Meet the team of women explorers tackling climate change in the waters of the Arctic: An interview with Kelly Bushnell

Meet the team of women explorers tackling climate change in the waters of the Arctic: An interview with Kelly Bushnell

In August 2018, an all-woman team of explorers will travel from the Royal Canadian Geographical Society in Ottawa to Qausuittuq (Resolute), Nunavut. The Sedna Epic Expedition, named after the Inuit Goddess of the Sea, will then work its way southeast across Devon Island and Pond Inlet then across Baffin Bay to Greenland. Along the way, the group, made up of women from different professional and academic fields who all specialize in the ocean — archaeology, geophysics, oceanography and marine biology, photography and videography, technical diving, underwater robotics, and the humanities  — will document the rapidly changing arctic environment from below the surface via snorkeling and diving. They will also work with native communities to build ocean outreach programs to educate and empower young women to become environmental ambassadors.

Kelly Bushnell, an assistant professor in Literature at the University of West Florida, will represent the humanities on this expedition. Dr. Bushnell’s academic work examines the way that Victorians constructed ideas of the marine world. Her writings focus on how we can use historical understandings of marine culture to ask questions about current issues. For instance, she uses the history of early Victorian whale captivity in public aquariums to examine the way humans have learned to value (or devalue) marine mammals today. She brings her academic disciplinary knowledge of the history of marine culture and a personal knowledge of diving to the expedition this summer.

I interviewed Dr. Bushnell to discuss the Sedna expedition and her role in it. The interview appears below and has been edited for length and clarity.

Arctic exploration is generally depicted as a male endeavor- shows like The Terror highlight the masculine nature of historical arctic exploration. Why is it important that this team is made up of all women? What does an all-woman team bring to an arctic expedition that a mixed-gender or all-male team couldn’t?

Practically, Team Sedna being all women facilitates the community outreach aspect of the expedition. We will be working with — and in — Inuit communities which are matriarchal in nature, so an all-women team is important in building culturally-sensitive community relationships. This would simply not be the same with even a mixed-gender crew.

And to your point about Arctic exploration as male endeavor, this is actually something the narrative histories of exploration and of science often have in common. So often those narratives vest their hypermasculinity in the physical penetrability of “virgin land” trope, equating exploration and ultimately colonization with a grotesque sense of sexual conquest. This is similar to narratives of scientific invention. The classic 19th century example of course is Frankenstein. When you think about the environmental ethics of a character like Victor Frankenstein — and, of course, Frankenstein begins and ends with an Arctic framing narrative — the type of scientist/explorer he and Waldman and Walton admire can “penetrate into the recesses of nature, and show how she works in her hiding places.”  

Often these narratives also get very Promethean in that to seek knowledge is to be doomed to destruction by nature (and often at the poles!).  Frankenstein’s creature is of course “the Modern Prometheus.” Edgar Allen Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838) places the Promethean narrative at the South Pole (though there is a polar bear, because Poe was toying with his audience). This is true in 19th century visual art as well. At Royal Holloway at the University of London where I did my PhD, there’s an incredible collection of Victorian art, including Landseer’s “Man Proposes, God Disposes” (1864) which posits culture’s — man’s — destruction by nature as the necessary end for Britain’s hubristic imperial explorations. (It also has quite a famous urban legend around it.) The best contemporary example I think is Jurassic Park, and not just because I had the Ellie Sattler action figure and she remains my all-time favorite fictional Lady Scientist (in whose immortal words “Dinosaurs eat man. Woman inherits the earth”). So mounting an expedition with all women is not only a practical gesture of cross-cultural cooperation but a decolonization of sorts of the gendered aspect of exploration.

One stated focus of the expedition is to “bring the ocean to eye level for children, especially girls, on the front line of climate change.” What is the goal of this part of the expedition? Why target girls specifically? What do you think is the specific role of girls and women in the battle against climate change?  

We “bring the ocean to eye level” for kids in the communities through a special ocean outreach program. These communities get most of their food from the ocean, which is undergoing profound change beneath the surface. Our ocean outreach programs for the kids in these communities is designed in cooperation with community elders and Inuit advisers to get the kids excited about conservation. We are bringing mobile touch aquariums, which will be filled with creatures we will collect on our dives (and then release, of course). We will teach the kids to build and then pilot underwater ROVs, and we will be bringing extra drysuits and equipment to take small groups on snorkel safaris close to their communities so they can see what it looks like under the surface.

We are especially interested in working with girls, because climate change is already a profoundly gendered issue. For a great overview I encourage people to read the UN Fact Sheet on “Women, Gender Equality, and Climate Change.”

How important is it that scientific expeditions such as the Sedna include individuals trained in the humanities? What do you add to the expedition?

I think it’s absolutely crucial that historians, literary scholars, and other environmental humanists are part of expeditions like these. I always share this passage with students in my Environmental Lit class, from Greg Garrard’s primer on ecocriticism:

Environmental problems require analysis in cultural as well as scientific terms because they are the outcome of an interaction between ecological knowledge of nature and its cultural inflection.

As the expedition historian and environmental humanist, I will wear multiple hats on Team Sedna. For my fellow sea women who are scientists and technologists, I will provide historical context to our interaction with the Arctic environment and its creatures.  In the villages, I will work with Inuit translators and cultural advisors as we discuss the relationship between gender, contemporary science, and TEK (Traditional Ecological Knowledge) in the changing Arctic climate. And by literally diving into the polar sea with the team, I hope I’ll be showing that humanities scholars can indeed also immerse ourselves in the archive of nature, that we are not out of our depth outside the library, and that the only solution to a warming and acidifying ocean is interdisciplinary cooperation between the arts, humanities, and sciences.

What aspect of the expedition are you most looking forward to? What are you most apprehensive about?

I’m looking forward to working with a team of such amazing women, to meeting the girls in the villages, and to getting into the water!  

The only thing I’m apprehensive about is doing justice to the immensity of the issues facing the Arctic and the people who live there. (Though that may change when I meet my first polar bear…)


If you want to follow the Sedna Epic Expedition this summer, you can do so via their Facebook page and on Twitter (@sednaepic).

To learn more about Kelly’s work, her role in the Sedna Expedition, or to follow her progress this summer, go to her website. While the expedition has sponsors, the individual participants must raise funds for their own gear. If you’d like to contribute to Kelly Bushnell’s expedition expenses, you can do so through her GoFundMe page.

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