(Chief Scientist, Esri || CA USA)
“I grew up in Hawaii. Summers were spent in the waves and reading anything that had to do with sea adventures — Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Mutiny on the Bounty, Treasure Island. Captain Flint’s treasure map captured my imagination above all. I fancied myself a pirate — I followed imaginary clues and dug for loot in the sand. I poured over the colorful rendition of the map on the last page of my leather-bound copy. I had no idea what cartography was, but that map fascinated me — the shapes, the colors. I wanted to know how to make maps myself. What’s beneath the surface of the ocean, and how in the world do you map it?
I studied oceanography at Texas A&M, where I found another map to my future: the 1977 World Ocean Floor Panorama by Marie Tharp and Bruce Heezen. In the 50s, Tharp began the world’s first comprehensive attempt to map the ocean floor, during which she discovered a rift valley that informed the theory of plate tectonics. For years her contributions were overlooked in favor of male peers, but now, Tharp is hailed as the inventor of marine cartography. Like Flint’s treasure map, Tharp’s panorama still invites discoveries in the world it depicts. It inspired me to study the shape of the ocean floor and the geological processes at play. For my PhD thesis, I traveled along the East Pacific Rise using a sonar system, towed cameras, and a submersible to gather swaths of seafloor data.
I’ve spent much of my life on the ocean. In 1986, I was a lab technician aboard the scientific vessel JOIDES Resolution. I logged nearly six months at sea annually, as one of a handful of women on a ship of 100 people — and always the only Black woman. On the toughest days, Tharp helped keep me going. I went on to lead my own seafloor mapping expeditions. Now I work for Esri, a geospatial data science company. Unlike the maps of Tharp’s time, we can instantly add high-resolution data of the ocean floor. But with these technological advances, we shouldn’t forget the early struggles, triumphs, and innovations of the seafloor mapping community — Tharp in particular. And, perhaps, the ocean-braving pirates who first inspired at least one of us.”