Close to home: Earle at Garrapata State Park, Big Sur, California. ©Macduff Everton/Corbis
Close to home: Earle at Garrapata State Park, Big Sur, California. ©Macduff Everton/Corbis

The Life Aquatic

Sylvia Earle, a renowned oceanographer who has spent more than 7,000 hours underwater, has moved from exploring the depths of Earth's oceans to trying to save them.
August 1, 2010

Watch Earle's TED talk, her appearance on The Colbert Report, and more at National Geographic

One evening in early April, Sylvia Earle sat back in her chair aboard the National Geographic ship Endeavor, concentrating deeply. Around her in the water, thousands of organisms were surely out and about, crawling over the sandy bottom, swimming through reefs, or merely swaying in the ocean's currents. The land formations nearby were a lush green, a sign of the rain that characterizes El Niño years in the Galapagos Islands.

But Earle's focus, at least for the moment, was on the excited chatter coming from all around her. The ship's other passengers, an impressive group of top marine scientists, businessmen and women, policymakers, philanthropists, musicians, and Hollywood actors, was scattered about the boat engaged in heated discussion. The theme: marine conservation.

A year earlier, Earle A.M. '56, Ph.D. '66, Hon. '93, a renowned marine scientist, diver, and ocean explorer, had been awarded a major prize by the nonprofit organization TED. (The initials T-E-D initially stood for Technology, Entertainment, and Design, but the group has since broadened its focus to recognize and celebrate "ideas worth spreading" in other fields as well.) The prize consisted of a $100,000 cash award, but more important to Earle, TED also offers to marshal its resources toward granting winners "one wish to change the world."

Earle's wish, made to those who assembled for the organization's annual conference in Long Beach, California, in 2009, was simple but elegant: "I wish you would use all means at your disposal—films, expeditions, the Web, new submarines, a campaign—to ignite public support for a global network of marine protected areas: hope spots large enough to save and restore the ocean, the blue heart of the planet.

Now she was enjoying TED's first step toward granting her wish, a five-day Galapagos cruise, dubbed the Mission Blue Voyage after Earle's Mission Blue foundation, aimed at inspiring a large-scale conservation movement. On board, marine scientists delivered talks. Small working groups assembled around eight tangible areas, developing plans of action, timelines, and sources of funding in order to accomplish specific goals. One team discussed education efforts. Another laid out plans to protect the Sargasso Sea, a million-square-mile region located in the North Atlantic. Still another began work on enacting protections for fish and other wildlife in the waters around the Galapagos. To further these plans, the various groups solicited pledges for more than $15 million in operating funds from philanthropists on board to go directly to the organizations spearheading each area.

The cruise was, by many accounts, a big success. "It would typically take three years to do what we did in a week," says Laura Cassiani, chief operations officer for the Mission Blue foundation.

Through it all, Earle listened, lending an idea here, providing some cheerleading there. "People slept almost not at all," she said proudly, just a day after her return. "Some stayed up far into the night and got up very early in the morning. There was a sort of happy kind of exhaustion. Not because anybody was whipping them to do things, but because everybody was energized by everybody else."

At seventy-four, Earle is, herself, a model of inexhaustibility. Over the course of her career, she has led more than 100 scientific explorations and spent 7,000 total hours underwater. She has swum with humpback whales, dived to record depths in novel situations, and founded three companies devoted to the development of underwater research vessels, commonly referred to as submersibles. Yet these days, she increasingly finds herself jetting around the world, setting the scientific record straight, enlisting allies, and generally making a case for the oceans.

Much of this work is done under the auspices of Mission Blue, a small California-based foundation she established (originally under the name Deep Search Foundation) in 2008 to increase the reach of her efforts and work more effectively with partner organizations like TED and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, an umbrella organization for conservation nonprofits worldwide.

