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Sylvia Earle, Legendary Pioneer Of Underwater Exploration

Sylvia Earle has received more than 32 honorary degrees and has over 225 scientific and technical publications to her name. Today, at the age of 85, she is one of the ocean’s best-known defenders. And she says that each one of us can make a difference in our daily life. Learn more about her in Ocean of Hope.
Published in April 2021Time to read: 2min 16s

Few people have more experience than Sylvia Earle when it comes to underwater exploration and marine conservation. An acclaimed biologist, aquanaut, speaker, writer, National Geographic Explorer, Chief Scientist of the U.S.’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (1990-1992), and two-time member of the Rolex Awards jury (1981 and 2012), she has been at the forefront of underwater exploration for five decades. Over the course of her career, she has spent nearly an entire year underwater. For a research project, she once lived on the ocean floor for 14 days. She now focuses on her project Mission Blue.

You spent more than 7000 hours underwater and led more than a hundred expeditions, on which thousands of undersea species were discovered. You’ve been named a Library of Congress Living Legend and a Hero for the Planet by TIME magazine. The New York Times dubbed you “Her Deepness”. What is it that appeals to you about marine life and being underwater?

Every time I dive, I see things I've never seen before. Not always new species, but new behaviours, new insight into how the ocean works and how creatures that live in the ocean depths or even on a sunlit reef are related to those who live and breathe the air on the Earth's surface.

We all have unique fingerprints and DNA, and the same is true of fish.Sylvia Earle

Can you talk about your first international expedition?

The first scientific expedition I had the opportunity to join was in 1964, in India. It lasted six weeks. I went as a botanist, but I was the first woman on board. There were 12 scientists. All of the others – the majority of the 70 men aboard – were crew members. It was really a turning point, because every time we put our equipment in the water, we brought things back from the depths that we could examine. We saw what no one else had ever seen. And to this day, more than 90% of the ocean remains unknown and unexplored. It hasn't been mapped as precisely as Earth, the moon, Mars or Jupiter. For me, it was also a tremendous lesson about the limits we have as air-breathing creatures when we explore the places where the majority of life on Earth exists.

In 1970, you led an all-female team of oceanographers who spent two weeks living in an underwater habitat in the U.S. Virgin Islands as part of Tektite II, a historic research project carried out by the U.S. government. In addition to the many scientific discoveries, did anything else during that expedition make an impression on you?

What really amazed me and changed my way of thinking was a finding that had passed me by during more than a thousand hours of underwater research. I saw each fish, I looked at their faces, and I realized that no two fish were alike. We all have unique fingerprints and DNA, and the same is true of fish. That's why, after the Tektite II underwater expedition, my behaviours were forever changed. For one thing, I stopped eating fish!

Afterward, you walked on the ocean floor using a special diving suit. The Deep Rover submarine advanced your work even further. Did you feel that it was necessary to get more involved in terms of engineering when it comes to deep-sea exploration?

I started working with engineers to develop equipment that I or another scientist – any person, any child – could use to access the ocean floor. After all, this planet is our birthplace. I started by founding one company, then another and another. I've been fortunate to travel on more than 30 different submarines. Now, the last remaining gap to be bridged is this: we need to be able to create a glass sphere that will let us send people to the ocean depths via submarine. We're almost there. We need someone who's capable of going up to 11 km underwater, to see what happens when underwater mining takes place. We need to be able to see what goes on there in order to assess it.

These days, you hear a lot of talk about conservation. How have the oceans changed since you began to explore them? And how important are the oceans to life on Earth?

I began to explore the oceans as a young scientist in the 1950s. Since then, we've learned a tremendous amount about how they work and why they are so important for all of us, everywhere. At the same time, however, we've never lost this much before in human history. We now know that oceans determine weather and meteorological conditions. They shape our planet’s chemistry and contain 97% of the water on Earth. They generate more than half the oxygen and capture the majority of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. And they serve as home to the majority of life on earth. Oceans are a vital pillar in Earth’s life support system. In short, without blue, there is no green. Without the ocean, there is no life. We also know that the majority of coral reefs, kelp forests, mangroves and coastal marshes have already disappeared, and that 90% of popular wild-caught fish that appear on menus worldwide have either ceased to exist or are in steep decline. Tuna, especially the bluefin tuna used in sushi, have been most affected, thanks to their high value on the luxury market. The chemistry of our oceans has changed due to acidification, caused by an excess of carbon dioxide. However, there have also been positive changes. There are now more whales and tortoises than when I was a girl, because many countries are now protecting them. Where marine conservation areas have been created, fish and other creatures are recovering.

That's why Rolex’s Perpetual Planet initiative is so important. It emphasizes exploration as a means of protecting the planet.Sylvia Earle

How precarious is the condition of our oceans today, and what is the biggest threat to them? Pollution, overfishing, plastic?

