Emma Goodman Hickerson, intrepid marine biologist
By ALEC SMART
Photo: NOAA/John Embesi
Emma Goodman Hickerson, distinguished marine biologist and diver, was, until recently, Research Coordinator at the Flower Garden Banks Marine Sanctuary in the Mexican Gulf. She’s now back home in Sydney, swimming with sharks whilst assessing which way the current flows for her future endeavours.
Emma grew up in St Ives, during a time she says was “pretty sleepy compared to now”, attended St Ives North Primary and St Ives High School, and eventually emigrated to Texas, where she pursued an outstanding career in marine research and discovery.
She remembers a childhood “running wild around the bushland with my brothers and neighbourhood friends, picking enormous bouquets of bush flowers for visitors, playing tennis and ‘forcings-back’ [kick-to-kick] in the cul-de-sac, cricket on the driveway, street parties at the park, catching cicadas in the summer, coming in at Mum’s yell for dinner, and getting smothered with brown vinegar after a particularly long sunny day at the beach to combat the sunburn.”
From an adventurous lass who enjoyed outdoor sports and activities, why did she choose Marine Biology for a career (which she considers more of a ‘lifestyle’ than a job), much of which has been spent submerged in aquatic environments?
“Nature is in my blood,” she considered. “Our house backed up to Ku-ring-gai Wildflower Garden, and our parents immersed us in nature - spending weekends bushwalking all over Sydney, and out to the Blue Mountains.
“I’ve always loved biology, and thought many years ago that I’d like to study chimpanzees. But as I started considering a path of interest, I was drawn to the world of marine biology, driven by my love of the Sydney waterways and coastline…
Manta Ray silhouette. Photo: Emma Goodman Hickerson
“As an undergraduate and graduate student, I studied Zoology.. and took as many Marine Biology courses as I could.. As luck would have it, one of my professors specialized in sea turtles.
“As an undergraduate, I found a home in his lab, an experience that launched me on a trajectory of field work, first in Costa Rica, studying Olive Ridley sea turtles on an arribada (mass nesting) beach, Playa Nancite, and then, as a graduate student, studying loggerhead sea turtles at the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, in the Gulf of Mexico.”
While studying at Texas A&M University in 1990, Emma simultaneously began scuba diving courses, advancing to a highly skilled level then leading dive trips. Eventually, after initially counting fish, then working voluntarily, she was promoted to Research Coordinator at the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary (FGBNMS) in the Mexican Gulf.
Panorama of a Flower Garden Banks coral formation. Photo: Emma Goodman Hickerson
FGBNMS consists of 17 different reefs and banks within 19 separate boundaries, inside 415 square kilometres of critically protected marine habitat. It is located approximately 160km south of the Texas and Louisiana border, in the north-western region of the Gulf of Mexico.
“I held the position of Unit Diving Supervisor for 15 years, safely overseeing thousands of dives,” Emma said. “I have, myself, logged over 1500 dives, the majority of which took place in the sanctuary.
“I have also contributed to over 85 scientific publications, and many outreach and media articles and films. I’ve been trained as a pilot for small one-person submersibles (Deep Worker and Deep Rover) and trained and lived underwater as an aquanaut...
“I’ve coordinated over 200 research cruises covering a wide variety of investigations,” she continued, “including exploration and characterization of mesophotic habitats, long-term monitoring, fish and coral surveys, water quality, ocean acidification, coral coring, coral spawning, invasive species eradication, and hurricane and bleaching response.”
Humpback whale near Tonga. Photo: Emma Goodman Hickerson
In 2014 Emma was inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame. This highly prestigious honour recognizes the achievements of outstanding women in the many fields of diving; celebrating leaders and innovators whilst promoting opportunities for females divers.
“I was quite taken aback after learning of my nomination.. and very nearly requested that it be withdrawn! I was stunned to learn that the nomination was successful, and I continue to be incredulous and humbled by the honour bestowed upon me, and forever thankful for the friendships this sisterhood has led to.”
Now that she’s back in Sydney, what marine-related projects is she working on for this next chapter of her life?
“After a 37-year hiatus living in Texas, it is turning out to be a major adjustment. With that said, other than catching up with family and friends, one of my first goals was to get underwater, as soon as possible!
“As I settle in, I’m casting my sights on the wealth of opportunities around me, to figure out where I might fit in with different marine science, outreach, and conservation efforts…”
Emma Goodman Hickerson pilots a deep water submersible for marine research.