International Women's Day: inspiring women in cruise
By Cruise International | 8 Mar 2022
As the world marks International Women’s Day, Kaye Holland meets the women setting the agenda for the future of cruise
For centuries, the only female you’d find on most ships was the carved wooden figurehead, affixed to the bow, that the sailors believed would bring them navigational luck. Fast forward to 2022 and it’s all change: the past couple of decades have witnessed some inspirational women make a real and lasting impact across the industry.
To celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8, we bring you six women – in fields from conservation to captaincy, culture and science – making their mark in the rapidly changing cruise world.
Jo Ruxton, ocean conservation ambassador, Aurora Expeditions
Film producer and plastic pollution campaigner Jo Ruxton founded Ocean Generation, an NGO on a mission to restore a sustainable relationship between humanity and the ocean. Jo has been hailed by Sir David Attenborough as “the person responsible for the plastic-free movement” and honoured with an MBE for her ocean advocacy.
Have you always been drawn to the ocean?
Yes. Growing up, I would read books about mermaids or water babies and when my family moved to Singapore in the ’60s, we spent every weekend in the sea. I then did a degree in marine biology and went on to establish the first WWF marine programme in Hong Kong before joining the BBC Natural History Unit.
Tell us about your time at the BBC.
I was at the BBC for 12 years and worked on Blue Planet, but always felt that we were only showing the beautiful side – not the rising levels of plastic finding its way into our oceans. I felt a duty to tell the true story so I left to work on my own documentary, A Plastic Ocean, and set up a charity, Ocean Generation, to spread the message of ocean conservation.
And now you have been named Aurora Expeditions’ first ambassador for conservation…
It’s an absolute honour. Cruise has been engulfed by various reports of damaging behaviour, certainly around coral. It’s time we had another look at this. The industry depends on the ocean being healthy, and that’s why this initiative is so important and why I am delighted to be involved.
What challenges have you faced in your career?
Being sidelined as an older woman. At the BBC I was told: “You will never get higher than a producer. Everyone is happy with your work, but you are an older woman.” Mature women are frequently overlooked, underestimated and ignored in all elements of life.
When you’re not campaigning for the oceans, what do you like to do?
Cold water swimming in Cornwall. I moved here a few years ago and, for the first time in my life, I felt at home. I don’t want to be anywhere but Cornwall – although I am looking forward to a voyage to Antarctica next year aboard Aurora’s newest ship, the Sylvia Earle.
Who would you love to invite?
My two heroes: [marine biologist] Sylvia Earle, who has devoted her life to protecting the world’s oceans, and Sir David Attenborough. Mind you, David has been there so many times he’d probably say: “Not Antarctica again!”
Verena Meraldi, chief scientist, Hurtigruten
Mexican-Swiss biologist Dr Verena Meraldi was born in Mexico City and studied at the National University – the largest university in Latin America. Verena started working for Hurtigruten as a lecturer on board Fram in 2007. In 2018, she became the cruise industry’s only chief scientist.
Tell us a little about your role as chief scientist at Hurtigruten.
It is my duty to oversee the line’s Science Program, firstly by supporting the scientific community. We do this by offering our ships as research platforms. Secondly, by inviting guests to participate in specific Citizen Science Projects aimed at increasing awareness and creating ambassadors to contribute to the preservation of our planet’s most vulnerable regions, communities and wildlife. I also represent the cruise line in international scientific gatherings, where I introduce our ships and the potential they offer as platforms for temporal and spatial research studies in remote, difficult-to-access areas.
What attracted you to expedition cruising?
I’ve always had an inquisitive mind and when the circumstances allowed me to visit Antarctica for the first time in 2007, I jumped at the chance. I have been hooked ever since. I realise how these unique, fragile areas have the potential to channel change in the behaviour and attitude of those who are lucky enough to join our expeditions.
What do you love most about your job?
Seeing the surprise and wonder on our guests’ faces when they discover something they weren’t expecting to see, such as phytoplankton, which is responsible for producing half of the world’s oxygen. I’m always amazed and encouraged by guests’ desire to learn more and then commit to doing whatever they can to protect the ocean and environment. It’s priceless.
