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.
"I 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
After 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.
While oceans 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 research team.
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
Over 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.
Earle 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.
"She 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
Earle 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.
"But the 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.
"People 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.