Women have long played a fundamental role in ocean environments. Of the more than 350 million people that rely on the blue economy for a living, half are women. Yet, the work of women often goes unnoticed or under appreciated. We’re celebrating all the strong, independent, and truly unique women of the world, who are making waves, under the waves.
10. Marmorkrebs a.k.a. “Marbled Crayfish”
Discovered in the European pet trade during the 1990s, the marmorkreb (German for “marbled crayfish”) has made history as the first crustacean of its kind to clone itself without mating. Scientists first realized the species’ exceptional reproductive behavior when they found that the lineage of the marmorkreb was entirely female. What’s more— the females are able to clone themselves so successfully, the crayfish have effectively created a self-sustaining population. If marmorkrebs are released from the pet trade into the wild, scientists are concerned not that the all-female species won’t be able to adapt, but that the females might become too much of a crustacean powerhouse.
9. All Jellyfish
Often viewed as directionless, floating blobs with a sting, jellyfish actually exhibit rather complex life cycles. Female jellyfish (yes, there are female jellyfish) can reproduce both sexually, by swimming through a cloud of male jellyfish sperm, and asexually, by splitting themselves in half. Either way, female jellyfish can float on as they please, male or no male.
8. Osedax worms
Where to even get started on these deep-sea weirdos. Osedax worms, nicknamed “zombie worms,” live inside the vertebrate of dead whales and other large skeletons. Female worms are able to burrow into hard bones by secreting a bone-melting acid from their roots that dissolves any close surface. Unlike many other animal species, the female worms significantly dwarf the males worms. The gendered difference in size is so huge, 50 to 100 male Osedax actually live inside the female. That’s right. Male Osedax live inside the female Osedax. The larger and older the female worm, the bigger the harem. It gets weirder. The sole purpose of these harems of tiny males is to supply the giant female worm with a limitless supply of sperm. Osedax worms’ bizarre reproductive behaviors seems to work in their favor, as scientists have observed the success at which female worms quickly colonize isolated whale carcasses. When it comes to Osedax worms, Carrie Arnold of National Geographic said it best: “kinky gets the job done.”
Female stingrays are able to store sperm for long periods of time to not get pregnant until they decide the timing is right. At the Sea Life London Aquarium, for instance, tank staffers were bewildered when two female stingrays gave birth to twelve healthy babies, despite the mothers not having any contact with a male stingray for well over two years. While scientists are unsure how long a female may store a male’s sperm following a successful courtship, one thing’s for sure: female stingrays have the final say!
You’ve probably seen pictures of these iconic deep-sea creatures before. The luminous fishing-pole-like dorsal spine that protrudes from their head to attract unwitting prey has made the anglerfish icons of the deep sea. Funny part is, only female anglerfish have the distinctive dangling light for which the entire species earned its name. When scientists first discovered anglerfish, they were dumbfounded by the fact that they could only find females— that is, until they took a closer look at the tiny “parasites” covering the females’ bodies. In anglerfish, females are roughly 10 times larger than the males, which are so small they look like parasites. Unable to survive long on its own, a male anglerfish lives for the sole purpose of finding a female host. After attaching to a female, the male anglerfish’s body dissolves into hers and the male becomes nothing more than a dangling testes on the female’s body. With six or more males at her side, the female anglerfish will continue bringing home the bacon, mating as she pleases, and being an all around ocean icon.
Killer whales live in strong matriarchal societies. Orca pods are based wholly on the mother’s lineage. Sons and daughters will live and travel with their mothers until they reach maturity and may depart to have calves of their own. Orca females will only take over the clan once they have past menopause, and studies have shown that pods benefit from the older leadership. The success of hunting expeditions and overall life expectancy of pods go up when an older female orca relative is in charge. Each tight-knit matrilineal clan has its own complex culture, which shapes what and how they eat, communicate, and pick their mates. Age, experience, cultural identity, and hunting skills— the key ingredients to a successful orca leader.
4. Bdelloid rotifers (pronounced with a silent ‘b’)
Bdelloid rotifers, which are microscopic aquatic creatures, live in an entirely female world. Since their discovery, not a single male bdelloid has ever been found, meaning for the last 80 million years, this all female species has been contently living and reproducing without males. Defying biologists’ long-held ideas about the centrality of sex, genetic studies have confirmed that bdelloid rotifers are completely celibate. The females reproduce by essentially cloning themselves to spawn genetically identical daughters. Yet despite their permanent asexuality, bdelloids would probably be the last [wo]men left standing after a global apocalypse. From high radiation blasts to years of “desiccation”, these tiny aquatic animals can survive it all. Female bdelloids have so surprised and flummoxed the scientific community, their mere existence has been dubbed an “evolutionary scandal.” Badass.
3. Hammerhead Sharks
Female sharks can reproduce without having sex. The groundbreaking discovery was made in 2007 when a female hammerhead at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo randomly gave birth to a live female pup. Kept in captivity, the mother hammerhead had never even met a male shark with which she could mate. After extensive testing, it became clear that the female pup’s DNA was identical to its mother’s DNA. Like mother, like daughter.
2. Turkish Fisherwomen
Along the long Mediterranean coast of Turkey, women play a critical role in the booming seafood sector, but with notably disproportionate shares. As of 2015, Turkey’s seafood industry produced approximately 250,000 metric tons— an amount the country aims to double by 2023. Since fishery activities are traditionally seen as “men’s work,” Turkish fisherwomen are receiving hardly any acknowledgement for their instrumental part in the industry’s success. In fact, according to 2013 study by the Mediterranean Conversation Society, there are no official records of the active participation of women in Turkey’s fisheries. The government does not even recognize female participation. The lack of institutional support results in Turkish fisherwomen facing the impacts of ocean degradation with generally fewer assets, alternative livelihoods, or occupational organization representation. A similar case exists in Senegal, where 90% of the fish processing sector is controlled by women. Yet, despite the untold hardships, fisherwomen continue to brave the waves and fight for a place at the head of the table.
1. Dr. Sylvia Earle
As a marine biologist, lecturer, activist, and published author, Dr. Sylvia Earle has been at the forefront of ocean exploration for nearly five decades. Dedicated to understanding and protecting life under the sea, Dr. Earle has been a pioneer for ocean research and conservation, inspiring public support and worldwide action that has persisted across generations. Dubbed “Living Legend” by the Library of Congress, the first “Hero for the Planet” by Time Magazine, and “Her Deepness” by the New Yorker, Dr. Earle has succeeded in becoming not just the voice for our beloved ocean, but the face for exemplary female leadership worldwide.