Antarctic Champion

Lora Shinn

The moment she saw her first iceberg, marine scientist Cassandra felt a visceral compulsion to protect Antarctica. She helped create the Ross Sea MPA in 2016, and continues to contribute mightily to preserve Antarctica’s icy beauty.

Image © Cassandra Brooks

Lora Shinn

Image © Cassandra Brooks

On January 20, 2006, Cassandra Brooks flew from California to Chile’s southernmost tip. She boarded a ship to cross the infamous Drake Passage, often called the “worst ocean in the world,” where a 10-meter swell is considered normal.

Three days into her journey, she came out on deck one blustery morning at dawn. The dark waters were below freezing, and a frigid wind nipped her face. At that moment, she saw her first iceberg, a ghostly finger pointing skyward.

Cassandra fell in love with Antarctica right then.

“I never felt so alive, so humble, and so connected to the entire world around me. I had a visceral compulsion to protect this place.”
The moment she saw her first iceberg, marine scientist Cassandra fell in love with Antarctica’s icy beauty · John Weller

Cassandra would go on to contribute mightily to efforts to preserve Antarctica’s icy beauty, performing field research there and working as an Antarctic policy advisor for international conservation organizations. In 2016, she helped create the Ross Sea marine protected area (MPA), the world’s largest such area and among the planet’s healthiest, most diverse, and most productive ecosystems.

The Ross Sea marine protected area (MPA), created in 2016 after more than a decade of hard work, is the largest MPA in the world to date · John Weller

These days, Cassandra lives in Boulder, Colorado, where she’s an assistant professor in environmental studies at the University of Colorado Boulder—but she’s still hard at work finding solutions to protect Antarctic and Arctic environments, with recent grants from the Pew Charitable Trusts and National Science Foundation. She also serves as science faculty for Homeward Bound, a global, women-in-science leadership initiative set against the backdrop of Antarctica.

So how did a little girl from rural New England end up as one of the most prolific experts on the southernmost landmass on the planet?

When she isn’t out in the field, Cassandra lives in Boulder, Colorado, where she’s an assistant professor in environmental studies at the University of Colorado Boulder · Cassandra Brooks

From forest to fieldwork

Cassandra grew up in northeast New Hampshire, one of five kids of a Polish immigrant mother and a father with French-Native American roots.

“The woods were foundational for me,” she says. She spent her childhood observing and catching water striders on the stream flowing next to her home.

As an adult, she built on that foundation. Over the summers, she began studying clams and crabs and working at aquariums. After college, she rode fishing vessels, worked in fisheries, then eventually headed to California for her Ph.D.

After college, Cassandra rode fishing vessels and worked in fisheries before heading to California for her Ph.D. · Cassandra Brooks

Since then, Cassandra has combined marine science, environmental policy, and science communication to study urgent issues and encourage solutions. She has presented research at international conferences, participated in conservation commissions, and added film, podcasts, and writing into her repertoire, as well.

One of the most powerful of Cassandra’s media projects is 2012’s The Last Ocean, which won more than a dozen awards for its depiction of the Ross Sea. As an international outreach coordinator, Cassandra promoted Ross Sea protection in conjunction with the film. The Last Ocean was also where she met her future husband, photographer and filmmaker John Weller. Since then, the duo have worked together at the intersection of science and policy, publicity, and politics.

“I feel so proud of the work we did for the Ross Sea,” she says. “If it’s the one thing I’ve accomplished, I’ve made a positive contribution for the world. Now, there is this place that exists in Antarctica where we still have a thriving, healthy marine ecosystem with penguins, seals and whales, and fish—they survive against all odds in a place that is protected, and belongs to the entire world.”
Cassandra contributed to the work that secured the Ross Sea MPA in 2016, protecting a vast area of ocean that harbors diverse, thriving wildlife · Cassandra Brooks
The Ross Sea is home to three types of orca, including one type that many researchers consider to be a distinct species, commonly known as the Ross Sea killer whale · John Weller
The elegant Antarctic minke whale feeds on krill (tiny crustaceans) during the winter · John Weller
The whales, sea lions, and penguins of Antarctica migrate to points north during winter, as do most of the continent's well-insulated seals. But unique among Antarctic mammals, Weddell seals stick it out year round · John Weller
Because they evolved in such a remote locality, 97 percent of Antarctic notothenioid fishes (along with some of the other Antarctic shelf vertebrates and invertebrates) are found nowhere else on Earth · John Weller

The journey wasn’t always easy. The ships setting sail for Antarctica are primarily steered by and staffed with men.

“As a woman scientist, in so much research in remote field situations​, the ​power dynamic becomes toxic​. I haven’t yet been on a ship where women were in charge,” she says.

That will change soon, though: Cassandra just learned that she got a NASA grant for further Antarctic work, where all of the Principal Investigators are women.

Cassandra will soon be back in the Antarctic for further work, with a team of Principal Investigators that are all women. It will be the first time she’s been on a ship where women are in charge · Cassandra Brooks

Sea challenges

 “We’re killing the ocean, but we’re dependent on it for the food we eat, the air we breathe, and our climate,” Cassandra says. “When we acknowledge that dependency—and we must acknowledge it—we’ll develop better policies to protect the oceans.”

Doing so may require scientists to hone new skills—emotional ones, she says.

In the past, many scientists worried that they wouldn’t be taken seriously if they were vulnerable and enthusiastic. “But we study things because we love them,” Cassandra points out. That passion naturally lends itself to a more vocal role in policymaking. 
The Southern Ocean surrounds Antarctica and absorbs nearly half of the carbon dioxide that is absorbed by all of the world’s oceans. This plays a vital role in regulating the global climate · John Weller

Through gorgeous imagery and an authentic story, the public can also come to experience that love for wild, natural places, and maybe even replicate the experience Cassandra had aboard the ship, seeing Antarctica for the first time.

Cassandra believes gorgeous imagery and authentic stories are important mediums for sharing the magic of the ocean · Cassandra Brooks

Cassandra even named her children after Antarctica’s treasures: her daughter Adélie for the Adélie penguins, and her son Orion Ross, for the Ross Sea MPA. Their names reveal Cassandra’s hopes for the planet, too:

“I want my children to know they live in a future where the Adélie penguins and the Ross Sea are protected.”
Cassandra’s children are named after Antarctica’s treasures—her daughter Adélie for the Adélie penguins, and her son Orion Ross, for the Ross Sea MPA—reflecting her hope for a healthy future ocean · Cassandra Brooks
Learn more about Cassandra

Website · Twitter


Lora Shinn


Lora Shinn has written about sustainable living and pioneering environmental leaders for the Natural Resources Defense Council and numerous magazines and websites including Rodale’s Organic Life, Urban Farm, E-The Environmental Magazine, KIWI,, and more.

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