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Watch Out World – A Group of Women is Coming to Straighten You Out

Three hundred women. Three hundred women fighting to save our world, our health, and our future. Fighting and sailing.

I had the unbelievable luck to join the ranks of these 300 planet warriors on part of their epic global journey. I never considered myself a fighter, but if fighting means standing up to the industries pumping us full of toxic plastic chemicals, or protecting the health of our children and the lives of ocean animals, then bring it on.

Three hundred women are sailing around the world over the course of two years on a yacht named S.V. TravelEdge, 10 women at a time spread across 30 Legs. Their combined goal? To sample every region of the world’s ocean for plastic pollution so that we can better understand the global distribution of plastic trash – how it circulates through the ocean, how it breaks down, and where it ultimately ends up. All the plastic samples gathered over these two years will be sent to scientists who will analyze the data that could provide unprecedented clarity on the fate of plastics in the ocean, their impacts, and where we should target action.

Finding solutions to plastic pollution is a key aim of this voyage, but it’s about much more than collecting plastic samples. The entire trip is designed and managed by eXXpedition, an organization that is on a mission to help solve the plastic pollution crisis by empowering multidisciplinary all-female crews on sailing expeditions around the world. Participants conduct scientific research, explore solutions and learn how their unique skillsets can intersect the issue. Each leg of the journey is led by a Mission Leader who guides, supports, and motivates the team to realize their internal strengths and articulate what skills and passions they can bring to solving the plastic pollution problem.

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Exploring Antigua

I joined Leg 3, which sailed for 4 days around the waters of Antigua, in the eastern Caribbean. Spending several days in a beautiful tropical setting was certainly special, but the real magic was in the team our Mission Leader Sally pulled together: ten women from five different countries, each with a unique and inspiring story that led them to eXXpedition – and every single one of them a powerhouse in their own way (read more about all of these impressive women on our Leg 3 page).

Take Lara for example: an architect and professor who teaches sustainable design and encourages her students to push boundaries of self-expression – even if it means illegally hanging posters about plastic pollution along one of the busiest streets in Los Angeles. Or Kirsten, a psychotherapist who helps rehabilitate some of the most abused and traumatized people in the world, yet still manages to radiate the most dazzling kindness and joy you can imagine. Oh, and she rescues animals, builds boats, and advocates for mental health policy in her spare time.

Every woman onboard had a similarly remarkable story. Among us were artists, novelists, scientists, sailors, teachers, entrepreneurs, and innovators. Most of us work full-time in addition to volunteering with organizations (or starting our own) and tackling issues we care about. But we all have one critical thing in common – we love the ocean and want to figure out how we can help rid her of plastic.

I would have never imagined how close I would become to nine other women in so few days. We immediately bonded and acted as one unit, a sisterhood held together by respect, enthusiasm, and grit. This bond only grew over the course of our trip. Some of us had no sailing experience, others years’ worth. We all worked together, and our impressive all-female crew (Anna, our captain, Maggie the first mate, and Sophie the deckhand and professional photographer) led us with poise, confidence, and patience.

Those women who were used to sailing on boats with men noted the massive difference in the energy onboard our all-women yacht. In an all-female environment, each of us felt safe to ask questions, we took care of each other, we felt nurtured. And there was always chocolate. Lots and lots of chocolate. And laughs, and hugs. It was beautiful.

“Women learn and communicate differently than men; not better or worse, just different,” said Jeanne, who leads a women’s sailing team in Seattle. Her crew was the first all-female team to win the 750 mile Race to Alaska, with no motor, no showers, and no toilets – just a bucket. We all marveled at Jeanne’s harrowing stories of race mishaps and challenges. She was our ship ‘mom’ and sailing queen, teaching us sailing basics with strength and patience, her voice filled with encouragement. Fortunately, S.V. TravelEdge is equipped with two (mostly) functioning bathrooms, tiny but sufficient beds for each of us, and power to run an engine as well as charge all of our devices. But we still felt some of the thrill of being at sea for several days.

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Each evening we were assigned an hour of ‘anchor watch’ for one hour during the night, where we sat on deck with a partner and made sure everything was fine with the boat and that we weren’t drifting off into the open ocean. The night watch pair from the previous hour would wake the next pair up at the end of their shift. I’ll never forget the soft brush on my arm and Jeanne’s sweet, gentle voice whispering, “It’s time to wake up Kristen, the stars are beautiful!” Each of the three nights we were paired with a different team member, three peaceful hours under a tapestry of constellations, the time spent in soft conversation with another kindred spirit.

