Surviving trauma and saving the ocean
By Leonie Sherman
Only days before Governor Newsom issued a shelter-in-place order, less than four months after returning home from sailing across the Atlantic Ocean, Rikki Eriksen fled the Golden State for the Caribbean. “I’d rather get stuck on my boat in St. John,” she explained two days before she made a hasty departure. “I can keep working and be closer to my family there.” She’s still working as Program Director for the California Marine Sanctuary Foundation, devoting every day to protecting California’s network of 124 marine protected areas, only now she’s doing it from her 44-foot boat in St. John, instead of her usual office above Abbott Square in downtown Santa Cruz. “I found my happy place all by accident,” she enthused in a recent email. Nobody who knows her is surprised. Transforming adversity and challenge into growth and opportunity is sort of her signature move.
Eriksen grew up on the water. Summers were spent on a sailboat in Denmark with her grandparents, winter break was devoted to sailing in the Caribbean with her parents, while the school year offered swimming and snorkeling on Florida’s east coast intracoastal waterway. “My backyard was a playground, we had sharks and rays and manatees and sea turtles and crystal blue water,” she explains. “And I watched that system choke to death, starting when I was 10 or 11. I used to run around as a teen pulling real estate stakes out of the ground. I realized that those of us fortunate enough to grow up there had to do something to protect the place.” But by the time she reached college, she was a surfer girl, coasting by with mediocre grades. “I had so many advantages, but I wasn’t giving back.”
Then at the age of 19, Eriksen was kidnapped from a shopping mall by a serial killer. After being held captive and tortured for three days, she decided to fight back. The resulting melee was scrappy and brutal, but she managed to escape into the bathroom of the motel where he’d taken her. She locked the door, crawled into the bathtub and waited for him to shoot the lock off the door and kill her. He left her for dead. Eventually she crept out of the bathroom, wrapped in a bloody bed sheet, and sought help from the motel clerk. “I thought about so many women who are trapped in slavery all over the world and drew strength from them to get me through,” she says. “I also realized the privileged bubble I had been living in.”
The following months were chaotic. Her father enrolled her in a six week long Outward Bound program including a three day solo. People at school pointed and whispered about her; she went into witness protection in Europe. She struggled with survivor’s guilt. “I would obsess about why I survived when other women who seemed more worthy had perished,” she admits. She realized that getting through this ordeal gave her the chance to work to protect the planet and help other women. “I realized I’d never saved a baby harp seal, or met Jacques Cousteau,” she says with a sigh. “I felt like I’d just been wasting my life.” The trauma of that event never left her. Developing a toolkit for coping allowed her to transform the pain. Instead of letting trauma define her, she let it inspire her.
While under witness protection in the UK and France, Eriksen earned straight As and, subsequently, an invitation to be a field assistant at a tropical ecology program at the University of Florida. She finished her degree where she started it, this time as a star pupil. Just two years after the incident in the shopping mall, she was chosen to help set up a year long program in Belize protecting peccaries, tapirs, monkeys and jaguars. While recovering from malaria in the field camp she met a professor who invited her to apply for a Master’s Degree at Duke University in what became their Nicholas School of the Environment. Fresh out of Duke she was hired as a Marine Scientist at Virgin Islands National Park.
While living the idyllic life of a tropical island marine protector, Eriksen got married and had a son. By the time her son was four months old, her marriage had disintegrated. Instead of licking her wounds, she moved to Hawaii, newborn in tow, as a single mom. But when the US Geological Survey invited her to come back to the Caribbean to get her PhD on their dime, she couldn’t refuse. She worked on marine protected areas, lived off grants, raised her son and completed her PhD in record time. Her boss, initially hesitant about taking on a single mother, was so impressed with her drive and focus that during her PhD defense he joked that he would only hire single mothers in the future.
After completing her PhD in 2005, Eriksen was offered a postdoctoral position at a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) fisheries lab in Santa Cruz, and she’s called Santa Cruz home ever since, aside from two years as a professor at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji. She’s worked as the Director of Marine Programming for the California Marine Sanctuary Foundation since 2010, coordinating with thousands of partners across the state to protect California’s breathtaking and precious marine legacy. “We work hard to get to know every bait and tackle shop, every West Marine, every dive shop throughout the state,” she explains with a satisfied smile. The team at the CMSF works with the shops to disseminate information about how their users can help protect the oceans. “We don’t preach to people, we put information where they already are, we communicate through conduits they are already plugged into.”
And her dedication seems to be paying off. “California’s newest parks are underwater,” Eriksen explains. “We should be rocking proud of what we’ve accomplished in this state. Our marine protected areas represent a global model for successful protection.”
