On first sight, the theme ‘Gender and Ocean' seemed rather puzzling to me. It was upon research that I found myself fascinated by all the cases where women knocked down closed doors of opportunities to make their name in marine-related fields. The contribution of these women and their love for the ocean has beat down societal pressure and gender inequality to pave the way for a new, more inclusive industry. This Oceans Day, we celebrate some of the many women who have achieved groundbreaking accomplishments in ocean-related activities and beat the alarming odds against them.
Those who associate older years with a lazy lifestyle could take a tip or two from American swimmer Diana Nyad. In 2013, she became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without aid of a shark age (Between Havana and Key West) at the age of 64! While she had attempted to do so on many different occasions, the fifth time seemed to be the charm.
Nyad first gained attention in 1975 for her swim around Manhattan. She then stunned the nation again in 1979, as she swam from the Bahamas to Juno Beach in Florida, setting a world record (for women and men) for distance swimming.
Apart from her fame as a swimmer, Nyad has also dedicated her time to being a journalist, motivational speaker and an author. To add to this seemingly never-ending list of accomplishments, she was once ranked at the 2nd position for women squash players in the New York area and soon flew to number 12 on the national ranking . She was even a celebrity contestant on Season 18 of Dancing with the Stars, paired with professional dancer Henry Byalikov.
Failure is hard to let go. But when failure means leads to deathly consequences, it takes incredible strength to move on and up from there. In 2013, a gruesome accident at Nazare, Portugal, nearly cost 26 year old Brazilian surfer Maya Gabeira her life as she battled an 80 feet tall (approximately) beast of a wave . The wave swallowed her, breaking her ankle and leaving her unconscious in the vast ocean. Fortunately, she was rescued and recovered soon after.
The incident seemed to have no effect on Gabeira’s determination. Throwing herself into training soon after recovery, she attempted the waves again in 2018. This attempt was not just successful but also fruitful as she set a new world record for the highest wave (68 feet) ever surfed by a woman. She received a Guinness world record for it after much persistence and struggle to get a women’s category added to the list.
It’s safe to say that the 1920’s were not a peak time for women. Expected to be married, bear children and “stay in their lane”, women barely had any opportunities to explore their own ambitions. Gertrude Ederle emerged as a beaming light of hope when she became the first woman ever to swim across the English Channel in 1926. She achieved this feat at the young age of 19. The path was tested by only five men before her.
She first attempted to swim the course in 1925 unsuccessfully. However, she came back strong the next year and finished her swim in 14 and a half hours, beating the previous record set by the men by approximately 2 hours! At the time, wireless messages would keep the newspapers updated of her progress throughout the day.
During the latter year, she also discarded the traditional women’s bathing suit (essentially a wool dress) for a more practical option she had designed for herself.
To use one’s power is not unheard of, but to use one’s power and popularity for good is what has brought Diver Cristi Quill to international fame. In 2015, Quill attempted to break the record for longest open saltwater SCUBA dive (female) to raise awareness and money for the American Cancer Society. She dove 15 feet under the surface of La Jolla Shores in San Diego and stayed put for an impressive record of 51 hours and 25 minutes. Her team was commendable, supplying her with food, water and extra tanks to avoid any need for her to come to surface.
Quill had lost her mother to cancer and thus used her love for the ocean to honor her memory by raising money to fight cancer. Quill and her team eventually raised $4500 towards research of cancer.
Talent knows no age. The world recognised Indian swimmer Bhakti Sharma’s talent in 2015, when she became the youngest swimmer in the world and the first Asian to swim 2.28 km in the Antarctic ocean. Not only did she chart her way through near-freezing 1 degree celsius water, but also completed it in record-time of 41.14 minutes. Once she accomplished this goal, she had swum all five oceans in the world.
Sharma began swimming when she was as little as two years old. She was trained by her mother, who also became her team member in a relay across the English Channel, along with her friend Priyanka Gehlot. She conquered her first ocean swim at the age of 14, when she swam from Uran Port in Navi Mumbai to Gateway of India.
She also received the prestigious Tenzing Norgay National Adventure Award in 2012, from then-president Pranab Mukherjee.
Oceans are the largest occupants of our planet and ironically, the most unexplored. For years, science and exploration has been a man’s game. In this male dominated industry, oceanographer Slyvia Earle broke stigma and dropped jaws with her vital and persistent contribution to the marine industry. Lauded “Hero of the planet” by Time magazine, Earle led the first-ever all women team in an underwater expedition in 1970. Upon arrival to surface, they were received and acknowledged by even the White House.
Throughout her career, Earle has led more than 50 expeditions and spent over 7,000 hours underwater. In 1979, she walked on the floor of the ocean, untethered, at the lowest depth any woman had ever charted. Her record is still unbroken.
In 1980s, with engineer Graham Hawkes, she started her companies Deep Ocean Engineering and Deep Ocean Technology that design underwater vehicles equipped to allow scientists and researchers to work within the wraps of the ocean, in depth unknown to mankind previously.
In addition to these accomplishments, she has also won the 2009 Ted Prize and is an explorer, author and a lecturer.