Marine biologist and documentarian Cynthia Matzke is heading to the Arctic this month as part of an expedition of 16 female polar explorers from all over the world, collectively known as Sedna.
Matzke will be ice diving in the frigid water to capture rare footage, monitoring ocean acoustics and helping with educational outreach to Inuit girls. “Diving and underwater videography is my passion, and on expeditions like this, I also collect scientific data to learn as much as possible about my surroundings,” she said. “I enjoy supporting team goals in a variety of ways.”
In addition to footage and data, Matzke aims to bring back something else – insight about Inuit culture to share with students in workshops she teaches for Sally Ride Science at UC San Diego.
Matzke is an alumna of Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego with a Master of Advanced Studies degree in marine biodiversity and conservation. She is an associate professor at UC San Diego Extension and an adjunct professor at the NewSchool of Architecture and Design. She’s also executive producer for Spiral Pacific, a nonprofit dedicated to ocean conservation.
She serves as science outreach coordinator for Sedna, which is named for the Inuit goddess of the sea. The team of scientists, teachers and artists travels to the Arctic to bring attention to climate issues and the disappearance of sea ice, as well as to engage in outreach to the Inuit people.
Matzke has created and taught a number of popular classes for the summer Sally Ride Science Junior Academy and the Library NExT program, which offers free STEAM (science, technology, engineering and math) workshops in San Diego libraries. Her classes have included Arctic Mammals, Exploring Kelp Forest Ecosystems, Passport to the Pacific, Deep Sea Treasure Chest and Reel Disasters, a class about making disaster films based on real science.
Matzke is hoping to use the Arctic expedition to build understanding between young Inuits and San Diego teens. She will film documentary footage and use interactive games and curiosity-driven learning tools to discover more about the lives of Inuit girls. When she returns, she plans to create a course about Inuit culture for Sally Ride Science. “I would like to make a connection so my students can experience what it’s like to be born and raised in that icy and snowy world and how that world is radically changing,” she said.”
The explorers will travel from Nunavut in the Canadian Arctic eastward to Greenland aboard a chartered ship called the Ocean Endeavor. Along the way, they will reach out to Inuit students, with a special focus on girls.
Matzke is particularly excited about the outreach effort. “We’re bringing up a handful of robots, and we will offer workshops where students get to build and operate their own robot,” she said. “The Inuit students will get to learn about climate science and some of the new technologies being used to monitor environmental changes.”
The explorers will also take Inuit girls snorkeling in dry suits in a program called “The Ocean at Eye Level.” Many Inuits don’t know how to swim, Matzke noted, so the girls will have a chance to float safely as they “see the underwater world in their backyard for the first time.”
The outreach will go beyond education, Matzke emphasized. “Part of what we are trying to do is to serve as role models and to share things that are happening in other parts of the world. We are also there just to listen – to help these students and their families and friends face the many changes as the Northwest Passage opens, which will affect their traditional way of life.”
During the expedition, Matzke will use a hydrophone to monitor acoustics in Arctic waters. She noted that as the sea ice shrinks, orcas have recently appeared in what had been an isolated nursery for narwhals. “It would be amazing to witness the interaction of those species, although not so great from the narwhal point of view,” Matzke said. She will also look at how noise from increased ship traffic affects marine mammals, which the Inuit people depend on for sustenance.
The expedition has corporate sponsors, but each woman is also raising funds to help cover her expenses. Matzke has a GoFundMe page.
This is Matzke’s first expedition to the Arctic, but her research and documentary work have taken her to many other parts of the world. Previously, she has monitored plastic debris in the Eastern and Western Pacific Gyres and filmed underwater footage of sharks and whales. On one research project with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), she filmed humpback whales in Hawaii to help analyze their scarring patterns and shed light on how fisheries interact.
Matzke grew up on an island not far from Seattle. She fell in love with marine biology during a summer camp in the San Juan Islands. “It’s thrilling that now it comes full circle, and I get to teach camp at the Sally Ride Science Junior Academy, to share that passion with our next generation,” she said.
She has taught at the Junior Academy each summer since the program’s inception in 2016. She finds the work ultimately uplifting.
“With all of the research showing the damage we’re doing to the oceans by burning fossil fuels and overuse of plastic, it can be somewhat depressing to face the harsh reality,” she said. “But it gives me joy to inspire a new generation and see the excitement that they have about learning. I look at my students as the key to creating a new generation of ocean stewards.”
- Margaret King, Sally Ride Science at UC San Diego
This article originally appeared on the Sally Ride Science website.
Learn more about Cynthia Matzke’s work: