THE INDEFATIGABLE SYLVIA EARLE
Her Deepness, the Sturgeon General, Mother of Our Oceans…The List of names is lengthy for this relentless and passionate champion of our oceans. Interview by Graeme Gourlay
It’s nearly ten o’clock at night. For Sylvia Earle, 82, it has been a long day. She arrived late the evening before, on the Mexican island of Cozumel, up early for breakfast with 20 journalists and campaigners, followed by hours of press and television interviews and then onto the stage for a 90-minute impassioned lecture at 6pm. After the standing ovation, she presented awards to a class of schoolchildren for a mosaic artwork about the ocean, they had made from plastic recovered from local beaches. The delegates at the conference started to drift off to a cocktail party at around 8pm. Nearly two hours later, I wandered back into the hall and saw the indefatigable Earle, with that trademark smile, still on the stage patiently posing with the last few children of the group, as their parents took endless individual photographs.
There is no stopping her. She is relentless. She never gives up. There is a job to be done, and she is going to give it her all. The job is to save her beloved ocean and if it means personally persuading every last one of us – whether schoolchild or president – she is going to do it with charm and charisma.
Today, she is the most famous champion of the oceans on the planet. She is also a respected and widely published scientist, a renowned marine explorer who has lived for weeks on end in undersea habitats, she has walked on the ocean floor at twelve hundred and fifty feet and has been a fearless pilot of experimental submersibles. Throughout this career, she has been a formidable environmental campaigner and a respected advocate.
Over the years, all this work, all this energy, has transmuted her into something very special. We are used to national treasures in sport or showbusiness, and even occasionally in politics. But this slight, doughty woman has become a global treasure – the defender of the planet’s oceans.
‘We have an opportunity now to use our voices, to encourage our nations, communities and, through bodies such as the UN, to try to reach some crucial goals for humankind,’ she told me. ‘What do you care about? Your health, security, the economy? Then you have to care what we are doing to the planet, and in the ocean. We have a chance to get it right. On the land, it has taken us thousands of years to lose the trees, lose the wildlife – to degrade our backyard. But in the oceans we have done a staggering amount of damage in just one generation. On my watch, we have done appalling damage to our oceans. Industrial fishing. Chemical pollution. Plastic. Climate change. Ocean acidification. The list goes on.’
Earle started diving in 1953. Her parents moved from New Jersey down to the Gulf of Mexico when she was 12, and the little girl, who always knew she wanted to be a scientist, fell in love with the ocean. She graduated from high school at 16, got a degree from St Petersburg Junior College at 17, her BA from Florida State University at 19, and received her master’s degree from Duke University at 20.
‘On Sylvia Earle’s 80th birthday (literally the day), Jennifer Hayes and I submerged with her into the Arctic waters of Svalbard as she descended into a bed of kelp like an underwater mole burrowing through the broad red fronds that waved and rippled across the bottom. Her small frame vanished into the layers of kelp, her path visible only by her trail of bubbles. Although I have known Sylvia for many decades as she made history on her journey through science, submarine technology, exploration, stewardship and conservation, it is her love and understanding for marine algae that I admire the most. It is fitting that Sylvia began her career studying the foundation on which our oceans depend. Dr Sylvia Earle, Her Deepness, Sturgeon General, Daughter of the Ocean and Global Ambassador for the Sea, is a voice for the voiceless. When Sylvia speaks, the world listens. Tears came to my eyes in those Arctic waters watching her explore the algae, she was excited and unstoppable and the last to get out of the frigid water. ' Fellow National Geographic Ambassador, David Doubilet
She then set about a doctorate specialising in marine algae that took ten years to complete in between expeditions to far-flung spots such as Aldabra Atoll in the Seychelles, and the Galápagos islands. It was one of the first pieces of original research compiled using scuba and was exceptionally well received; in fact, in an unprecedented move, the scientific journal Phycologia devoted an entire issue to it.
It is this rigorous scientific background that informs her worldview and is the root, no doubt, of her optimism. For while she can detail the problems we face with a ruthless clarity, she can also see the solutions. While many would wilt after identifying the sheer scale of the issues facing our oceans, she believes the very knowledge that allows us to understand the issues can also be used to solve them.
First though, the problems. In response to one question about the state of the marine world flowed the following answer: ‘As a child, I lived on the Gulf of Mexico along the coast near Tampa, Florida. I used to look across the Gulf and wonder what was out there on the other side, and what was down there in the depths of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, and my dream of being able to do so, ultimately, became true.
‘I began learning scuba in the 1950s. It was 1953, and at the time no one imagined we could change the ocean – it seemed so big, so vast, that nothing that we could put into the ocean, nothing that we could take out of the ocean, could possibly make a difference.
‘Since the middle of the 20th century, we have put a lot of things into the ocean: our sewage, our garbage, our industrial waste, the chemicals from our fields that wash down into the ocean. We’ve changed the ocean.
