Fulfilling the ambition of a lifetime

Dr Emma Rendle with her Grandmother on her 90th Birthday, and older cousin Barbara, in September 2019 (Credit Emma Rendle)

Many marine scientists can point to a moment when the call of the sea grabbed them. Some have grown up in its gaze or become entranced during family holidays, while others have developed a passion for either a creature or cause connected to it.

For Dr Emma Rendle, the catalyst came during childhood holidays to see her grandmother in east Devon.

She swam in the sea every day until she was 80 and, as a child, Emma found herself observing annual beach changes, the species living under the waves and, later as a teenager, wanting to understand the advancing impacts brought about by global warming.

Two decades later, she works as a consultant marine scientist specialising in coastal adaptation and Emma is about to embark on a new adventure. In March 2020, she will join the crew of eXXpedition for 24 days as it sails from Easter Island to Tahiti as part of an epic two-year round the world voyage. She is one of 300 women who have been selected from over 10,000 applicants all of whom want to solve the marine plastic crisis.

During that time, as part of a scientific programme developed by eXXpedition and the University of Plymouth, she will be helping to collect and analyse water and sediment samples as part of the voyage’s mission to look at the global distribution of plastics and microplastics, from their sources on land to their dispersal and accumulation within the world’s oceans.

“I have always wanted to do a long stint at sea,” Emma says. “And to combine that with studying the global issues of plastic pollution and climate change was too good an opportunity to turn down. It will be a big challenge, but as the weeks count down it’s one I am looking forward to more and more.”

Emma’s participation in eXXpedition might be an epic adventure. But it is far from the first major challenge she has had to overcome in her quest to become a marine scientist.

With her passion for the marine environment embedded by those early visits to the Devon coastline, she had taken up diving thanks to an enthusiastic Maths teacher desperate to share his passion. Sub-surface exploration proved rewarding and she travelled to the Red Sea to see wrecks, caves and coral reefs for the first time aged 18. This served to heighten her excitement as the new millennium dawned and life choices made to pursue marine biology.

Out of the blue, on 1 January 2000, Emma started having seizures. Being diagnosed with epilepsy brought about a huge number of changes to her daily life. Among the most difficult to come to terms with was that she was unable to dive or even work from a boat. It led to her being told by the neurologist that her dream of becoming a marine scientist was unlikely, she needed a new path.

“I had fallen in love with diving when I was 16,” she said. “But I was now only 18 and unable to do it anymore. However, my interest in the sea, wanting to understand it and the processes that drive life was unquestionably still there. I decided to go with my heart and stubbornly follow a land based marine science route through university.”

With her revised focus, Emma enrolled to study at the University of Plymouth in 2001. She graduated with a 2:1 BSc (Hons) Marine Biology and Oceanography in 2004 and, two years later, completed a master’s programme in Applied Marine Science through a part-funded scholarship. The seizures continued and interrupted her physical and mental health, at university and while working for UK consultancies, and she struggled to communicate about the highly stigmatised condition.

After working in India as a coastal consultant for the Asian Development Bank in 2008, she returned to study at the University for a third time and began her PhD in 2009. She had taken up surfing as an alternative to diving, which introduced her to the world of artificial surf reef concepts. Completing site observations and numerical modelling, alongside a social-economic study to assess impacts of a reef built in the UK, her PhD was completed in March 2014, with support from Dr Mark Davidson and Dr Lynda Rodwell.

Around that, she has worked for organisations including the Environment Agency, Intertek, JBA Consulting and HR Wallingford before starting her own consultancy – Resilient Coasts Ltd, based in the University’s Marine Building – in October 2017.

The company provides technical services across a range of sectors, including coastal management and development, climate change, and the development of nature-based engineering solutions. She has since delivered projects in the Atlantic Ocean, Irish Sea, Caribbean, Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea and North Sea.

