Sarah Auffret, leader of Clean Up Svalbard campaign, among 157 killed in Ethiopian Airlines crash during trip to discuss ocean cleanup at UN assembly


A British woman leading a large-scale campaign to reduce waste and clear trash from coastlines in Svalbard – where she was working only a few days ago – was among the 157 people killed when Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET 302 crashed Sunday, according to officials.


Sarah Auffret participates in a shore cleanup by cruise ship passengers during the summer of 2018. Photo courtesy of Quark Expeditions.

Sarah Auffret, a polar guide and expedition leader on cruises in Svalbard and elsewhere in the Arctic, was traveing to Nairobi to discuss efforts to reduce ocean pollution at a United Nations Environment Assembly meeting this week, according to the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO), where she worked based from its Tromsø office since May of 2018 as the leader of its Clean Seas Project. The campaign over the past year has included efforts such as getting a large number of cruise lines to eliminate single-use plastics  and vastly expand passenger-involved shore cleanups during voyages.

Prior to her trip to Africa, Auffret working on an awareness campaign in Scandinavia.

“I have been travelling across Scandinavia with ‘Chewy,’ a container chewed and scratched by a polar bear on the coast of Franzøya, Svalbard,” she said in a recent interview with the alumni office of the University of Plymouth, where she graduated in 2007. “It was picked up by the Norwegian Coast Guard during a clean up last summer and has become a mascot for Clean Up Svalbard. It was named by the community of Longyearbyen and will continue travelling to raise awareness.”

Reaction from dozens of tourism officials and others in Svalbard and elsewhere was swift and laudatory.

“The loss of Sarah is heartbreaking to the whole expedition cruise community and in particular to AECO where she was very well respected and did a terrific job keeping us all focused on the organization’s most important objective; safeguarding the environment where we operate,” wrote Jorn Henriksen, a Tromsø resident and director of expedition operations for Viking Cruises, in a message on AECO’s Facebook page. “I had the pleasure of meeting Sarah in Longyearbyen just a few days ago. She told me about life in Tromsø – she was looking ahead and seemed very happy with being a part of the wonderful AECO family.”


Sarah Auffret, left, holds “Chewey,” a plastic container chewed and scratched by a polar bear in Svalbard now used as a prop for a clean shores campaign by The Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO). She and AECO Executive Director Frigg Jørgensen, right, were at The University Centre in Svalbard in November for a presentation of the campaign. Photo courtesy of AECO.

Auffret was one of at least 22 people working for United Nations-affiliated agencies aboard the Kenya-bound flight, a route nicknamed the “U.N. shuttle” because of how often United Nations staff members take it, according to The New York Times. Flags at United Nations offices are flying at half-mast on Monday to honor the victims.

Auffret grew up in the UK town of Brittany and has lived in Australia, Germany, Argentina, Japan, Norway and Port Lockroy on the Antarctic Peninsula. After graduation she joined the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme, which focuses on internationalization initiatives and foreign language education. She was assigned to Naruto High School in Japan because of the town’s twinning with Lüneburg, Germany, assisting German exchange students and teaching introductory German classes for Japanese students.

A longtime interest in environmental issues led to her initiating a coastal cleanup movement in Naruto in 2010.

Such cleanups in Svalbard have grown significantly in number and profile in recent years among both environmental and tourism entities. AECO members have participated in various Arctic cleanup projects for nearly two decades, according to the organization, but the Clean Seas Project and Clean Up Svalbard projects that took full effect beginning in 2018 was a major expansion of the funding and number of member efforts.

“We know that at least 127 cleanups were completed by expedition cruise ships this summer, often in remote coastal areas where they can make a big difference,” Auffret said at the end of last summer, during which she participated in multiple cleanups.

She was scheduled to discuss the Clean Seas Project at the UN conference.

“We are shocked and heartbroken to learn that our colleague and dear friend, Sarah Auffret, was on the Ethiopian Airlines flight ET0302 which crashed soon after takeoff from Addis Ababa Sunday morning, with no survivors,” a press release issued Monday by AECO stated. “Words cannot describe the sorrow and despair we feel. We have lost a true friend and beloved colleague. Our hearts and thoughts go to Sarah’s family, friends and colleagues at this time of terrible loss.”

The crash minutes after takeoff was the second by a Boeing 737 MAX 8 passenger jets in less than five months where all aboard were killed. After a Lion Air flight crashed into the sea near Indonesia with nearly 190 last October, investigators said the pilots appeared to struggle with an automated system designed to keep the plane from stalling – a new feature of the Boeing 737 Max. Boeing is now facing intense question about the model’s safety, and multiple countries including Britain, China and Australia have announced they are grounding all such jets there until further notice.

A Norwegian Air spokesperson said the airline uses Max jets “all over our short- and medium haul network,” which according to its flight roster includes flights between Oslo and Longyearbyen. However, the current flight list at Norwegian and flight tracking websites show the airline’s other 737 jets are being used exclusively for Svalbard flights. Scandinavian Airlines does not have any Max jets in its fleet.