Just over a year ago, on the wind-swept shores of Mexico’s Pacific Coast, a young woman stood in the surf and looked out towards the horizon.
Only 24 hours before, she’d been in Antarctica, one of the coldest and most impenetrable places on earth. A place where, in the Autumn, the Southern Polar Lights make the sky dance above the changing colours of the snow algae, blooming in hues of pink and green.
Now though, as the outline of a boat sails into view, she smells the salt air and readies herself to board for a journey which will take her to one of the most hostile, rat-infested places in the Pacific – Clipperton Island.
Katherine Dunlop, 27, is a scientist, researcher, scholar and diver. She’s also an adventurer.
“I had such an amazing experience on the expedition, it wasn’t like anything I had done before,” insists Katherine, brushing a wild tendril of hair behind her ear. “I’ve been on science trips before, but this was something different.”
Dressed in an ocean-blue T-shirt, cycle shorts and hiking boots tied with scraps of bohemian cloth, Katherine looks every inch an explorer.
She’s already climbed aboard our Blog Boat with complete ease and seems perfectly happy to be floating along a canal in Glasgow.
“I never thought the canal in Glasgow could be so exciting,” she laughs. “I spent a lot of my early childhood in Ruchill, so I know the canals quite well.”
Katherine studied for her PhD in Glasgow and it was her relationship with the city, and those in it, which led her to attempt what is now being hailed as one of the most innovative expeditions in the world of science today.
“I first heard of it through an artist I met in Glasgow called Minty – Minty MacDonald,” explains Katherine.
“I’m a marine biologist and I’ve been based at Glasgow University for three and a half years now doing my PhD in developing underwater cameras systems to monitor fish populations.
“It’s really important in a Scottish context with the development of marine protected areas, because usually scientists will use trawling to gather up the fish to get their data which is destructive.
“In protected areas though, of course, that’s not allowed, so they need to have a good method to monitor the fish which won’t hurt them. I collect the images and build mathematical software to work out their numbers.”
Katherine’s ability to use these cameras underwater led her to a partnership with Minty, to assist with the artist’s own project on the history of the Clyde.
In what might possibly be the bravest attempt by anyone living in Glasgow, the two women dropped Katherine’s cameras into the Clyde to see what they could see.
“It was really, really murky but we saw a couple of eels,” smiles Katherine. “It still worked out great for her project.
“Getting to know Minty though, she found out about the Clipperton Project which was running its first venture out to Clipperton Island in the middle of the Pacific – 1250 kilometres from the Mexican Coast. She was the one who let me know of it.”
Taking a gathering of artists, scientists, historians and writers from all over the world, The Clipperton Project launched them all on a boat together towards the island.
In a groundbreaking move, the project brought creativity and science together and asked them to learn from each other.
“The Clipperton Project got together artists and scientists to go to this isolated island to learn from each other about their different ways of approaching similar research,” explains Katherine.
“Scientists and artists from all over the world applied. One of the artists at Glasgow Sculpture Studios was chosen and I was lucky enough to get in, too.
“I used my camera systems to look at the fish fauna on the coral reefs – fish that aren’t found anywhere else in the world. I felt like I was more excited about the learning, having all this input from different areas.”
Clipperton itself has a reputation as one of the most treacherous islands in the Pacific with only two possible landing sites for ships to moor near her.
It has no drinkable water and after being deserted by its last residents in 1917, is now only largely home to poisonous crabs and rats left over from sinking ships.
It does, however, have unique fauna – and worryingly, is a perfect example island for scientists wishing to study humanities impact on the world.
As Katherine explains: “Two things that made the biggest impression on me was when we first arrived. We’d been travelling for eight days on a sailing boat. We hadn’t seen any other boats at all, then suddenly there were four massive Tuna trawling boats on the reef.
“They should have been miles away and it was a shock to see it happening. As a scientist you hear about it and you know it goes on. But to see the destruction in front of you was a really big impression on me.
“The second thing was that the island was covered in plastic.
“This beautiful island, so far away from humanity, was covered in plastic bags, bottles and rubbish.
“It was rubbish that had washed up there from all over the world. You could tell by the writing on the labels that it had come from many different countries.”
As the Clipperton Project summarised in their findings: “Clipperton Island allows us to reflect upon the impact man is having upon the environment in a location that has never sought the presence of humans, but instead has ceaselessly rejected it.”
The research and findings of Katherine and her team are now going into an education project which is about to go on tour throughout Scotland’s waterways.
“Bringing those stories back to people to make them aware of their impact on our oceans is so important,” explains Katherine.
“I’m now involved with Floating Lab as part of this, which the Clipperton Project set up as an education tool.
“We’re travelling the water throughout Scotland this summer and this weekend we’re in Glasgow. We’ve got cycling expeditions where people come along the canal to where we have a canal boat moored at Applecross.
“We have workshops and events on the boat such as underwater cameras and plankton netting where kids can see and collect beasties from the canal.
“We have creative mapping and unconventional orienteering – nothing ordinary of course. Plus we have all the artists and scientists on the boat so they can talk about the adventures they’ve been on.”
Launching at Applecross canal in Glasgow as part of the Glasgow Science Festival, the Floating Labs will move around the country, eventually ending up in Edinburgh using a canal boat donated by Scottish Canals.
The first events include an explorer’s course at Lambhill Stables on June 22 and underwater cameras at Maryhill on June 23 before the boat heads to Clydebank and Bowling Basin and eventually Edinburgh in September.
“And then I’m off to California,” exclaims Katherine. “My mother never knows where I’m going to be next,” she says with a grin.
“I’ve just finished my PhD so I’m going to be working at Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California, so I’ll be working there as a deep-sea marine biologist there in the Pacific.
“I always love coming back to Scotland though and she always reminds me how great she is.
“I think I’ll keep travelling and adventuring though for a while yet.”
And with five major oceans in the world to explore, there’s no doubt this Glasgow girl will have a wealth of treasures and adventures to discover.