Sylvia Earle is a name of many achievements. It is a name that is synonymous with “Her Deepness”, “the Living Legend” and “the First Hero for the Planet”, to name a few. But as humble as she is heroic, she is not one to be preoccupied with material wealth or apparent fame. Coined as the true ambassador of our world’s oceans, Sylvia is an oceanographer, explorer, author and a lecturer with an insatiable passion for underwater exploration and marine conservation. As of today, she has already led more than 70 expeditions worldwide and logged more than 7,000 hours underwater. Adding to her list of accomplishments, Sylvia has authored more than 150 publications including Sea Change: A Message of the Oceans and Ocean: An Illustrated Atlas, and currently holds the record for a solo dive to an astonishing depth of 1,005 metres into the deep blue. No small feat. She is now 75 years old.
Her Deepness…Queen of the Ocean
Born in Gibbstown, New Jersey, Sylvia kindled her voracious love for the ocean from an early age. In 1948, her family moved to Dunedin, Florida, on a bay of the Gulf of Mexico, where she attempted her first dive at 16. The rest is history. After securing a Bachelor’s degree from Florida State University and a Master’s degree from Duke University tightly under her belt in 1955 and 1956 respectively, she soon began her doctoral work investigating algae. Her doctoral dissertation, entitled “Phaeophyta of the Eastern Gulf of Mexico”, was the driver behind her blossoming career. Her research findings led other researchers in her field to further explore significant changes in flora and fauna in the waters of the Gulf. Moreover, Sylvia was one of the very first few researchers in marine science to adopt scuba equipment in her studies, a remarkable achievement in that age of time.
Through boundless dedication and sheer commitment, Sylvia’s end of the road to recognition was shortly in sight. At 33, she made history when she partook in the Man-in-the-Sea Project in the Bahamas and descended into the ocean in a submersible called the Deep Diver. Not to mention, she was four months pregnant at that time. Sylvia then became the first woman scientist to ever peer through the porthole of a lockout submersible deep underwater.
In 1970, during the same time astronauts first set foot on the moon, Sylvia moved to California where she became part of the Navy’s Tektite Project, jointly funded by the U.S. Navy and
NASA. The project saw her leading the first team of all-female aquanauts on a two-week mission literally living in an underwater laboratory 50 feet under the surface off the Virgin Islands. The idea of five women living underwater caught the imaginations of people and took the media by storm, making headlines all over the world. L.A. Times newspaper named her “Woman of the Year” for her devotion to the study of aquatic life. But recognition was furthest in her mind. The Tektite expedition only confirmed Sylvia’s fears about the effects of man-made pollutants and ocean warming on the delicate marine ecosystems.
Almost a decade later, Sylvia carved an opportunity for herself to put her footprints on the ocean bed. Six miles off shore and 381 metres down – 10 times deeper than with traditional scuba gear – Sylvia set yet another record for the deepest dive without a cable to the surface in one of her “favourite bathing suits”, an open-ocean submersible metal suit called Jim. The experience fuelled her to initiate three companies and a non-profit organisation called Deep Search to dedicate in designing and building more systems that could eventually access even the deepest of oceans. To date, Sylvia has been in about 30 different kinds of submarines, as she continues to fearlessly push the boundaries of what humans can do in the deep blue.
Following her experience with the Jim Suit, Sylvia started a new corporation, Deep Ocean Engineering, Inc., with British engineer Graham Hawkes in 1981. A leap beyond scuba and the Jim Dive, the pair developed a more powerful mini submarine called Deep Rover. In 1985, Sylvia took a plunge in the new submersible vehicle to another record-breaking depth – the deepest solo dive at 1005 metres deep. At present, the technology soared to even greater heights, with the ability to now dive up to 6000 metres, a little more than half the depth of the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the world’s oceans.
On the presentation night for the 2009 TED Prize, Sylvia spoke to those present. She told them that they could do anything to this world, that tomorrow’s future depends upon today’s
resolution. She even borrowed the words of poet, W.H. Auden, who said, “Thousands have lived without love, none without water.” The audience remained silent, in agreement. “No blue, no green. If you think the ocean isn’t important, imagine Earth without it. Mars comes to mind. No ocean, no life support system,” she said with the highest of confidence in the same breath. Not once she flinched. Sylvia won the TED Prize that year, a prestigious honour that finally fulfilled her lifelong wish:
“I wish you would use all means at your disposal – films! Expeditions! The web! More! – 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.” – Sylvia Earle.
A million dollar grant from the Planet Heritage Foundation at TED2009 soon breathed life into Mission Blue, a project that exists to salvage what’s left of the earth’s oceans by managing and creating new marine protected areas, otherwise known as “hope spots”. In April 2010, her collaborative efforts with TED have attracted a spectacular group of over 100 esteemed guests and 25 luminary speakers to participate in the Mission Blue Voyage campaign that took place in the Galapagos Islands. US$17 million was raised from this project. Even at 75, Sylvia is still far from retiring.
As Sylvia tells it in an interview with KQED, “This is a pivotal time in history and the key goes back to understanding and knowing. The next 10 years could be the most important and I think they are the most important. In the next 10,000 years. It’s this critical window when we could see the consequences of our actions. We have the power; it’s within our grasp. But it’s not going to be that way if we continue business as usual because the trends we have already set in motion will continue. Everyday that passes it gets harder. So let’s get busy, let’s hurry whilst we still have time. This is the time.”