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male and female crew members weighing fish Bill Clapp and Ruth Stoddard weigh fish aboard the Albatross IV. Credit: Robert Brigham/NOAA
captain with female crew members on bridge Captain Walter Beatteay with Ruth Stoddard (left) and Lisbeth Francis (right) on the Albatross IV bridge in 1964. Credit: Robert Brigham/ NOAA

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Women at Sea Aboard the Albatross

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Women scientists, technicians, and ships’ crew routinely sail aboard NOAA vessels and other oceanographic research ships around the world today, but it was not so long ago that having women at sea was far from ordinary.

Albatross III and Albatross IV led the way for the Woods Hole Laboratory of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC). In 1948, U.S. Bureau of Fisheries employee Rachel Carson was asked to write an article about the work going on at the Woods Hole Laboratory, then part of the Bureau of Fisheries (today it is part of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service). Arrangements were made for Carson and another woman to sail aboard Albatross III, but for various reasons it did not happen, apparently much to the relief of the chief scientist of that cruise, who later noted that their presence would have been “resented.”

Just one year later, in 1949, Carson and Marie Rodell, her literary agent, did make a cruise aboard Albatross III, breaking the barrier for women to go to sea. Carson made several more cruises aboard fisheries vessels as editor of publications for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, successor to the Bureau of Fisheries. She retired in 1952 to write full-time, gaining fame as author of the bestsellers “The Sea Around Us” published in 1951, “The Edge of the Sea” in 1955, and “Silent Spring” in 1962.

It took fifteen more years for female employees of the Woods Hole Laboratory to have the opportunity to go to sea. Ruth Stoddard became the first in 1964, accompanied by Antioch College student Lisbeth Francis on a three-week cruise to Georges Bank aboard Albatross IV.  Stoddard started work at the lab as a clerk in the late 1950s, became a biology lab technician, and sailed on many cruises aboard Albatross IV before she retired, including a joint  research cruise in 1967 with a Russian fisheries vessel named Albatros which had two female scientists aboard.  In 1968 Judy Penttila, Brenda Byrd, and Jean St. Onge Burns made a cruise together on Albatross IV, meeting the requirement that a three-person female cabin had to be full.   

More opportunities for females at sea came in 1975 as Linda Despres of the Woods Hole Laboratory became the first female chief scientist during a bottom trawl survey on Albatross IV, which was also the first cruise on which women in the science party outnumbered the men. In 1980 Kathy Bowden and Helen Gordon became the first female crew members, Bowden sailing as a member of the steward’s department and Gordon as a survey technician.

Today women at sea are common; 45 female scientists and technicians have each sailed more than 100 days on the Albatross IV through the years, and women have worked in the galley, engine room, as deckhands and as ship officers.

The first female chief scientist on Albatross IV was also the last chief scientist before the vessel was retired in November 2008. Fishery Biologist Linda Despres spent more days at sea aboard Albatross IV than any other scientist, 972 days over 34 years. As she notes: “We had a slow start, but we're making a spectacular finish!”

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