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Michelle “Mish” Ridgway

Photo of Michelle “Mish” Ridgway
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Categories: 2018 Alumnae, Conservation, Education, Exploration, Marine Ecology

Biography

Upon the sudden death of marine scientist, educator and conservationist Michelle Ridgway, there was much discussion on social media. One comment, though, seemed to capture them all. It came from former legislator Andrea Doll … “I am mourning the loss of someone greater than life.”

Life-long Alaskan Michelle Ridgway was, indeed, a larger than life figure. Whether piloting a submarine to explore the ocean’s largest undersea canyon, helping document a new species of kelp or whale, fighting for marine conservation across Alaska or building the next generation of Alaskan scientists with her marine science camps … Michelle was at once memorable and impactful.

Michelle developed her love and appreciation for marine life while growing up on Ketchikan’s shore. She later pursued her education in marine biology, algal ecology, and fisheries sciences at Evergreen State College, the University of Washington, Kobe University (Kobe Japan), and University of Alaska Fairbanks.

While working as a fisheries biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in the 1980’s, Michelle loved conducting fisheries fieldwork throughout Alaska. She later worked as a Research Associate with the University of Alaska and ultimately developed a career as a private contractor, creating a consulting firm (Oceanus Alaska) and educational portal (Alaska Deep Ocean Science Institute) through which she was actively engaged as a marine ecologist, researcher, and educator for nearly three decades.

Michelle Ridgway was a marine ecologist in the most comprehensive sense of the term. She was fascinated by the intricacies and inter-relationships of marine species, from microscopic zooplankton to the massive whales they nourished. She studied, described, and measured the bio/chemo/physical properties of the marine environment needed to sustain marine species, helping to define species’ Essential Habitat in objective and mathematical terms.

Michelle believed the only way to truly understand a marine species and its habitat was to observe it in situ— alive and underwater. So she dove, she ran Remote Operating Vehicles (ROV), and she piloted submarines. She was at home underwater. She explored marine realms from the tropics to the ice-covered arctic, from intertidal pools to ocean canyons, observing and then sharing this unique perspective with others.

A highlight of her career was to be among the first scientists to ever explore the Zhemchug Canyon, an 8,500-foot deep canyon that plunges into the Aleutian Basin near the Pribilof Islands. Sponsored by a research expedition of Greenpeace, Michelle piloted an 8-foot-long solo submarine to explore, document, and sample deep-water denizens of the canyon’s depths. Her observations during these dives shed new light on the distribution of zooplankton communities in Zhemchug Canyon depths. Rather than living only in the upper water column and raining down to depths as detritus as was commonly believed, Michelle found these tiny creatures (that form the basis of the entire marine food web) even at depths of nearly 1800 feet in the Zhemchug Canyon. In her own words, Michelle noted, “The entire water column was teeming with a very dense aggregation of zooplankton. It’s rich and living at every depth we examined.”

Michelle never just observed and documented marine life. Her passion was in sharing what she knew. This sharing of knowledge— through elaborate descriptions, intimate photos, and underwater video— was Michelle’s unique gift. Her fascination and appreciation of marine species, their habitat, adaptations, and ecological connections was contagious. She would explore tidepools with a 5 year old in the morning and testify about Essential Fish Habitat before federal resource managers in the afternoon… and both audiences would come away with a new awareness of their marine environment.

But Michelle connected uniquely with young minds and beginning in 2005, she collaborated with local conservationists, school districts, and Native entities to develop and deliver intensive Marine Science Camps. Over ten years, she directed more than a dozen week-long marine science camps in Old Harbor, Juneau, Akutan, the Pribilof Islands, and Sitka. After tailoring a curriculum for each oceanic locale, local culture, and research/vessel resources available, Michelle directed these camps as action-packed, research-based scientific expeditions for students. She taught her students to observe without preconceptions. As a result, she and her student scientists collected data and samples during these camps that were instrumental in documenting a new species of kelp and beaked whale. NOAA is now emulating her design of marine science camps as a way to bridge government scientists with student groups.

