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Sylvia Earle: Pioneer in Underwater Exploration

Four decades later, the oceanographer and pioneer in underwater exploration is still at the forefront of the struggle with her Mission Blue initiative.

By Eva Van Den Berg
Published in November 2019icon-clockTime to read: 4min 6s

She has been a National Geographic Explorer since 1998 and a Rolex Testimonee since 1982, and has dedicated her entire life to safeguarding the oceans of our blue planet. Sylvia Earle, known by the nickname “Her Deepness”, has fought tirelessly to create a larger and larger global network of protected marine reserves that will be at least the equivalent of the land surface of the planet. Despite the fact that oceans cover more than 70% of the surface of the globe, currently fewer than 6% of all marine ecosystems are protected, compared with 15% of their land-based counterparts. Yet the oceans are vital for all life: they regulate the level of precipitation, the temperature and wind patterns, they provide us with oxygen and are the natural world’s most important sinks for capturing CO₂. In other words, they sustain life on our planet, and up to 90% of all species including, of course, our own depend on the oceans for their survival. Despite this, they constitute a territory that remains largely unexplored. Even today, however unlikely this may seem, the oceans continue to be much less widely explored than the Moon, Mars, or even Venus: the maps that we have obtained of these heavenly bodies in our solar system in fact have a higher resolution than those of the ocean depths of our own planet.

The oceanographer and marine biologist Sylvia Earle, a pioneer of underwater exploration, is a Resident Explorer at National Geographic and has been a Rolex Testimonee since 1982. She is currently coordinating the Mission Blue initiative, designed to safeguard Hope Spots in the oceans, and with which Rolex is collaborating.

Earle, born at a time when the majority of ecosystems were still in excellent condition, has witnessed how, in just a few decades, locations that were once pristine and full of life, and many of which she was the first person to explore, have since been ruthlessly wiped out. “We humans have the impression that the oceans are so huge, wide and strong that we can do anything we like to them. This is pure madness. Ignorance is our major problem. But everything we inflict upon them is turned back against us”, she says. To limit the damage caused by human activity, the oceanographer and her team are working to ensure that during the course of 2020 we will have preserved 20% of marine waters. “We have a huge amount of work ahead of us, but we have to do it. One thing that is beyond a doubt is that a world without oceans is a world without us”, she continues. “It is certainly true that we are starting to make progress. It should be remembered that in 2006 scarcely 0.65% of the seas had any form of protection.” Without any doubt at all, her Mission Blue initiative, launched in 2009 thanks to the financial support that she received after winning the TED Prize, can take much of the credit for this increase in protection.

For me, it all began when I was three years old, and I was swept off my feet by a wave. From that day onwards, I have always been fascinated by the oceans.Sylvia Earle

Sylvia Earle dives in the waters of the Cabo Pulmo National Park, in the Sea of Cortés (also known as the Gulf of California), in Mexico. The oceanographer and fierce defender of the oceans and their ecosystems heads the Google Ocean Advisory Council, a team made up of 30 scientists who provide data for mapping the seas, which remain largely unknown even today.

Mission Blue is an alliance (the Sylvia Earle Alliance, appropriately forming the acronym SEA) created to encourage local communities to take an interest in the preservation of their seas. Thanks to major sponsorships such as that of the Swiss watch brand Rolex, which has been supporting the oceanographer’s efforts for years, she is moving towards her objective. “Collaboration with Rolex has been of incalculable value to my efforts to support the expeditions for the Mission Blue programme”, says Earle. Brett Loveman, the director of communication for Mission Blue, adds: “Rolex has clearly been a source of support upon which we can always rely, both for the expeditions and for establishing the network of protected marine reserves.” To date they have already established over a hundred of the so-called “Hope Spots” all over the world (including the Mediterranean, where the Balearic Islands were declared a Hope Spot in 2015). These correspond to marine areas of high ecological interest that need to be protected. One of the most recent examples is the Gulf of Tribugá, in the Colombian department of Chocó, a segment of the Pacific Ocean with a high level of biodiversity where species such as the hammerhead shark and the humpback whale come to reproduce, and which is threatened by the construction of a new port development right next to the magnificent Utría National Nature Park. “Hope Spots are special places that are of vital importance for the health of the oceans. Through these nominations we wish to recognise, support and empower persons and communities all over the world in their efforts to protect the oceans”, we are informed by Mission Blue. “They are places that enable us to plan for the future and look further than the current Protected Marine Areas (PMAs), which are like the national parks found on land, and where the rules for activities such as fishing and deep-water mining are very strict. Hope Spots tend to be areas that require new protection, but may also be existing PMAs where there is a need to increase the means of conservation.” They are of various sizes, but they are all home to a significant level of abundance or diversity of species, habitats or unusual or representative ecosystems, together with populations of rare, threatened or endemic species. “They are sites with a high potential to reverse the damage done by negative human impacts, and which offer hope for sustaining significant long-term natural processes that are of particular importance for the community”, Earle continues.

A shoal of porgies in the waters of the Cabo Pulmo National Park, one of the many species that live in the reefs of this marine nature reserve. Fifty years ago the biodiversity of these waters was threatened by overfishing. For Earle, on the right, this is an example of how an ecosystem can be recovered if the necessary preservation measures are introduced.

Today, at the age of 84, this scientist who received the Princess of Asturias Award for Harmony 2018 for her unending combat for the protection of her beloved oceans, continues her fight with the warrior’s optimism that she developed during her first dives when she was still a teenager, and which she persevered with after thousands of dives in seas full of life but which she later saw lose their vitality. As in 1970, when she captained a team of five female researchers who lived for two weeks inside an underwater laboratory, the Tektite II, in the ocean depths around the Virgin Islands in the Caribbean. “We spent 15 days diving for between 10 and 12 hours a day”, she recalls. “It was all so full of life... it was absolutely marvellous.” But when she returned to the same location in 2011, what she saw there left her in dismay: the sea bed had been devastated. There was hardly anything left: an underwater wasteland, a desolate plateau. Earle has also witnessed huge ecological disasters such as those caused by the spillages of crude oil from the Exxon Valdez in Alaska in 1989, or from the Mega Borg in the Gulf of Mexico in 1990. A year later she travelled to the Persian Gulf to see on site the spillages caused during the First Iraq War in Kuwait. At that time she was the Scientific Director of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). However she did not stay in that post for very long just over two years, in fact. "They didn’t let me say what I knew, and so I decided that the best thing was to find my freedom again," she explains determinedly. It was when she was there that she was given another nickname: “The Sturgeon General”! Fortunately she has a gift shared by so many important figures in the world of conservation: the absolute certainty that there is no alternative to keeping up the fight. “In the past we didn’t realise the full extent of our actions. Today we do. We now know in detail what effects are caused and how to reverse the situation, and in fact we have already done so in certain locations, such as Cabo Pulmo in the Sea of Cortés, in Mexico, a place that has recovered surprisingly well after its preservation and today is starting to resemble again the way it used to be 50 years ago”, she says.

“We can really achieve our objectives if we all work together”, concludes Earle, who is currently in the Galapagos Islands. Fortunately for all of us, Her Deepness is quite unstoppable. And her Mission Blue is unstoppable too.

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