‘Today we can see it – especially because of the introduction of plastics. You see it coming back to shore on beaches all over the world. A lot of it is still in the ocean.
‘Also, we have taken a lot out of the sea. We thought it could just keep on giving and giving and giving. So, we built bigger boats and developed more sophisticated fishing techniques, bigger trawls, bigger long-lines with baited hooks and since the middle of the 20th century, we have seen the consequences. Whether it be tuna, whose numbers are tiny today compared to when I began diving, or the friendly, engaging groupers (that divers love but also are really easy to spear or catch), we’ve done a good job of catching them. Ninety per cent of groupers are gone. Just like the tunas. And the sharks!
‘When I began diving, I thought you had to watch out for sharks because they were man-eaters. I stopped worrying because I’m not a man – not my problem. But the truth is, no one has to worry about sharks, but sharks have to worry about us! From the time that I began exploring the ocean as a diver, as a scientist, as a witness – sharks, like tuna, like grouper, like snapper – have been industrially hunted down and now probably only ten per cent are left.
‘The ocean today has a very small number of fish compared to what existed when I was a little girl. We are continuing to extract from the ocean at a rate that is simply faster than the fish can possibly reproduce. And it’s not just the fish, it’s the lobster, it’s shrimp, it’s the little sea cucumbers.’
The answer was seamless, delivered without pause or hesitation. She is so immersed in her subject that it seems to spill out of her. It is natural, never feels rehearsed. In 40 years of interviewing people as a journalist, I have never come across anyone so fluent, so easily eloquent. Each point she wants to make logically follows the last. Each example is peppered with recent and important facts. She is on top of her brief and neverendingly enthusiastic. In a relaxed and informal interview with magazine writers, she can be discursive and eager to follow any important chain of thought. In front of TV cameras she can deliver crisp and pithy one-liners. A natural communicator. I see her entrance young children and never patronise them. I watch her gossip with her friends and can’t help but notice how much she listens to them rather than dominate conversations. And I see her enthral an audience with natural grace and powerful arguments.
Earle was first pushed into the media spotlight almost by fluke. She had led a prestigious expedition in the summer of 1970 called Tektite II Mission 6, an all-female group who lived as saturation divers underwater in the US Virgin Islands for two weeks and carried out experiments and observations using rebreathers. This was just after the first moon landing and the project caught the public imagination. Much to her amazement, she and the team were welcomed back by President Richard Nixon and given a ticker-tape parade through Chicago. With two minutes’ notice, she was told she had to say a few words to the vast crowd and the banks of television cameras. It came naturally, and her passionate speech about why studying the ocean is as important as exploring space was broadcast to millions.
‘Dr Sylvia Earle has no equal or close second in what she does. Among her many, many talents, her greatest gift and defining characteristic is as The Great Explainer. She has an uncanny ability to take complex systems and interconnections and distil them into an understandable summation, memorable, relevant to all, and fired with hope. Decades ago, Dr Earle broke the glass ceiling for women in the sciences and the world of underwater exploration. She has demonstrated time and time again her irrepressible need to explore, to discover, to educate, to share. She gives a voice to the sea and the creatures that live within it. She provides an example of the purposeful live well-lived that we should all take heed to emulate. Viva Sylvia!' DIVE’s World Editor Douglas David Seifert
‘I was forced to reach into myself and think of what I could say about our experience to a general audience,’ she said in an interview a few years later. ‘I had to try to talk coherently – in a way that untrained people could understand – about something that I cared about deeply. And afterwards, this sort of thing kept happening and it caused me to think very hard about how I could convey something about the animals and plants in the ocean – the system which actually dominates our planet, and which had come to mean so much to me, to millions of people, some of whom had never seen a fish in its natural habitat.’
The invitations kept coming, to share her deep love of the oceans, and a new string was added to her bow – public champion of our seas and marine life. The scientific work continued, as did the expeditions, but she increasingly branched out into television and communicating the wonders of the ocean to a wider audience. One of the first such projects was a six-week trip to the then virtually unknown Chuuk Lagoon with film-maker Al Giddings. They brought back stunning film about the coral-encrusted Japanese Second World War fleet that has inspired tens of thousands of divers to travel to the Caroline Islands in the Western Pacific to see the wrecks for themselves.
Inspiring people to dive, to go underwater and experience what she has experienced, is one of Earle’s great passions. She strongly believes that we should encourage everyone, from children to our grandparents, to see the underwater world for themselves and that as divers, we, in particular, have a special obligation to defend the oceans.
She told me: ‘I think everyone who is a diver dives because of the joy of being able to go out and see a part of the planet that otherwise we don’t have access to, whether snorkelling, or scuba or using rebreathers or even submarines, you have access to the sea and that is a privilege for a human being.