On our first watch, Leah and I learned of our mutual background in coral reef science and conservation as well as environmental outreach. But I can only hope to achieve as much as Leah has in her life already. She has a master in coral reef ecology, and now teaches high school geography in her home country of Trinidad as well as running both her own ecotourism business and an environmental nonprofit organization. Oh, and she writes a Caribbean travel blog just for fun. Leah’s soft voice and poised demeaner belie the contagious joy and confidence she exudes. I loved spying her make little narrated videos of her experience throughout the voyage that she will no doubt share with her students as inspiration.

Chantal was another magical member of our team. She bounced around the boat like a sprite, every word rolling from her tongue a little gem of poetic truth. During our anchor watch together, I was drawn into her stories of spiritual, intellectual, and creative exploration. As an actor, director, writer, and all-around artist, Chantal’s lens of the world is always tinged with metaphor and symbol. Her ability to communicate these layered meanings to others is an unparalleled gift, one that allows people to connect more deeply with the world around them.

I shared by last anchor watch with Steph at the dark, still hour of 3am. Spending time with Steph is like sitting beside a gently flowing forest stream – she embodies a calming, quiet, yet welcoming nature that make everyone feel at ease. Originally from the Netherlands and now living in the south of France, Steph works in the yachting industry and leads sustainability campaigns in her company. Talking under the stars about our similar histories of pain, anxiety, and healing felt like dipping my feet in cool, rejuvenating water. Our conversation easily flowed from careers, to health, to spirituality. But Steph isn’t all demure; she’s a fiend on the dance floor and loves music! We had one gleeful giggly night of re-working lyrics to Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now” into a song about ridding the oceans of plastic pollution. Our entire team ended up learning the song so we could sing it with the elementary school kids we visited at the end of the trip.

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Sailboat

There are so few opportunities these days to spend concentrated time with a group of people, talking face to face without cell phones or emails or calls to distract us. Each day of our sailing journey we took time to sit in a circle around the galley table or up on deck, the sparkling turquoise Caribbean waters our backdrop as we learned about each other and from each other, and conspired together on ideas for reducing plastic pollution at several scales. I’ll cherish our shared laughs over Bobby the weird plastic toy we found on our beach cleanup, turning dish-washing into a 90s music dance marathon (pump up that jam!), and fanning each other in a conga line as we prepped meals over a stove in sweltering heat. Our Leg 3 mantra (and perhaps the mantra for the entire eXXpedition) became ‘sailing, science, and sisterhood.’

I didn’t step onboard S.V. TravelEdge expecting to gain 10 new soul sisters, but I left feeling I had. I grew up an only child, so the bond that so quickly grew between our team is all the more special to me, as it’s not something I easily find. Not only did each of the women on Leg 3 bring with them a valuable story and perspective, but we each contributed complementary traits that synergized our individual abilities, like a team of super heroes that combine into one giant, undefeatable foe. And that’s how we felt as we grew to know each other over the course of several days – like individual pieces of a greater whole that only combined could realize our full strength.

On day three we spent an hour sitting in a circle sharing the qualities we most appreciated about each of the others. I found myself sketching a diagram with four corners – air, earth, water, and fire. Within these four extremes I placed each of our team members, based on their dominant qualities.

Air is lightness, an innate joy that uplifts others. I put Kirsten and Leah in this category, along with Lisa, a luxury travel advisor from San Diego who’s enthusiasm is palpable. Any time the crew asked for volunteers to winch a sail, pull a line, or lower a manta trawl, Lisa was the first to jump in – always with a determined smile. She is gung-ho about everything and has a contagious delight for life and adventure.

Earth is grounded, solid, and supportive. I grouped Steph and Jeanne in this corner, as women who act as graceful, nurturing leaders to their peers.

Water is flexible, a far-reaching entity that connects disparate people. Here I placed the ever- flowing Chantal, as well as Jeanine, a multi-talented author, environmental consultant, and outdoor enthusiast. Jeanine is one of those amazing people that can fit in anywhere – she could just as easily hob-nob with top corporate CEOs as she could march on the frontlines with a group of environmental activists or captivate a group of elementary school children with her oratory skills. And she’s done all three!

Fire is strength, boldness, and leadership. There was no question that Lara fit in this category, as did Lindsey, a woman from D.C. who runs her own company that empowers young women and teaches them life skills. She also volunteers with animal rescues and works for a heavy metal festival every year. Lindsey is not afraid to flex her power to achieve her goals – but she does so with empathy and a deep concern for protecting the vulnerable.

