All achievers

Sylvia Earle, Ph.D.

Undersea Explorer

I want to get out in the water. I want to see fish, real fish, not fish in a laboratory.

Sylvia Earle was born in Gibbstown, New Jersey. Her parents raised her on a small farm near Camden. From the time she was very small, Sylvia loved exploring the woods near her home. She was fascinated by the creatures and plants that lived in the wild. Neither of her parents had a college education, but they too loved nature, and they taught young Sylvia to respect wild creatures and not to be afraid of the unknown. Those who have followed her adult career may wonder if she is afraid of anything.

Sylvia Earle (right) with other women aquanauts listening to Secretary of the Interior Wally Hickel discussing Tektite II.
Sylvia Earle with other women aquanauts listening to Secretary of the Interior Wally Hickel discussing Tektite II.

When Sylvia was 13, the family moved to Clearwater, Florida, on the Gulf of Mexico. Soon, Sylvia was learning all she could about the wildlife of the Gulf and its coast. Her parents could not afford to send her to college themselves, but she was an exceptional student and won scholarships to Florida State University. Throughout her school years, she supported herself by working in college laboratories.

Here, she first learned scuba diving, determined to use this new technology to study marine life at first hand. Fascinated by all aspects of the ocean and marine life, Sylvia decided to specialize in botany. Understanding the vegetation, she believes, is the first step to understanding any ecosystem.

July 20, 1970: St. John, Virgin Islands: Program manager James W. Miller with the aquanette team of Tektite II. Left to right, the team members are: Ann Hartline, Alina Szmant, Peggy Lucas, Renate True, Sylvia Earle. NASA is using the Tektite II program for biomedical research in the behavior of small groups of people working and living in a stressful environment for long periods typifying future space missions. The Tektite habitat is well-suited for studying the social structure of people assigned to an isolated environment. NASA is closely watching the social behavior of the five aquanauts to determine how they perform various work and unassigned housekeeping chores. All this information will be useful in the future selection of astronaut crews for space. (NASA Photo. Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS)
July 20, 1970: St. John, Virgin Islands: Program manager James W. Miller with the aquanette team of Tektite II. Left to right, the team members are: Ann Hartline, Alina Szmant, Peggy Lucas, Renate True, Sylvia Earle. NASA is using the Tektite II program for biomedical research in the behavior of small groups of people working and living in a stressful environment for long periods typifying future space missions. The Tektite habitat is well-suited for studying the social structure of people assigned to an isolated environment. NASA is closely watching the social behavior of the five aquanauts to determine how they perform various work and unassigned housekeeping chores. All this information will be useful in the future selection of astronaut crews for space. (Bettmann/CORBIS)

After earning her master’s degree at Duke University, Sylvia Earle took time off to marry and start a family, but remained active in marine exploration. In 1964, when her children were only two and four, she left home for six weeks to join a National Science Foundation expedition in the Indian Ocean. Throughout the mid-1960s, she struggled to balance the demands of her family with scientific expeditions that took her all over the world.

In 1966 Sylvia Earle received her Ph.D. from Duke University. Her dissertation, “Phaeophyta of the Eastern Gulf of Mexico,” created a sensation in the oceanographic community. Never before had a marine scientist made such a long and detailed first-hand study of aquatic plant life. Since then she has made a lifelong project of cataloguing every species of plant that can be found in the Gulf of Mexico.

Dr. Sylvia Earle, photographed in the Bahamas in the 1970s, with "Sandy," a dolphin she and her children repeatedly visited.
Dr. Sylvia Earle, in the Bahamas in the 1970s, with “Sandy,” a dolphin she and her children repeatedly visited.

Dr. Earle’s burgeoning career took her first to Harvard, as a research fellow, then to the resident directorship of the Cape Haze Marine Laboratory in Florida. In 1968, she traveled to a hundred feet below the waters of the Bahamas in the submersible Deep Diver. She was four months pregnant at the time.

December 1983: Sylvia Earle demonstrates that the new robotic arm her company, Deep Ocean Engineering, is building is so precise and sensitive, it can hold an egg without cracking it. (Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS)
December 1983: Dr. Sylvia Earle demonstrates that the new robotic arm her company, Deep Ocean Engineering, is building is so precise and sensitive, it can hold an egg without cracking it. (Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis Images)

In 1969 she applied to participate in the Tektite project. This venture, sponsored jointly by the U.S. Navy, the Department of the Interior and NASA, allowed teams of scientist to live for weeks at a time in an enclosed habitat on the ocean floor 50 feet below the surface, off the Virgin Islands. By this time, Dr. Earle had spent more than a thousand research hours underwater, more than any other scientists who applied to the program, but, as she says, “the people in charge just couldn’t cope with the idea of men and women living together underwater.”

