OFFSHORE LABRADOR IS NOT A PLACE FOR THE FAINT OF HEART. So Judith Bobbitt felt completely in her element when, in 1978, she took her dream job as a physical oceanographer aboard an oil industry vessel. “At sea I felt completely at peace,” she says recalling her short career as a working member of the team collecting data on temperature, salinity, current speed, and interpreting it for multinational drilling operations in the Davis Strait and on the Labrador Shelf. Not even the initial seasickness on each trip could deter her. As the daughter of a Quebec fisherman, Judith Bobbitt knew that “the ocean can be beautiful and it can be dangerous. But I loved it anyway.”
In 1980 Bobbitt’s life path took a sharp turn. The seas were rolling heavily that day but not enough to stop work. The Newfoundland Oceans Research and Development Corporation (NORDCO) team was launching equipment. Bobbitt’s job was to catch a 37 kilogram probe as it free fell from the crane for subsequent storage until the next CTD station, something she had done hundreds of times before. A slight woman but strong, she was proud of her ability. But on this day something went horribly wrong. With the deck heaving underfoot, the weight of the probe crushed disc casings in her back.
Her days at sea were over. Several disks in her back later ruptured and caused severe damage to nerves to her legs. Although she had to endure an initial three-year recovery and was unable to walk for a time, Bobbitt never missed a step in advancing her career. But for those who knew her, this was not a surprise. Even as a teen she had been determined and independent.
Bobbitt was born in Mutton Bay, an isolated fishing village on Quebec’s lower North Shore near the border with Labrador. One of three siblings, she was restless in her isolated home. As a child she often went with her father in his smaller boat to haul cod traps or to visit the next village, but even then her sights were set on a different future. “I always knew I was going to have a life at sea. I used to see the big red coast guard ships along the coast and was enchanted by them,” recalls Bobbitt.
In the early 60s she left home to go to junior high on Harrington Island. “I could not live in Mutton Bay because there was nothing to do. I was happy to leave, even at 13,” she admits. For that year she boarded with a local family on the island and worked hard at her studies. Although she was inspired by her teacher Ms. West, a former missionary to Africa with a science degree from McGill University, Bobbitt had a major disappointment that year.
It was due to a Reverend Bryan who announced his intention to take the student with the best marks in the school to study in the United States. “But at the end of the year, instead of taking me, he took a boy who had the second-best marks, and left me behind,” she says with a trace of indignation in her voice. Then she laughs. She was to discover much later that the scholarship had been for an all-boys school. But, at the age of 14, unaware of that fact, and feeling slighted, Bobbitt moved to Montreal to live with her brother and finished high school at Westmount High.
In 1967 she enrolled at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia). “I had no money except what I made myself. My first year was on scholarships and by my second I had part time jobs demonstrating in the lab with first and second years.” In 1971 she became the first female to graduate with an honours degree in physics. From there she enrolled in a master of underwater acoustics program at the University of Victoria but didn’t like the Pacific. “I only stayed a couple of months,” she says and sums up her reason for leaving very simply: “because it wasn’t the Atlantic.”
Returning to Montreal, Bobbitt began a four-year master’s program in physical oceanography at McGill’s Marine Science Centre. Under supervision of renowned ice physicist Dr. Elton Pounder, she delved into a wide range of subject areas. “You had to know all the science,” she explains. “You had to do meteorology, fish biology, ice physics, and physical oceanography.” By the time she graduated Bobbitt had a job teaching physics at Dawson College, “but I hated it and only lasted a year.”
In 1978, her vision now clear through the prism of her graduate studies in oceanography, Bobbitt heard about NORDCO in St. John’s. Only three years old, the company was hiring and, after her interview, they offered Bobbitt a job. Her first assignment was designing mooring technology for the Davis Strait to enable Esso to measure waves there. Several other assignments related to the province’s fledgling oil and gas industry followed, until 1980 when she was injured at sea.
By way of convalescence, Bobbitt established Oceans Ltd. in 1981 and “hired two people to go to sea for me.” She was immediately in growth mode providing physical oceanography for Petro-Canada and for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. “They went with me from NORDCO because of my professional expertise,” she explains, reflecting on her early business success. NORDCO was like an incubator for her skills and her connections.
“Oceans began with me and two others. Today we are a staff of 37,” she says. “I launched the company with a great deal of confidence and a vision that closely matches what I have today.” Her greatest challenge over the years has come from outside the province. “I didn’t anticipate the difficulties of competing against the multinationals. They undercut our costs,” she reveals. But Oceans Ltd.’s diversification has helped them weather the storm.
The Oceans team, which occupies a, 1,860 square-metre heritage building near downtown St. John’s, produces weather forecasts for the offshore oil industry, measures the effects of environmental pollution on marine life, forecasts vessel routes, and, since 2002, has been producing 3-D images of icebergs. More recently the company has conducted biochemical research into the properties of 60 species of local seaweed. Bobbitt came to the idea of harnessing the regenerative powers of seaweed after observing how quickly many species regrew after heavy seas decimated a seabed. Oceans Ltd. biochemists are investigating the marine plants’ potential for curing acne, slowing or eliminating cancer, and improving cognitive abilities of those with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
“We have two patents filed including one with industry standing. It stopped the growth of cancer in animals,” she says. Her researchers are now trying to identify the molecule so it can be synthesized and the work then sold to a pharmaceutical company. They are also patenting an extract for acne but instead of selling the rights, they plan to produce and test it in Newfoundland.
In 2013 Bobbitt was recognized at the national level with an RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Impact Award for her significant impact on the local economy.
After 34 years at the helm, Bobbitt is in the final stages of setting up a board of directors to oversee the company which she believes is due for a change in culture as it enters a new stage of growth with new processes in place to “document everything, so there are more things in place for quality control and so expansion and turnover becomes easier to manage.”
As for her future, Bobbitt predicts, “More salmon fishing for me at my own lodge on Le Gros Mecatina River near Mutton Bay.” She returns every year for up to two weeks, fishing many of the pools along a 30 km stretch of the river, sometimes tying her own flies to entice the salmon. “I always bring home the limit of seven fish.”
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