Each of us contains some level of each of these qualities, of course, but I found it remarkable that the variety of personalities in our team covered the spectrum and complemented each other so harmoniously. It was nothing less than magic. By the end of our journey, we all felt stronger, more connected, more powerful, and more inspired to go out and take on the world’s problems. I can’t imagine how much more powerful we will feel after all 300 women have sailed. What an incredible network to span the globe.

It’s not ‘party done’ ladies, it’s party just beginning!

Stay tuned for more stories of science and sailing with eXXpedition in the days and weeks to come.

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Five Reasons I love Marine Biology

Its time for another listicle! This one is devoted to my love for the field of marine biology and the scientists who study ocean ecosystems. Here are five reasons why I think marine biology is awesome:

  1. It’s like MacGyver meets James Bond.

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Pretty much any marine biology field or lab experiment involves the combination of some very complicated and expensive equipment and software (NanoDrop ND‐1000 spectrometer and Illumina GAIIx platform, anyone?) plus a black trash bag, bungee chords, and lots of masking tape. Field biologists are some of the most resourceful individuals I know, combining the skills of an engineer, a magician, and a secret agent to solve problems with minimal resources and time.

  1. Poop matters.

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I literally heard a scientist say the phrase, “it’s poop that matters” in a recent presentation. Marine biologists get to study some pretty fascinating things, and it turns out that one of those things is poop. In fact, excrement from organisms such as reef fish or whales is a huge and extremely important component of marine food webs and flows of nutrients through ocean ecosystems. Whether its parrot fish poop helping create tropical beaches, or blue whale feces fertilizing entire ocean basins, poop matters, and marine biologists are there to study it.

  1. Oh the places you’ll go.

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They say that life is about the journey, not the destination. But if you’re a marine biologist, the destination is usually a pretty big perk. Most people save up precious dollars to honeymoon in Bora Bora or the Caribbean, but marine biologists get to go to these places year after year, snorkeling, diving, exploring beautiful and exotic places that most people only see in glossy magazines. Sure, they’re probably staying in an un-air conditioned mosquito-ridden shack rather than a swank bungalow with a jacuzzi tub—but that just adds to the charm. Let’s not forget those intrepid biologists that explore the sea beneath Antarctic ice or deep in the Mariana trench. Unless your James Cameron, being a marine biologist is one of the surest ways to experience these far-flung regions.

  1. For the love of nudes.

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Nudibranchs that is. I love that marine biologists get super excited about the tiniest most obscure organisms—including the colorful little sea slugs knows as nudibranchs. The childish sense of wonder and glee that marine biologists display for their study species, whether it’s sea otters or sea lice, gives me the warm and fuzzies. Of course this tendency isn’t unique to marine biologists, but it seems that studying ocean organisms predisposes you to adorably obsessing over said organism and having it displayed on everything you own, from clothing and jewelry to wall art, kitchen gadgets, and phone cases).

  1. It comes down to one word.

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Probably my favorite thing about marine biology is the official word scientists use to describe a tiny chunk of coral: nubbin. It brings me great pleasure to listen to a scientific talk about the genetic sequencing of coral species and listen to the presenter describe how they collected and sampled coral nubbins. There is even a scientific paper titled “Coral nubbins as source material for coral biological research: A prospectus.” I will never not smile when I hear the word nubbin and it warms my heart that there are scientists out there whose research depends on procuring nubbins.


In all seriousness, one of the things I love most about marine biology is that it’s a field of study composed of countless passionate individuals who care deeply about the ocean, the planet, and biodiversity. I’ve met many uber-intelligent marine biologists using innovative approaches to learn more about how our planet works and how we can protect it into the future. These folks are doing what they love, working very long hours (often for not very high pay), and pushing the boundaries of our understanding of life on earth.

A big thanks to all the biologists, all the scientists, all the passionate and curious thinkers and doers out there making a difference!

In a world of disasters, how do we cultivate hope?

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An oil-filled wave off the coast of Santa Barbara in the wake of this week’s crude oil pipeline burst. (Photo by: Spiritnthesky. Sourced from CrowdAlbum)

My home state of California has been hit with two disasters in one week–a raw sewage spill in Monterey Bay, and the more devastating crude oil spill off the Santa Barbara coastline. These two spills are only the latest examples of the thousands of human-caused disasters that plague our shorelines every year (not counting all of the natural disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes that add to these impacts).

