As our bus bounced down the winding dirt road, through the Martian landscape of King George Island in the South Shetland Islands, a cargo container shelter appeared. Under the porch, a crowd gathered, waving impatiently. At first I thought they might be residents of the Chilean base at Frei, which maintains the rudimentary gravel runway we just landed on. Scientists, perhaps, or support staff who keep the base functional. But then I saw her – the venerable marine biologist, Dr Sylvia Earle, guiding the passengers of the Aurora Expedition Sylvia Earle, the new polar expedition ship which had just completed its first voyage. We were changing places: those of the bus who were about to board Antarctic adventure, and those on the porch going home after theirs. Earle was on board to christen his namesake ship.
Through Antarctica, you won’t run out of places, monuments and even animals named after women: Queen Elizabeth Land, Una’s Peaks and the Adélie penguin, among them. But this does not reflect the many scientific achievements of women in the region. That’s because the continent has long been dominated by men – men who named things after their lovers back home, women benefactors or, in the case of Una’s Peaks, after the body of ‘a secretary. (The informal name for the basalt towers at the entrance to the Lemaire Channel, a narrow passage between 3,000-foot mountains frequently traversed by cruises, is extremely crude.) Fortunately, times change and places and ships in Antarctica are now named to celebrate women for their accolades.
In the case of Earle, 87, that list of accolades is monumental. In 1970, she led a two-week stay in the underwater laboratory, part of the NASA co-sponsored Tektite II project, which studied the psychological effects of living in confined spaces – the space agency was interested long-term implications. space missions. Although Earle had applied for previous assignments under the Tektite program, women were excluded from participation; Earle’s mission, Mission 6, was an all-female team of aquanauts. In 1979, she set the record for deepest untethered sea walk by a woman: Wearing a specialized wetsuit, Earle scoured the ocean floor to a depth of 1,250 feet. And in 1990, Earle became the first female chief scientist of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). With his solid body of underwater work, it’s no surprise that Earle has earned the familiar title of “Her Deepness.”
But the ship Sylvia Earle is not solely dedicated to Earle. In fact, each of its bridges is named after a leading woman in ocean science: marine educator Sharon Kwok, plastic-free pioneer Joanna Ruxton, coral conservationist Dr Carden Wallace AM, arctic wildlife guardian Bernadette Demientieff , marine biologist Dr Asha de Vos , and ecologist Hanli Prinsloo. And then there are the women on board the ship itself. All expedition cruises are home to a staff of experts in a variety of areas related to the sailing route, from scientists to mountaineers to historians, and on our sailing the 23-person team includes seven women, most of whom were Antarctic veterans with specialties. ranging from scuba diving to marine zoology. As someone obsessed with ice, volcanoes, and outer space, I was particularly drawn to Dr. Ulyana Horodyskyj Peña, glaciologist, geologist, mountaineer, teacher, and astronomy enthusiast. (Enthusiastic might be an understatement; she was a semifinalist for NASA’s Astronaut Class of 2017.) Appropriately, I officially met her on top of a glacier.