An Interview with Ailsa Ross, author of “The Girl Who Rode a Shark”

Can women be as adventurous as men? Why don't we learn about female explorers as much as we do about male?


Women are epic. Adventure calls to all ages around the globe, from young warriors to botanical painters. Females have significantly influenced history and continue to change the world today. So, why don’t we talk about them more?

From Lady Sarashina, the world’s first travel writer, to Freya Stark, the flower farmer who traversed Iran’s Valley of the Assassins, this book profiles adventurous characters—all of them female. I chatted with author Ailsa Ross about her brave new book.

Note: Answers have been condensed for clarity.

photoAilsa Ross

Q: How did you come up with the idea for this book?

A: In 2013, I was working at a travel start-up in Berlin. While I was there, I was doing a weekly newsletter about adventurers of the past. I could think of all these male names—like Champlain, Franklin and Blackbeard—but the only one woman I could think of was Amelia Earhart.

I knew there must be more female explorers throughout history. I began researching and became obsessed with the stories I found. I compiled them into a book that I would’ve wanted to read when I was younger.

Q: In the introduction to The Girl Who Rode a Shark, you explain how we’re all connected to these female adventurers. What is your personal connection to adventure?

A: I’m from Aberdeenshire in Scotland, but I moved to the Rockies in 2014. I live in Jasper with my partner, who works for Parks Canada. I try to get outside every morning. As a kid, I was a bit of a scaredy-cat. But to me, adventure is an attitude. It’s about following curiosity where it takes you. We all have different comfort zones, so it’s about pushing yourself—even if others wouldn’t consider it adventurous.

Q: In this book, you do a beautiful job of distilling complex times and places into simple, meaningful narratives. It seems like you tried to include women from diverse time periods and cultures. Was that on purpose?

A: I chose 52 women to profile—one for every week of the year!—but there were so many I had to leave out. Diversity in terms of geography was important to me. I contacted professors around the world and asked for stories about local women, especially Indigenous women, who I could include in the book. I wanted to cover each continent.

photoThe Girl who Rode a Shark

Q: Do you think there is a danger in focusing too much on the gender of these explorers?

A: That’s something I’ll have to ruminate on. I did try to include stories that don’t just say “this is amazing… for a woman,” but are amazing for anyone. For example, Diana Nyad is the only person, period, who’s swam from Cuba to Florida unassisted. Many of the adventurers in the book are interesting not simply for their gender, but because of their paleontology work or experiences as a tree top explorer, for example.


Q: Is there any one story in particular you think female readers of Explore will relate to?

A: Robyn Davidson trekked across Australia with her dog, camels and a sponsorship from National Geographic. Annie Londonderry left Boston on bicycle in 1894 to pedal around the world. And Kimi Wener, who the book is named after, is a spear fisher and free diver in Hawaii.

photoThe Girl who Rode a Shark

Q: What do you hope to accomplish with The Girl Who Rode a Shark?

A: I hope to inspire young people, especially girls, to get out there and explore more. If even one person reads the book and finds a story that means something to them, and that maybe encourages them to try something new, then my work is done.


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