Skip to main site content.


The women of the Explorers Club celebrate expeditions to the ocean depths

By Ariel Field on March 15, 2016

On Saturday evening, under ocean-blue lights in the Waldorf Astoria Grand Ballroom, guests sipped bioluminescent cocktails while nibbling on green iguana meatballs (part of a special marine invasive-species menu, created by exotic-foods expert, biologist and club member Gene Rurka.) Dispersed throughout the crowd at the Explorers Club 112th Annual Dinner –themed “Oceans: Current of Life” — were some unorthodox guests, including a boa constrictor wrapped around Wildlife Chairman Mark Fowler’s tuxedoed neck and two tortoises creeping along the stage foraging lettuce tidbits, against a backdrop that included a newly unveiled, $1.8 million Triton personal submarine, capable of descending to depths of 3,300 feet.

The annual event’s 1,200 guests, from around the world, were dressed to the nines in a mix of black-tie and explorer outfits, prepped to celebrate expeditions to the ocean depths — one of the last uncharted areas of the earth. Luminaries, that included oceanographers Sylvia Earle and Walter Munk, rubbed shoulders with young explorers just beginning their careers. As marine biologist Gaelin Rosenwaks explained, the Club “is one of those incredible places where you meet and become friends with your heroes, and they look at you as a colleague.”

The Explorers Club was founded in New York City in 1904 as an international organization dedicated to “preserve the instinct to explore,” as well as the advancement of field research and the spread of scientific knowledge. Its members have included the first humans to reach the summit of Mount Everest, the surface of the moon and the deepest point in the ocean.

Although the Club did not accept women members until 1981, women have played an integral role throughout the Club’s illustrious history. At this point, 30 percent of members are female, according to Executive Director Will Roseman. “Two women have served as worldwide Explorers Club presidents,” he added, “and women comprise a large and substantial portion of our committee members and officers.”

Back in early-1981, ahead of the policy change that admitted female members, astronomer Carl Sagan wrote to every Club member, arguing for the inclusion of women. “Jane Goodall’s studies of the chimpanzee are the best known of the investigations which illuminate human origins,” he pointed out. “The undersea depth record is held by Sylvia Earle. The solar wind was first measured in situ by Marcia Neugebauer, using the Mariner 2 spacecraft. The first active volcanos beyond the Earth were discovered on the Jovian moon Io by Linda Morabito, using the Voyager 1 spacecraft. These examples of modern exploration and discovery could be multiplied a hundredfold.”

The Club’s archivist Lacey Flint notes that one of the Club’s past presidents, Roy Chapman Andrews, and his wife Yvette Borup were co-expedition leaders of the Asiatic Zoological Expedition for the American Museum of Natural History. Borup, a naturalist, provided the scientific expertise behind the enterprise. As a co-leader of the expeditions, Yvette pushed Andrews to recognize the role of women in exploration, and he did so in 1934 by creating the The Explorers Club’s Honorary Roll of Women.

Co-chairs of the Explorers Club annual dinner: marine scientist, filmmaker, and photographer Gaelin Rosenwaks (L), founder of the New York WILD Film Festival Nancy Rosenthal (C), and science video producer Emily Driscoll (R). (Katie Booth/Women in the World)
Co-chairs of the Explorers Club annual dinner: marine scientist, filmmaker, and photographer Gaelin Rosenwaks (L), founder of the New York WILD Film Festival Nancy Rosenthal (C), and science video producer Emily Driscoll (R). (Katie Booth/Women in the World)

Attending the dinner were a number of remarkable women explorers, such as marine biologist and co-chairwoman of the dinner Gaelin Rosenwaks. When she was just two weeks old, Rosenwaks was already aboard her first boat, as she traveled the world with her parents — reproductive endocrinologist Zev Rosenwaks and ceramic artist Stacy Rosenwaks. Gaelin knew at the age of 8, when she snorkeled for the first time in Bali, that she wanted to learn more about the ocean.

In conversation with Women in the World, she recalled, “I just remember seeing the colors and thinking the ocean is where it’s at.” Her first extended expedition was at the age of 22, on an icebreaker in the the Antarctic and studying Southern Ocean zooplankton, during which the crew endured challenging conditions and big seas. The trip took her through every range of emotion, from excitement to deep fear. “We do it for the thrill of not knowing what’s next,” she said, explaining her motivation. “I love going to the unknown and sort of pushing that level of comfort.”

Co-chairwoman of the dinner, science documentarian Emily Driscoll stressed that exploration is less often about discovering new terrains, and more focused on scientifically examining the content of one area in unique ways. She noted, “Once you go somewhere where no one has ever been… [it then] opens up a whole range of questions you could have never even imagined.”

You have an “infinite number of explorations that lead just from that one exploration.”

She recalled an exhilarating moment during an expedition of which she was a member: in order to get the final close-up shot, the team all crowded around a leaf, filming fireflies in the midst of a typhoon in Japan. “In that moment I found confirmation of the importance of sharing the same story, the plight of fireflies — though the crew and I didn’t speak the same language — through my colleagues and peers dedication to seeing the project through under extraordinary difficult circumstances.”

Master Scuba diver Ellen Cuylaerts after one hour snorkeling in ice water during a Harp seal expedition in March, 2015. (photo credit: Michael Maes)
Master Scuba diver Ellen Cuylaerts after one hour snorkeling in ice water during a Harp seal expedition in March, 2015. (photo credit: Michael Maes)

Not every explorer is solely inspired by scientific inquiry and discovery. Award-winning underwater photographer and diver Ellen Cuylaerts’ pathway to becoming an explorer was deeply personal, stemming from her experience in raising two autistic children. Cuylaerts believes her children’s disability shaped her into becoming a better listener and observer of life. At the age of 42 she turned her keen observational skills toward the field of exploration, notably joining the “Elysium, Artists for the Arctic” expedition. Cuylaerts and her team were honored at the dinner for this expedition (and their return of the Explorers Club Flag 101 to New York) in which they embarked “on a mission to the Arctic to document climate change and the challenges of the life in those regions.”

Master of Ceremonies Ann Curry’s career as a journalist was also personally inspired, in particular by her mother’s experiences as an internally displaced person in Japan during WWII. “She ran and struggled and starved. She was a child, I think 13.” Another motivation has been her interest “to understand what transforms us to see a person in another country [as family]… There is a deep capacity to see the other as ourselves.”

For Curry, exploration is the “human capacity for empathy.”

Master of Ceremonies and journalist Ann Curry. (Cynthia Allum/Women in the World)
Master of Ceremonies and journalist Ann Curry at the Explorers Club dinner. (Cynthia Allum/Women in the World)

A common theme that emerged is the degree to which exploration is as much an inward journey of reflection, as an outward, physical expedition. The first time marine biologist Sylvia Earle scuba dived, she thought she would only be observing the fish: “What was shocking was to discover that the fish were observing me.”

Earle noted we are all interconnected and interdependent within this “great network of curious creatures.” Through exploring the natural world, we “see ourselves in perspective as never before… Making peace with nature is fundamental to making peace with ourselves.”