What better way to celebrate International Women’s Day than by honouring amazing women who have been trailblazers both on the water and below its depths.
We’re putting a spotlight on Australian sailors, ocean adventurers, marine scientists and oceanographers – both past and present – to showcase just how talented they are.

Dr Isobel Bennett (1909–2008)

One of Australia’s most distinguished marine biologists, Isobel Bennett is unique in that she reached her eminence without the benefit of a university degree, and began her career through a chance meeting on a P&O cruise with William John Dakin, Professor of Zoology at the University of Sydney. Bennett was offered a temporary position with the university, a position that lasted for 39 years! Isobel assisted Dakin with collecting and identifying plankton, leading to the first ever publication on Australian plankton. Working on the Great Barrier Reef between 1948 and 1970, Isobel published The Great Barrier Reef in 1971 – a go-to text for many reef researchers. Her work was instrumental in the Great Barrier Reef being recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Isobel Bennett was the first person to receive an Honorary Master of Science by the University of Sydney, and later awarded an Honorary Doctor of Science in 1995 from the University of New South Wales. She was also one of the first four women scientists permitted to visit Macquarie Island in 1959, resulting in the publication Shores of Macquarie Island after subsequent visits. This was an important step, as it paved the way for more women to be accepted on different scientific expeditions.

 Isobel Bennett, Susan Ingham, Mary Gillham and Hope Macpherson before boarding Thala Dan, Dec 1959 Source: Museums Victoria
Isobel Bennett, Susan Ingham, Mary Gillham and Hope Black (née Macpherson) before boarding Thala Dan, December 1959 for their expedition to Macquarie Island. Image courtesy of Museums Victoria

Hope Black (1919–2018)

Achieving many ‘firsts’ during her established career, Hope Black was appointed Curator of Molluscs at the National Museum of Victoria in 1946, the museum’s first female curator. Black’s research in malacology and marine biology has had a lasting impact in the field, leading a museum team to conduct ground-breaking marine biological surveys of Port Phillip Bay in 1957–63. The baseline data from this survey is still used today, providing a benchmark for monitoring environmental changes. She also co-authored the book Marine Molluscs of Victoria in 1962 which is still used as a reference now. 

Hope also joined Isobel Bennett in travelling to Macquarie Island to conduct research for the Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition. Upon marrying in 1965, she was forced to resign from the National Museum of Victoria due to a law that restricted a woman’s right to work if she married. Hope went on to become a science teacher, spending 13 years inspiring young women and their passion for science. 

Kay Cottee AO

Kay Cottee has inspired generations of female sailors as she became the first woman to sail unassisted and non-stop around the globe via both hemispheres. Departing Sydney Harbour in her yacht Blackmores First Lady on 29 November 1987, Cottee returned triumphant on 5 June 1988, greeted by more than 100,000 people. Cottee sailed 22,100 nautical miles at an average speed of 117 nautical miles per day, setting the fastest speed for a solo circumnavigation by a woman as well as several other records.
Kay Cottee steering Blackmores First Lady across the Pacific Ocean. Reproduced courtesy Kay Cottee.
Kay Cottee steering Blackmores First Lady across the Pacific Ocean. Reproduced courtesy Kay Cottee.

Professor Emma Johnston

As the Dean of Science at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), Professor Emma Johnston is a leading authority in marine ecology. Describing Sydney Harbour as her labraotory, Professor Johnston investigates the ways in which human activities impact coastal ecosystems, focusing especially on the role of pollutants we dump into the sea. As President of Science and Technology Australia, as well as the head of the Applied Marine and Estuarine Ecology Lab at UNSW, it’s clear that Emma is a huge advocate for science. 

In 2014, Professor Johnston’s research was recognised, as she was awarded the Australian Academy of Science Nancy Mills Medal for Women in Science, and in 2015 won the Eureka Prize for Promoting Understanding of Australian Science Research.

Michelle Lee

Describing herself as an ‘average Joe Blow girl that doesn’t do anything special’, Michelle Lee’s impressive athletic feats say otherwise. Lee is the current world record holder for the one million metre row (five days, 21 hours and 34 minutes) and was the first Australian woman to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge in 2018. One of the world’s toughest nautical challenges, Michelle conquered the 4,700 kilometres in under 70 days – rowing for a minimum of 10 hours each day. Lee is definitely not finished conquering the ocean, with her eyes (potentially) set on rowing the Pacific in June 2021. 

Michelle Lee in action during the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge. Image courtesy of Michelle Lee
Michelle Lee in action during the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge. Image courtesy of Michelle Lee

Valerie Taylor OAM

A fearless innovator, Valerie Taylor is recognised around the world as an ocean explorer, marine conservationist, cinematographer, photographer and author (just to name a few!) Originally a competitive spearfisher with her husband Ron, the couple turned their attention towards marine research and filmmaking – especially sharks. The Taylors were the first divers to film great white sharks underwater without the protection of a cage, producing films and television series that saw them gain international fame and awards. 

Over the course of her career, Valerie Taylor has succeeded in protecting marine life and underwater environments. This includes campaigning to prevent oil exploration in Ningaloo Marine Park, overturning mining rights on Coral Sea Islands, and securing protection for different areas on the Great Barrier Reef before it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 1986 Valerie was appointed Rider of the Order of the Golden Ark for marine conservation by his Royal Highness Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands. In 2008, Valerie received the Australian Geographic Lifetime of Conservation award, and later in 2010 was made a Member of the Order of Australia for her conservation efforts.

Valerie Taylor wearing chainmail swims with sharks
Valerie Taylor wears a chainmail suit to prevent being bitten by sharks. Image courtesy of Valerie Taylor

Jessica Watson OAM

Jessica Watson became the youngest person to sail solo, non-stop and unassisted around the world when she was just 16-years-old. After 210 days, battling rocky seas, feelings of loneliness and critics who said she would never make it, Watson sailed into Sydney Harbour on 15 May 2010, with then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd declaring her an Australian hero. Famously, Jessica responded with ‘I don’t consider myself a hero, I’m an ordinary girl’, proving that ‘anything really is possible if you set your mind to it.’ 

Jessica was named Young Australian of the Year in 2011, and later that year skippered the youngest crew ever to compete in the iconic Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race. In 2012, Jessica was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for her service to sailing and as a role model for young Australians. 

 

Laura Signorelli

Laura Signorelli is the Digital Publications Producer at the Australian National Maritime Museum.

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