By Kathryn Gibb, volunteer writer for the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network. 

On June 23rd, 2018, the female-led research group eXXpedition begins their 3,000 nautical mile voyage from Hawaii to the Pacific Coast. Their 72 foot sailboat, Sea Dragon, will be home to the 24 female crew members for just over a month. The journey will take them right through the heart of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where they will conduct surveys and research the devastating impacts of single use plastics and toxins in the Pacific Ocean. During their voyage, the eXXpedition crew will also be logging their cetacean and sea turtle sightings for B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network.

I had the opportunity to ask Soraya Abdel-Hadi, sustainability professional and Office Manager at eXXpedition, a few questions before she sets sail with the team. She will be joining the crew for the latter part of the journey from Vancouver to Seattle. With a background in equestrian journalism, marketing and sustainable business management, she is just one shining example of the diversity onboard the eXXpedition mission.

Soraya Abdel-Hadi, eXXpedition Office Manager, will be sailing on leg 2 of the North Pacific journey this summer.

You have a varied professional background (law, equestrian journalist, etc.) and have now been with eXXpedition since last year. How did you first get involved with the organization?

When I was working in my dream job in equestrian journalism, I suddenly realized that it wasn’t enough. It was a great job, but I still had this itch. I wanted to make a difference, so I went back to university to study an MBA with a focus on sustainability for business. Then I celebrated handing in my Masters’ dissertation by going canoeing on the Mississippi River with adventurer Dave Cornthwaite, and ocean advocate and eXXpedition co-founder Emily Penn. Emily told me more about eXXpedition and I volunteered right then and there.

What attracted you to eXXpedition?

It combines a lot of my interest areas in one organization! I am passionate about sustainability, and eXXpedition’s plastics and toxics focus obviously ticks that box. I focused on authentic leadership for women for my dissertation and have a strong interest in women’s rights and the impact of society’s expectations on our lives and careers, so an organization that focuses on raising up a diverse range of women and creating strong role models appealed to me. Lastly, I believe we are all stronger when we work together, collaborate, and engage communities and organizations, which is at the centre of eXXpedition’s mission.

You worked as a land-based crew member for the journey around Britain last year. I imagine the public response to the team’s work has been all positive. Were there any meaningful interactions with the public that stood out most for you?

I remember that in London there was an elderly man waiting for the water ferry near where Sea Dragon was moored. One of our crew members was chatting to him about the voyage, our mission and Sea Dragon, and even though he wasn’t very stable on his feet he wanted to come on board for a tour and a chat. At the time of the voyage, the awareness of plastic pollution in UK waters was quite low, so the individuals like this lovely man who took an active interest in something they had no knowledge of, made the most impact on me. People can’t care about something they don’t know anything about – we need to reach more people!

What has been the most rewarding aspect of working with such an empowering, diverse group of women?

It’s a motivating environment. I get to meet wonderful women all the time who are passionate about saving the world and are taking action towards it. You can’t help but have your mood lifted by that!

Why do you think diversity and inclusion of women in sustainability research is important?

Diversity and inclusion of women in all careers is important. Actually, statistically, women are more engaged with sustainability issues than men, but they are underrepresented in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) roles. This is for a whole range of reasons, but one of the biggest factors is the lack of role models working in science and research – young girls don’t even consider it as a career path. If we want to change the way society presents women’s roles, then we need more women out there doing science and tackling our big sustainability challenges.

Do you have any advice or words of wisdom for young women looking to enter into the world of sustainability research?

If you want to do it, you absolutely can. Work out what you are good at and find a way of applying it to the area of sustainability you are most interested in. Go to relevant events and talk to people, join local community groups and, if you have no relevant experience, volunteer in your spare time. The hardest step is the first one – just start!

Do you have any sailing experience or will the upcoming journey from Vancouver to Seattle be a first for you? What are you most excited and/or nervous for on the trip?

Last year, I did a short microplastic research sail in Cornwall in the UK, which was my first proper sailing trip. I’ve spent a lot of time on motorboats, as I love being near water, but ‘real’ sailing is a fairly new experience for me. I’m excited to get on Sea Dragon, meet all of the rest of the crew properly and get some hands-on work done.

What’s been your most treasured marine travel adventure you’ve been on to date?

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to go snorkeling in Oman. We landed on a beach that couldn’t be reached by land and spent hours in the water watching the fish in the clearest water I had ever seen in my life. The ocean is such an amazingly diverse environment – I learn something new every time I go near it!

Here at the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network, we try to teach people about the importance of sharing our seas with the creatures within it. In addition to analyzing toxins and plastics along the way, will there be any focus on biodiversity and the immediate role plastics play in marine life?

As well as a variety of plastics and toxics sampling, we will be logging sightings for [the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network] on both legs of our voyage. We are also collecting plastics and toxics samples for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in sea turtle hatchling habitats, so they can better understand the impact of ocean plastic on turtles in this influential stage of their development.

Are there any other projects that you’re involved with or that you think are doing amazing work we should all be aware of?

We have recently been working on a project called Ocean Changemakers, which is designed to help aspiring ocean ambassadors become more effective. It includes a free online resource at www.oceanchangemakers.com, which is constantly evolving, and a collaboration map, which is growing all the time. Our aim is to encourage more collaboration between individuals and groups working on plastic pollution all around the world.

What has been the best lesson you’ve learned from your work with eXXpedition?

That there are a lot of people in this world that want to make a difference, and care deeply about other people and the environment. They just don’t know how to start and that’s what we need to work on.

What is the most important take away people can gain from following along with eXXpedition’s sailing journeys?

That the environmental challenges our world faces are big, but if we can continue to find ways to learn and collaborate then we can change the world for the better.

You can follow along their journey by tracking the Sea Dragon. For more information on the amazing work conducted by eXXpedition please visit exxpedition.com.