Sylvia Earle

  • Written by  Graeme Gourlay
  • Published in Oceans
Sylvia Earle Getty Images / Maarten de Boer
26 Dec
For Sylvia Earle there is one over-riding threat to humanity – the dramatic, rapid despoilment of our oceans. While she fears we are fast approaching a point of no return, the grand dame of the deep is not without hope

Without the blue heart of the planet, none of us will be able to live,’ says Sylvia Earle, the doughty 82-year-old academic, explorer and inspirer. ‘And I like living. But we are doing things to our oceans that is going to make that very difficult – for all of us.’

Today, Earle is the most famous champion of the oceans on the planet. She started as an academic, became an explorer and gradually took on the mantle of campaigner. ‘Since the middle of the 20th century, we have put a lot of things in the ocean,’ she says. ‘Our sewage, our garbage, our industrial waste, the chemicals from our fields washed down into the ocean. We’ve changed the ocean. Today we can actually see it – especially since 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.’

It’s not just what we’ve put into the water. Earle is equally concerned with how much we’ve taken from the seas as well. ‘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 ever more baited hooks, and we have seen the consequences. We are killing our oceans.’

Much to her chagrin, this has happened in her lifetime. Or, as she indignantly puts it: ‘On my watch.’ 


‘I like living. But we are doing things to our oceans that is going to make that very difficult for all of us’



Earle started diving in 1953. Her parents moved from the northeast of the United States 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. ‘I began learning to dive 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 it, nothing that we could take out of it, could possibly make a difference.’ 

She graduated from high school at 16, got a degree from St Petersburg Junior College a year later, her BA from Florida State University at 19, and received her master’s degree from Duke University by the time she reached 20. 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. The doctorate was exceptionally well received; in fact, in an unprecedented move, the scientific journal Phycologia devoted an entire issue to it.

‘From the time that I began exploring the ocean as a diver, as a scientist, as a witness,’ she says passionately looking back on how her early years beneath the waves opened her eyes, ‘sharks – like tuna, like grouper, like snapper – have all been industrially hunted down and now probably only ten per cent are left. We are continuing to extract from the ocean at a rate that is simply faster than the fish can reproduce. And it’s not just the fish; it’s the lobster, it’s shrimp, it’s the sea cucumbers.

‘What do you care about?’ she continues. ‘Your health, security, the economy? Then you have to care what we are doing to the planet and in the ocean. 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. Appalling damage. Industrial fishing. Chemical pollution. Plastic. Climate change. Ocean acidification. The list goes on.’

earle obamaEarle and President Obama in 2016 discussing protected areas in Hawaii ( Image: White House Photo/Alamy)



As a scientist, Earle increasingly saw this mounting damage, but it was only by fluke that she gained a public platform to decry our losses. 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. Her moving speech about why studying the ocean is as important as exploring space came naturally and was broadcast to millions.

‘I was forced to reach into myself and think about what I could say of 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 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.’


‘We know what we’re doing is wrong and because of that we have the ability to get it right – but time is running out’

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In 1979, Earle set the world untethered diving record, descending 381m (1,250 feet) beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean in an armoured, high-tech diving suit that maintained a constant pressure within. Strapped to the front of a submarine, she descended to the seafloor. As deep-ocean explorer Phil Nuytten, who was on the surface running the dive, says: ‘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.

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 then-husband. Together they designed the expedition submersible Deep Rover, a vehicle capable of reaching depths of 914m (3,000 feet). Her eldest daughter still runs the family’s deep ocean exploration company which was responsible for the design of the arm on James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenger submersible 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 1990, 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 the global discussion forum TED Talks to compete to ‘win a 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 a clear winner. It was the start of her crusade to persuade us all that we must protect at least 20 per cent of the ocean by 2020.

This led to her founding Mission Blue, a global alliance to protect our oceans and to create its Hope Spots campaign, which focuses on key points in the marine world to build a network of protected and nurtured zones.

It has had some notable successes, such as when President Obama in 2016 created the world’s then-largest marine park off Hawaii (now, worryingly, under threat from the Trump administration). 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 says. ‘They even discussed raising that to 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 roverEarle inside the Deep Rover submersible built with her then-husband Graham Hawkes (Image: David Doubilet)



Earle is also at the centre of a campaign to persuade the UN to move on regulating the high seas. Last summer, it 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 fish at an industrial level, there is a chance that the pattern of appalling destruction that I have witnessed in my lifetime can become a time of recovery.’

She points to the recovery in whale populations in the relatively short time since commercial whaling was banned in 1986. ‘We could have killed every whale,’ she says. ‘We could find them, we could see them, they are big animals. But by the 1980s, it was so obvious that we were taking so many that even if we stopped killing them, some species might not recover.’

However, much to her delight, we pulled back from the brink. This ability for us to understand the scale of the problems we have caused is the main source of hope for Earle. Her world view is deeply optimistic. While many would wilt after identifying the sheer scale of the issues facing our oceans, she instead believes the very knowledge that allows us to understand the issues can also be used to solve them.

‘You know the knowledge we have now means we can get this right,’ she says determinedly. ‘When I was a kid we didn’t understand all these complex issues. Today we do. We know what we are doing is wrong and because of that we have the ability to get it right – but time is running out and we have to act now.’ 

This was published in the December 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.

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