<p>Dr Emma Rendle with local officials in Monkey River, Belize, standing outside a sea level rise threatened school (Credit Emma Rendle)<br></p>
<p>Dr Emma Rendle (right) during a 2019 mission with Asian Development Bank colleagues to the Indus Delta, Pakistan (Credit Emma Rendle)<br></p>
<p>Dr Emma Rendle in Keti Bundar, Pakistan, on the banks of the Indus Delta in 2019 (Credit University of Plymouth)<br></p>

During the last decade she has also remained seizure-free and, as a result, at the age of 38 was able to contemplate working offshore once again. With that in mind, the opportunity to join the eXXpedition crew could not have come at a better time. She also hopes that her story might inspire those with epilepsy and other neurological conditions.

Emma will join leg 8 of the voyage, departing from Easter Island on March 8 and arriving in Tahiti on April 1. She will travel to World Heritage Sites and globally important marine reserves, and uninhabited islands where she will see the impact plastic is having on the coastlines of remote Pacific nations. She said:

“Plastic is a useful tool around which to base discussions around environmental change because it is physical – you can see and touch it, and appreciate the effects it will have. There is a lot of talk about turning the tide on plastic but people struggle to see how. Similarly, we talk more urgently than ever before about changing our carbon emissions habits. There are undoubtedly links between the two and this is an opportunity to use the science around plastic to engage people on other ideas and concepts.”

Emma ultimately hopes that seeing the effects of human and climate-induced pollution first hand will help her make a difference once back on dry land. A big part of eXXpedition’s mission is to turn its 300 female crew members into changemakers who have a lasting impact long after the voyage is over.

“Women are proactive, and when driven they are powerful together, so I think this is a great concept,” Emma says. “It is also a concept that I would like Resilient Coasts to be part of going forward. Waste management and advice in this sector is becoming an increasing concern to my clients internationally, and a crucial element in my work in coastal management.
“Low-lying countries like St Lucia, for example, are already desperately trying to deal with their own waste problems and the huge cruise ships that pull in with thousands of people on board. The burden of our waste problem is passed on to beautiful places without the infrastructure to deal with it, so my motivation is in changing how we manage waste and also how we perceive it. This is a major challenge that needs to be overcome.”

Dr Emma Rendle in front of the eXXpedition CIC sponsors board at the London launch event (Credit Emma Rendle)

Emma is currently trying to raise around £10,000 to fund her place on the trip and has set up a fundraising page with more information on the crowdfunding site GoFundMe – https://www.gofundme.com/f/plastic-pollution-sailing-exxpedition. She is also organising fundraising events, and speaking about the trip, science and charity work eXXpedition carries out.

Read more about the University's partnership with eXXpedition

The eXXpedition Round the World voyage set sail from the University of Plymouth Marine Station on October 8, and will journey through some of the most important and diverse marine environments on the planet.

Over 30 legs covering 38,000 nautical miles, the crew will undertake a range of research projects developed by Dr Winnie Courtene-Jones, eXXpedition Science Lead at the University, in conjunction with Professor Richard Thompson OBE, Head of the International Marine Litter Research Unit.

Professor Richard Thompson OBE, Head of the International Marine Litter Research Unit, said:

“In recent years, tackling the plastics in our oceans has become one of our most high profile environmental challenges. It is crucial that we use innovative and informed means to develop greater understanding of the issue’s global scale, and to identify ways to address it. This collaboration will undoubtedly help achieve that, and we are delighted to be working with eXXpedition to generate new knowledge and interest in this important area.”

(c) eXXpedition_Eleanor Church Lark Rise Pictures - North Pacific leg 1 Hawaii to Vancouver 243

Emily Penn, Mission Director of eXXpedition, added:

“We're delighted to collaborate with the University of Plymouth on our Round the World science programme. The plastic pollution challenge our ocean faces is a global one and it will take an inspired army of passionate, skilled and experienced people to tackle it. We're excited for our 300 expedition participants to work together with scientists from such a prestigious institute to better understand the environmental and human health impact of plastics and toxics, and to use this information to help pinpoint upstream solutions.”

International Marine Litter Research Unit

Marine litter is a global environmental problem with items of debris now contaminating habitats from the poles to the equator, from the sea surface to the deep sea.

Furthering our understanding of litter on the environment and defining solutions

Find out more about the International Marine Litter Research Unit

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