The result was Tektite II, Mission 6, an all-female research expedition led by Dr. Earle herself. In 1970, Sylvia Earle and four other women dove 50 feet below the surface to the small structure they would call home for the next two weeks.

At habitat's hemispheric window, Dr. Sylvia Earle shows algae to an engineer. (Photograph by Bates Littlehales)
At habitat’s hemispheric window, Dr. Sylvia Earle shows algae to an engineer. (Photograph by Bates Littlehales)

The publicity surrounding this adventure made Sylvia Earle a recognizable face beyond the scientific community. To their surprise, the scientists found they had become celebrities and were given a ticker-tape parade and a White House reception. After that Sylvia Earle was increasingly in demand as a public speaker, and she became an outspoken advocate of undersea research. At the same time, she began to write for National Geographic and to produce books and films. Besides trying to arouse greater public interest in the sea, she hoped to raise public awareness of the damage being done to our aquasphere by pollution and environmental degradation.

Dr. Sylvia Earle presents the Golden Plate Award to marine ecologist Dr. Jane Lubchenco at the Academy of Achievement's 2001 Banquet of the Golden Plate ceremonies in San Antonio, Texas. (© Academy of Achievement)
Dr. Sylvia Earle presents the Golden Plate Award to marine ecologist Dr. Jane Lubchenco at the American Academy of Achievement’s 2001 Banquet of the Golden Plate ceremonies in San Antonio, TX. (© Academy of Achievement)

In the 1970s, scientific missions took Sylvia Earle to the Galapagos, to the water off Panama, to China and the Bahamas and, again, to the Indian Ocean. During this period she began a productive collaboration with undersea photographer Al Giddings. Together, they investigated the battleship graveyard in the Caroline Islands of the South Pacific.

In 1977 they made their first voyage following the great sperm whales. In a series of expeditions they followed the whales from Hawaii to New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Bermuda and Alaska. Their journeys were recorded in the documentary film Gentle Giants of the Pacific (1980).

Sylvia Earle and Dominique Rissolo at BLUE in front of the Waitt Institute’s Dual DeepWorker Submersible by Nuytco. This state-of-the-art machine is capable of diving up to 600 meters (~2,000 feet) and offers the opportunity to include an array of sensors, cameras, lights, and it has a pilot-controlled arm for manipulating objects and conducting experiments. (Photo by Fabio Esteban Amador)
Sylvia Earle and Dominique Rissolo at BLUE in front of the Waitt Institute’s Dual DeepWorker Submersible. This state-of-the-art machine is capable of diving up to 2,000 feet and offers the opportunity to include an array of sensors, cameras, lights, and it has a pilot-controlled arm for manipulating objects and conducting experiments.

In 1979, Sylvia Earle walked untethered on the sea floor at a lower depth than any living human being before or since. In the so-called Jim suit, a pressurized one-atmosphere garment, she was carried by a submersible down to the depth of 1,250 feet below the ocean’s surface off of the island of Oahu. At the bottom, she detached from the vessel and explored the depths for two and a half hours with only a communication line connecting her to the submersible, and nothing at all connecting her to the world above. She described this adventure in her 1980 book, Exploring the Deep Frontier.

2015: Sylvia Earle in Arctic pack ice with Elysium Arctic expedition. (David Doubilet)
2015: Sylvia Earle in Arctic pack ice with Elysium Arctic expedition. Earle was the first female chief scientist of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and named by TIME as its first Hero for the Planet in 1998.

In the 1980s, along with engineer Graham Hawkes, she started the companies Deep Ocean Engineering and Deep Ocean Technologies. These ventures design and build undersea vehicles like Deep Rover and Deep Flight, which are making it possible for scientists to maneuver at depths that defied all previously existing technology. In the middle of this life of adventure, Sylvia Earle has been married and raised three children, some of whom have worked side by side with her at Deep Ocean Engineering

President Obama talks with oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle. (Pete Souza)
President Barack Obama talks with oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle. Dr. Earle has logged more than 7,000 hours underwater. In 2016, at age 81, she spent time underwater studying deep coral reefs near Oahu, Hawaii. (Souza)

In the early 1990s, Dr. Earle took a leave of absence from her companies to serve as Chief Scientist of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. There, among other duties, Sylvia Earle was responsible for monitoring the health of the nation’s waters. In this capacity she also reported on the environmental damage wrought by Iraq’s burning of the Kuwaiti oil fields.