‘We know, us divers, what most people will only know from photographs, images or stories. So we have, I think, a special responsibility to share the view. We are ambassadors. We must share our pictures, tell our stories, be a voice for the ocean, use our knowledge to let others know why the ocean matters.
‘Divers, listen up! Learn how to explain why the ocean matters. Get other people into the ocean. No child should be left dry. Get kids out with mask and fins. Get your parents, get your grandparents, to go see for themselves. My mother began diving when she was 81, and she said, after she saw how beautiful it is, “Don’t wait until you are my age”.’
In 1979, Earle set the world untethered diving record, descending 381m (1,250 feet) beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean in a JIM diving suit. Strapped to the front of a submarine, she descended to the seafloor in the armoured suit that maintains a constant pressure within. As deep-ocean explorer Phil Nuytten, who was on the surface running the dive, said: ‘She couldn’t go any deeper without a shovel’. Earle spent two hours walking, untethered in the bulky suit at a depth no human had done before – or since.
‘Sylvia and I have had many adventures over the years. She’s always been a really good shipmate. She’s very quick on the uptake, particularly with the fairly sophisticated technical stuff she has to learn for emergency procedures and life support. I have nothing but admiration for her. When people say so-and-so is ‘a piece of work’ they often mean it in a derogatory manner. I say very clearly that Sylvia is ‘a piece of work’ and I mean it in the most congratulatory manner it can possibly be said.’ Phil Nuytten, Canadian entrepreneur, inventor of the Newt Suit, ocean explorer and long-time collaborator with Earle on her deep-ocean exploits
Her fascination with the depths of the ocean continued and during the early 1980s Earle founded Deep Ocean Engineering and Deep Ocean Technology with British engineer Graham Hawkes, her third husband. Together they designed the expedition submersible Deep Rover, a vehicle capable of reaching depths of 914m (3,000 feet). Her eldest daughter (she has three children) still runs the family’s deep-ocean exploration company. It was responsible for the design of the arm on James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenger submersible that he used to retrieve objects from the bottom of the Mariana Trench – the deepest-known point on earth.
Earle has led more than 50 expeditions and clocked more than 7,000 hours underwater. In the early 1990s, she was appointed Chief Scientist of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the first woman to serve in that position. She has published more than 100 scientific papers and written numerous books popularising the exploration and protection of the oceans.
Her global reach hit new heights when in 2009 she was invited by TED Talks to compete to win a wish – any wish. Each speaker had 18 minutes to make their pitch and Earle’s gentle but insistent plea that we must save the ‘blue heart’ of our planets was per cent of the ocean by 2020.
This has led to her founding Mission Blue, a global alliance to protect our oceans and to create the Hope Spots campaign, which focuses on key points in the marine world to build a network of protected and nurtured zones.
She has had some notable successes, such as when President Obama in 2016 created the world’s then-largest marine park off Hawaii. This year she was delighted that for the first time the United Nations finally got around to discussing the fate of seven tenths of the planet’s surface – our oceans. Earle made a typically powerful speech to the gathering in New York and she must have felt some satisfaction that it adopted a slightly watered-down version of her wish.
‘They set a goal that by 2020, ten per cent of the ocean should be protected,’ she said. ‘They even discussed making that 20 per cent by 2030. The good news is that ten per cent of the ocean by 2020 is achievable, and it will make a difference.’
Earle is also at the centre of a campaign to persuade the UN to move on regulating the high seas. This summer, the UN started looking at the complex issues of controlling the vast industrial fishing fleets scouring the seas – a bugbear for Earle. While she has nothing against local, artisanal fishing, she is a firm opponent of large-scale, indiscriminate harvesting of the sea. She hasn’t eaten fish herself for more than 40 years and says: ‘Once we stop killing the tunas and the swordfish and the groupers and all the other fish on a large scale, the industrial extraction of wildlife that is going on, uncontrolled and unregulated, there is a chance that the pattern of appalling destruction that I have witnessed in my lifetime can become a time of recovery.’
‘Sylvia is my inspiration to protect and preserve our ocean planet. In her words, “No one can do everything, but everyone can do something”. It is such a simple and eloquent concept, yet most of us overlook that collectively we can do a lot. Sylvia has been a fearless crusader, the mother of our ocean. It is my mission to support her latest, the most important endeavour - the Deep Hope project', Expedition leader Michael Aw
She points to the recovery in whale populations in the relatively short time since commercial whaling was banned in 1986. But the battle on so many other fronts – from climate change to plastic pollution, from habitat destruction to ocean acidification – is far from won and we are still clearly standing on the precipice. I couldn’t help but wonder how she keeps going, how she keeps patiently making the case over and over again for something that is blatantly obvious – the need to protect our oceans. I caught her in a gap between interviews and, inadvertently, couldn’t help blurting out: ‘How do you keep doing this, how do you keep going?’
With a twinkle and a broad smile, she replied: ‘There is no choice. We have to keep fighting. There is hope, and we have to win. We all have to keep going…’