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Women Explorers: Tierney Thys, PhD

Someone once asked me, ‘What’s the one tool you would want to give any student?’ And I said, ‘Hands down, mask and snorkel.’ Ninety-eight percent of the living space on this planet is ocean. It sure helps if you can see it!

National Geographic Explorer, Filmmaker, Ambassador of our Oceans

Inspiring and educating guests aboard Lindblad ships for 15 years

From the moment Tierney Thys made landfall from her “watery mothership,” as she puts it, she has been exploring the world around her. Like any born explorer she’s been asking questions for as long as she can remember—and finding that every question she has answered has led to better questions. Get Inspired By Photos, Videos, Webinars, Stories, And Exclusive Offers. Sign Up


In the late 1980s, Tierney’s innate curiosity brought her to Brown University where she earned a degree in marine biology, followed by a Ph.D. in biomechanics from Duke. One day she came across a photo of a fish on her grad school advisor’s door and was completely captivated. It was a Mola mola, or giant ocean sunfish, and Tierney knew she had to learn more about this enormous, oddly shaped, and seemingly awkward creature. Thanks to several grants from the National Geographic Society, Tierney has done significant research by satellite-tracking these elusive fish in oceans around the world.

Tierney’s enthusiasm, passion, and dedication for our great blue planet is infectious. Whether giving a lecture or creating visual media projects, she has a unique way of bringing stories from the sea out of the murky depths and shining a scintillating light on them. Not only will you be riveted by creatures you may have never even heard of—from tiny species of plankton to her beloved sunfish—but you’ll actually begin to care about them, deeply! And that’s one of her key motivators. Tierney has devoted her career to creating a sense of awe about the underwater world, in hopes of inspiring people to get involved in protecting our seas and all the incredible diversity that lives within.

As a Research Associate at the California Academy of the Sciences, Tierney regularly shares her current projects via TED talks and through her longtime role as a National Geographic Explorer. For the past 15 years she’s been inspiring and educating guests aboard Lindblad-National Geographic ships, and as the former Director of Research for the Sea Studios Foundation she produced two PBS series, Strange Days on Planet Earth and Shape of Life. With her multiple platforms and projects, Tierney has successfully advanced her powerful message of marine conservation and awareness.

If all that weren’t amazing enough, she is also a private pilot, a scuba diver, an ultrarunner, an avid traveler who has been to 60 countries, a board member for the innovation think tank, Think Beyond Plastic, and she serves as Daily Explorer in the popular kid’s online game, Animal Jam, which has a lifetime total of 130 million registered players. We proudly salute this incredible ocean ambassador for being an inspiration, a role model, and for opening our eyes, minds, and hearts to the mysteries of the deep.

We asked Tierney Thys:

Why do you explore?
When it comes to the natural world, life carries so many secrets within it. It’s endlessly exciting and satisfying to use our growing arsenal of modern detective tools, like satellite tracking tags, genetics, stable isotopes, high-speed high-definition underwater cameras, and many more, to answer deeper and more profound questions. 


What is your favorite Lindblad Expeditions destination?

Since there are so many phenomenal destinations, that question is an extremely difficult one to answer. The Northern Channel Islands and Catalina Island off central/southern California hold a special place for me. Topside and underwater, these islands are simply gorgeous. Filled with life like endemic foxes and tiny succulents, they feel so remote and yet they are close neighbors to the metropolis of Los Angeles.


What I most love about these islands are that they provide the perfect place to teach about the wonders and fragility of islands and are full of surprises! (For example, a pygmy mammoth fossil, dating back to 12,000 years, was found on Santa Rosa island in the early ‘90s and just recently, researchers also discovered an ancient dugong fossil dating back 25 million years!) These islands showcase the stepwise process of ecological restoration—from being ranch lands to becoming refuges for endemic species like foxes, from being overfished waters to transforming into fish-filled networks of marine protected networks brimming with California sheephead (Semicossyphus pulcher) wrasses, rockfishes, and abalones. 

I also adore the sensational Galápagos Islands which have served as a living laboratory for scientists ever since Darwin’s first visit way back in 1835. I study ocean sunfishes off Isabela Island there and have made many non-fish friends in these enchanted islands over the years. I’m also partial to the coast of Baja particularly when the grey whales are calving, Antarctica and its stunning landscape of white and blue, the many islands of the Caribbean particularly Bequia and Dominica, the calving glaciers of Alaska… oh too many amazing to choose!  

What is the dream exploration you haven’t done…yet?  

I would have adored to live underwater in an underwater habitat (perhaps the Aquarius Reef Base Habitat in Florida) with a team of six female explorers in 2020. This expedition would serve as a 50-year retrospective of the all-female Tektite project led by the amazing Sylvia Earle in 1970. We could explore ocean changes since the 1970s as well as the role female scientists and explorers hold now as opposed to those decades ago. This truly would be an epic and timely expedition! 

What advice would you give the next generation of women explorers

End each day asking yourself five questions: What was your highlight? What did you do for others? What did you learn? What are you grateful for? What can you do better?  It’s also a great idea to keep a journal. 

What would people be surprised to know about you?

I know far too many inappropriate jokes… I don’t know why I seem to remember those jokes, but I just do! They do come in handy however—I hitchhiked around Australia during college and joke-telling helped me get all the way around that amazing continent.