At 87, Sylvia Earle has no retirement plans. The famous oceanographer, who holds the world record for the deepest free walk along the seabed, has spent more than seven decades exploring the ocean. As one of the world’s most outspoken advocates for her protection, she’s not ready to quit just yet.
“I’m still breathing, so why should I?” Earle narrates CNN’s Sara Sidner from the garden of her childhood home in Dunedin, Florida. A day earlier, Earle was in the ocean with a wetsuit and scuba gear on his back, searching for a new life and to satisfy his lingering curiosity.
She’s been swimming here since she was a kid, but Earle insists she always has more to learn. “Every time I go in the water, I see things I’ve never seen before,” she says.
This is even true in the waters off Florida, where development and environmental disasters have blighted the shoreline and surrounding wildlife. Earle witnessed the dredging and infilling of seagrass beds to make way for shoreline properties; she saw the effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, when 168 million gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico; and during his lifetime, the Caribbean monk seals, which could once be seen basking on Florida beaches, disappeared.
“It has nothing to do with the paradise I once knew,” she says, but some form of recovery is always at hand. “Nature is resilient, it is a source of hope. But we have to give nature a break, release the pressure.
Sylvia Earle: Diving for Hope
– Source: CNN
In Dunedin, this 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 a Hope Spot in 2019, as part of Earle’s Mission Blue program, which supports ocean research and restoration. There are over 140 Hope Spots around the world, all areas that have been scientifically identified as critical to ocean health and are now protected by local communities and institutions.
“A healthy ocean begins with awareness,” states the Mission Blue website, something Earle tirelessly strived for. Today, she travels the world, speaking at schools or UN general assemblies and in the US Congress, sharing her ocean stories and calling for conservation action.
Such an unwavering commitment to the ocean has earned Earle numerous titles, from “Her Deepness” and “Queen of the Deep” to “Sturgeon General.” She is credited with opening doors for women in ocean science, becoming the first female chief scientist at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 1990, and she pioneered the use submersibles for the exploration of the ocean depths.
“There was a time in the 1970s when access to the skies above and the depths below were roughly parallel, but then the focus on aviation and aerospace took off,” she says. . “Until very recently, more people had been to the moon than to the deepest parts of the ocean.”
Submersibles gave scientists like Earle the luxury of time. Scuba diving at extreme depths is very technical and dangerous, and going deeper often means less time at the bottom due to increased pressure and limited oxygen supplies. In a submersible, however, researchers can reach the seabed and stay there for hours.
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During her travels to the depths, Earle says she would stare out the window, asking questions of the sea life passing by: “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 coming to the surface with this knowledge would help humans understand the value of underwater life and persuade them to start treating it differently. “We measure ocean wildlife by the ton, we don’t even give them the dignity of the number of individual tuna that are there,” she explains. “It just shows that we don’t see them as living creatures, as individuals.”
While her message has certainly started to sink in, Earle thinks increasing access to the deep ocean and letting people see life for themselves would help really cement it.
His biggest 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 who builds submersibles. “She really wants to be able to pick individuals from all over the world and have them have that experience with her in the submarine.”
Taylor agrees that traveling the high seas would help change people’s attitudes towards her. “You really feel that you are part of the ocean around you. The animals are very curious, they like to come and see you. (It’s) the inverted aquarium experience.
When they come face-to-face with a fish in their own environment, it’s hard not to see them as dynamic creatures full of character, she adds.
An empathy for all living beings runs deep in the family. Taylor says the idea that “all of life matters” was ingrained in her and her two siblings from a young age. Earle attributes it to her own mother, who she says had a deep understanding of the “fragility of life” – possibly due to their own family tragedy. Before Earle was born, his parents had lost four children, the first in a car accident, the second from an ear infection and twins born prematurely.
“My mother’s point of view was that you want to save creatures for themselves, they deserve to live,” she says. And suddenly, she became the child “who had cocoons in jars watching the emergence of a caterpillar to a butterfly”.
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It may have been then that Earle’s quest for knowledge of the natural world began, but it has yet to wane. After a lifetime of service to the sea, she believes understanding nature is the key to her recovery.
“I can, in a way, forgive a lot of the terrible things we’ve done to the water, to the air, to the land, and certainly to life in the sea…because we didn’t have understanding”, but today there is no excuse, she said.
“We are armed with knowledge that did not exist and could not exist until now.”
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