Profile of Sarah Walsh, a champion for Ocean Mapping

By Wade Kearley

 “After two full days at sea, we woke up in Evighedsfjord in Greenland!! The day started off foggy, but what lay beneath the fog blew our minds!! We got to see its tall cliffs covered in black-legged kittiwakes and see its glaciers calve and create massive beautiful sounds. We also got to have a bbq on the back deck of the Ocean Endeavour while being surrounded by beauty. Oh! We also did our polar dip off one if its beaches! This was a day full of amazing experiences and scenery … it was easy to be blinded to what is happening to the glaciers but it doesn’t make it less real.”

That Instagram caption was written by Sarah Walsh, a young woman filled with wonder and awe for the marine world. At the time she wrote that she was among more than one hundred international scholarship winners in the 2016 Students On Ice youth leader expedition to the Arctic. There they met with scientists, cultural, business and political leaders, educators, and artists as they explored the challenges of climate change not just for the Arctic, but also for the planet. For Walsh, B.Sc., B.Tech., it was an affirmation that her decision to pursue a career in ocean mapping will enable her to be a key player among those working for a sustainable future. She has been singled out by her instructors and department heads at the Marine Institute (MI) as a student leader to watch.

We scheduled a meeting for 10:30 a.m. at a quiet café in downtown St. John’s. We’d never met before so I advised her to look out for an old guy badly in need of a shave. Not much to go on. And perhaps, preferring the element of surprise, she sent me no details. Arriving at 10:00, I grabbed a table in the corner near the door and reviewed my notes. About fifteen minutes later a casually dressed young woman with a cappuccino and an orange cranberry muffin took a table nearby, typed a brief message into her cell and hit send.  Almost instantly my cellphone buzzed. It was from Walsh. She was at the café.

“Excuse me,” I said to my neighbour and the young woman looked up from her snack. “Are you Sarah?” She smiled, her earnest eyes framed in oversized eyeglasses, and before I could move, she had gathered her things and joined me for the interview.  

In her fourth and final year of Ocean Mapping at MI, Walsh already has a degree in marine biology from Memorial. During her undergraduate fieldwork at the Bonne Bay Marine Centre in Norris Point on Newfoundland’s west coast, she discovered her passion and her ability to use marine technology to generate meaningful data. “That was always my favourite part of the research,” she said, adding that she felt in her element at sea using the multi-beam sonar to peer into the depths and capture data about the seafloor and fish in the water column. 

She was less impressed with the data-crunching research in the laboratory. “That part was not as exciting for me. I want to help people get to the data. I like working with marine technology to get the data and make it pretty,” she laughed and explained that “making it pretty” meant removing distortions and other anomalies that could compromise the research.  It’s not surprising that she prefers to be at sea. As a child, Walsh spent many weekends and holidays aboard one family boat or another at their weekend retreat in Port Blandford in eastern Newfoundland.

Nor was it a surprise when she entered Memorial University to study marine biology. What was unexpected was her keen interest in technology. But once she saw how modern innovations were expanding the capabilities of scientists and others to learn about the ocean—it was like a whole new frontier for her.  “Less than five percent of the ocean floor on earth has been mapped,” she said. She wanted to be part of the industry that would fill those gaps and make a contribution to the science that was addressing the challenges such as climate change and pollution in the marine environment. And she is excited by the opportunity to use ocean technology to explore the world’s oceans. 

But she needed more training if she wanted to be at the forefront of that industry. And when she found out about ocean mapping at MI she registered and threw herself wholeheartedly into the four year program. With her marine biology background, her experience on the water, and her focused enthusiasm, she immediately began making waves. 

Paul Brett is head of MI’s School of Ocean Technology. In an email to nominate Walsh for this profile series he wrote, “From my perspective having been in academia for more than 20 years, once in a while there comes a student [whose excellence] launches them above the others.  Sarah is one of those students.” He wrote that Walsh stood out early, “Winning scholarships and volunteering for whatever came up to increase her exposure to the industry she was studying to work in.” He pointed out that not only did Walsh take part in Students in Ice but that, in the fall of 2017, she will sail with Nautilus from the US as part of a mapping internship.  “[These are] both chances of a lifetime and she has managed to achieve both at this point in her career.”

According to Brett, “Sarah motivates and raises the level of others around her.”

“My internship with the Nautilus ties in with another one of my passions which is educating young people about the oceans,” said Walsh. “There are so many issues about our oceans that they need to understand.” On board the Nautilus in September of 2017 they will be linked directly into classrooms via a live connection on the project website, “so the kids will be there with us off a remote island in the Pacific as we explore the ocean floor,” she said.

On where her career will take her, Walsh is wide open.  But she is committed to working in the north to help contribute to research aimed at slowing climate change. “It would be nice when I reach the stage where I am looking back at my career to be able to say I contributed to the science that helped to slow the impact of climate change,” she said and then added, “Even though my work will be in the collection of data it can contribute to change.”

The collection of multi-beam sonar data is expensive requiring a vessel, crew, and expensive technology, and the soaring costs in the open ocean and in remote locations is a limiting factor for science. “So any data that is collected is recirculated among the researchers,” she said, so any number of discoveries can come from a single data set.

And she has already made an important stride in that direction. With her skills and her passion for the work, Walsh has landed a permanent position with the Canadian Hydrographic Service (CHS) where she will be based in the St. John’s Office.

Among the things that excite her as she embarks on this new career is peering not only onto the depths of the ocean but also peering back in time. “There have been so many ships that have gone down in the past that have not been discovered. You just don’t know what is down there.”