Oceans are at grave risk because of human behavior, especially in the last 50 years or more. In part, this is due to an increase in demand among a population that has more than doubled. But it also stems from the fact that technology created in wartime continues to be used to increase the speed and volume of maritime transport, and to find, capture and commercialize marine life at an industrial scale. Sonar designed to detect submarines is now used to find fish. More sophisticated navigation makes it easier to return to the precise places where certain species are abundant. New materials, especially synthetic nets, lines and traps, have made fishing equipment much cheaper and therefore "disposable". The oceans are overflowing with lost and discarded nets as well as a surfeit of lines, traps and other devices that capture and kill millions of fish, marine mammals, birds and other creatures each year. Illegal fishing – which is neither reported nor regulated – captures or destroys millions of wild animals each year, in addition to the more than 100 million tons of wild marine life that are caught legally. Laws that govern fishing and the capture of other wild animals need to be modified to reflect the changes that are occurring in our oceans. Plastics and other synthetic materials have been, generally speaking, very beneficial for human civilisation, but they also represent a genuine threat to life on Earth. It's an enormous problem when animals become entangled in or ingest these materials. But even more concerning is the impact of micro- and nanoplastics, created when plastic degrades, even at a molecular level. These small fragments are in the air, the water, the soil, and in the bodies of many living beings, including humans. Anyone who eats seafood is also exposed to whatever those animals ate as they swam around.

Is it foolish to think that if we live in a city far from the ocean, we won't harm it? Are we all responsible for the ocean?

It's foolish to think that anyone could live without the ocean. Even if we never see it or touch it, it touches us each time we breathe or drink water. Similarly, any action we take, anywhere, will ultimately affect everyone, everywhere. Even small things can make a difference, like the toxins that we pour down our drains, only to end up in the ocean. Or what we choose to eat – or not to eat. No one can do everything, but everyone can do something to help our planet stay healthy.

Why did you found Mission Blue, a nonprofit created to protect and explore Earth's oceans, and what does the project entail?

Essentially, the reason I founded Mission Blue was to find a home for the concept of Hope Spots – a global network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) that are vitally important when it comes to protecting the health of our oceans, which are the blue heart of our planet. I founded a non-profit organisation after winning the TED Prize in 2009, establishing a relationship with Google so that the ocean would be included in Google Earth. I began to work with National Geographic and Google, through a company I had started – Deep Ocean Exploration and Research – alongside people from all over the world, in order to try to mobilize those who were already concerned about protecting nature. The idea behind Mission Blue is to keep exploring, so that we can learn more. That requires technology that allows us to explore and identify what we find, as well as to share that vision as widely as possible, not only with scientists but with the general public. And that means we must inspire people to act and to say: “I am concerned about this corner of the ocean. I want to this to be a Hope Spot, and I make a promise to those who follow me that I will take care of this place.” A Hope Spot can be a place in good condition, or it can be one that has been damaged over time but may be restored. In 2009, the gulf of California became one of the first Hope Spots. The Galapagos are another example, as is the Chesapeake Bay. It's just outside Washington D.C., and it was destroyed. Bunaken Marine Park in Indonesia was also recognized as a Hope Spot in 2018. These are just a few examples.

Mission Blue’s stated goal is to help protect 30% of the ocean by 2030. How are you going to work with communities and conservation organisations to reach that goal?

Our global goal of “at least 30%” should never be reached by a single government in isolation. Reaching that goal requires massive joint effort between multiple governments, non-governmental organisations, and community-based organisations. It will need to be approached from a vast spectrum of angles and opinions. At the top of the agenda, not only do we need to expand coverage of marine protected areas from 8% to at least 30%, but we also need to increase the level of protection offered by each MPA. Today, only 2% of them are fully protected. In order to allow our exhausted ocean to fully recover and become resilient again, we need to put a halt to damaging activities and ensure that MPAs have high levels of protection. The advantage of Hope Spots is that they are proposed by the community, for the community, with the goal of improving marine protection. The key to conservation in the long term is obtaining commitments to conservation at the local level.

What made you choose to stop being an explorer and become one of the world’s best-known environmentalists and a partner in the Rolex Perpetual Planet Initiative?

For quite some time, I've felt a sense of urgency with regard to what I can do as a scientist, and as a human, to join with other human beings and make a difference. We need to stop consuming the natural world and start protecting it. Whether we are explorers or concerned citizens, we must save the planet for future generations. People say that I’m an activist, but I consider myself a scientist. I go exploring and I report back. Exploration opens our eyes to what is happening to Earth's ecosystems. That's why Rolex’s Perpetual Planet initiative is so important. It emphasizes exploration as a means of protecting the planet.

What advice would you give to the next generation as they look toward the future and try to address environmental issues, in hopes of helping create a sustainable planet?

First of all, they need to be aware of their superpower, which is an unprecedented level of knowledge. Such a thing didn't and couldn't exist before. Then they need to use that superpower to make a difference. All of us, individually and collectively, need to respect nature and take care of it. We need to treat the ocean and the rest of our living planet like our lives depend on them – because they do.

Article published in the Portuguese magazine VISÃO, within the scope of the Ocean of Hope partnership, an initiative to give voice to the extraordinary individuals and organisations working to build a more sustainable planet and future.

Partnership Series