Just before heading to the Galapagos, Earle spent several days in Doha, Qatar, as an observer at the annual meeting of the United Nations' Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITIES). After leaving the Galapagos, she headed to San Diego to participate in a panel discussion at a Fortune magazine conference, and then on to Washington, where she participated in a fiftieth-anniversary celebration of the first and only manned descent to the deepest spot in the oceans—the Mariana Trench off the coast of Guam.

Once photos had been snapped and hands shaken, she re-crossed the country, this time heading for Hollywood and the première of the new movie Oceans, produced by a Disney division devoted to nature documentaries, for which she served as an adviser. Late in the month, she was scheduled to fly to Europe to meet with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, but the volcanic eruption in Iceland that shut down continental air travel for the better part of a week scuttled that meeting, at least temporarily.

Those close to her estimate that she spends in the neighborhood of 300 days per year on the road. "From her point of view, she feels like she has a very short amount of time to make sure this message is heard," Cassiani says. "She wants to create a global response to the problem. She will take every key opportunity to make sure this message is heard."

Immersible explorer: Earle uses the Jim suit to make a historic deep-ocean dive off the coast of Hawaii in 1979. Al Giddings Images, Inc

That message is relatively simple, and it goes something like this: Our oceans are important, but they are in trouble, and we have both the knowledge and the ability to do something about it.

Early in the twentieth century, Earle agues, humans—or at least a large majority of them—did not realize that they could permanently affect the ocean. It simply seemed too immense. Garbage dumped in the ocean would float away. Fish taken would be replaced, from the depths, by more fish.

But as time has passed, the impact of humans has become impossible to ignore. Earle, like other scientists, has watched as populations of many species of large fish—sharks, tuna, cod—as well as whales and turtles have declined by more than 90 percent in just her lifetime. Some have been taken intentionally; others are accidental victims caught up in long fishing lines, nets, and trawls.

"Low-oxygen dead zones have formed in many coastal areas, largely as a consequence of excess fertilizers and toxic chemicals flowing from upstream fields, farms, and backyards," Earle writes in her 2009 book The World Is Blue. "Plastic debris now clogs beaches, reefs, and even the open sea." Half of the world's coral reefs are dead or in serious decline.

If such changes continue unchecked, she says, the consequences will be dire. A healthy ocean serves essential functions in the lives of every human—driving the water and weather cycles, storing large amounts of carbon that would otherwise contribute to global warming, and producing about 50 percent of the world's oxygen through the photosynthetic mechanisms of its algae and kelp beds. It also shelters valuable biodiversity, providing a home to more than 95 percent of life on Earth. An unhealthy ocean with disrupted food chains does not.

Which leaves humanity at an important turning point. "I say it a lot," Earle says. "This is probably the most important piece of time, this ten-year chunk that we are now embarked upon. The most important ten years in the next 10,000 years, or you could say forevermore. Because we're closing options faster than we can invent ways to respond to the changes that come about as a consequence of those closed options."

Earle is not alone in her assessment of our place in history. In fact, her view, at least on this point, is shared by most in the marine-science community. What sets her apart is her ability to communicate the fragile state of the oceans, and the role we must play to fix them, to the general public. "She's got the ability to quickly translate the urgency of understanding the ocean," says Barbara Block Ph.D. '86, a marine-science professor at Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Station who studies the habits of large fish such as sharks and tuna.

Through various books—including The World Is Blue and Sea Change (2005)—blogs, and documentary projects, in addition to her appearances at just about every international meeting or conference of consequence to the marine world, Earle has developed a following as a sort of rock star of marine conservation. "There are many key institutions around the world, that when they need a heavy hitter to weigh in, to come and speak with a government agency or leader, they invite Sylvia," Cassiani says. "Her ability to bring the greater community—the community that surrounds Silicon Valley, the community that surrounds Washington, and everyone else—into the reality of the problems in our oceans today is surpassed by no one," says Block. "Her Cousteau-like quality comes from her charm, her knowledge, her rich scientific expertise, and her intimate knowledge of the ocean work from diving. She's the Rachel Carson of our time." Not surprisingly, Earle's attempts sometimes meet with resistance. During the March CITIES meeting in Qatar, the Pew Environment Group invited her to deliver the keynote speech at a celebration of sharks the night before a crucial discussion of measures involving both sharks and bluefin tuna. The Japanese delegation, which had been lobbying hard behind the scenes to keep the group from banning the international trade of bluefin tuna, issued a competing invitation to attend a swanky party at its embassy. "To add insult to all of this," Earle says, "they served bluefin tuna."

