Ocean Hero Sylvia Earle Tells It Like It Is

The oceanographer, explorer, author, and one of the world’s most accomplished women of science is on a mission to protect marine life.

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When she was three years old, Sylvia Earle was knocked over by a wave while on a family trip to the Jersey Shore.

“It wasn’t frightening; it was more exhilarating than anything else,” she tells me. “And since then, life in the ocean has captured my imagination and held it.”

With over 7,000 underwater hours under her belt and setting the record for solo diving, descending over 1,000 feet beneath the Pacific Ocean, Sylvia Earle is one of the world’s leading scientists and explorers. She has received over one hundred national and international honors, including the 2009 TED Prize, the National Women’s Hall of Fame, the National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, 2011 Royal Geographical Society Gold Medal, and most recently, a Glamour Women of the Year in 2014. Her accomplishments and deep love of the natural world have inspired a whole new generation of environmentalists and activists.

Her research began in her postgraduate years, after receiving her bachelor’s degree from Florida State University and her master’s degree in botany from Duke University, when she started her thesis work on algae in the Gulf of Mexico. Nearly a decade later, in 1966, she received her PhD from Duke University and instantly accepted a position as the resident director of Cape Haze Marine Laboratories. She followed on to become a research fellow at the Farlow Herbarium of Harvard University and later served as a research scholar at the Radcliffe Institute.

Then, in 1970, a time when American women were only just entering fields traditionally run by men, Earle led the first team of female aquanauts during the Tektite ll Experiment, designed to study underwater habitats. During this two-week project, where she lived in an underwater laboratory 50 feet below the surface, Earle observed the effects of pollution on coral reefs directly. She also had the rare chance to get to know the fish swimming around the capsule.

“I got to know the fish’s faces,” Earle says. “No two are alike; they have individual looks and behaviors. They are important creatures in their own right.” It was a profound experience that would influence her thinking on marine life for decades to come.

Disappearing Act

Now, at 80 years old, she’s committed to advocacy and outreach to keep our oceans healthy and sustainable.

“Globally, about half of the coral reefs that existed when I was a child are gone or are in a state of serious decay,” says Earle. “The waters of the reefs where I made some of my earliest dives are not nearly so clear as they are in my recollections. The great forests of branching corals are largely gone. The pink conchs and Nassau grouper are mostly memories—the remaining few are protected in U.S. waters because of their rarity.”

“You have to love something before you are moved to save it.”

Overfishing, climate change and destructive fishing methods are the main culprits. Fortunately, we can all help the oceans just by adjusting what’s on our dinner plates.

“The ocean is not an inexhaustible resource,” says Earle. “We need to make it uncool to eat tuna, or swordfish, or grouper, or other ocean wildlife. We need to protect every fish alive because they are much more valuable as part of the natural world that keeps us alive than they are cooked on a plate.”

Every animal in the sea plays a role in the ecosystem. Yet, they’re extracted out of the oceans and treated like commodities in spite of the fact that they keep our oceans—and us—healthy. According to a study by the World Wildlife Fund in July 2015, nearly half the world’s marine life has been wiped out in the last fifty years. Ninety percent of many of the big fish are gone, and even many of the small fish are at low numbers, owing to our demand for fish.

“Fifty years ago, we could not see limits to what we could put into the ocean, or what we could take out,” says Earle. “It’s all about knowing. I used to consume fish, but now that I know, I can’t do what I used to do.”

In part to further this advocacy, Earle founded Mission Blue, an organization dedicated to caring for the ocean and enhancing public awareness of Marine Protected Areas, in 2009. Mission Blue continues to educate the greater public about the issues of overfishing and

More to Explore

Aside from choosing a sustainable diet, another way we can protect the ocean and its inhabitants is by fostering new technologies. As crazy as it may sound, 95 percent of the ocean has still been unexplored, according to Earle, but submarines can help change that. “Piloted subs, remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), and underwater robots can enhance our understanding of deep-sea organisms in countless ways,” she says. This technology exists, but we just need plenty of funding to build them.

Sylvia Earle_(c)KipEvans_9378

Earle would know. She started a marine technology company called Deep Ocean Exploration and Research (DOER Marine) in 1992. DOER Marine is dedicated to implementing solutions for challenging underwater tasks, and one of its projects has been designing the kinds of submarines that could help further research.

“DOER’s three-person Explorer sub will provide access in depths to 1,000 meters,” she says. “The 11,000-meter Deep Search vehicle, with a glass personnel sphere, will be able to explore the full range of depth with unprecedented visibility and capability.”

Another technology that can help save our oceans and the life within it is social media. Earle sees platforms like Facebook and Twitter as a new method of spreading awareness about the issues. “Researchers can use the internet to communicate their findings; activists can use it to spread the word about them; policy makers need to hear from voters and corporations that saving the ocean is a priority, and they need to work with scientists to act on those demands in effective ways. Social media can help with that.’’

“The only difference that has been made ever in the world, for good or for not so good, always starts with just one person,” says Earle. “But it will take a coalition of researchers, indigenous communities, students, engineers, explorers, artists, teachers, and advocates to unite with their unique skills and new technologies to appeal to our global society and change our relationship to the ocean for good.”

The Time Is Now

“Fifty years into the future—even five years into the future—it will be too late to do what is possible right now,” says Earle. If we want to save our oceans, we need to coalesce.

Now is the time to make a change, to stop choking our oceans with plastic, to stop starving our seas of fish, and start treating our oceans—one of the earth’s most precious resources—with respect.  We can’t wait. By cutting out fish from your diet, recycling, reducing your plastic consumption, and generally becoming more eco-friendly, you can make a huge difference in the world, for the sake of our oceans and us.

“You have to love something before you are moved to save it,” says Earle. “We need people from all backgrounds and professions to raise awareness and inspire empathy about threats like climate change, ocean acidification, overfishing, and pollution among their communities, and we need to use every tool at our disposal to do so.”

headshotLauren Kearney is a writer and an animal rights activist. Her work has appeared in the Huffington Post, One Green Planet, Eluxe Magazine, Origin Magazine and many other publications. She also runs her own blog, Respect and Connect, to bring together people helping animals and the environment through their personal activism stories. Connect with Lauren on twitter @lkearney14.