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Women and the oceans

The ocean covers around 70% of our planet, and provides almost 50% of the oxygen available on the planet via photosynthesis by the plant organisms that inhabit it (notably phytoplankton). Thanks to them, the ocean is also capable of absorbing around 30% of the planet's CO2 [1]. A healthy ocean enables the planet to regulate itself; conversely, if the ocean deteriorates, the quantity of oxygen and carbon dioxide in our atmosphere suffers, leading to increased global warming. Human activities and our ever-increasing production of CO2 are the cause of ocean acidification, with direct consequences for the species that live there. Protecting the ocean and its living creatures is therefore a necessity to protect the planet. Knowing the ocean, its mechanisms, its flora and fauna, is essential. However, to date, we have only explored 20% of the ocean [2].

For many centuries, ocean exploration was a man's business. Indeed, many superstitions associated the presence of women on a boat with danger. There was even a law preventing women from boarding fishing, trading or war ships. [3] This law, known as the Colbert Law, was not repealed until 1963! However, women didn't wait until 1963 to display their maritime prowess. In this article, we tell you the amazing stories of some of the women who have dared, and continue to dare, to take on the challenges of the ocean.

In 2021, UNESCO is launching the United Nations Decade of Ocean Sciences for Sustainable Development [4], with the aim of mobilizing scientists, politicians and civilians to "conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development". In concrete terms, the aim is to acquire the missing knowledge about the ocean and how to manage its resources sustainably. To meet this challenge, we need to democratize and publicize ocean-related professions, and in particular open their doors to women! Although the Colbert Law was repealed 60 years ago, women are still under-represented in the maritime sector. According to WISTA France (a network of women holding positions of responsibility in the maritime sector), only 21% of positions in the maritime sector are held by women [5]. In research, the figure is 30%.

To make up for this lack of representation of women in the maritime professions, the Elles bougent association [6] and the French Maritime Cluster [7] launched the "Les Elles de l'océan" operation [8]. Under this initiative, middle and high school girls and students are invited to come and meet women engineers, technicians, oceanographers, etc., and discover all the scientific and technical professions in the maritime sector. More and more associations and events of this kind are being set up in France, like WISTA [9] or WomenForSea [10]. The former is an international association created to engage and support women in the maritime, trading and logistics sectors. The latter is an initiative created by Nathalie Ille, a woman with a passion for the sea and its biodiversity, who federates around her a whole community of women committed to protecting the sea and living things.

Celebrate, discover, inspire, engage. These are the watchwords for the development of knowledge about the ocean and its protection, and the increase in the number of women in this sector. Follow us as we discover some of the women who have acted in the past, or are currently acting, to protect, discover and learn more about the ocean.

Anita Conti (1899-1997)

"On waves immensely alike and endlessly dissimilar, toward horizons that recede, toward stars that will be born, toward the infinity of blue that will blacken, a ship carried to the edge of the sky, with its iron walls it tears through the waters and I, in it, a prisoner." Poem by Anita Conti.

Having grown up between Brittany and Paris, Anita Conti has always been close to the sea. During the 1st World War, her family moved to the island of Oléron, where she continued her ocean education: she learned to sail, became interested in marine species through the fishermen she met, and discovered photography. In the 1930s, she embarked on herring boats with her camera to observe, count, photograph and map marine resources. Her work was noticed by the Office Scientifique et Technique des Pêches Maritimes, the forerunner of Ifremer, which hired her. She then embarked on France's first oceanographic vessel to observe fishing techniques, draw up maps and study the seabed and water quality to optimize sea fishing activities. During the Second World War, she joined the French Navy to continue her mission, becoming the first woman in history to join the ranks.

Her years at sea, studying fishing and its impact, led her to question fishing practices and the problem of overfishing. She was one of the first to question the human impact on the marine environment and to advocate more rational exploitation. After the war, she resumed sailing on fishing boats, which took her to the coasts of Africa to develop sustainable fishing techniques. She thus became one of the pioneers of aquaculture, setting up farms in the North Sea and on the Adriatic coast.

Sylvia Earle (1935-

At the age of 12, she moved to the Gulf of Mexico, where she became fascinated by its flora and fauna. She even wrote a dissertation on local seaweed at the end of her studies. This marked the start of her career, which she would go on to earn a doctorate in botany and a research post at Harvard. In 1964, she embarked on a ship exploring the Indian Ocean, the only woman aboard a ship of 70 men. Then, a few years later, she tested the effects of prolonged immersion by staying two weeks with four other women in a cabin 15 meters below the surface. In all, she spent over 7,000 hours underwater, and even held the record for the deepest descent in a tank, having dived to 381 metres in the Pacific Ocean. These exploits earned her the nickname "Her Deepness".

It was during her dives that she observed the deterioration of the marine ecosystem. She then decided to found her association Mission Blue, which aims to protect areas recognized as essential to the ocean. Her commitment earned her a documentary, released in 2014 on Netflix and named after her association "Mission Blue". In this documentary, Sylvia Earle warns, "The ocean is our life, if we don't change our habits, we'll be in big trouble". Today, she continues her ocean exploration missions and, since 1998, has been a permanent explorer for National Geographic.

Maud Fontenoy (1977-

From an early age, Maud Fontenoy and the sea were one and the same: she embarked on her first boat, the family schooner, at the age of seven days, and learned all the rudiments of navigation, knowledge of the oceans and nature during her teenage years. This youth on the water led her, in 2003, to set off on a solo, unassisted crossing of the North Atlantic by rowing boat. Four months after setting off, she became the first woman to make the crossing, arriving safely in port. In 2005, she set off again, this time crossing the Pacific between Peru and the Marquesas Islands. This feat earned her Time Magazine's Personality of the Year award. She didn't stop there: in 2007, she sailed around the world against the current, unassisted, in 150 days. Having spent most of her life on the water, she is passionate about the oceans, and can't fail to witness the visible effects of pollution and global warming on these environments. In 2008, she created the Maud Fontenoy Foundation, which works in France and internationally to protect the oceans. Her foundation carries out environmental education and awareness-raising initiatives with the support of scientific partners and the French Ministry of Education.

Maud Fontenoy has published numerous works and released several documentaries, ranging from travelogues to environmental awareness and the promotion of women in the maritime sector. She recently published Femmes océanes (Cherche-Midi), a tribute to the under-represented women explorers, oceanographers, sailors, fishermen and adventurers who are her heroines. [14]

Written by Loane Danès and edited by Alizée Morat

















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