Critics claim that cruise ships impact the ocean and environment. How do you respond to this?
Everything we do has an impact on the environment. What’s important is what we do about it. Also, seeing is believing, and the best way to encourage people to do something about climate change is to witness it first-hand. We guide and encourage our guests to change their behaviour in favour of the preservation of our planet through education and by setting an example.
Lenty Kenis, assistant shore excursions manager, Holland America Line
Belgian-born Lenty Kenis joined Holland America Line (HAL) in 2016, having caught the cruise bug at the tender age of 12 following a family cruise around the Mediterranean. After studying tourism, she started her career as a reservations sales agent in HAL’s Rotterdam office, before swapping dry land for life at sea as an assistant shore excursions manager.
Tell us about your current job responsibilities.
I take care of all the excursions in each port of call. This involves keeping in contact with local tour operators, setting up the system for bookings, assisting guests with enquiries, dispatching the tours in each port, and then auditing them so we can continue to offer high-quality shore excursions. I love helping guests choose the right tour for them, and then seeing their smiling faces upon their return to the ship.
What do you love most about life at sea?
Travelling to amazing places – standouts include Australia, New Zealand, Greenland, Iceland, Alaska, Greece, Israel and Hawaii – and getting to explore and experience them via the excursions we sell, while meeting new people.
Conversely, what is the most challenging aspect of ship life?
Being away from home and not seeing my friends and family for six months at a time. However, this is offset to a degree by the fact that I get a new family: when you spend so much time together on board, your colleagues become family. When the opportunity presents itself, we’ll head ashore together or enjoy an after-work drink at the crew bar. It’s important that we’re there for each other, as we’re all a long way from home and loved ones.
It’s not uncommon for women to still be heavily outnumbered on board…
That’s true, but we are all equal and women shouldn’t be put off pursuing a career in the cruise industry. Most of the women on board work within the hotel department, but you will also find a few in the deck or engine department. I hope that will change and more women will pursue a career on the seven seas.
What would you tell women considering a career in the cruise industry?
Let nothing stop you. There are various roles on board and I’m sure there is one that would fit you. Working on a ship is almost addictive – visiting new destinations, meeting guests and working with different colleagues on each contract.
Belinda Bennett, captain, Wind Star, Windstar Cruises
Saint Helena native Belinda Bennett made history when she became the first black female captain of a cruise ship – the 148-passenger Wind Star, one of Windstar Cruises’ three luxury yachts. She’s also a recipient of the highest honour in the UK merchant navy: the Merchant Navy Medal for Meritorious Service. However, her career at sea hasn’t always been smooth sailing.
Did you always set out to work in the cruise industry?
I actually worked on a private yacht in Monaco for two years and wanted to stay in the yachting industry. However, after earning my Masters Unlimited Certificate, it transpired that I was a little ‘overqualified’ and an apparent threat to what was a very male-dominated yachting industry.
Tell us about the difficulties you have faced and how you overcame them.
I’ve encountered both racism and sexism over the years, but I have refused to let it ever be an issue. It’s not my problem, it’s theirs. As I tell my guests on board: “I am a woman who has had to work twice as hard, so that makes me twice as good, right?”
What do you enjoy about working at Windstar?
The company’s ships and the intimate atmosphere on board – you get to meet and greet guests and crew alike. And there are fabulous places that smaller cruise ships, unlike larger vessels, can call at. It’s the perfect cruise line for me, and for any guest who wants to get ‘off the beaten path’ a bit.
Do you see yourself as a role model for other women?
I am starting to now, having received so many lovely comments and messages from around the world. I set my personal goals in life, which I have achieved so far through hard work, dedication and a strong support network. It’s been fun ending up in the headlines and sharing my story, but it’s been incredibly exciting and gratifying to hear that I’m inspiring other women to forge similar career paths.
Any advice for women wanting to follow in your footsteps?
Don’t be afraid to come to sea. You get to travel the world and are paid to do so. When you put your mind to something and you really want it, you will work hard for it. And if you really, really want it, no matter what obstacles come your way, you can and will overcome them. If I can do it, anyone can.
