It’s a chilly morning in Calgary and Susan R. Eaton is doing (figurative) back flips. The extreme snorkeler, polar explorer, geologist, geophysicist and conservationist has just received confirmation she will be leading hikes in the Antarctic and the Falkland Islands in November.
The news shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Eaton was named one of Canada’s 25 greatest female explorers in 2016 and one of Canada’s top 100 modern-day explorers the year before by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. Oh, and one of the world’s top 25 stylish scientists in 2016, as voted on by the science and design website Future-ish.
Eaton’s journey to the Antarctic this year will be the charismatic writer’s fourth visit, although the first as a guide and not as a geophysicist during an expedition.
“It’s the land, sea, ice interface, where cool stuff happens,” she says.
For someone who hates the cold, plunging into frigid waters — even in a polar-rated drysuit — to snorkel has become, if not routine, at least less daunting. Eaton scuba dived for 30 years in tropical seas before a diving incident in Belize uncovered a congenital heart defect.
After three days in a hyperbaric chamber, her diving days were over. The next time the Halifax, N.S. native jumped back into the water it was as a snorkeler, exploring the ocean looking from the top down.
“For me, the world just opened up. My focal point changed from seeing 60 to 160 feet down to the top 15 feet. My relationship with the ocean changed fundamentally once I became a snorkeler,” she says.
Deciding her 50s were going to be epic, Eaton quit her oil and gas job in Calgary and became an extreme snorkeler, exploring the light-filled upper five or so metres enthusiasts call the snorkel zone.
“If you want to get up close and personal with charismatic megafauna, as biologists call the whales, dolphins, the big stuff, they all breathe air so you encounter them in the snorkel zone. And because they have to come up to the surface to breathe, you have to be a snorkeler,” she says.
Oceans are a part of the Eaton family history. Her mother was a marine biologist and her father was a pioneer scuba diver in the 1950s, making extra money by salvaging brass fittings and other hidden treasures off sunken ships.
Eaton has snorkeled the rivers of Haida Gwaii counting salmon with local fishers, waded with 1,400-pound leopard seals in Antarctica and observed narwhals in the Arctic and belugas in Canada.
Her boundless curiosity about the planet and its oceans led her to mount the Sedna Epic Expedition to snorkel the Northwest Passage. The international team of women scientists, explorers and educators have run two expeditions, working with local communities to document the impact of climate change in the Arctic.
“It’s pretty extreme,” she laughs. “It’s extremely remote, extremely exotic animals, extremely exciting, extremely cold and extremely expensive to get to.”