Women of Adventure
Susan R. Eaton
It's up to us
Canadian geoscientist, journalist and explorer Susan R. Eaton studies the interplay of plate tectonics, oceans, glaciers, climate and life in polar regions. Susan is the founder and leader of the all-female Sedna Epic Expedition, whose mandate is to scout, record and document disappearing sea ice in the Arctic.
By Susan R. Eaton
Thirteen years ago, I suffered a scuba diving trauma that landed me in a hyperbaric chamber. As I lay in that 10-foot long metal cylinder breathing pure oxygen, my first thought was, “So much for my travel story about diving with whale sharks.” Three days later, I emerged from the chamber as a non-diver, ending my 30-year diving career.
My up-close-and-personal relationship with the ocean didn’t end in that hyperbaric chamber. Going back to the basics, I donned a mask, fins and snorkel and fell in love, all over again, with this dynamic marine environment. I never did write the story about scuba diving with whale sharks! Rather, I wrote a more compelling story about my personal journey into the snorkel zone — the unique water-ice-air interface where ocean creatures surface to breathe air and, sometimes, to interact with humans.
I’ve been privileged to snorkel with thousands of chatty belugas in Hudson Bay, Manitoba. In the Galapagos Archipelago, I’ve snorkeled in a bait ball while seabirds dived from the sky, hitting the water at breakneck speeds in search of prey. In Haida Gwaii, an isolated archipelago off the northwest coast of British Columbia, I’ve snorkeled rivers, counting salmon migrating to their ancestral spawning grounds while dodging sleek black bears. And I’ve come face-to-mask with charging 1,400-pound leopard seals in the Southern Ocean — so close, in fact, that I could count the freckles on their upper palates and tongues while inspecting the tri-serrated teeth that can dispatch a 30-pound penguin in mere minutes.
My journey into the snorkel zone positioned me to tackle bigger issues affecting our planet and the oceans. I learned, firsthand, how climate change is happening at an accelerating and alarming pace in polar regions. In the Western Antarctic Peninsula, glaciers are receding and ice shelves are collapsing. The Southern Ocean is warming and acidifying, wreaking havoc with weather patterns and causing cascading effects on ocean ecosystems. In addition to ocean warming and acidification in the Canadian Arctic, the areal distribution and thickness of sea ice is rapidly diminishing.
As I explored the Arctic and visited remote Indigenous communities, I came to realize that climate change involved more than threats to polar bears, narwhals and belugas. I discovered that climate change had a human face in Canada’s Arctic. The Inuit, who rely on sea ice for transportation and hunting, are feeling the impacts of climate change in real time. Melting permafrost is causing buildings to collapse, winter storms are eroding coastlines, and fish stocks are moving northwards to find colder waters.
Given this rapid rate of climate change, I decided to focus my polar exploration efforts on the Arctic, developing grassroots collaborations with Inuit communities and leaders to investigate these issues. In 2014, I founded the multi-year Sedna Epic Expedition.
From Alaska to Greenland, according to Inuit legend, Sedna is the Inuit goddess of the ocean and the mother of all marine mammals. She’s the perfect namesake for our organization, which is comprised of women ocean explorers, scientists, artists, photographers, videographers, historians, lawyers, educators, and scuba diving and medical professionals from around the world. To date, more than 80 women, ranging in age from 16 to 78 years, have participated in Sedna Epic’s dive and snorkel expeditions to the Arctic.
But this volunteer-driven organization isn’t just about arctic expeditions and collecting scientific data. Sedna’s outreach programs bring the ocean to eye level for Inuit youth, using mobile aquariums that temporarily house sea critters and by running underwater-robot building workshops and snorkel safaris. Sedna’s sea women have also delivered an ocean mentorship program for Inuit and northern girls and young women, introducing them to potential careers in the ocean and assisting them in obtaining scuba diving certifications. Sedna’s sea women are intent on empowering these future northern leaders, equipping them with the tools to deal with climate change, ocean change and societal change.
I’m constantly inspired by Sedna’s like-minded women, who are curious and passionate about the world around us. And I’ve come to realize that women explore the planet differently, seeking to better understand a place — its history, geography, environment, and the culture and traditions of its Indigenous people — by making personal connections and establishing lasting friendships.
WOMEN WANTED: If you’d like to explore polar seas in the company of intrepid, out-of-the box thinkers, please visit the Sedna Epic Expedition to learn about our upcoming expeditions and/or to support our 2020 women’s leadership programs. It’s up to all of us to make a difference for the planet.