Marine researcher who died in crash leaves legacy of passion for conservation, education

Michelle Ridgway, 54, spent three decades researching, teaching in Alaska

It seems that everyone has their own moniker for marine researcher Michelle Ridgway.

 

In the days since the 54-year-old Ridgway sustained fatal injuries in a single-car crash this past Friday, her family has heard it all. Comments, condolences, pictures and tributes have come from friends and colleagues around the region.

Phrases such as “true warrior of the deep,” “great ocean warrior” and “diving inspiration” have popped up in relation to Ridgway. Her younger brother Mark Ridgway said he’s been overwhelmed by the response.

“I didn’t realize the depths of her accomplishments,” Mark, three years younger, said.

Ridgway lived in Juneau for nearly 30 years, being heavily involved with both marine research efforts and conservation organizations. Her career included discovering new species, educating students and exploring some of the world’s most mysterious locales.

This past Friday, at about 4:07 p.m., the Juneau Police Department found Ridgway’s car in a ditch near 22 mile on Glacier Highway. The vehicle was heavily damaged and Ridgway was found unresponsive on the ground near the crash. She was transported to Bartlett Regional Hospital and then was medevaced to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, and was later declared dead. According to JPD, alcohol appears to have been a contributing factor in the crash. There were no further details available; police are awaiting toxicology reports that will take several weeks to obtain before closing out the case.

In 2007, Ridgway explored the Zhemchug Canyon in the Bering Sea, the world’s longest marine canyon. It was part of a Greenpeace-funded expedition. The three-week project, which examined both the Zhemchug and Pribilof canyons, which was the first recorded scientific expedition into the canyon system according to an Empire story at the time. Ridgway was one of five scientists to make the trip, and she went as deep as 1,757 feet.

In 2016, Ridgway helped identify a new species of beaked whale. Two years earlier, Ridgway provided key research on a whale that washed ashore on St. George Island in the Pribilof Islands. It was one of only eight known specimens of that species in the world at the time.

Ridgway co-authored a paper about the whale species. One of the other co-authors of that paper, Phillip Morin, is a research molecular geneticist for the Southwest Fisheries Science Center, and said he remembered Ridgway’s dedication and enthusiasm.

That opinion seems to be widespread in the marine research community, as National Marine Fisheries Service Veterinary Contractor Kate Savage said she’ll remember Ridgway’s passion and commitment to her work. Savage said her co-worker at NMFS, Verena Gill, called Ridgway a “great ocean warrior,” which Savage thought was fitting.

“I knew her well enough to say she was a dynamo and a strong, positive, almost indescribable force in the scientific community,” Savage said.

Sherry Tamone, a professor of marine biology and the chair of the department at the University of Alaska Southeast, was also impressed with Ridgway’s energy when she first met her 15 years ago. They were both avid divers, and when Ridgway found out, she would come visit Tamone and share some of her finds with Tamone.

“She just had an amazing amount of enthusiasm for marine conservation,” Tamone said.

The two became good friends over the years, and Ridgway would give demonstrations to Tamone students from time to time about piloting underwater vehicles and working in the field.

Over the years, Ridgway took her educational skill outside of Juneau as well. Collaborating with the Alaska Marine Conservation Council, she directed various marine science camps in remote communities to try to get children interested and involved in marine science prior to high school. Mark said he was most proud of the way his sister shared her knowledge with the children.

Tamone said Ridgway was always making time to share her knowledge and skills, and now that she’s reflecting on Ridgway’s life, Tamone hopes to carry on that passion.

“This woman was bent on communicating science,” Tamone said, “and now that she’s died, I am just inspired to do her work.”


• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or alex.mccarthy@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter @akmccarthy.


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