Other times, they fall on willing—and well-placed—ears. During a White House luncheon in 2006, Earle was seated at a table with President George W. Bush, along with other environmental advocates, including Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of Jacques Cousteau and himself a respected explorer, and Lori Arguelles, president of the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation. Over the course of the meal, the group discussed ocean issues, in particular the need for greater protection of the world's fish. Even in the country's national marine sanctuaries, which are protected under the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act of 1972, fishing is often allowed, albeit limited to government-mandated levels. "Six weeks later," Earle writes in The World Is Blue, "I was invited to stand next to the President when he signed a document establishing not a new 'sanctuary,' but rather, the Papahanuamokuakea Marine National Monument, 362,000 square kilometers (140,000 square miles) of ocean where even the fish can swim in peace."

In conversation, as in her writing, Earle draws on nearly eight decades of ocean experience. Born in New Jersey, she says she first experienced the power of the ocean on yearly family vacations to the Jersey shore. Her earliest memories include being bowled over by a wave, both literally and figuratively. "That got my attention," she says. "But what's held my attention all these years and always will is the abundance and diversity of life in the sea. The big horseshoe crabs that crawl up on Jersey beaches even now."

When she was twelve, her family moved to Clearwater, Florida, where she was free to enjoy all that the Gulf Coast had to offer. By age eighteen, she had earned her bachelor's degree from Florida State University. It was in college that she had her first opportunity to use a new technology only recently introduced in the U.S. that would soon shake up the field of marine biology: the self-contained underwater breathing apparatus, better known as scuba.

"When scientists [first] used scuba, it was thought to be too much fun to be taken seriously," Earle recalls. She disagreed, and made a name for herself using scuba extensively as a graduate student in Duke's botany department. She studied marine plants under Harold Humm, an expert on algae, who had recently come to Duke from Florida State, where Earle had taken his classes as an undergraduate.

Earle's main laboratory, at least away from Duke's campus and marine lab, was the Gulf of Mexico; her focus was on understanding the distribution of marine plant species. Using scuba, she recalls, "I could only get to the upper 100 feet or so [of the water column], but that was better than my predecessors, who relied on drift material that came ashore or what they could get while wading along the edge or using dredges and trawls to gather creatures, plants, and other organisms from the depths below."

"They were doing it blindly," she continues. "What would you know of San Francisco or New York or anywhere—even a forest—by dragging a net through it and examining the crushed remains? That's how most information was obtained below where you could walk around and hold your breath to explore."

On the map: At the debut of Google Earth oceans project, Earle celebrated the tool that allows anyone to explore the planet's largest surface and deepest depths. Associated Press

Over the ten years between 1956, when she received her master's, and 1966, when she defended her dissertation, she returned repeatedly to the same locations, recording data on water temperature, salinity, and the concentrations of species. "I began to move more deeply into ecology as I spent time in the water, realizing that you really can't just look at the plants and understand what's going on. You have to look at the whole system."

In 1964, based on a recommendation from Humm (after whom she would name a species of algae she later discovered), she was invited to join the National Science Foundation's prestigious International Indian Ocean Expedition as a botanist. She was the only woman on board.