2016: Dr. Sylvia Earle, founder of the Sylvia Earle Alliance/Mission Blue, and Explorer-in-Residence of the National Geographic Society, urges everyone to learn about plastic pollution and act to stop it.
2016: Dr. Sylvia Earle, founder of the Sylvia Earle Alliance/Mission Blue, and Explorer-in-Residence of the National Geographic Society, urges everyone to learn about plastic pollution and act to stop it. In 2013, Earle was awarded the Hubbard Medal, the National Geographic Society’s highest honor for distinction in exploration and discovery.

Today, Dr. Earle is Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society. More recently, she led the Google Ocean Advisory Council, a team of 30 marine scientists providing content and scientific oversight for the “Ocean in Google Earth.” To date, she has led over 80 expeditions, logging more than 7,000 hours underwater. Among the more than 100 national and international honors she has received is the 2009 TED Prize for her proposal to establish a global network of marine protected areas. She calls these marine preserves “hope spots… to save and restore… the blue heart of the planet.”

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 1991

“I can still feel that leap of enthusiasm, and real joy, at the prospect of finally getting out to the beach, and running around. But probably the most important thing, to me, aside from just the freedom of it and the power of it, was the kind of creatures that you could see along the beach, that you can’t find anywhere else.”

That child’s fascination with the crabs she found scurrying in the sand was the beginning of a remarkable career in marine science. Today, Sylvia Earle is the best-known woman marine scientist on the planet. Among other accomplishments, she has walked untethered on the sea floor at a lower depth than any other human being.

When Sylvia Earle first began her career, she met resistance. Some people could not accept a woman traveling with men on long scientific expeditions, but her remarkable accomplishments have won her a position in the oceanographic community that transcends boundaries. Botanist, biologist, conservationist, entrepreneur, Sylvia Earle has followed whales in the open sea, fought with sharks, and lived for weeks at a time on the floor of the sea in the Tektite undersea station. She has challenged and overcome every obstacle that stood in the path of her burning curiosity about the magical world beneath the waves.

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On the 1970 Tektite II mission you spent two weeks at a research station on the ocean bottom. What was the biggest thing you learned on that mission?

Sylvia Earle: The opportunity to get to know the fish was extraordinary. We found soon that a fish is not a fish is not a fish, that they all are different as individuals. Of the five angel fish that I saw almost every morning, I’d get up before dawn so that I could watch the change-over time, when the night fish — the ones that are active at night — tuck in, and the day fish, the ones that sleep at night, come out. Just as on land there are creatures — not just fish, a lot of other things as well, corals even — there are some that are open by day, and many more in fact, that are open at night. A complete change-over of the kinds of creatures that are obvious at night and at day. So I wanted to be out there just at that moment, that half hour or so, just at dawn. The five angel fish that were almost always there — they’re all angel fish, like all Labrador retrievers have certain waggly tail kinds of characteristics that identify them as Labrador retrievers, but every one is different. Some are more shy, some are more aggressive, some are more curious. Some kinds of fish, like groupers, have a particular kind of personality that make it very tough to eat fish after you’ve gotten to know them on a one to one basis. I certainly don’t eat anyone I know personally anymore.

Deployed to a depth of 50 feet in Great Lameshur Bay, Virgin Islands back in 1970, the Tektite undersea habitat predated Skylab by three years. It was in fact intended to be a sort of "trial run" for Skylab. Someplace where human behavior in a confined hostile environment habitat over extended periods could be closely observed, without the expense or danger of doing so in space. Sylvia Earle was among the first all-female crew of any undersea habitat, which the local media patronizingly dubbed the "aqua-naughties." Undaunted, Earle went on to carry out her scientific tasks aboard the Tektite with aplomb, and developed a passion for undersea living which she most recently got to indulge aboard Aquarius Reef Base during "Mission Blue" in 2012.
Deployed to a depth of 50 feet in Great Lameshur Bay, Virgin Islands back in 1970, the Tektite undersea habitat predated Skylab by three years. It was in fact intended to be a sort of “trial run” for Skylab. Someplace where human behavior in a confined hostile environment habitat over extended periods could be closely observed, without the expense or danger of doing so in space. Sylvia Earle was among the first all-female crew of any undersea habitat, which the local media patronizingly dubbed the “aqua-naughties.” Undaunted, Earle went on to carry out her scientific tasks aboard the Tektite with aplomb, and developed a passion for undersea living, which she most recently got to indulge aboard Aquarius Reef Base during “Mission Blue” in 2012. (Courtesy of Dr. Earle)

In the 1970s, you went on a very different mission to study the humpback whales at close range. Can you tell us about your first contact with the whales?