Jenifer Austin, founder of oceanagenda.com and godmother of Princess Cruises’ Enchanted Princess
Jenifer Austin spent nearly 14 years at Google, where she jointly led the team that launched the first virtual map of the ocean, before starting oceanagenda.com to bring together diverse groups to support holistic ocean stewardship. In recognition of her contributions to ocean conservation, the keen scuba diver was recently chosen as one of three godmothers of Enchanted Princess.
Congratulations on becoming a godmother to Enchanted Princess. What does the role mean to you and how did it come about?
Being a godmother of Enchanted Princess means taking a protective role over the ship and its crew. We all gathered for an event to christen the ship and I said prayers for its protection. I think this is very important and there’s an ancient tradition around it. I am a Pisces, so have always had a connection to the sea. The opportunity came about because I am a member of The Explorers Club [a society dedicated to the advancement of field research, scientific exploration and resource conservation], and I served last year on the Women’s 40 Committee, celebrating 40 years of women being in The Explorers Club.
What’s next for you in terms of ocean conservation?
The next big focus for me is to help improve investment into ocean and climate start-up companies. The EU has led the way in requiring that companies invest in climate-smart technologies. In the US it’s very difficult for ocean and climate start-ups to get traditional venture capital investment, so there’s a gap. We need new technology.
Have you encountered any difficulties in your field to date?
In science, I found it a difficult environment as a woman. In business I was bullied, paid dramatically less than male colleagues, refused promotion, had my job taken over while on maternity leave and saw my projects given to men – who were then advanced on the basis of them. Inspired by what I went through, I have supported women and men and tried to be the change I want to see in the world, like Gandhi.
What do you consider your proudest achievement?
My two children, who I’ve tried to teach about the ocean and climate and why it’s important. I’m also proud of launching the first virtual map of the ocean in the consumer products Google Earth and Maps. This has allowed billions of users to discover the ocean without a snorkel.
After years of scuba diving all over the world, what are the travel essentials you always pack?
Fun fact: I make my own meditation essential oil perfume blends through my company, Ahana Gold. These are must-packs for me: I put the scent in my travel mask for a touch of peace in transit. I also take along my Muse 2 meditation headband to track my brain wave activity while I meditate – after all, I am a neuroscientist.
Kate McCue, captain, Celebrity Beyond, Celebrity Cruises
Captain Kate McCue needs little introduction. The Louboutin-wearing skipper became the first American woman to captain a cruise ship, the 2,158-passenger Celebrity Summit, in 2015. She went on to captain Celebrity Equinox and is now in charge of an even larger vessel, the 3,260-passenger Celebrity Beyond, which is slated to launch in April.
Do you remember when you decided that you wanted to pursue a career in cruise?
My parents took my brother and me on our very first cruise, a four-day voyage to the Bahamas, when I was 12. When we were packing to go home, I said to my dad: “I want to be a cruise director when I grow up.” And my dad replied: “You can do anything you want to do in the world – including drive the thing.”
What does becoming the first American woman to captain a mega-ship mean to you?
Becoming the first American woman to captain a cruise ship was a goal I set as I was rising through the ranks. There is an advantage to being the ‘first’. For me, it meant I could write my own rule book and define my position the way that I wanted to, by being authentic and bringing a sense of self to the captain’s role.
Do you think women are represented in cruise leadership?
When it comes to leadership representation in the cruise industry, one name comes to mind above all others: Lisa Lutoff-Perlo. As Celebrity Cruises’ president and chief executive, she has made such a positive impact in recruiting underrepresented minorities, including women, into this industry by being a positive disrupter for change.
What is the next big focus for you?
My focus for 2022 is to introduce Celebrity Beyondto the world. She isn’t just a ship or an amazing destination in and of herself. While her hardware is spectacular, what sets her apart is her software – our incredible crew members. They make me so proud, every single day, to work with them.
It looks like you’ve been having a lot of fun on TikTok…
I see it [TikTok] as a way to let your goofy out whereas Instagram is my digital photo album. At the beginning of the pandemic cruise ships didn’t have the best representation in the media, and what was frustrating was being on board and knowing the amazing things we were doing. Social media was a way I could highlight this.
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