When Sylvia Earle talks about her childhood, she reflects on her
birthplace on a New Jersey farm in 1935. She says that might explain
why she became an explorer with a special empathy for animals, a trait
her parents encouraged.
"My mother was known as the 'bird lady'
of the neighborhood. Anything injured or any unusual creature somebody
found, they would always come to our doorstep."
When she was
12, Earle's family moved to Florida, on the Gulf of Mexico. That is
where she got her first glimpse under water using a copper diving
helmet borrowed from the boy next door, the son of a sponge fisherman.
She tried scuba as an undergrad at Florida State University.
was just enchanted with the opportunity to cruise around, stand on one
finger [and] feel the weightlessness of being free in the sea. I could
do back flips and summersaults and sit there quietly and just watch the
creatures watching me."
Cataloguing a largely unknown world
that, Earle was hooked by the sea, and she never regretted it. For her
Ph.D. thesis, she set out to catalog every species in the Gulf of
Mexico, a project that she continues to this day.
cover more than 70 percent of the Earth's surface, only five percent of
this vast world is known. Earle has spent her life trying to raise
that percentage. In 1970, she spent two weeks in an enclosed habitat
on the ocean floor off the U.S. Virgin Islands as head of a women's
She says having the luxury to observe the reef ecosystem day
and night underscored an important scientific truth: All living
creatures share a common chemistry.
"We need to remember that every day, that we are a part of the living system that makes all of what we care about possible."
Interactions with ocean life
her long career, Earle has published scientific papers and books, been
a popular lecturer and led more than 60 expeditions, logging 6,000
hours under water. But scuba gear could take her only so far. In the
1980s, she founded a company that
designs and builds vehicles that operate remotely from land or are
manned for underwater travel.
"It is like being in your personal bubble and to fly underwater," she says.
was appointed chief scientist for the U,S. government's National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in
1990. Later that decade, she directed the Sustainable Seas Expedition,
a five-year exploration of U.S. National Marine sanctuaries. On a memorable dive, an octopus
wrapped itself unexpectedly around Earle's submersible.
had eggs clutched in her arms. I didn't see that right away, and then I
realized that this was a girl octopus, a mom, and literally we danced
for almost an hour. I would move toward the octopus, and she would stay
there, and I would back off a little bit, and then she would come over
to me. It was amazing."
Persuading others to care
says the encounter inspired her with a sense of wonder and hope.
Oceans are vital to life, she says. Not only are they central to the
fresh-water cycle, they preserve biodiversity, consume carbon dioxide,
produce oxygen and impact climate. Despite her optimism, she's
troubled that more than half the world's ocean species have disappeared
during her lifetime.
"Ninety percent of the big fish and many
of the little fish are now down to tiny fractions of what they once
were. Some say optimistically that 10 percent of the sharks are there.
Some sharks are down to maybe down to 1 percent, very close to going
[extinct] over the edge forever."
As a scientist and
explorer, Earle is driven to reverse the trend. Part of that drive,
she says, is the joy and obligation of giving back.
other part is the sense of urgency because of the changes taking place
that I have had special opportunities to witness."
And as a witness, Sylvia Earle says it is her duty to inform.
can't care, unless they know," she says, adding, "They can't act if
they don't care." In her book, Ocean: An Illustrated Atlas, published in 2008, she writes, "If we so choose, we have the power to
craft a world where we respect and live in peace with ourselves and
with the mostly blue world that sustains us."
Renown explorer, oceanographer and author Sylvia Earle contributes an eloquent essay to the documentary Journey to Planet Earth: State of the Planet's Oceans. The film, which explores the health of the world's complex ocean ecosystems, debuted at the 2009 Environmental Film Festival in the nation's capital and has been shown on public television stations across the United States. Video courtesy of Screenscope.