At 87, Sylvia Earle has no plans to retire. The renowned oceanographer, who holds the world record for the deepest untethered walk on the sea floor, has spent more than seven decades exploring the ocean. As one of the world’s most outspoken advocates for his protection, she’s not ready to stop just yet.
“I’m still breathing so why should I?” Earle tells CNN’s Sara Sidner from the garden of his childhood home in Dunedin, Florida. A day earlier, Earle was in the ocean in a wetsuit and scuba gear on his back, looking for a new life and satisfying his enduring curiosity.
She’s been swimming here since she was a little girl, but Earle insists there’s always more to learn. “Every time I get in the water, I see things I’ve never seen before,” he says.
This is even true in Florida’s waters, where development and ecological disasters have blighted the coastline and surrounding wildlife. Earle has witnessed seagrass meadows being dredged and filled to make way for waterfront properties; has seen the effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, when 168 million gallons of oil poured into the Gulf of Mexico; and in his lifetime, Caribbean monk seals, once seen lounging on Florida beaches, have become extinct.
“It’s nothing like the paradise I knew,” he says, but some form of recovery is still within reach. “Nature is resilient, that’s a reason for hope. But we have to give nature a break, take the pressure off.”
Sylvia Earle: Diving for Hope
– Source: CNN
In Dunedin, that is exactly what is happening now. The coastline, which stretches from Apalachicola Bay in the north to Ten Thousand Island in the south, was designated as a Point of Hope in 2019 as part of Earle’s Mission Blue program, which supports ocean research and restoration. There are more than 140 hotspots worldwide, all areas that have been scientifically identified as critical to ocean health and are now being safeguarded by local communities and institutions.
“A healthy ocean starts with awareness,” the Mission Blue website states, something Earle has tirelessly strived for. Today, he travels the world, speaking at schools or UN General Assemblies and the US Congress, sharing his ocean stories and calling for conservation action.
This steadfast commitment to the ocean has earned Earle many titles, from ‘Her Deepness’ and ‘Queen of the Deep’ to ‘Sturgeon General’. She is credited with opening the doors to women in ocean science, becoming the first female chief scientist of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 1990, and has pioneered the use of submersibles for deep ocean exploration.
“There was a time in the 1970s when access to the skies above and the depths below were roughly parallel, but then the focus was on aviation and aerospace,” he says. “Until very recently, more people had been on the moon than in the deepest parts of the ocean.”
Submersibles gave scientists like Earle the luxury of time. Diving at extreme depths is highly technical and dangerous, and going deeper often means less time at the bottom due to increased pressure and limited oxygen supply. In a submersible, however, researchers can reach the sea floor and stay there for hours.
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During his trips to the deep, Earle says he would look out the window, asking questions of passing sea life: “Who are you? Where do you come from? How do you spend your days and nights? What’s it like to be a fish?”
She hopes that returning to the surface with this knowledge will help humans understand the value of underwater life and persuade them to start treating it differently. “We measure ocean fauna by the ton, we don’t even give them the dignity of how many individual tunas there are,” he explains. “It just shows that we don’t think of them as living creatures, as individuals.”
While his message has begun to sink in, Earle believes that increasing access to the deep ocean and letting people see the life for themselves would help really solidify it.
His main goal is to build new submersibles that give ordinary people direct access to the deep ocean, says his daughter Liz Taylor, who is also president and CEO of DOER Marine, a company founded by her mother in 1992 that build submersibles. “She really wants to be able to take people from all over the world and have that experience with her on the submarine.”
Taylor agrees that traveling to the deep sea would help change people’s attitudes towards it. “You really feel like you’re part of the ocean around you. The animals are very curious, they like to come and see you. (It’s) the reverse aquarium experience.”
When you come face-to-face with a fish in its own environment, it’s hard not to see them as dynamic, characterful creatures, he adds.
Empathy for all living things runs deep in the family. Taylor says the idea that “all of life matters” was ingrained in her and her two siblings from an early age. Earle attributes this to her own mother, who she says had a deep understanding of the “fragility of life,” possibly due to her own family tragedy. Before Earle was born, his parents had lost four children, the first in a car accident, the second to an ear infection, and twins who were born prematurely.
“My mother’s perspective was that you want to save creatures for their own sake, they deserve to live,” she says. And as a result, he became the boy “who had cocoons in jars watching the emergence of a caterpillar into a butterfly.”
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This may have been when Earle’s quest to learn about the natural world began, but it has yet to wane. After a life in the service of the sea, he believes that understanding nature is key to his recovery.
“I can, in a way, forgive many of the terrible things we have done to the water, the air, the soil, and certainly to the life in the sea … because we did not have the understanding,” But today there is no excuse, he says.
“We are armed with knowledge that did not exist and could not exist until now.”