Despite rewarding work, a supportive community and a tricked out Sprinter camping van, 2019 served up major challenges. Her mother was in and out of the hospital, her aunt had Alzheimer’s and she watched her father get cancer and waste away in six weeks. “My life literally fell apart,” Eriksen explains. “I had to admit, to myself and others, that I needed help. I couldn’t power through the pain with sheer grit.” So she read books, she listened to podcasts on mindfulness and laughed at herself learning yoga. “I had to go back to the strength I learned all those years ago.” And she had to take a break. “I told my boss I needed something to help me find my passion again.”
So she followed the advice of friends and co-workers and applied for a spot on eXXpedition, a female-only cooperative sailing venture that will circumnavigate the globe examining the causes of plastic pollution. Spanning two years and 38,000 nautical miles, eXXpedition brings together 14 women on a 73-foot Bermuda Ketch. The journey is divided into 30 legs. The women on board, who hail from diverse backgrounds all over the world, work in teams to identify creative grassroots ways to stem the tide of plastic pollution. After a life changing ocean voyage, they return home, ready to educate and inspire their local communities.
With her sailing and science background, Eriksen was a natural fit. She joined the boat for one of the longest legs of the journey, from the Azores to Antigua, over 2,200 nautical miles across the Atlantic Ocean. The crew, who would be in each other’s pockets for the next five weeks, met on October 21. There was an author, a photographer, a women’s advocate, a government bureaucrat, a teacher, a scientist, a skipper, the first mate, a representative from the plastic industry, and Eriksen, the marine biologist. They met as strangers and parted as best friends.
“We shared 17 sunsets and sunrises, ate 55 packets of biscuits, and conducted 300 scientific samples.” Eriksen says with a laugh. “We danced, we cried, we laughed, we cranked winches, we got sick. We did all kinds of safety drills. In every port we went ashore to do outreach in schools, in malls, in yacht clubs and ministries. Nobody ever yelled on the whole trip,” Eriksen reflects. “It was interesting to see that an all female crew cooperated instead of competing. You’d hear laughter, or these hushed amazed silences. This was by far the best crew I’ve ever sailed with.”
“The ocean was gorgeous every day, it looked amazing,” explains Eriksen. “But our surveys revealed a plastic soup. The water was filled with micro particles.” They found a plastic spoon 1,200 miles from land. “We were seven times more likely to encounter plastic than food a marine mammal could eat. When baby fish mistake plastic for food, they eat it and die. Then there are fewer big fish. They are eating plastic, we are eating plastic, we all have plastic in our systems!”
Plastic is designed to last forever, but we use it to make products that are designed to last for a couple of minutes. The top three culprits are packaging, transportation and construction. Because plastic is in almost everything we use, tackling the issue of plastic pollution requires a multifaceted approach. There’s not a single solution, but hundreds of solutions that boil down to decisions we make every day. Changing our decisions when shopping for cars, furniture or building supplies makes a difference. Talking with vendors and restaurants makes a difference. Fighting for policy change makes a difference. Progress is measurable. In Eriksen’s hometown of Santa Cruz, just over half of all plastic goes to the landfill, but 30% remains in use, 6-7% is recycled and 8% is incinerated.
Still, worldwide, an estimated 11 million tons of plastic trash are dumped in the world’s oceans every year. Plastic is the single biggest contributor to ocean pollution. “But plastic is not the enemy, insists Eriksen. “We designed it. Society demands it. We all use it.” Which means we need to take responsibility for it. After five weeks with eXXpedition, Eriksen returned larger than life, more on fire than ever about empowering women and protecting our oceans. She has some straightforward tips for how you can protect our oceans from the plastic menace.
For starters, avoid plastic wherever possible. Use glass or bamboo instead. Buy from companies that don’t use plastics and frequent Zero Waste stores; make good consumer choices. Take a few moments when shopping to ask stores about their plastic use and offer some simple alternatives, to show businesses that consumers care about plastic pollution. Finally, work with local non-profits on ocean conservation and engage with local governments to ban polystyrene, single use plastic bags and bottles.
Despite enduring more than many of us can imagine, Eriksen feels extremely blessed. “Right now, some woman, somewhere, is enduring something more excruciating and horrific than anything I’ve been through,” she explains. “Maybe they survive, maybe they don’t. Maybe they have lifelong disfiguration, which I don’t. I’m lucky, honestly, very very lucky. Lucky to live in a first world country and have access to tools that helped me find my passion, lucky to devote my life towards making the planet a better place.”
After a lifetime at sea, Eriksen has settled into her happy place. She continues to protect marine treasures, while enjoying them and finding a healthy live-work balance. And though more challenges may loom in her life, past experience suggests she will be able to transform them into growth as well. “I’m not always optimistic,” explains Eriksen, “but I am glad that it was me that got kidnapped rather than someone else.”