Marine biologist Sylvia Earle, a Rolex Testimonee since 1982, has been a pioneer of ocean exploration for more than four decades. Her mission has always been to explore, study and protect the planet's oceans. Now, with her initiative Mission Blue, she is igniting public support to safeguard marine Hope Spots.
Sylvia Earle is an acclaimed American underwater explorer, marine biologist, aquanaut, lecturer, author and a National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence. For four decades, she has been a pioneer of deep ocean exploration and has remained at the forefront of research as a marine explorer. As the founder of the marine technology company Deep Ocean Exploration and Research (DOER), she is also highly committed to developing the equipment that allows her and other scientists to make previously unexplored reaches of the ocean their laboratory.
In 1970, Earle led a team of aquanauts who lived for two weeks in an underwater laboratory as part of a US government research project, Tektite II, to study ocean life and the effects of living underwater on the human body. In 1979, she set the world untethered diving record, descending 381 metres (1,250 feet) beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean in a pressure-resistant JIM diving suit.
In 2009, Earle won a TED Prize, awarded to an individual with bold vision to spark global change. With TED’s support, she founded Mission Blue, which helps to establish protected areas named Hope Spots around the globe and to preserve the most critical parts of the ocean. The Emmy Award-winning Netflix documentary Mission Blue tells the story of Earle’s career and her goal of protecting Hope Spots.
Why did you become an ocean explorer?
It was never a conscious decision. I think all children start out as explorers, and some of us never stop. I became acquainted with the ocean when I was three years old and a wave knocked me over. The ocean got my attention.
What has held my attention all these years is the life in the ocean. It is a great sensation to dive, to feel weightless and that joy of not knowing what you’re going to see next, but it’s also about knowing that you’re going to see something wonderful every time you put your face in the water. It makes it irresistible. I can’t imagine not being an ocean explorer.
If we were to join you on one of your favourite dives, what would we see?
Well, one of my favourite dives would have to be 50 years ago, because the ocean has changed so much since then, however there are still great places to go.
I was recently diving off Isla del Toro, a small island close to Majorca. It has been protected for some years. There actually were big fish and a big school of barracuda. It just looked like a healthy reef, but around the world we have lost about half the coral reefs, 90 per cent of the big fish and a lot of the little ones too.
When I think of a place I really want to go diving, I just want a time machine to go back to the way it was, or to go forward to the way I hope the world will be through the efforts that people are making to restore health to the ocean.
What kind of major damage have you witnessed that you didn’t see in those early dives?
We’ve killed a lot of fish, really. Every year, close to 100 million tonnes of ocean wildlife are extracted, and you also have to take into account the destruction of the habitats which they come from. A lot is captured and just thrown away.
We used to think the ocean was so big, so resilient that we could not harm it. In a few decades, we have disturbed basic planetary systems; they’re interwoven and we are now realizing what their real value is. Many people still don’t understand that protecting the ocean means that we’re protecting ourselves.
What keeps you hopeful?
There is plenty of reason for hope. It starts with people understanding that we have impacts on the ocean and knowing why it matters. Armed with that insight, actions not only can follow but they are following.
For example, in Palau [an island country in the western Pacific Ocean]: 80 per cent of the entire exclusive economic zone is now a safe haven for wildlife and 20 per cent is managed so that the local population can draw on the ocean for their livelihood. The principal source of income is from tourism, which means not killing the fish, sharks or other creatures, but encouraging safe havens for them. That’s much more beneficial, and sustainable.
I became acquainted with the ocean when I was three years-old and a wave knocked me over. The ocean got my attention.
You are one of the lucky few that have actually lived underwater, 10 times, and most recently in 2012. What did you learn from living underwater?
That fish are individuals, like cats, dogs, horses and people. I should have understood it before, but it was catalyzed by spending day and night in one area getting to know individual fish. Every fish has its own face and own personality. It’s one of the miracles of life: the enormous capacity for diversity.
Understanding that took living underwater day and night. We got to recognize individual barracuda. Some were more aggressive and some were more shy. You get to see their behaviour and identify them. Not “an angelfish” but “that angelfish” who hangs out there, comes to the window, looks in and you recognize its face. It was a breakthrough.
You sound as if you haven’t lost what you once called your own childlike curiosity.
I hope not. Growing up is way overrated.
Is that childlike curiosity essential for a marine scientist?
That sense of curiosity is what makes us human. It leads to discoveries that we pass along from one generation to the next, wanting our children to have even better opportunities than we have had. Nowadays we are empowered with more insight, knowledge and understanding. Children grow up with a view of Earth from space; it wasn’t there when I was a child.
Yet, we’re just beginning to explore the ocean floor. The history of life on Earth is mostly an ocean history. When you pick up a bucketful of water from the ocean, you can see a cross section of life on Earth. The ocean is really where the action is.
