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One of six children in a family of modest means, Kathleen Crane didn’t get to travel much growing up. But she lived in Northern Virginia, within easy reach of the Smithsonian Institution and the National Geographic Society—and it was at a National Geographic lecture that Crane, around 10 years old, saw her future in the person of Jacques Cousteau. “I loved the idea of the beauty of the sea and the freedom it offered,” says Crane, now 51 and still living in Falls Church. “If you can’t travel, you dream. And I used to dream about maps.”

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By the early ’70s, when Crane was in college, some scientific fields had become relatively welcoming to women. But oceanography and geology, the subjects Crane found herself drawn to, were still dominated by men—and many old-timers, including plenty of military veterans and other he-man types, saw their work as too physically vigorous for “the fairer sex.” Many of their younger colleagues were men attracted to the footloose life of the sea; they tended to be aggressive, self-centered, and difficult to work with, Crane says.

In her recently published memoir, Sea Legs: Tales of a Woman Oceanographer, Crane writes about these challenges, along with other hurdles she faced both at sea and as the first woman (she believes) to major in Oregon State University’s geology program. When she was nominated for a prestigious scholarship given by an oil company, she says, several of her OSU professors wrote the company to insist that the prize go to a male student instead. Happily for Crane, the sponsor refused, and she got the award.

Crane’s career timing could have been better—or worse. Among oceanographers 10 years older than herself, Crane can think of only one woman who became a success. By contrast, if Crane had been born 10 years later, she’d have run into less trouble: “When I was a student, if you complained, you would have been labeled the perpetrator of the problem,” she says. “Today, you would have a good case for a lawsuit.”

Tales of obstacles put an angry edge on parts of Crane’s memoir, but she doesn’t stint on happier stories. In her 20s, on an expedition off the South American coast, she played a crucial role in confirming the existence of hot-water vents on the ocean floor. Later, she worked on scientific expeditions in regions ranging from the South Pacific to the Arctic, traveling in submersibles to the ocean floor. Crane was even invited to train for the first class of space-shuttle astronauts, though in the end she didn’t make the cut. During the past decade, she’s worked to secure international cooperation on environmental protections for the oceans, including measures designed to help prevent global warming.

Currently, Crane works in the Arctic Research Office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—a less dangerous assignment than some of her seaborne missions. Crane once survived a frigid storm off Iceland that forced her ship’s crew to raise a jury-rigged sail just to keep from capsizing. Five years ago, she was on a submarine in the Russian Arctic when the crew got word of an approaching storm. They surfaced the sub—over several hours, to prevent the bends—only to emerge in a churning cauldron of waves. It took several hours more for the mother ship’s crew to connect a cable to the sub; all the while, the smaller vessel was at risk of being damaged, possibly broken apart, by the big ship’s propeller.

Despite such scares, Crane enjoyed life on the ocean. “You can’t go to sea and not be affected by it,” she says. “In some ways, the worst part about it was coming back home, especially if you had no family. It was suddenly all empty walls and rooms, and having to worry about paying your bills. At sea, there’s always someone around you.” —Louis Jacobson