The Underwater Explorer

Oxford-based Grace C. Young is an ocean engineer and a National Geographic Emerging Explorer for 2017.

By Jonathan Manning
Published 12 Nov 2017, 23:45 GMT
Grace dances outside Aquarius, her underwater home for 15 days during Mission 31. Photo: Fabien Cousteau ...
Grace dances outside Aquarius, her underwater home for 15 days during Mission 31. Photo: Fabien Cousteau - Mission 31.

Grace C. Young discovered a love for the sea on sailing trips during a ‘nomadic’ upbringing across Ohio, Michigan, and the Washington, D.C. area, and divides her time between study in Oxford and fieldwork in the Caribbean.


What are you currently exploring?

I’m working on several projects while finishing up my PhD at Oxford. My thesis is focused on 3D mapping coral reefs and the correlation between reef structure and the health of its ecosystem. I’m monitoring the structural complexity of the reef, how it changes over time and how fish interact with the 3D structure. It’s an inter-disciplinary project involving zoology and engineering that requires a lot of time underwater studying the reefs off the coast of Honduras. I’m also helping to rebuild a deep-sea research sub, Pisces VI, that will allow us to discover more deep-sea species and better understand how ocean ecosystems function. Finally, I’ve just started a project developing new technology to enable us to genetically analyse sea creatures in their natural environment; this project is in its very early stages though.

What’s so fascinating about coral reefs?

Coral reefs are the mega-cities of the ocean. They host as much as 25% of all marine life, but they cover less than 1% of the ocean floor. One of the reasons they are able to do that is because they have this gorgeous structural complexity that creates niches for species to hide from predators or weather storms and a great surface area for a diversity of creatures to feed on.

Could your research lead to man-made reefs?

Yes, because if we understand how and why natural reefs do their jobs so well, we can make more functional artificial reefs. Right now a lot of coastal cities that are vulnerable to rising sea levels are looking to new seawalls for protection. Instead of plain concrete walls, we can design “eco-seawalls” that can help regenerate and host indigenous coastal marine life.

How much of your study involves fieldwork?

I spend three months of the year doing fieldwork and the rest doing data analysis or developing testing technologies here in Oxford.

Grace grew up in the US on Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes, and always loved the ocean.
Photograph by Allegra Boverman - MIT

Where do you conduct your fieldwork?

My doctoral thesis is based on a fairly remote island called Utila, in the Caribbean, a couple of hours by boat from mainland Honduras. There are only about 4,000 people who live there, and there’s just one main road on the island – you could take a golf buggy around the island in a day. We have a field station there that’s been operational for about a decade, operated by a conservation group, Operation Wallacea. We chose the site because it’s been monitored for several years so we have a baseline. 

It sounds like paradise!

Not quite - it’s like a glorified weight loss camp! We’re busy every day. I’m up at 7am, I grab breakfast of rice and beans at the dive centre, then put on dive gear and do three or four dives per day, each about an hour underwater. I never dive alone. I always have at least one dive buddy, usually a research assistant. We set up experiments and collect data. Last summer I did a lot of heavy lifting. We had a series of concrete tiles underwater that we were growing coral on – we had to put them down and then bring them back to the surface. Each tile weighed 2.5 kilograms (5 pounds) and there were 200 of them – that’s half a ton! I come back from fieldwork in the best shape of my life!

Just another day at the office for Grace!
Photograph by Mission 31 - Fabien Cousteau

How do you keep in touch with friends and family when you’re on Utila?

It’s not easy. I’m often working in areas with limited to no internet or mail services, so the typical means of communicating with loved ones aren’t available. Recently I’ve started to write a exchange a bunch of letters with close friends before I leave. We can read them each week I’m away and so stay in each other’s thoughts. I also periodically treat myself to an internet connection – although this sometimes requires literally walking across the island. That’s a serious commitment to sending a text message!

Do you miss important news?

