EL-born geologist leads winning oceanography team

East London-born geologist Dr Rochelle Wigley has made history by being the first woman to lead a winning team in the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE competition.

Rochelle Wigley Pic: SUPPLIED

The competition requires teams to develop an autonomous underwater vehicle capable of transmitting high-resolution photographs and generating complex bathometric maps at depths of up to 4,500 meters.

Dr Wigley is currently serving as project director of General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans/Nippon Foundation (GEBCO-NF) Projects at the Centre for Coastal and Ocean Mapping/Joint Hydrographic Centre at the University of New Hampshire in the USA.

She was chosen to lead the GEBCO-NF Alumni team which entered the competition in 2016.

“This was a three-year long project where 78 people from 22 countries all worked together with a the single goal of a successful solution to the challenge set before us by XPRIZE.

“The alumni worked alongside industry partners, suppliers, academia and others to achieve this goal,” said Wigley.

GEBCO-NF managed to make it through to the finals which saw them travel to Kalamata, Greece for the final 24-hour ocean mapping challenge.

Finalists had to produce a five-meter horizontal resolution bathymetric map as well as high-definition images of biological, archaeological or geological features of the ocean environment.

In the given 24 hours, Wigley’s team managed to map 278km2, produced 10 high-resolutions and produced eight 3D surfaces of the sea floor.

As a result, they were crowned overall winners at a ceremony held at the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco on May 31. They were awarded $4m (about R58m).

The money will go back to the Nippon Foundation to invest in further ocean mapping initiatives.

DEEP DIVE: Dr Rochelle Wigley, centre, stands with members of the GEBCO-Nippon Foundation Alumni Team and partners at the International Hydrographic Organisation (IHO) in Monaco
Picture: REBECCA MARSHALL

“The competition meant so much to me on so many levels. We worked with so many skilled individuals that it was an honour. Our team is unique in its diversity of nationalities, education, culture, age, gender and colour.

“Our backgrounds and careers represent academia industry, national governments and non-profit corporations from around the world,” Wigley said.

“In addition, it showed the world the skills of the alumni in our training programme and the value of capacity building and that no matter what, passion and dedication wins out,” she said.

After graduating from Clarendon High School in 1986, Wigley pursued a BSc degree from Rhodes University where she majored in geology and chemistry. She achieved her honours in 1990 and went on to achieve a master’s degree in geochemistry from the University of Cape Town (UCT) in 1995.

According to Wigley, her interest in geology came from her time spent wandering the veld near her home with her grandfather.

In 1997 she was employed as the lead geologist at Werner Marine Research, a job she she held until August 1998. Wigley then moved on to serve as head geologist at Gal Marine until March 2000.

Wigley was accepted as a PhD student at UCT in 2005. and achieved her PhD in geology in 2005.In 2008, she obtained her Ocean Mapping Advanced Graduate Certificate from the University of New Hampshire in the US.

In 2012, she was appointed as the project director of GEBCO-NF projects at the Centre for Coastal and Ocean Mapping at the University of New Hampshire.

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