Adventure used to be a man’s game. Now women like me are breaking new ground

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Human history is replete with tales of intrepid explorers who ventured into the unknown, driven by an insatiable curiosity and a desire to discover new frontiers, creatures and knowledge. But when the age of exploration truly began to blossom, it was often limited to those who held positions of power; such as kings, nobles, or military leaders. These individuals – almost exclusively men – had the means and authority to organize grand expeditions.

As a 36-year old female expedition leader – and someone who added a new dimension to my career path when I decided to dive in the great unknown after over a decade in Corporate America – I don’t exactly fit the mould. Then again, our concept of exploration has evolved rapidly in recent years. A different caliber of scientists, naturalists and storytellers of all genders are carving out space in a new era of adventure. Here’s how the change has taken shape:

A step back in time

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The aptly-named Age of Discovery got underway back in the 15th and 16th centuries, fuelled by advancements in navigational technology and the desire to find new trade routes. Explorers set sail across uncharted seas, braving perilous conditions and pushing knowledge boundaries. This resulted in the detailed mapping of new continents, the exchange of global goods, ideas and cultures; and also the establishment of damaging colonial empires. 

A new wave of scientific discovery then emerged during the early Enlightenment Era – panning the 17th and 18th centuries – with naturalists and botanists venturing to study the world’s biodiversity. By the 19th and early 20th centuries, the pursuit of education and fame had driven explorers to conquer the Earth’s poles.

Female explorers breaking the mold gave me something to admire and look up to

Facing extreme conditions and risking their lives, explorers such as Sir Edmund Hillary, Matthew Henson and Captain Scott opened up the world of extreme adventure in profoundly new ways.

Yet, historically, only wealthy or well-connected men could afford the costs associated with funding expeditions. These high-net worth individuals traditionally came from privileged backgrounds, with access to formal education and training limited to a select few.

Pioneers and rule-breakers

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However, the concourse of history has proven some remarkable exceptions to this backdrop of privilege. Perhaps the most ancient of these was the voyage to Australia nearly 45,000 years ago. Ancestors living on the Indonesian archipelago managed to navigate across numerous sea channels, some more than 60 miles wide, in order to reach the northern coasts of the land Down Under.

Another example is Polynesian voyagers, who, from around 900 AD onwards, trekked even more vast distances across the Pacific Ocean, using their knowledge of celestial navigation and currents. In more contemporary times, there were instances of sailors, writers or other experts from lower or middle social classes who made a name for themselves in the exploration community solely through skill and tenacity. Take Isabella Bird for example – the first woman to become a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and a prolific travel writer who saw the world. This was a rarity for a woman at the time she was alive, from 1831 – 1904. 

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Like Bird, there’s a cohort of standout women explorers, who—through the ages—have variously defied cultural expectations and risked society’s wrath to make their mark on history. I’m talking about pioneers such as aviator Bessie Coleman, war reporter Martha Gellhorn, mountaineer Junko Tabei, arbornaut Meg Lowman (pictured above left), astronaut Valentina Tereshkova and oceanographer Sylvia Earle.

These women and others formed the undercurrent of my appetite for adventure throughout my childhood. With their fearless ability to break boundaries (in terms of both global feats and social conditioning), they gave me something to admire and look up to.

When people tell you you’re crazy

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As a woman with all the benefits of a 21st Century upbringing and career, many of the hurdles faced by past female adventurers thankfully no longer exist. And yet, still, I encountered a fair level of criticism and cynicism in my attempts to plan my Edges of Earth expedition.

This two-year trip, currently underway, involves leading a group of storytellers, strategists and ocean experts to some of the world’s most remote, interesting and unusual dive sites. Together, we’re visiting over 150 coastal destinations across seven continents, to share positive ocean-focused stories that have been largely untold. Instead of harping on the bad news, we show how planetary decline can be restored, and inspire the next generation to explore consciously. 

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When I started planning this mission, I contacted seasoned explorers through my personal network. Their feedback was not encouraging. Some told me the project lacked scientific merit, which was frustrating as I had assumed we were well past the phase of needing to be a scientist or researcher to be considered explorers.

Other people told me that, due to my age and relative lack of experience, it just wouldn’t be possible to self-fund such an ambitious project. For a long time, these kinds of responses stalled me. But then I stumbled upon a quote from Larry Ellison, founder of tech company Oracle, that opened my eyes to a new way of looking at this. “When people start telling you that you’re crazy,” he said, “You might be on to the most important innovation of your life.”

To the Edges of Earth

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In mid-2021, I was accepted into The Explorers Club— a 125-year old, prestigious community of established and famed explorers. There, I met director of communications Kevin Murphy; one of the first (and only) people at the time to believe this expedition to be plausible. He connected me to progressive thinkers within the club who offered hours of their time to coach and mentor me. They introduced me to global scientists, conservationists, community leaders and indigenous stakeholders. With every new person I spoke with, my perspective kept expanding. The power of human connection single-handedly launched the Edges of Earth expedition. 

We’ve made connections with indigenous communities and highlighted women paving the way

At the end of 2023, my team and I were one of the few expeditions awarded an Explorers Club Flag, an incredible privilege to carry. This means while we are in the field, we represent the club, actively contributing to the advancement of human knowledge and doing our part as full-time, new age explorers.

Since being in the field for seven months, we’ve explored 19 locations and met with ocean experts of all kinds – from activists, conservationists, scientists, researchers, non-profit leaders and for profit founders. We’ve forged connections with indigenous community groups and highlighted women paving the way. In 2024, we’re heading to the Americas, Europe and the Arctic, with 2025 taking us back to the Eastern Hemisphere where this all began. 

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It’s an honor that I would never have thought possible when faced by naysayers. And it’s made me reflect on how far exploration has come. We’re now on-track to transcend the historical limitations of adventure and discovery. No longer just for scientists, royals, the military or just men, exploration is now a field that’s become accessible to a much broader group of people with diverse backgrounds and interests.

Whether it’s through scientific research, artistic expression, environmental advocacy, cultural exchange, exploration needs to continue to push beyond elitist or pre-set boundaries. When we work together, the future looks so much brighter. We need to support one another, leverage unique skills and respect varied perspectives – including from newcomers – in order to protect the natural world for generations to come.

Andi Cross is a growth strategist, professional diver and lead of the Edges of Earth expedition.

Got a story or adventure that could inspire a solo traveler like you? Tag @flashpack on social or email [email protected] to be featured. 

Photos: Adam Moore

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