I remember coming out of the water after a dive and someone told us that Britain had left the EU. I wasn’t sure I had heard right, but I had several more hours of diving that day, so I couldn’t confirm it. Because the internet is so spotty on the island, we rely on word of mouth for news. You cannot surf the news as normal. When I’m away people joke, “have you been under a rock?,” and I reply, “no, I’ve been underwater.”

On the plus side, being offline and away from everything allows me to really focus on my research. Also, I try to compensate for the isolation by reading more books and longer form works.

Have you even been in danger?

People often ask me this – weren’t you scared of living underwater? Of diving with sharks? Of sailing across the ocean? Of diving at night? The list goes on; but really, everything I’ve done is safe. I wouldn’t do it otherwise. Before an expedition we do risk assessments to think through every emergency situation and determine how we should respond. The danger really isn’t from sea creatures so much as it’s from carelessness,. Overall I’m probably in more danger walking across the street in Oxford.

Which equipment is critical for your work?

SCUBA diving gear is key. Humans are not meant to spend extended amounts of time underwater, so we rely on technology. I was also part of the first UK research team to use rebreathers for scientific diving; this allowed us to extend the amount of time we spend underwater on a dive and reach depths to 100 m.

Which luxuries do you sneak into your  luggage before every trip?

I always wear my Doxa dive watch, which I got on a previous expedition, called Mission 31, when we lived underwater for 15 days in the Aquarius habitat. The watch has an iconic orange face.

What was it like living underwater for a fortnight?

I remember sipping a cup of tea and looking out the viewport and seeing eagle rays swimming past, and a neighbourly Goliath grouper nosing up to the glass. I felt like I belonged in the ocean. Being an aquanaut is like being an astronaut - you really are in an alien world.

The ocean is surprisingly noisy. You hear boats above or fish nibbling on the reef. And sound travels faster underwater, so even sounds coming from miles away, you hear them as if they were right next to you. Yet it’s also strangely peaceful. I can envision having a holiday home on the ocean floor.


Grace enjoys a cup of tea with Fabien Cousteau, while living underwater for more than a fortnight.
Photograph by Mission 31

How has your career lead you to this point?

I grew up in the US on the Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes, and I always loved the water - swimming, sailing, or diving. At high school I focused on maths, physics and engineering on the robotics team. I then studied ocean engineering at MIT as an undergraduate - it was the perfect combination of my passions for engineering and oceans.

How has being a National Geographic Emerging Explorer helped your work?

It’s thrilling to be part of the Nat Geo family and it’s hugely impacted my work. I’ve met several collaborators and made new friends through National Geographic’s network. Right now, for example, I am working with another Emerging Explorer, Dr Keolu Fox, on the new technology for developing underwater DNA sequencing of sea creatures. I’m also working with Frederico Fanti, another from my Emerging Explorers class, on a possible expedition to study the ancient coral reefs in Italy.

Where would you most like to be right now?

I’m always happiest on or in the water; but I try to live in the moment, so I’m very happy here in Oxford – although I miss the ocean.

What’s your favourite walk in the UK?

Walking along the canal in Oxford; but I’ve also loved hiking Offa’s Dyke, the Pennines, Lake District, and South Downs. There are so many wonderful walks here.

Where’s your favourite UK beach?

I love the beaches in Wales, especially Freshwater West in Pembrokeshire; it's where Dobby’s Shell Cottage was built for the film of Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows.

What track are you listening to?

I like to listen to a lot of podcasts and audio books.

What’s your favourite book?

Right now I’m really enjoying listening to a book called The Gene – an intimate history, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. It’s a really well written and engaging account about the history of genetics.

How do you relax?

I like hanging out with friends.

Who would you most like to invite on an expedition?

I would want to pick three awesome people that I already do fieldwork with, Scott Waters, Vanessa Lovenburg and Max Bodmur.


Want to become a National Geographic Explorer? Learn how you can apply for a grant from the National Geographic Society.

Grace Waves to Fabien Cousteau and the Aquarius Crew, during Mission 31.
Photograph by Matt Ferraro - Mission 31

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