The combined impact of these acts of negligence to our own health and the health of coastal ecosystems, while only partially known at present, are unquestionably negative and potentially long-lasting as has been shown for the Deep Water Horizon spill in the Gulf.

Dead fish, kelp and other sea life start to wash ashore in the aftermath of the Santa Barbara oil spill. (Photo: RaeAnn Christiansen. Sourced from CrowdAlbum)
Dead fish, kelp and other sea life start to wash ashore in the aftermath of the Santa Barbara oil spill. (Photo: RaeAnn Christiansen. Sourced from CrowdAlbum)

I work in a field where these types of environmental disasters are at the forefront of everyone’s mind, and in which people are constantly trying to develop strategies to prepare for, respond to, and reduce the impact of such disasters to protect ecosystems and human well-being to the greatest extent possible. When we as environmental scientists, science communicators, and science educators are confronted with almost daily stories of disaster and destruction, how can we cope? How can we support each other and cultivate optimism and positive action in the face of such constant devastation?

A support group might be nice. But in reality, it comes down to each of our own individual mental frameworks–i.e., how we construct our view of the world. In a world filled with natural and human-caused disasters and environmental destruction, we must consciously sow seeds of hope and optimism through individual action (grass-roots, if you will) and awareness, building a strong, bottom-up platform of change in the same way that most social movements have done historically.

I struggle daily with balancing a) my internal rage and feelings of hopelessness as I am barraged with stories of overfishing, deforestation, sea level rise, and a million other dangers and b) my feelings of hope and excitement at the many inspiring stories of species or habitats saved from extinction, or communities banding together to protect their livelihoods and their environment.

This is the reality of a world now dominated by social media. As I scroll through the Twitter feed of the organization I work for, my brain attempts to sift through hundreds of story lines and commentaries within minutes, representing a schizophrenic range of topics from the devastating global consequences of climate change to the adorableness of baby sea otter pups (which typically get exponentially more shares and likes than the ‘serious’ links). Sifting through one’s social media feed is enough to make anyone want to throw their hands up in exhaustion and just accept that ours is a world where cute animal videos reign supreme over issues of dire consequence to our future existence.

But it’s not that simple. Our minds are a microcosm of our external environments. Just as the external world is a balance of life and death, periods of drastic change and destruction interspersed with periods of stability and renewal, our minds can only handle so much bombardment with stories of death and destruction. We need mental ‘breaks’ in which we can enjoy the simple pleasures provided by positive, even humorous anecdotes from family and friends–in fact these breaks may be essential in helping us cope with the more serious issues we are so often confronted with.

Perhaps we need a certain does of silly animal videos to avoid empathy fatigue when we are asked to put mental energy towards serious, potentially overwhelming challenges. Or maybe I’m just creating an excuse for frivolous use of social media to assuage my own guilt at the joy I get out of watching the latest ‘animal odd-couple’ video clip.

Still, I’d like to think that the patterns of positive and negative stories we see in our Twitter and Facebook feeds represent the potential resilience of a global community of humans, as opposed to a self-imposed duality in which we can indulge in light stories at the expense of solving some of the greatest challenges of our time. And there IS evidence that social media campaigns can lead to real-life positive actions by citizens. (Note: I’m not here today to argue whether our growing reliance on social media is overall a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ thing for social resilience–that’s a whole different topic worthy of reflection).

I guess its all about how we want to construct our realities–its up to each of us to take advantage of our social networks, both in the ‘real’ world as well as the virtual, to make the most of our positions as communicators, or activists, or educators, etc, as the case may be. And if you post a video of a cat playing a keyboard right after you post a story about the melting of the Greenland ice sheet–well, you are human, and its just your mind trying to keep the balance of light and heavy out there in internet land. I forgive you (and by that, I mean I forgive myself).

More importantly, I’ve found through my experiences as a science communicator that positive stories resonate much more strongly with people than negative ones. As a result, I make an effort to highlight as many good news stories (e.g. about new scientific discoveries, or newly designated protected areas/species) as I do stories warning of impending harm or threat. While its important to be aware of the environmental challenges we face, we also need to know that there are solutions, and that each of us can contribute to those solutions in myriad ways.

Do you have thoughts/reactions to the rise of disasters around the world, and how you feel about our responsibilities as individuals or as society to confront and address them? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. Here’s hoping for a world that evolves towards greater and greater consciousness, sustainability, and compassion.

-Dr. K