SFU marine biologist rowing across the Atlantic to raise funds for ocean conservation

February 08, 2023

It’s not every day that a former student invites you to row across the Atlantic Ocean but when SFU biological sciences professor Isabelle Côté got the call, she didn’t hesitate to say yes—inspired by the challenge and the journey’s cause of supporting ocean conservation.

In December Côté and three other marine biologists will take part in one of the toughest races in the world— the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge—to raise money for three marine conservation charities.

The team, including Chantale Bégin, an SFU alumnus from University of South Florida, Lauren Shea from University of British Columbia, and Noelle Helder from University of Alaska Fairbanks, will row unsupported from La Gomera, Canary Islands to the Caribbean island of Antigua, a distance of more 4,800 kilometres that will take 40-60 days to complete.

The team, calling themselves Salty Science, represents three academic generations linked together through education and mentorship. Bégin completed her PhD in biology at SFU in 2012 under the supervision of Côté, and went on to work at University of South Florida, where she taught Helder and Shea. After the two youngest crew members signed onto the challenge they reached out to mentor Bégin, who in turn, reached out to Côté.

"Those old relationships were reformed very quickly once we were on the boat,” says Côté. “Everybody brings something unique to the team, so there’s no hierarchy anymore. I’m going to learn a tremendous amount from my younger teammates.”

The Salty Science crew will spend 40-60 days living on their 28’ state-of-the-art R45 ocean row boat, Emma. The boat will carry the crew and all their gear for the entire crossing.

The team is hoping to raise $500,000 for marine conservation organizations with strong education and outreach components to their work. This education, Côté says, is essential to help inspire more people to care about our oceans.

“Solving the problems that the oceans face is going to require thinking outside the box, and that comes from having the input from a wide variety of people from different backgrounds and experiences.”

The Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre, where Côté has a deep personal connection, is one of the three organizations to benefit from their efforts. She first visited while studying as a master’s student at University of Alberta and now she teaches there every summer. “I see first-hand the effect it has on students,” she says. “It’s truly an incredible experience.” Part of the funds raised will go toward creating a scholarship fund to help students from underrepresented backgrounds to study there.

While there are significant age differences between team members, there is no hierarchy on the boat. "I'm going to learn a tremendous amount from my younger teammates," Côté says.

Training, logistics  – and dolphins

The Salty Science crew recently completed their first overnight row in the Gulf of Mexico, an opportunity to bond as a team and get used to life on the boat. They were joined by a pod of dolphins and learned lessons that will help them in their trip, including figuring out sleep schedules, nutrition and using the boat’s electronics.

Once their journey is underway in December the team will need to be totally self-sufficient for the duration of the race, which means not only bringing all the food that they will need, but also maintaining the boat, its crew, and technology.

Côté explains that while the test row went well, there is much more work to do before they will be ready. This summer they will row from the east coast of Florida to The Bahamas and back to get experience rowing in much larger waves.

Still, the thought of crossing an ocean can feel daunting at times. “Early on we asked ourselves, are we in it to win it or are we doing it for something else?” Côté says. The team is counting on their efforts to raise conservation awareness and the extraordinary marine life they will encounter to help them pull through the challenges and “type 2 fun.”

“If it’s a choice between placing in the race and an opportunity to jump in if there’s a pod of dolphins, we’re all jumping in with the dolphins,” she says.

Learn more on the Salty Science website, and follow along with the Salty Science journey on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.