Rachel Morrison, Scripps Institute, Hannah Spyksma, Impolitikal

Hannah Spyksma on losing Rachel Morrison, but not her legacy

I’m not going to lie; I’m really good at losing things. Last year it was my favorite winter coat and raincoat. This year, so far, there’s been a dress, a hat and a scarf, that I know of. I once left my bike downtown for a week before realizing – when I should have been riding it to an interview – that it wasn’t in my backyard. Half the problem is that I normally don’t remember until at least several days later that items aren’t where they should be. Most of the things I’ve lost are easy to get over and not worth worrying about too much. But every now and then I lose something that, well, just shouldn’t be lost.

As usual, it took about a week before I realized that my hard drive had disappeared last June. By that stage, I had traveled from central France to down past the Italian Riviera, with several stops along the way. I had no idea where it was or where I’d left it. Losing files, old university papers and all my music sucked. But losing 10 years-worth of photos, that was the gutting part. I’d lose clothes any day over memories. It was about this time last year that I was really coming to grips with how special some of the photos were that I had on that hard drive.

The reason stemmed from a few years earlier when I did something that was, for me, relatively crazy. In 2011 I saved all my pennies from my first job as a reporter and caught a plane from New Zealand to Fiji and from Fiji to Kiritimati Island. Pronounced ‘ki-ris-i-mas’, the trip took me to the world’s largest coral atoll, situated in the Line Island group of eastern Kiribati, almost due south of Hawai’i. There I met with the seven-person crew of the yacht Sea Dragon, a research vessel belonging to US conservation and education organization Pangaea Exploration.

I couldn’t dive, knew nothing about sailing a yacht, and my pale pakeha skin was prone to quick sunburn in the equatorial heat. But I was curious – an observer, a writer. So I spent my days onshore with a few others from Pangaea. We’d take the dingy from our boat into the nearest harbour and chat with locals, wander around the atoll and observe the challenges and successes of small island life, as they were told to us. Meanwhile, back on the yacht anchored just off the coast of Kiritmati’s main town, London, the other crew members dived every day. It was a world I really knew nothing about but one that I respected.

The team were helping PhD student and scientist Rachel Morrison to collect data about coral reefs for a research project she was part of at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. Each day Rachel would dive, underwater notebook and camera with her, to document the effects of human life on remote reef systems. Each evening, always with a smile on her face, she’d work on writing up her results.

After a week of exploring Kiritimati, a 24-hour sail and several days on another island, Tabuaeran, I ended my adventure in Hawai’i. It was a seven-day trip in open seas to get to Honolulu. I spent most of that time being terrified. Terrified that we would be swamped by waves, unsure of how the boat really stayed afloat and tired from the constant shift work of ocean life. In six hours-on, five hours-off shifts, Rachel the PhD student and my Danish shift-mate Jesper were the two people who really helped me through the voyage. Jesper would take the helm of the boat when we were on duty, me often laying on the deck feeling seasick and angsty, a limp and rather naive seafarer.

Instead of sleeping in her hours off-duty, Rachel would be working below deck, continuing to write up the results from her dives from Kiritimati and Tabuaeran. When Jesper needed a break from steering while we were on shift it was Rachel that would take over – not me. Together, her and Jesper really got me through the last few days of the trip. One smile and laugh at a time I slowly adjusted to being at sea, thanks in no small part to their kindness, understanding and hard work to make up for my lack of skills.

By the time we spotted Hawai’i on the horizon I was finally gaining my sea legs. Before I could really grasp what I’d experienced we were docked in Honolulu, the adventure over as I was finally getting used to boat life. At that point I was unsure in what ways the trip would impact my future, but knew they would be many.

Before parting ways everyone exchanged photos, me firing up my old laptop and downloading memories before I had had time to process their reality. I was sure to not just get the ones that everyone else took while we were ashore, but to also take Rachel’s. Captured during her dives, they were full of vibrancy and revealed an underwater world of life and color that was mesmerizing to me; snorkeler at best but definitely not a diver. Schools of tropical fish were set against electric blue water. Corals from pastel to hot pink and every other shade of the rainbow filled shot after shot. Sure, some photos included less interesting snaps of rulers against coral for her research, but they were just part of remembering the experience. Together, these pictures were a nod to the bigger scientific purpose of the trip of which I was part.

It was all of these photos that I lost last June. Sure, I could probably get most of them back if I asked around the crew. But losing them hit home as a small part of a much bigger loss. One that engulfs, dwarfs, nullifies the notion of misplacing anything that I’ve ever owned.

As I said, it was about this time last year – three or so months before I somehow left my hard drive somewhere around the Mediterranean coast – that I realized the significance of those pictures. On March 28 2014, Rachel Morrison was killed in a hit and run accident in suburban San Diego. She was walking home with a friend after going to grab a bite to eat. It was just a few days after her 27th birthday. The driver was drunk.

Losing my photos is not even slightly worthy of comparison to the many lives that have been, and continue to be impacted by the loss of such a wonderful human being. Rachel’s death is tragic. It’s funny how you don’t even have to have known someone all that well to feel their loss most days. I see that as being a testament to what kind of person Rachel was. One who lived life to the full; on that boat she really showed me that every moment is an opportunity to make the most of. I can’t even imagine the grief her family and loved ones must experience every day.

For me, the realization that those photos were gone was like sand slipping through my fingers. They were, in a way my only ongoing, physical links to Rachel and the world she was helping to explore, document and discover. I felt like my connection to her and the experience I had in 2011 somehow disappeared with that hard drive, memories slipping away into the water.

The first anniversary of Rachel’s death was a tender time. As I said, I didn’t really know her beyond the Pacific adventure we shared. But I thought of her family and friends a lot. It was around this time that I first caught a glimpse of a photo on Facebook that linked me back to her. It was one of those tropical, watery Line Islands reef scenes – like the pictures that I’d lost. I clicked the link with the photo and it lead to a media release by Scripps Institution.

The research that Rachel was part of collecting had just been released. Her work on that trip was part of a major study looking at the impact of human activity on reef systems around the world. Starting in the Line Islands in 2004, the study involved field data from 39 coral reefs across the Pacific, 24 from reefs near populations and 15 from locations uninhabited by humans. One of the key take-away points from the study is that each reef system needs a tailored management system, not a blanket ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. These results are important. They have a big impact for researchers and policymakers looking at how to protect Pacific Ocean ecosystems.

Reading through the key findings, I had this realization that it didn’t really matter that I’d lost those photos. Sure, it sucks. But here in front of me was something far more important than pictures. Here was a legacy. A few years ago I was part of a trip that had long-lasting effects – beyond photos, beyond memories. And that was in part because Rachel was there. Just being herself, doing her work, doing what she loved.

Her death will never be anything short of tragic, but her legacy – now that is something that exists outside of anything tangible or material. I’m passionate about the Pacific Ocean for so many reasons, and knowing that Rachel is still a part of helping to protect it through the contribution of her research, that knowledge is something I’m never going to lose.

The research paper A world without humans, is dedicated to the late Rachel Morrison.


Hannah Spyksma is a freelance researcher and journalist from Northland, New Zealand. She is currently completing a doctorate in journalism at Queensland University of Technology. Read more by Hannah.