my life: to pursue science as a lifelong career. You see, this was no ordinary sailing expedition; this was a science-intensive research cruise, led by Sea Education Association (SEA) out of Woods Hole, Massachusetts, to explore the role of the ocean in the global carbon cycle. I thought I wanted to be a scientist before joining the crew, but it was the camaraderie of my shipmates, whose passion for science, sailing and the sea was infectious, that made me know I wanted to be a scientist.


However, just a few years earlier, I would never have predicted this decision. I grew up in an oil town in Texas, where science, as a career option, never even entered my radar. I actually thought science was boring — just a bunch of unrelatable facts. My thought process at age 17: science is lame, animals are awesome, but many animals are threatened, so I’ll use my writing and photography skills to raise public appreciation for nature, as an explorer for the National Geographic Society. Accordingly, I entered college as a journalism major. But this plan was stopped dead in its tracks when I spent the summer of my freshman year living on an uncultivated island in the Great Barrier Reef, learning, firsthand, what science actually is. This was part of a study abroad program, focused on coral reef ecology. This meant I spent most of my time underwater, exploring the mesmerizing explosion of life within the reef, asking questions about this amazing habitat and collecting data to answer these questions. This was science?! I was awestruck — I never knew science could be such an exciting adventure. When I got back to the US, I immediately changed my major to marine biology.

Since my ‘enlightenment’ in Australia, I’ve spent the past 11 years adventuring around the world, in the name of science, earning my Ph.D. along the way. My adventures included a second sailing expedition (again with SEA) from California to Hawaii in 2012, to explore effects of plastic pollution on the marine environment. All of my work shares a common theme, in line with my early passion for animals: understanding how we humans affect natural ecosystems on which we depend. As a marine biologist, I’ve experienced nature in ways that I could have only dreamed about as a kid. In short, I love my job.

Exploring life beneath mangrove roots while doing research and teaching along the Caribbean coast of Mexico (photo: Mike Gil).However, I’ve discovered that something critical is missing, not just from my career, but from the scientific process as a whole: you.

Over 11 years, I’ve learned that the power to use the objective process of science to guide us to a sustainable future lies solely in the hands of the public — not in the hands of scientists, no matter how passionate we may be about this goal. An informed, passionate public, alone, can drive real change in the world, through both grassroots efforts and through pressure on politicians and businesses.

Unfortunately, communication between scientists and the public is traditionally minimal, and what makes matters worse is that science has become politicized, with environmental science in particular being couched by some industrialists (and bought politicians) as a war on economic prosperity. The irony here is that environmental science points us to the exact opposite outcome: long-term environmental sustainability to achieve long-term economic prosperity.

Sailors make natural advocates for science, because sailors, from all walks of life, have a vested interest in making natural water bodies sustainable, an outcome that can only be achieved with insights from science. But sailors cannot do this alone — scientists have to step up their game in communicating to the public. Thus, I’ve launched a new campaign:, to show the world that science is actually the best kept secret I’ve ever known — it’s an exhilarating process, meant to serve all, regardless of one’s political affiliation, race, ethnicity or background.

Most importantly, science can save the world we know, by allowing our children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and beyond to sail into a sustainable future. Will you help me get the secret out?