Michelle’s impact on her students went beyond the Science Camps. Karin Holser, a teacher in the village of St. George, says, “She was willing to do whatever was needed to inspire them to want to learn more and to understand the ocean that surrounded their island. She was an incredible mentor to many of the kids of both St. George and St. Paul Island. She took these science camp kids to the Smithsonian to work with the new whale species that was discovered on St. George. She took them to NYC to the Explorers Club, she coached them to be keynote speakers at a North Pacific Marine Science Organization (PICES) conference, and they got an award from the Alaska Conservation Foundation.”

To the students in these science camps, Michelle was on the level of famed oceanographer and explorer Sylvia Earle (dubbed “Her Deepness” by fellow scientists). Michelle mentored and inspired them to the same degree that Sylvia Earle inspired her. It should be no surprise to learn that Michelle joined Sylvia as a member of the prestigious Explorer’s Club, an international organization of scientists, adventurers and philanthropists, promoting exploration throughout the world.

Beyond her exploratory nature, Michelle was known in the marine fisheries and conservation world as an unblinking advocate for marine species, habitats, and resources. Her dedication to science-based marine conservation led to Michelle’s service as an early board member (1995-2001) of the Alaska Marine Conservation council (AMCC) where she helped build a community-based conservation program. Michelle inspired the new organization to address large fishery management challenges by focusing on the whole ecosystem and the fishing communities that rely on healthy oceans. She guided the program to be rooted in science while boldly challenging the status quo.

In 2000, Michelle was appointed to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s (NPFMC) Advisory Panel where she served from April 2000 through December 2008. It was in the policy forum where she used her marine ecology acumen to scrutinize decisions that most others at the table considered from narrower perspectives.

David Witherell, the current Executive Director of the NPFMC, says, “Michelle was a passionate advocate for resource conservation and habitat protection in the marine waters off Alaska. As a scientist with first-hand knowledge and direct observation of seafloor habitats, she brought a unique perspective to the Advisory Panel’s discussions and deliberations on the best approach to conserving and managing the fisheries off Alaska.  Michelle had a great influence on the development of major conservation policies, including actions taken by the Council to protect vast areas of deep-sea corals, reduce bycatch, and reduce potential impacts of fishing on Steller sea lions.”

Michelle also served as an advisor to NOAA on the National Marine Protected Areas Federal Advisory Committee from 2010-2014. Later she worked closely with Alaska Native Tribal communities to help nominate the Pribilof Domain of the Bering Sea as Alaska’s first National Marine Sanctuary.

Although leading a full career as a marine ecologist and conservationist, Michelle always made time to reach out to young people— and especially women— aspiring to become marine scientists. In her own notes about her career, Michelle stated that she mentored dozens of young women in high school and college. One of these dozen young women is Emma Good currently a student at Western Washington University. Emma Good says, “What I will remember most is Michelle’s passion and commitment to not only help, but inspire young scientists like myself to succeed in the field. For young students it is so important to have strong role models and I hope one day I will be able to give back to this community in the same way that Michelle mentored and cared about me.”

In her personal life, Michelle embraced life with the same degree of passion she exhibited in her professional life. She sailed, mushed huskies, was a volunteer fire-fighter/EMT, and played a mean game of tennis and hockey, among many other activities. But foremost in her life was her fierce loving loyalty to family and friends.

Michelle believed one thing that wove together the many strands of her life:  What you do matters.  Whether exploring the waters depths, teaching a friend to mush dogs or visiting distant relatives, she made an intentional effort in every moment of her life.  She believed it mattered.

Additional Resources:

Anchorage Daily News story about her trip into Zhemchug Canyon – https://www.adn.com/alaska-news/science/2016/11/12/an-alaska-researcher-made-tantalizing-discoveries-in-a-massive-underwater-bering-sea-canyon/

Link to submarine video of Michelle’s solo submarine journey into Zhemchug Canyon – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-HezO6sZ_iA

Anchorage Daily News story about new species of beaked whale – https://www.adn.com/alaska-news/wildlife/2016/07/26/new-and-rare-whale-species-identified-from-carcass-found-in-pribilofs/

Journal Nature article on the discovery of Golden-V kelp at the Pribilof Islands –https://www.nature.com/articles/srep02491

Induction ceremony acceptance speech https://youtu.be/g01nVF0Chjc