Female Citizen Scientists Set Sail to Tackle Ocean Plastic

Past crews have included female scientists, businesswomen, product designers, actresses, entrepreneurs, artists, teachers, sustainability professionals and more. Eleanor Church Lark Rise Pictures

If you pay attention to eco-news, you probably know that your single-use plastics are polluting everything, including the oceans. You might even know that the oceans contain massive patches of microplastics called gyres, that are notoriously difficult to clean up.

Well if you're a woman (sorry guys) with a keen interest in protecting the environment — particularly Earth's oceans — you also need to know about a group of citizen scientists trying to do something about all that plastic: eXXpedition. In fact, you can even join the female-focused adventure.


What Is EXXpedition?

EXXpedition (the XX refers to the double-X chromosome pairs in women) is an all-female organization founded in 2014 by eco-entrepreneur Emily Penn. The idea was to create citizen science-based sailing voyages to examine the plastic and toxic pollution in the world's oceans.

So why no XYs (males)? In an email interview, Penn says the answer is twofold. "Women are underrepresented in sailing and science, which we are passionate to readdress by promoting positive female role models," she says.


The 'all women' charters lend an essential element to the character of their work. "There is something unique about taking a passionate group of women to sea," Penn says. "Boundaries are let down as we overcome challenges together. Bonds form fast and last for life."

Penn's own journey to tackle plastic pollution began 10 years ago when she left England for Australia, hitchhiking around the world on a 100 percent biofueled boat. "Shocked by finding plastic in some of the most remote places on our planet, I chose to live on a group of Pacific islands for six months to organize a community cleanup," she says. "I then traveled to California to learn more from some of the experts in the field of ocean plastic."

Emily Penn
Emily Penn created the all-female-focused sailing voyages to examine the plastic and toxic pollution in the world's oceans.
Eleanor Church Lark Rise Pictures


Plastics Polluting Our Oceans

The oceans have become vast dumping grounds for the world's waste, with marine debris, including plastics and microplastics, posing one of the ecosystem's most persistent problems. Floating litter is found in every ocean all over the globe and is almost always made of plastic. Marine debris isn't just ugly, it also harms living creatures in the ocean and, eventually it makes its way into our bodies, too.

The U.N. Ocean Action Ambassador Peter Thomson estimates more than 8 million tons (7.2 million metric tons) of plastics leak into the ocean each year, some ending up in the fish we eat. These chemicals can disrupt the endocrine system, powerful hormones released during puberty and pregnancy.


As Penn learned more about the dangers of plastic pollution in the ocean, she wondered how she could raise awareness of the issue, "facilitating science at sea," she says, while promoting "outreach and the implementation of solutions on land." Enter eXXpedition.

Citizen Science Researchers

Along with co-founder, Lucy Gilliam, Penn started eXXpedition in 2014 to organize all-women sailing voyages that engaged in citizen science.

"The scientific research conducted on board is reviewed in the run up to each new voyage," Penn says. In previous voyages they've collected microplastics, and logged large plastic items and wildlife sightings for global datasets. In 2018, they attached a tracker to a large mass of net so it could be tracked and later collected by a bigger boat.


Penn says crews are made up of multinational and multidisciplinary teams of women, and both sailing veterans and novices. In addition to scientists, crews have included businesswomen, product designers, actresses, entrepreneurs, artists, teachers, sustainability professionals and more. "Having this range of individuals on board encourages broader thinking about the variety of solutions to ocean plastic and collaboration across sectors," she says.

The first voyage set sail with a crew of 14 women in November 2014 across the Atlantic Ocean. Since then, more than 100 women have made 11 voyages. In addition to crossing the Atlantic, eXXpedition crews have sailed along the Norwegian coast; across the South Atlantic from Senegal to Brazil via Ascension Island; from Brazil to Guyana off the coast of South America; the Caribbean, twice; north of the Arctic Circle; the Great Lakes; Great Britain; and the North Pacific gyre.

The Round the World Voyage is the organization's most ambitious voyage yet, and will travel 38,000 nautical miles over two years.


Round the World Voyage

"The logical next step was to scale up," Penn says. "That's why we are going Round the World."

It's the organization's most ambitious voyage yet, with 300 women from multiple disciplines sailing 30 voyages and 38,000 nautical miles over a two-year period — from October 2019 until September 2021.


Penn will lead the maiden voyage leg from the U.K. to the Azores, which sets sail on Oct. 8, 2019. "We are partnering with the University of Plymouth to develop a science program that will give us a clearer picture of the impact of plastics and toxics around the world," she says. "It's a unique opportunity to collect global data."

The crew of female citizen scientists will examine plastics and toxics in the ocean in four of the five oceanic gyres — major spirals of ocean-circling currents present both north and south of the Equator— and the Arctic.

But don't get the idea eXXpedition voyages are glamorous getaways for pampered divas. For starters, all participants are expected to contribute a share of the cost of the voyage, anywhere from $5,866 (the leg from Port Douglas, Australia to Darwin, Australia) to $12,956 (the leg from Perth, Australia to Mauritius), plus the cost of getting to and from where the boat is located. Competition to become a member of the crew is fierce and crews work hard.

"Our voyages are definitely not holidays," Penn says. "All our crew members are expected to take part in every aspect of life on board, including sailing, cooking, cleaning, night watches, science on board and workshops. Of course, we laugh a lot too ... [and] see amazing wildlife and visit fantastic places."