Deeper with Sylvia Earle

DR SYLVIA EARLE IS A WOMAN OF MANY FIRSTS: She was the first female chief scientist of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, LA Time’s Woman of the Year in 1970, ordained a knight in 1981, named by Time Magazine as its first Hero for the Planet in 1998. In 1979, she made an open-ocean JIM suit dive to the sea floor alone near Oahu, setting a women's depth record of 381 metres. In 2009, she won a TED Prize, and with TED's support, she launched Mission Blue, which aims to establish marine protected areas (“Hope Spots") around the globe. In 2014, she was named Glamour Woman of the Year, a UN Champions of the Earth Award, and the first woman to be celebrated at an Explorers Club Tribute Ceremony. We are honoured to have Dr Sylvia Earle as Chair of the Ocean Geographic’s Honorary Editors Board. Here, she shares with us some of her deep secrets.


OG: What is your earliest memory of the ocean?

Dr Earle: I was knocked over by a wave when I was three years old, during a family vacation to the New Jersey shore. The ocean got my attention! Getting tossed around was exhilarating, but I was most excited about meeting the wondrous forms of life that are at home in the sea.

OG: When did you know you wanted to be a scientist?

Dr Earle: I can’t remember ever wanting to be anything else.

OG: Who are your greatest mentors?

Dr Earle: My parents instilled a deep sense of respect and caring for all forms of life, the ethic of treating other creatures, including fish, as I would like to be treated. An 8th grade English teacher, Margaret Bowen, a 9th grade science teacher, Edna Turnure, and my major professor in college, Harold Humm, were especially influential by insisting that I could and should aim high, seek truth in the wild, natural world, communicate clearly and honestly, and never give up on my goal of being a scientist. I never met William Beebe but his book, Half Mile Down, with poetic descriptions of      bioluminescence – (the flash, sparkle and glow of living creatures in the deep sea) mesmerized me as a child and set me on a path of exploring the great depths that continues to the present – and into future!

OG: In addition to being a successful academic and working professional, you also managed to raise three lovely children. How did you manage to do it all?

Dr Earle: “Doing it all” is not really possible. a lot of artful juggling, creative multi-tasking, trick trade-offs, a sympathetic family, and significant help from my parents, who took care of my young children when I was at sea – or under it! Nothing can make up for time that I missed with my children when they were small, but it was sometimes possible to scoop one or all of them to accompany me on expeditions, to swim with dolphins and humpback whales, dive in coral reefs, and travel to wonderful places such as the Galapagos Islands, the Bahamas, Bonaire, Belize, and Hawaii. Also, I have always had a laboratory, library and office at home, with lots of projects underway involving the children as “lab assistants”, sorting seaweed, looking through microscopes and taking notes. When I started a company to build submarines and other underwater equipment, the entire house was converted to the cause. At one point, 15 people, mostly engineers, occupied the living room, dining room, porch and library. Some people have an office in their home. For a while, our home WAS the office.

OG: What was your impression of the Elysium Arctic Expedition?

Dr Earle: Mixing artists and scientists with a common objective – exploring and celebrating the Arctic – has the magical effect of amplifying the power of both.   Scientists observe carefully and report honestly what they see, and so do artists, but the ways of seeing and reporting come in many varieties, from beautiful scientific insights to breathtaking artistic images. In centuries past, artists and musicians often accompanied long expeditions to document the journey and create a congenial social atmosphere. It works! The highly successful Elysium expeditions clearly on, demonstrated the power of teaming up people with a sense of purpose, and diverse talents, in wildly wonderful places.

OG: What are your thoughts of climate change?

Dr Earle: As a scientist, I look at the evidence and the evidence is clear concerning the impact humans are having on the acceleration of global warming. Anyone can see for themselves the cause-and-effect relationship between our actions and the consequences we now face. Climate change deniers should get automatic membership in the Flat Earth Society.

OG: Sexism, while still an unfortunate factor, was far more prominent and even accepted when you were beginning your career. How did you deal with it?

Dr Earle: It is easy to be overcome by what you are, or aren’t – too tall, too short, too fat, too thin, too old, too young, wrong colour, wrong gender, wrong place, wrong time etc. As a child, I was encouraged to value being alive and to learn as much as I could about the world and all that is in it, then figure out what I could do to be a part of the action. For me, becoming a scientist often meant being the only girl in otherwise all-male classes but I did not see this as a disadvantage! Going on an expedition to the Indian Ocean for six weeks as the only woman aboard a ship with 70 men, was not all bad. Focusing on my role as a scientist first and foremost, never asking for special favours, being willing to do more than was expected, and helping others succeed, probably helped me to be accepted . Growing up between two brothers also gave me a healthy sense of humour -- a critical asset, always. Gender inequality is on a long list of woes that must be dealt with individually – and together – to advance civilization to a better place, and each of us can do what we can with what we’ve got to make that happen.