This early adventure was just the first in a long career of research missions launched from research posts at Harvard University, the University of California at Berkeley, and the California Academy of Sciences. In 1970, as part of the government-sponsored Tektite II project, Earle led a team of five female aquanauts who spent two weeks studying marine life in the Virgin Islands while living fifty feet below the ocean's surface in an underwater laboratory. "Becoming a resident of the reef with time to stay, observe, and get to know individual fish and their place in the community profoundly affected my understanding of the subtleties—and complexities—that I had missed during in-and-out diving," she writes in The World Is Blue.

In 1979, wearing a 1,000-pound pressurized diving suit known as a "Jim suit"—designed in the 1930s by British diver Jim Jarrett and never before used for scientific exploration—she walked on the ocean floor at 1,250 feet below sea level, making note of the eels, crabs, and coral around her.

Inspired by the freedom she felt while walking at that depth, Earle collaborated with Graham Hawkes, an engineer who had participated in the project, to found two companies, Deep Ocean Engineering and Deep Ocean Technology. Based in Oakland, California, the companies sought to develop deep-diving submersibles for use in scientific research. Among other projects, they built Deep Rover, a one-person submersible that Earle, among others, used to complete exploratory dives down to 3,000 feet below sea level, then a record for solo diving.

Earle was appointed chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the government agency in charge of monitoring the health of the oceans and the atmosphere, in 1990. She served two years in the post. Afterward, she returned to California to continue her work on submersibles. In 1997, National Geographic invited Earle to join its exclusive explorer-in-residence program, which provides funding and administrative support to scientists conducting fieldwork and developing large-scale educational programs. The following year, Earle launched the National Geographic-sponsored Sustainable Seas Expeditions, a five-year series of exploratory voyages to the country's twelve existing national marine sanctuaries. (There are now fourteen.)

Over the course of her career, Earle has seen the extreme changes that the human population has inflicted on the ocean. As a scientist, she has monitored the decline of the large marine species. While at NOAA, she was charged with monitoring the cleanup of the massive oil spill that occurred when Saddam Hussein's troops blew up oil wells before retreating from Kuwait in 1991. She has witnessed, with a personal sense of loss, the ongoing Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which is destroying the ecosystems that she explored in her childhood and early career.

In a May interview with Judy Woodruff '68 for the PBS NewsHour, Earle acknowledged that BP's use of chemical dispersants at the site of the leak could help to break up the oil, preventing it from floating toward the coast in a giant mass.

"If the beaches are the focus of your concern," she said, "that's a good thing. But if you're looking at the state of the ocean, and the health of the ocean, it's not a good thing." That is because the oil, even broken into small particles, will continue to poison life within the water column and on the floor of the deep ocean, affecting species from photosynthetic algae to sea turtles and bluefin tuna that come to the gulf to breed. The chemical dispersants only add another toxic substance to the mix.

Later in the month, Earle testified before the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, which held meetings to discuss the government's response to the spill. She urged lawmakers to halt BP's use of dispersants and encouraged the government to embrace a more robust scientific response to the spill.

"In the best of all possible worlds," Earle says, "I would be hunched over a hot microscope or splashing around in the ocean, just following my heart, enjoying getting to know creatures eye to eye, respecting and delighting in the great diversity of life for its own sake. Just because it's really fun. It's what I love to do. It's what I want to do.

"But I'm constrained from indulging myself with the passion I have for simply exploring and knowing. I'm compelled increasingly to take what I know and gather what others know and share it with those who don't know, because it matters. Our lives are on the line."

Still, she makes time to dive. Last September, Edie Widder, president of the Florida-based Ocean Research and Conservation Association, joined Earle and several other scientists on a mission to Las Gemelas, a pair of underwater mountains several hundred miles off the coast of Costa Rica. The scientific goal of the mission was to compare the health of the ecosystem both inside and outside the boundary line of the nearby Cocos Island National Park, a marine protected area.

