Sophie Hollingsworth scanned the Costa Rican beach for predators and egg thieves. She was on patrol that evening, tasked with guarding the nests of protected turtles.
At 17, Sophie had been working on yachts for two years and was currently on a charter along the Costa Rican coast. Over the years working on super-yachts around the world (slowly rising from cleaning lady to obtaining her 200-ton captains license) she developed a deep love for the ocean.
This was her first weekend off, and she wanted to volunteer to protect one of the turtle nesting sights of Costa Rica. She was finishing her rounds when she noticed a young woman digging into a turtle’s nest.
Sophie hurried over, ready to deliver a sermon on the importance of turtles to the ocean ecosystem. She mentally prepared facts about how Costa Rica’s coast is home to dozens of important nesting beaches for four endangered turtle species—leatherback, green, hawksbill, and olive ridley. When she came upon the woman she was unprepared for the human dilemma she was about to face.
When Sophie demanded to know why the young woman would steal from defenseless turtles, the woman said “I need to feed my babies”. While the woman seemed to appreciate the conservation information, her first priority was earning a livelihood and being able to put food on the table for her children. As the young woman walked away from the turtle nests, Sophie felt shaken.
“In the moment, I didn’t realize how this encounter would stick with me so deeply and encourage me to work on ocean and environmental conservation from a more pragmatic perspective.” Hollingsworth said. “Yes, we need to protect the turtles, but we also can’t criminalize people living in poverty for wanting to put food on the table for their kids. So how do we implement policies and create economies that allow us to do both? That challenge is what attracts me to the field.”
Eight years later, Sophie still thinks of that young woman on the beach in Costa Rica when tackling complex environmental problems. Sophie is the Founder of AquaAid International, an organization committed to improving sustainable access to water and health outcomes in remote indigenous communities. AquaAid has employed a community-based, participatory approach to provide thousands with sustainable access to to clean drinking water and basic sanitation in Nicaragua.
Her passion for adventure and discovering indigenous ways of life has led her to undertake descents of uncharted rivers in Madagascar, desert transect treks in Namibia, and ethnographic research in the Republic of Vanuatu. Her work has been featured by National Geographic and the United Nations. Sophie is also a Fellow of The Explorers Club and Post-Graduate Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.
“People sometimes say to me that I am incredibly lucky to be where I am in life at such an early age, to get to travel as much as I do, and have received all the accolades I have. But luck, has very little to do with it,” Hollingsworth said.
“Behind the success is working through late nights and weekends, declined social invitations, and a lot of failures and rejections. If you want something in life, be ruthless in your pursuit. I am where I am because I am standing on the shoulders of the female explorers who came before me. My goal is grow those shoulders even higher for the next generation of young women.”
It is critical to Sophie to have women celebrated in visible roles in science and exploration in order to inspire the next generation who can hopefully see more of themselves in the field. The more diverse the field the more likely we will be able to pursue challenges and questions beyond the narrow slice of humanity that science currently serves, Hollingsworth explained.
“When I was growing up there were not many female role models in the exploration space that looked like me, which gave me the misguided perception that women (particularly young women) couldn’t be explorers. In the past few years, I’ve been stepping out of my comfort zone and delivering public talks. In one of my first public speaking events, the front row was lined with young girls, aged 6 -12 sitting crisscross apple sauce on the floor. Their parents had brought them to my talk even though it was fairly academic and not particularly aimed at a younger audience– in that moment I knew, I was going to have to get over my fear of public speaking and do my small part to help inspire the next generation of young women to push boundaries to help garner more diverse representation of women in science and exploration.”
In order to encourage the global community to take a stand on ocean conservation, Sophie believes there are many different ways to educate and motivate people to care about the state of the world’s oceans.
“Some people are motivated to protect the ocean for their deep love of cephalopods while others are interested in ensuring ocean sustainability for financial investments – yet both are working towards the same goal. I find the collective work of UN Global Compact Sustainable Ocean Action Platform particularly impactful. UN Global Compact is bringing together global enterprises to implement transnational policies to ensure businesses are held accountable to their impact on the ocean, and developing more sustainable policies. By making economies sustainable we can continue to give back to the ocean for generations to come.”
In summarizing her goals for the future of marine conservation, Sophie underscored the importance of robust enforcement and delivery of our current regulations and marine protected areas.
“As exciting as it is to dream about a bountiful bio-diverse ocean a few degrees cooler than its current trajectory, I think we really need to focus on the delivery of the rules and regulations we currently have before we can begin to consider taking on more initiatives. If we can’t ensure enforcement of a marine protected area what good does it do to aim for a new one that lives only on paper?”