OG: How did you balance being a mother, a successful scientist and public figure?

Dr Earle: I am still trying to figure that out – one day at a time.

OG: You want to build two new 1,000-metre submersibles. Why? Tell us about them, and what you would like to achieve with them.

Dr Earle: I want to democratize access to the deep sea, to enable others to see what I have been privileged to witness during decades of diving, using dozens of one-person and multi-passenger submersibles. Most of the ocean below 100 feet or so has not been seen, let alone explored, by anyone. Over the ages, ingenious methods have been devised to exploit the deep ocean for fishing, mining, and other uses, but methods to explore and care for this vital part of the planet have lagged behind. My first dive in a submarine in 1968, took me below the twilight zone into the velvet darkness where most of life on Earth prospers. The average depth of the ocean is 2.5 miles (4,000 metres); the maximum is seven miles (11,000 metres). Every day, millions of people fly seven miles high in the sky, eating lunch and watching movies, but only twice have people successfully descended – and returned – from the deepest place in the sea seven miles down.

It will take $50 million and five years to execute a current DOER design that will enable two, three-passenger subs to be built from a special kind of glass, and have them certified for safe, reliable travel anywhere, from the deepest trenches to sunlit reefs. This is a personal “Ocean Everest” goal that I wholeheartedly support.

It will take $5 million and one year, to build and begin to operate two DOER Explorer subs using clear acrylic spheres, where three people in each sphere can descend to 1,000 metres. A seasoned pilot will be in charge, with two passenger/pilots able to take the controls, operate cameras, position the sub, use the sub’s arms and be able to observe, document and explore that critical areas of the sea where photosynthesis powers ocean food webs, through the twilight zone and to the edge of the deep sea beyond.

The first company I started in 1980 built three 1,000-metre Deep Rover submersibles that have had a major impact on taking scientists, teachers and photographers far below where scuba divers can go. One of them was used during the five-year National Geographic Society’s “Sustainable Seas Expeditions” – a model for privately-funded expeditions that can involve citizen-scientists, artists, poets, political leaders, fishermen, corporate executives, and kids to have access to much of the currently unknown ocean.

DOER’s design for their 1,000-metre Explorer subs take advantage of technologies that did not exist in the 1980s, and incorporated knowledge gained from years of diving and engineering insights, making the subs effective and user-friendly, revolutionizing deep sea exploration. The DOER Explorer subs do not require a dedicated support vessel. Each fits into a standard shipping container that can be flown or shipped to shore-based sites or “ships of opportunity” – a design advantage that was used effectively during the Sustainable Seas Expeditions for operations around the coastline of the U.S., Mexico and Belize.

There has been a lot of bad news about the ocean since the 1980s. Half of the coral reefs are gone or are in a state of sharp decline, 90% of the sharks and many other commercially exploited animals are gone (tunas, swordfish, groupers and even tiny forage fish). Hundreds of dead zones have developed globally. Polar ice is rapidly melting as the ocean warms, and it is also becoming more acidic owing to excess carbon dioxide released from burning fossil fuels. The good news is that people are becoming more aware of the need for action, with recent protection significantly embracing larger areas of the ocean under national jurisdiction. Momentum is growing for supporting hundreds of “Hope Spots” (places in the ocean that can safeguard and restore health to the planet, if protected). It is also good news that technologies now exist for the rapid construction of little subs that can provide effective access to the deep ocean. Coupled with new communication technologies, data, images and experiences gained from sub operations can be shared instantly, globally. Knowing is the key to caring, and caring is vital to inspire people to take action. You might know and not care, but you cannot care if you do not know.

Two 1,000-metre DOER Explorer subs can have a profound impact on the way people see and understand the ocean, and why it matters to all of us, everywhere, all of the time. Having teenage explorers and other citizen observers work with seasoned scientists and artists to witness, document, and share insights about the nature of the ocean, is a powerful idea; and the time has come to implement it.

OG: What do you think is the greatest threat to the world ocean, both short and long term?

Dr Earle: One word is the answer for both: ignorance. Many think the ocean is too big to fail. Others don’t see degradation of the ocean as an urgent issue. What has been put into the ocean in the past century – (billions of tons of toxic chemicals, plastic trash, fishing gear, carbon dioxide, mercury), as well as what has been taken out (billions of tons of ocean wildlife, oil, gas and minerals), together have altered the nature of the ocean -- the cornerstone of our life support system.   The underlying ocean-driven systems that set Earth apart from all other places in the universe, are currently unravelling owing to human impacts, driven by the belief that nature is somehow infinitely resilient – despite clear evidence to the contrary.              

Divers get to see what most people do not – changes that are not obvious when looking at the surface. But even divers do not always appreciate the magnitude of the problems, or see the relationship between the state of the ocean, and every breath they take, every drop of water they drink, of dangerous changes taking place in the natural systems that underpin our existence.

