Student Perspective: Pollywogs and Shellbacks

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Semester at Sea
Nov 24, 2015


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Student Perspective: Pollywogs and Shellbacks

Executive Dean, Beth Hellwig, masquerades as Queen Minerva during the Fall 2015 Voyage Neptune Day.
Executive Dean, Beth Hellwig, masquerades as Queen Minerva during the Fall 2015 Voyage Neptune Day. Photo by Dylan Smith.

Story by Fall 2015 Voyage student Kiaja Thomas

Look up Semester at Sea on YouTube and you’ll find student made videos of college students documenting their travels around the world with a GoPro. They’ll be scenes of the tourist attractions they saw, the clubs they went to, and the dozens of beaches they spent their days at. Look up the Facebook pages of Semester at Sea students and you’ll find profile pictures of bikini clad girls tanning on deck nine of the MV World Odyssey and perfectly staged photos of students imitating the Christ the Redeemer statue in Brazil or riding a camel in the Sahara Desert.

Semester at Sea is so much more than this.

I chose to apply to Semester at Sea when my friend returned home from the Fall 2014 voyage and began posting his pictures to Facebook. I saw all the places he got to see and experience and I realized that I didn’t have to just choose one country to study abroad in.

It would be easy for me to put together a few pages describing how “cool” it has been to wake up in a new part of the world everyday, but that’s not what makes Semester at Sea special.

After receiving my acceptance letter to the program in January, it was a long nine months of waiting, preparing, and packing until I first stepped foot onto the MV World Odyssey in September. I joined a group of around 500 students who immediately had something in common; wanting to see the world. We became friends fast and soon there were no more unfamiliar faces on the ship.

The time spent on the ship quickly becomes just as important as the time we spend in each country. We eat lunch with our professors, we watch the sunset with our friends, and we look out the windows of our classrooms to see dolphins playing in the waters below.

Okay, I’ve never looked out of the window during class and was able to see any dolphins, but I did see them play in the waves of the ship during dinner one time.

Regardless, I knew Semester at Sea was special as soon as I felt at home returning to the ship after being in country for a week. But I think the biggest realization that I was a part of something so much bigger than any other study abroad program I could have done came during Neptune Day.

The traditional kissing of the fish during the Fall 2015 Voyage Neptune Day.
The traditional kissing of the fish during the Fall 2015 Voyage Neptune Day. Photo by Dylan Smith.

According to Wikipedia, one of the free websites we are allowed on during our time at sea, “The ceremony of Crossing the Line is an initiation rite in the British Merchant Navy, Dutch Merchant Navy, Royal Navy, U.S. Navy, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Marine Corps, Russian Navy, and other navies that commemorates a sailor’s first crossing of the equator.”

According to the same website, this tradition has been around since the early 1800s as a way to boost morale. Although spirits are generally high during Semester at Sea, it was a welcomed change of pace from our new routine of going to class and lying by the pool. Life is hard traveling the world.

On the morning of November 6, 2015, I was woken up by the sound of drums, whistles, and yelling. It sounded like a small marching band was parading the halls outside our cabin rooms. My roommate and I made our way to breakfast, making the long trek from deck 5 to deck 6, still in our pajamas and flip-flops. Cereal and orange juice was our breakfast of choice that day, switching it up from our usual egg sandwiches and yogurt. Again, the makeshift marching band made its way through the dining hall tables. This time, we were able to see its members were adorned in green wigs and blue face paint.

“The Voice,” as we’ve come to call the announcements that stream through speakers all over the ship, spoke loudly saying, “Pollywogs, it is your time to become Shellbacks. Be at the pool deck in ten minutes or face the wrath of King Neptune.”

Wikipedia has also informed me that the ceremony of “Crossing the Line,” also called Neptune Day here on Semester at Sea, initiates those who have not crossed the equator line yet, nicknamed “slimy” Pollywogs, to those who have crossed the equator, “trusty” Shellbacks, also “referred to as Sons of Neptune.”

We returned to our cabin to put on our swimsuits and grab our GoPro’s. We still have to make the notorious YouTube videos, after all.

A pollywog gets slimed during the Fall 2015 Voyage Neptune Day. Photo by Dylan Smith.
A pollywog gets slimed during the Fall 2015 Voyage Neptune Day. Photo by Dylan Smith.

Deck nine is already packed by the time we arrive. There are more people surrounding the miniature pool than I have seen the entire voyage. At the head of the pool is seated King Neptune, also our ship’s Captain, and his Queen, or our Executive Dean, Beth Hellwig. They are wearing wigs and have painted faces. We are ushered into a line at the other end of the pool.

By the time we make it to the front of the line we realize we will have green slime poured over our heads before jumping into the pool. After swimming across the pool, we will climb out, kiss a dead fish, and then kiss the rings of King Neptune and his Queen. And that is that. We are no longer “Pollywogs” and can officially call ourselves “Shellbacks.”

Our initiation passages may seem a little gross, but its not much compared to “being locked in stocks and pillories and pelted with mushy fruit” or “crawling through chutes or large tubs of rotting garbage” for the “entertainment of the Shellbacks,” like other Pollywogs have had to endure on other ships in the past, according to Wikipedia.

Some students also opted to shave their entire heads. I opted out of that Semester at Sea tradition.

It was in that morning that I finally understood what it meant to be a Semester at Sea student and what it meant to be a part of all the traditions and camaraderie that come along with it.

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