No one person can do everything, but every person can do something. Together, we really can make a difference.
Why do you think the oceans did not get the attention they deserve?
It is getting better, but it’s also getting more urgent because we’re seeing potentially irreversible changes. “Irreversible” means extinction of species. “Irreversible” means that you have passed a point of no return. We’re certainly reaching tipping points with respect to what we’re putting into the sky, into the water and what we’re taking from the land. Of course, we have to use nature – all creatures do – for our existence, but we have been so heavy-handed about it in the past, thinking that nature was infinite. We used the ocean as a dumpsite. Now, we’ve begun to develop not just rules, regulations or laws, but the ethic of caring for nature, which is more powerful than laws.
How is technology helping to make the ocean your laboratory?
We could not get to the moon if it weren’t for technology. We can’t go to the deepest part of the ocean and come back without mastering the systems that make it possible. But as wonderful as our technologies are, we haven’t figured out how to make a tuna fish. We cannot even make a single frog, tree or flower.
The real missing link right now is being able to come up with a glass sphere that will enable us to send people to the full depth of the ocean in a submarine. We’re right on the brink of making it happen. How many people go 7 miles up into the sky in aeroplanes? We need people to be able to go 7 miles into the ocean to see what happens when deep-sea mining takes place. People need to see it to evaluate it.
In a life full of achievements, which is your most fulfilling?
It’s out there somewhere around the corner or over the next hill. It’s much more interesting to look forward than back.
What is your aim, specifically, with Mission Blue and the Hope Spots?
The idea for Mission Blue is for further exploration, so that we can know better. That requires technology, to explore and define the nature of what’s there, to share the view as widely as possible, not just with scientists but with the public at large. And it requires inspiring people to take action and say, “this part of the ocean, I care about. I want to make it a Hope Spot and I am willing to make a pledge to those I can inspire with me to take care of the place.”
That’s a Hope Spot. It can be a place that is in good condition or one that has been damaged over time but, with care, can be restored.
Can you give us some examples within Mission Blue of areas that you are most concerned about?
The Galapagos is one example of a Hope Spot. This international treasure is in trouble, but with care, it can at least be improved.
Chesapeake Bay (USA): oh my goodness. Imagine the way it was 400 years ago, compared to what it is today. It’s in Washington DC’s backyard, and it has been trashed.
Cashes Ledge, a little place off the coast of Maine, has been protected now for about 15 years. No fishing has been allowed. It’s one of the few places where you can find big cod because it’s a safe haven.
Being called a Hope Spot doesn’t mean that it’s protected. In 2015, we finally got to the point where the United Nations did move towards implementing agreements so that protection for the high seas could actually take place. Up until now, it has been the Wild West.
Find what you love. Never lose sight of keeping a strong passion in your life for something you really care about.
For the general public, it can all seem very overwhelming and you can easily feel powerless when it comes to helping conserve the oceans. What is the best way for an individual to contribute?
Well, I sympathize because I’m just one person too and I struggle. I think it comes down to realizing that no one person can do everything, but every person can do something. Together, we really can make a difference. One of the greatest dangers for the future of the planet is inertia: people who have power and then fail to use it, or misuse it.
The answer is deceptively simple: all of us doing the right thing, little by little. One action times a thousand, times a billion and you’ve got change – or lack of change if everybody is so overwhelmed with the prospect of “I’m just one person,” and you just do nothing. It’s a choice.
What is the best piece of advice someone has given you?
I suppose it’s the advice that I find myself giving to others. Find what you love. Never lose sight of keeping a strong passion in your life for something you really care about. For me, being a scientist is what I always wanted to be, and it’s what I am. I was blessed to be able to do that. Fortunately, my parents allowed me to do what I loved. That’s what I encourage everyone to do.
I know for some it seems overwhelming, but I try to tell kids, “don’t worry if you haven’t found that special thing. Just give it some time. Maybe you’re going to be a generalist and that’s okay. That’s your special thing. You like to do all kinds of things? Terrific. Go for it!”
Do you think citizen science (research conducted by amateur or non-professional scientists) can be harnessed to help Mission Blue?
Absolutely, it is being harnessed already. I could say an army, but it’s more likely to be a navy; millions of divers around the world have come to see the ocean in ways that most people don’t. Many have thrown away their spear guns and picked up cameras as they have come to value the living ocean as more than just a place to catch things.
We’re working with the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), to instil the ethic of conservation and caring, and to build a case for why their beloved dive site should be protected as a Hope Spot. That’s a concrete example of energizing citizen science. Anyone can do what a scientist does. Kids can do this. Accountants can do it, teachers can do it, mums and dads can do it, and divers certainly can do it.
You don’t have to be a formally trained scientist to accomplish meaningful science. I think everyone should embrace the love of exploration. Puppies do it, squids do it and elephants do it, but people, perhaps, do it best of all: explore, remember and pass information along.