Marine scientist Michelle Ridgway remembered for being outspoken conservationist

Michelle Ridgway sailing off Oahu in January 2016. The siblings were in Hawaii celebrating their brother’s 50th birthday. (Photo courtesy of Mark Ridgway)

Friends and family are mourning the loss of an Alaska marine scientist who died today as a result of a single-vehicle crash Friday.

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54-year-old Michelle Ridgway, who lived near Auke Bay north of Juneau, was an avid deep sea diver who did things her way.

The lifelong Alaskan was part of a Greenpeace-sponsored expedition in 2007 into the Zhemchug Canyon, a canyon in the Bering Sea is both longer and deeper than the Grand Canyon.

Ridgway was a private person, but an outspoken conservationist.

In 2013 testifying before an Alaska Senate committee, she opens on a personal note about turning 18:

“I had just used my first PFD check to get exactly what I wanted, my scuba diving license, so I could spend the rest of my life being a research diver,” Ridgway told the committee. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted and that’s all I’ve ever done.”

Ridgway was alarmed that a majority of legislators were poised to roll back a citizens’ initiative that prevented cruise ships from discharging wastewater less than 3 miles from shore.

“I have dived in this state from Metlakatla to Barrow and Nome hundreds of times. I spend a tremendous amount of my life underwater diving on the water, down to the depths of the oceans that we can reach by submarine in Alaska,” Ridgway said. “And I wish that this morning I could show you what I see, I could tell you what we’ve learned. It’s a phenomenally rich ocean we live in and it matters a great deal what we do to it.”

Ridgway’s closest family members recalled a woman who never pulled her punches. Her younger brother, Mark Ridgway of Juneau, said his big sister was, put simply, “a bad ass.”

“We just had a big family debate. My mother and father didn’t quite take to the term immediately when we would bounce it around,” Mark Ridgway said by phone from Seattle. “A friend of ours looked it up on the Urban Dictionary to show them that indeed, yes, the definition in the Urban Dictionary fits my sister to a T.”

Mark said her passion for the water started at a young age.

“We grew up on the water in Ketchikan and swimming around in tide pools and she was always fascinated by it,” Mark said. “She took that fascination and turned it into, I think, a life-long accomplishment.”

Other marine scientists knew her as a hard-charging and fiercely independent personality who accomplished a lot as her own boss.

“It’s difficult in this type of business,” Pete Hagen, deputy director of the NOAA marine lab at Auke Bay, said. “A lot of times larger companies or agencies are taking care of things and you have to hustle a bit and she was a hustler, no question about that. Michelle was impassioned about what she did and she was an excellent communicator and it’s a real loss, a real loss all the way around.”

Ridgway also was an educator who regularly worked with school kids on the Pribilof Islands. Her brother said her work with children made him the proudest.

“While she’s been helpful in making policy and decisions at very high levels, I think her most important achievement – to me personally – is that there’s a lot of kids out there who have a greater appreciation of the world they’re in because she was around,” Mark said.

After the crash Friday, she was medevaced to Seattle, but never recovered.

Jacob Resneck is CoastAlaska's regional news director in Juneau.

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