During the trip, the scientists conducted much of their research from inside the DeepSee, a three-person submersible. Widder, who specializes in the study of bioluminescent creatures, was often paired with Earle in the sub. On the way up from one nighttime dive, the two decided to turn off all of the sub's internal lights.

Up until then, they had been being very scientific, making observations and taking notes. But after turning off the lights, "we just had the starry effect of all the bioluminescent effects whirling up from the thrusters," Widder recalls. "I think [Sylvia] likes bioluminescence as much as I do. We were just like kids in a candy store." For a few moments, they put away notebooks and pencils and just watched, pointing and oohing and aahing.

There is a story that Earle's friends and colleagues love to tell because, they say, it captures her perfectly, demonstrating not just her wit and charm, but also her ability to inspire, her skill in building strategic relationships, and her singular focus on her one true love, the oceans.

It begins with a 2006 trip to Madrid, where Earle was slated to receive an award from the Spanish Geographical Society. Among the other recipients that year was John Hanke, Google's vice president of product management for "geo" products, including Google Maps and Google Earth. During her presentation, Earle took a few moments to praise Google Earth. "She talked about how much her grandchildren loved it, how it was expanding children's knowledge all over the world," Hanke recalls. "Then, with a sort of grin, she looked over at me and said, 'But you know, it should really be called Google Dirt.' "

Earle was referring to the fact that Google Earth, while allowing users to swoop around the globe, viewing the planet from space as well as zooming in close on cities, farmland, and mountain ranges, pretty much ignored the oceans, a geological feature that accounts for about 71 percent of the planet's surface area.

"She was right," Hanke says. "When I thought about it, it was weird. We had this grand mission to map the entire planet, to know about everything on the entire globe. Yet we hadn't given a single thought to the oceans. We had just ignored them." Google's engineers, it turned out, had taken a shortcut by assuming, for programming purposes, that elevation—the distance above or below sea level—would always be greater than or equal to zero. As a result, the ocean was simply a large blue patch. If a user tried to maneuver down below the surface, he or she would essentially bounce off.

Hanke followed up on Earle's comment with a visit to DOER Marine, a California submersible-design company founded by Earle and run by her eldest daughter, Liz Taylor. The three spent an afternoon kicking around ideas. Hanke invited Earle to visit Google's headquarters in nearby Mountain View, California, and summarize for the Google Earth team what they had missed—in her words, "just most of the planet."

After that, "people got on board fast," Hanke says. Earle helped assemble a team of thirty scientific experts from government agencies, nonprofits, and academic institutions to serve as an advisory council to the project.

In the year since the oceans feature was launched, it has grown quickly. Users can now swim, virtually at least, through the world's seas, exploring the topography of the ocean floor. Staff members at Earle's foundation, Mission Blue, are responsible for curating one of the layers, called "Explore the Oceans," which features location-specific posts from scientists around the world. A simple click lets you watch video taken off, say, the coast of California or in the Indian Ocean. Other features allow you to track sharks and other marine creatures that have been fitted with satellite tags.

Looking back, Hanke says, "the biggest challenge was just getting people to think about the oceans as a first-class citizen in our system. I guess it kind of goes back to Sylvia's first observation. For us, the oceans were 'out of sight, out of mind' in a very literal sense. People don't drive their cars in the ocean. Therefore we don't need to map them. We had to change that mentality." Now, Earle says, Google Earth can serve as a tool to educate people about what's out there, beyond their line of sight.

If they learn about it, she reasons, they just might care enough to try to save it. Take Steve Miller, a Google product manager who worked extensively on the oceans project. Miller grew up in Colorado and, by his own account, was not all that aware of ocean conservation issues. After graduating from Stanford, he worked at Google for three years before joining the oceans team in 2007. Not long after the product's official launch, he left Google to pursue a graduate degree in fisheries economics.

"I had gotten excited over the last two years about the oceans," he says, "and I realized it was more about the science than about the software. Sylvia and her colleagues deserve all the credit for that."