From childhood ambition to ocean explorer: Looking back on a life at sea

Katrin Linse

Katrin checks a trawling net on her first trip to the Antarctic Weddell Sea in 1998

26 April 2019 by Katrin Linse, Senior Biodiversity Scientist at the British Antarctic Survey

Over the years, I've explored unvisited areas of ocean floor. I've discovered new ecosystems and described weird and wonderful species and even had the honour of having some named after me.

My mission to get on board

I got my first taste of marine biology when I was six. During a camping holiday near a North Sea Danish fishing town, my parents rescued some students from a soaked tent nearby. They invited them into ours for a hot drink and a chance to dry off.

When they told us they were marine biology students, I proudly showed them two large, smelly sea urchins some local fishermen had given me, and they told me how to dissect them to reduce their stench. They also gave me my first glass snap-top vial, the same type I am using 40 years on to store marine specimens. This early encounter with scientists inspired me and opened my eyes to the marine world. And I still have those sea urchins.

Katrin Linse

Changing times: A young Katrin at a fishing port in 1980

A few years later, a new polar research vessel was built in the shipyard in my German hometown. Our neighbour was the chief engineer for building the engine rooms and, just before launch, he was allowed to invite friends along for a viewing. My father and another neighbour went, but, in the early 1980s, women and children weren't allowed in the construction halls of the shipyard. As a stubborn 12 year old, my reaction was to boldly promise: "I will be a biological oceanographer and I will sail to Antarctica on this polar vessel!" 13 years later, she picked me up from Cape Horn.

In those 13 years, I had studied hard to become a marine biologist. I went to university to study zoology, botany, marine biology and physical oceanography to gain an understanding of life on land and in the ocean. I worked hard to reach my next step, a PhD, which allowed me to look at the forms of molluscan life in the Magallanes and Chilean Antarctica Region. In 2000, I joined the British Antarctic Survey and, since then, have been studying the biodiversity and evolutionary history of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, and their relationships to the global deep sea.

To conduct my research I rely on marine technologies, ancient and modern, and on the availability of research vessels like RRS James Clark Ross, and soon RRS Sir David Attenborough, to take me out to sea.

Navigating the highs and lows

My position enabled me to join ship-borne expeditions and I have spent some of my best and worst days at sea. I remember one of my best days very clearly. It was 26 January 2010. I was on a nightshift on board the RRS James Cook. We were exploring deep-sea hydrothermal vents in the Southern Ocean, which are spots on the seabed where volcanic gases and fluid from deep within the Earth force their way through the crust and into the sea.

For this, we used a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), which was equipped with robotic arms to collect samples and high-definition cameras to reveal the treasures below. We left one incredible vent, full of unique Antarctic creatures, to explore the untouched neighbouring seafloor. Little did we know at the start of our six-hour shift that we would be wandering across the surface of another world, discovering vent field after vent field which surrounded active and inactive black smoking chimneys. Whenever we thought there was nothing else to see, we discovered something new.

Katrin's husband, Peter Enderlein, and son

Katrin's husband, Peter Enderlein, and son Tim at the launch of RRS Sir David Attenborough

Last year, I experienced one of my emotionally worst days at sea. I was leading the team on board the RRS James Clark Ross, en route to an Antarctic realm that had been hidden for up to 120,000 years by the gigantic iceberg A68. Progress was good. But one day the wind direction changed and the ice began closing in on the ship, we had no choice but to turn around. Disappointed but determined to stay in good spirits, we headed north to study the seafloor biodiversity of the previously unexplored Prince Gustav Channel. In Antarctic and ship-borne research, you have to be resilient and have a plan B for unpredictable weather.

Inspiring the next generation of scientists

Since I was a young girl, much has changed. More scientists are interacting with the public, and successful STEM activities bring science, technology and engineering into the classrooms. Children also have the world of science at their fingertips. Look at The Octonauts, the ocean-themed animation. The programme features marine creatures that have recently been discovered - it's fantastic!

Shipyard regulations have changed too. At the launch of the RRS Sir David Attenborough, there were men, women and children - like my son Tim. We are doing more than ever to support pathways into science and research. But we mustn't be complacent. We must continue to inspire the next generation.

[There are] things that we have done that have helped Earth so don't give up! Acid rain is down, ozone is up!

Operation Earth logo– the words of a child inspired by science, like Katrin, following a visit to Operation Earth, which ran at 11 science and discovery centres across the UK. Visitors had the chance to watch a family show, be a scientist and have a go at experiments.

Operation Earth - external link - inspired over 200,000 children and families, with 37,000 conversations with environmental scientists in 'meet the expert' events.