Women are still underrepresented in science and technology careers. To celebrate the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we want to highlight 5 extraordinary women who have been pioneers in marine sciences. Their inspiring stories, the challenges and achievements, serve as a reminder of how far we have come since the time when women were considered bad luck on ships. Nonetheless, gender equality remains an ongoing problem.
Personally, I have been fortunate to work in research groups that have been very inclusive. The only time I have experienced changes in attitudes towards women in science was during fieldwork. Our team at the station of the Mingan Island Cetacean Study consists mainly of women, who don’t bat an eyelash when they carry heavy fuel tanks, navigate the boats into the harbour, or collect biopsy samples from whales. Visitors to the station seem surprised to see women doing such “tough” jobs, commenting on how strong we are and how well we all work together as a team (implying “despite being women”). Once, a tourist nervously looked at my friend as she was about to reverse the pickup truck and trailer down a ramp and he offered her to do the reversing for her. She waved him off with one hand, telling him “I’ve got this”.
Jeanne Villepreux-Power (1794 –1871) – Mother of Aquariophily
In 1832, the pioneering marine biologist created the world’s first glass aquarium to help her study octopuses and argonauts, solving how argonauts make their distinctive egg cases, a mystery since Aristotle’s time. As a naturalist concerned with conservation, she is also credited with developing sustainable aquaculture principles in Sicily where she lived for more than 20 years. She was a self-taught naturalist who travelled around Sicily recording and describing its flora and fauna, with a particular fascination for shells. She published her work in a book entitled “Observations et expériences physiques sur plusieurs animaux marins et terrestres”. A shipwreck in 1843 carried most of Villepreux-Power’s books and collections to the bottom of the ocean and her work was largely forgotten for more than a century. In 1997, a major crater on Venus was named after Villepreux-Power as recognition for her achievements.
Rachel Carson (1907 – 1964)
Rachel Carson is best known for her book “Silent Spring”, which documented the adverse environmental effects caused by the indiscriminate use of pesticides. She has been credited with laying the foundation of the global environmental movement. Her work as a marine scientist, however, extends far beyond one impressive book. With her talent for both literature and biology, she became an excellent science communicator and advocate. Carson’s first book, Under the Sea-Wind, highlighted her unique ability to present deeply intricate scientific material in clear poetic language that could captivate her readers and pique their interest in the natural world. In 1951, her second book, The Sea Around Us, was published and eventually translated into 32 languages, remaining in the New York Times’ best-seller list for 81 weeks.
It is a curious situation that the sea, from which life first arose should now be threatened by the activities of one form of that life. But the sea, though changed in a sinister way, will continue to exist; the threat is rather to life itself. ― Rachel Carson, The Sea Around Us
Marie Tharp (1920 – 2006)
Marie Tharp is credited with producing one of the world’s first comprehensive maps of the ocean floor in the 1950s. As a woman, Tharp was not allowed onboard the research vessel (as it was considered to bring bad luck); instead, she used her analytical skills to crunch the numbers that were collected at sea and charted them out by hand. The picture that unfolded in front of her was astonishing: until then, the ocean floor was assumed to be flat and barren, but her work showed a dynamic three-dimensional space with mountains, valleys, and trenches. The continuous, deep trench splitting a mountain range along the entire Atlantic Ocean lead Tharp to propose to her supervisor Bruce Heezen that they were looking at a rift valley. But Heezen dismissed the hypothesis as “girl talk” because the concept of continental drift was still controversial within the scientific community. With Tharp’s ocean floor maps in hand, the Mid-Atlantic ridge was described and, in the 1960s, scientists formulated the theory of plate tectonics.
Sylvia Earle (1935 -) – Her Deepness
Sylvia Earle has been at the forefront of ocean exploration for more than four decades. Earle was a pioneer in the use of modern self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA) gear and the development of deep-sea submersibles. She has led over 100 expeditions worldwide, involving more than 7,000 hours of underwater research. In 1970, after being rejected from participating in Tektite I, an underwater research laboratory, because she was a woman, she led the first team of women aquanauts on a two-week underwater living experiment, called Tektite II. The project consisted of a submerged habitat capsule and aimed to explore the marine realm and test the health effects of prolonged living in underwater structures. During this time, she observed the effects of pollution on coral reefs first hand. Earle later became the first woman to serve as chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the first woman to serve as an explorer in residence for the National Geographic Society. Earle is dedicating much of her energy and time to promoting marine conservation and stewardship. She has authored more than 190 publications on marine science and technology. Her 1995 book, Sea Change: A Message of the Oceans, is an urgent plea for the preservation of the world’s fragile and rapidly deteriorating ocean ecosystems.
“Knowing is the key to caring, and with caring there is hope that people will be motivated to take positive actions. They might not care even if they know, but they can’t care if they are unaware.” – Sylvia Earle
“With every drop of water you drink, every breath you take, you’re connected to the sea. No matter where on Earth you live. Most of the oxygen in the atmosphere is generated by the sea.” – Sylvia Earle
Asha de Vos
Asha de Vos is a Sri Lankan marine biologist, ocean educator, and pioneer of blue whale research within the northern Indian Ocean. She is the founder of Oceanswell, Sri Lanka’s first marine conservation research and education organization. Her passion for marine biology led her to set up the first long-term study on blue whales in the region. When she started working on the project, few people in Sri Lanka even knew that they had whales in their waters. Asha’s work has not only shown that these blue whales do not display typical seasonal migrations as they do in other oceans, but she has also engaged local people and the government to promote the protection of these animals. She has since obtained her Ph.D. in marine mammal research, the first Sri Lankan to do so, inspiring more students than ever to become marine biologists. She is a TED Senior Fellow, Marine Conservation Action Fund Fellow, and World Economic Forum Young Global Leader.
I believe that if we want to save our oceans, every coastline needs a LOCAL hero – someone who speaks the language, can see the problems and can help to address the solutions – someone who is invested in the long-term. – Asha de Vos
Article written by Anna Schleimer.