Ghislaine Maxwell is looking for solace in saving the world's oceans

After a lifetime of diving and marine exploration, a hobby has become a calling for Ghislaine Maxwell, who is on a mission to clean up the seas

As a little girl, Ghislaine Maxwell watched Jacques Cousteau on television while having her tea and was mesmerised by what she saw. Thus began a lifelong love of the ocean. Then she actually started scuba diving when she was nine, off the coast of France. 'Back then you didn't need a qualification of any sort,' she recalls. 'Today it would be impossible. I've done some quite technical dives and you can never underestimate the skills you need.'

She wanted to be a marine biologist, but her father, the corrupt multimillionaire newspaper proprietor and businessman Robert Maxwell, didn't think that would be a career option for her. Instead, Cap'n Bob, as he was sometimes mischievously dubbed, wanted her to go into business.

But Ghislaine, now 53, never stopped being fascinated by the ocean. 'I've always been in and around boats and would always take myself off to an ocean whenever I had some time.' Her father named his yacht after her, and it was while cruising aboard the Lady Ghislaine in 1991, shortly before his business empire collapsed amid allegations of fraud, that he drowned — either by suicide or by accident or, so some have alleged, as the result of assassination.

In September 2012, Ghislaine founded the TerraMar Project, an environmentalist non-profit organisation dedicated to marine protection, thus partially fulfilling that career urge of her youth. 'I've always joined various marine expeditions. I became more and more involved, then I decided to do it full-time about fifteen years ago.

I went around the world twice, I did pristine-reef work with Nat Geo, looking at the last remaining areas which have no human contact and helping to count sharks, I got licences to pilot submarines, pilot helicopters, pilot ROVs and AUVs, which are remote and tethered vehicles off the back of boats for doing underwater exploration, and I did lots of technical diving all over the world.'

On one of her earliest submarine dives, about 300 miles off the coast of Costa Rica, she was having visions of following in the footsteps of famous marine biologists and oceanographers and discovering a new creature, when she experienced a miserable epiphany. 'I got down to about 1,500 feet in a submersible, where it's very dark, and switched on the lights, only to be confronted by a plastic clothes hanger. I didn't even see a fish or a coral. I'd like to tell you I was very sanguine about it, but I actually burst into tears. From that moment I decided it wasn't sufficient to be involved in expeditions. I needed to do something more tangible and concrete.'

She stopped going out on expeditions shortly after that and instead began talking to academics, including one of the foremost legal experts on the high seas. 'I was a bit embarrassed that I didn't know anything about the subject. I was rather shocked at myself, having gone around the world twice and been on so many expeditions, so I had less of a reason not to know things. I had been at sea all that time, for upwards of five months, and I didn't fully comprehend the legal ramifications, the history of the ocean or how much of the planet it covers. I was honest enough to tell her that I knew nothing, at which point lots of reading material descended on me.'

Starting with the declaration of Byzantine Emperor Justinian in AD 533 that 'by the law of nature… the sea, and consequently the shores of the sea… are common to mankind', there was a thread of legal thinking that culminated in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982, which established that those parts of the ocean 200 miles from any shoreline constitute the global commons, something that belongs to all of us. 'I found this idea super-exciting,' says Maxwell. 'So then I was looking at what was happening in the high seas and found that it's not a very pretty picture. Paradoxically, because it belongs to all of us, there's no effective governance, no structure.' TerraMar's goal is to change that and to create a 'global ocean community' based around the idea of shared ownership of the high seas.

The TerraMar Project, which is a registered charity in the UK and a fully compliant non-profit in the US, is not a campaigning organisation per se. Rather, it is an education platform, since the next couple of generations will drive the necessary change, and also a web-based provider of curated content, tools for engagement and ways to connect marine professionals with one another, as well as with their fellow citizens of TerraMar.

Ghislaine has spoken nine times at the UN but emphasises that she is only one of an army of people who have persuaded it to adopt a stand-alone marine sustainable development goal that will allow for public and private partnerships and unleash the billions of dollars needed to get the job done. TerraMar's next goal will be to promote the clean-up of ocean-borne plastic waste.

Robert Maxwell's death was followed by the scandal of his alleged theft of ’440 million from the Mirror Group pension fund, the bankruptcy of her brothers Kevin and Ian and their prosecutions for fraud. 'It was a very hard time and also a sad time,' she recalls, 'but wallowing in self-pity was not an option for me. I miss my dad. I was very close to him. Nobody wants their family to be on the front pages of the newspapers every day in such horrible circumstances. I was young when he died and I wasn't involved in the business per se. I don't fully understand all the things that happened around that story.' Does that explain her emphasis on TerraMar complying with the necessary regulations? 'I can't help what my last name is. I don't want to have to worry at the back of my mind.'

The youngest of nine siblings, two of whom died before her father, Ghislaine has never married or had children, although she has thirteen godchildren as well as numerous nephews and nieces. She lives in New York and her last long-term relationship was with Ted Waitt, the American tech billionaire whose Waitt Foundation focuses solely on ocean conservation. Waitt had four children and she went out with him for several years. Prior to that she enjoyed a relationship with Jeffrey Epstein, the American financier who was subsequently convicted of soliciting an underage teenager for prostitution. Ghislaine has vehemently denied widely publicised stories that have attempted to tie her to Epstein's case by suggesting that she introduced girls to him.

Ever since she won a gold star for good behaviour at school aged eight, Ghislaine has been a striver. She now takes a test or passes an exam every year. Having qualified as an emergency medical technician, she has been called upon to help a stricken individual three times. She has done an online paramedic course and is studying Russian. Her main activity is as an entrepreneur, which again has its roots in her youth. Her dad refused to buy her a car when she was close to her seventeenth birthday so, eager to drive, she made some dresses, sold them for around ’300 and bought herself a Mini.Then, when she left Oxford, she started a business called Maxwell's Corporate Gifts, which provided leucites and other mementos for long-service awards and to commemorate M&A deals.

'I've started and incubated and sold lots of small businesses,' she says. 'I have some that I'm incubating now. For example, I've helped patent a new medical device, inbuilt scrubs that you wear on your person, to reduce the rate of infection in hospitals. I don't think I'm employable per se. Also, I love the freedom of being an entrepreneur.'

After founding TerraMar and seeing it through its first few years, she intends to move on. 'I'm not doing this for some personal legacy. I need to take myself out of it. I consider myself fortunate to have found something that I have loved doing. I just don't think it would take that much to manage our global commons more appropriately. If I was a kid today, I'd be jolly annoyed to see how irresponsible we are.'