OG: With an exponentially expanding human population, food security is a huge issue. The ocean is already severely overexploited. How can we best manage the growing seafood deficit while feeding so many people?

Dr Earle: First, it is important to recognize that our existence depends on the ocean. Whatever we take from the sea must be done with an understanding that we have already taken so much, that basic food chains and related ocean chemistry have been disrupted.

Next, we need to focus on the real problems: food choice, food distribution, food waste and perverse agricultural and commercial fishing subsidies. Current agricultural production yields ample nutritious calories to provide everyone now and with care, far into the future, with nutritious calories. However, enormous quantities of crops never make it to market, and more is lost at the market place and even more is wasted that is served but not consumed. The growing appetite for meat – especially beef – consumes far more land and water than is required for nutritious grains and other plants. This reflects choice, not need. Perverse subsidies are perpetuating unsustainable use of land and water and keep fishing fleets operating that otherwise would not be profitable

There is some latitude for extracting ocean wildlife as a source of sustenance for people but the great majority of fish, squid, shrimp, crabs and other creatures taken from the sea are marketed for luxury choices (not needs) and for industrial products – oil, animal food, fertilizer, and other non-food uses.

Currently, ocean wildlife supplies about ½ of 1 per cent of the calories consumed by people globally. For some countries, and especially coastal communities, consuming fish and other wildlife is truly a need and those interests should be respected and protected. But for most people, eating “seafood” is a choice.

Meanwhile, new insight is growing about the vital economic and ecological importance of living fish and other ocean wildlife. A single shark in Palau is   estimated to be worth at least a million dollars to the economy of the country. In the Cayman Islands, each ray in Stingray City is estimated to be worth half a million dollars per year in tourism revenues. A single dead Bluefin tuna can sell for more than a million dollars, but no amount of money can create one when the last tuna is killed.

Increasingly, ocean wildlife is being recognized as the key to maintaining the planet’s carbon cycle and other vital processes. Like trees, phytoplankton generates oxygen and captures carbon, and then passes the carbon through long and complex food chains that ultimately result in long-term storage in ocean sediments and carbonate structures.   Just as clearing forests has disrupted terrestrial carbon capture and storage, so has the clearing ocean wildlife affected the capacity of the ocean to capture and store carbon.

A century ago, whales were valued primarily as products. Now they are globally respected as living beings, treasured for ecological, social and moral considerations. Wild birds and mammals, once widely regarded as “fair game” for the table, currently have global recognition for reasons other than pounds of meat, feathers and furs.   No one is today making a case for feeding billions of people with wild animals from the land. So why is it taking us so long to understand the limits of how much wildlife can be extracted from the sea without serious consequences to the nature of the planet as a whole?   

Rather than looking to the ocean as a major source of food for billions of people, we should be protecting the interests of those who truly rely on ocean wildlife for sustenance and give increasing weight to the vital importance of most ocean wildlife for their living economic and ecological values.

OG: Your travel schedule is exhausting, yet you are always full of energy and enthusiasm. How do you do it?

Dr Earle: Life is a miracle. Might as well savour it to the last drop!

OG: Who is/are your favourite musicians, singers?

Dr Earle: Whales, dolphins, birds, crickets, and fish of course. Lobsters make incredibly beautiful purring sounds.

OG: Please share with us your favourite book – also the most important book to read.

Dr Earle: Books by William Beebe inspired me as a child, and I still love reading and sharing them, but the walls at home are lined with thousands of books by thousands of writers -- mostly non-fiction accounts of what has been discovered about the world over the course of civilization. I love having access to knowledge via electronic means, but there is no substitute for physical books to touch and read, then put away to be retrieved again and again. I devour books by Carl Safina, Jane Goodall, Callum Roberts, Lewis Thomas, E. B. White, E. O. Wilson and a long list of others. Everyone should take to heart Wilson’s recent book, “Half Earth”, that makes a compelling case for why our future prosperity depends on fully protecting at least half of the land and half of the ocean as safe havens for natural systems and the biodiversity they contain.

OG: If there is only one last thing you can do to save the ocean, what would it be?

Dr Earle: I would do my best to inspire people to take care of the living ocean as if their lives depended on it – because they literally do.

OG: When you are not out enjoying the ocean, promoting conservation, what are your other enjoyments?

Dr Earle: Sleeping! Writing. Eating. And getting ready for the next expedition.

OG: What is your advice for one aspiring to be an explorer?

Dr Earle: Children are natural explorers, always curious, always asking questions: Who? What? Why? Where? When? How?   One way to be an effective explorer is to never grow up. Keep or perhaps recapture the sense of wonder and joy of discovery that all of us had when we were young.   Whatever else you choose to do with your life, you can,and should, explore the world and do whatever you can to add to an understanding of the big questions: Who are we? Where have we come from? Where are we going? For the first - and maybe the last - time in history, we have a chance to make peace with the ocean and the rest of the living world, and in so doing, secure an enduring place for ourselves on this small blue part of the universe.

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