Keys to success — Passion

In February 1977, the magic moment came when Al Giddings, Chuck Nicklin, and I, along with another individual, Terry Firm, were in a boat, a Zodiac vessel. We saw five humpback whales, cruising along, spouting and fooling around. We kept a respectful distance, but all of a sudden the whales decided that they weren’t going to keep a respectful distance. They did a sharp turn, and came right over to our boat. We turned off the motor and stopped and looked. Having convinced the National Geographic, the World Wildlife Fund, the New York Zoological Society, the California Academy of Science — all these institutions — that what we really wanted to do was to get in the water with whales, we had that heart-stopping moment when we had to convince ourselves that what we wanted to do was get in the water with these 40 foot-long, 40-ton creatures, who were really interested in us. They were like puppies in terms of their rollicking behavior. Old time pictures of whales look like Greyhound buses, or loaves of bread. Big static-looking lumps. Whales are like swallows, they are like otters. They are in a three-dimensional world, and they move in any direction. They swim upside down. They’re vertical. They’re every which way. Sometimes they are horizontal, but not always. Once and a while they are horizontal. And they are so supple! Many of the renderings of whales that you see in books make them look big and fat and ponderous and lumpy. They are sleek and elegant and gorgeous, among the most exquisite creatures on the planet. They move like ballerinas. Well all of this came to me in a very short few minutes, after I finally did convince myself. And it didn’t take long, maybe 30 seconds before I went into the water. Here were these rollicking, frolicking creatures, doing all this wonderful dancing in the sea.

Al Giddings and Chuck Nicklin were preoccupied with their cameras. I had the freedom to just look around. I saw, with my eyes getting increasingly large by the moment, this huge whale coming straight at me. I knew that if I didn’t do something I was going to get smashed by this whale who probably didn’t notice me anyway. I was so small, and she was so big. Would she notice?

Keys to success — Courage

I felt like a mouse next to a freight train. She did notice, at the last moment, before this seemingly inevitable collision took place. She simply turned and moved on past. I could have reached out and touched her. I didn’t. I was just watching this creature go by. Then she went over in the direction of Al. He was so busy filming another whale that he didn’t see that he was about to get clobbered by this whale. In fact, it looked as though this 15-foot-long flipper would decapitate him. Chuck Nicklin saw it too, and both of us started to hoot. You can yell underwater, and people can usually hear. I knew that Al heard us, but being a good photographer, he was really concentrating, wasn’t going to be distracted. When the whale passed him, she lifted her flipper up and over his head to miss him. It created enough of a wash so that he was certainly aware that there was something very big, very close, and he almost dropped his camera. I’ve never seen him come so close to putting it down, forever. But he didn’t, and the collision didn’t happen. After that moment though, first my encounter, and then watching how this near-accident didn’t occur, we just stopped worrying. It was very clear that they knew exactly where their big bodies were. They had no intention of bashing into us, they had complete control. And for the next two-and-a-half hours, these five whales and these three human beings just had, at least from our standpoint, the most incredible experience perhaps of my entire life up to that point. It was just amazing.

December 1983: In a shipboard control room, Sylvia Earle listens to data from the "Bandit," a tethered robot used by oil companies for work on the sea floor. She uses the microphone to talk to workers in charge of raising and lowering the tether. (Image by © Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS)
1983: In a shipboard control room, Sylvia Earle listens to data from the “Bandit,” a tethered robot used by oil companies for work on the sea floor. She uses the microphone to talk to workers to raise and lower the tether.

You feel that in a lot of ways we have neglected the ocean. We’ve polluted it, and we’ve also taken it for granted.

Sylvia Earle: As human beings, we are basically terrestrial. It’s sometimes easy — easy for some people apparently — to forget that planetary health, planetary wealth, is very directly linked to the health of the oceans. To the extent that we take care of the sea, we will help insure our ultimate survival and well being. To the extent that we ignore this, forget about it, become complacent, or believe that it is so infinite that it can take care of itself, we are in trouble. We are in trouble now, unless we deliberately take actions to take care of the nature of the sea, and make sure these systems continue to operate as they have for millions of years. We sit right now with this incredible inheritance. The planet is thought to be on the order of 4.6 billion years in the making. Creatures that we take for granted, such as lobsters, have been around for something like 500 million years. Sharks for 300 million years. Dinosaurs became extinct long ago, something on the order of 65 million years ago, but these other creatures, with a more distinguished past and history, are still around. If we saw a dinosaur walking down the street, we would be so grateful that they were still here, and we would protect this dinosaur as an example of what life was all about that preceded us. We would want to know everything about those crazy creatures. Oh! If only we could find even one, how we would respect that marvelous creation. But we are so casual about things like lobsters, or sharks. Or about things that I grew up with, the horseshoe crabs that have persisted through something on the order of more than 500 million years in a relatively unchanged form. And now there are only five species left. They are very vulnerable to what we do or don’t do. It could be that in our lifetime, we will see the demise of these ancient creatures. We are already perilously close to doing that with many creatures in the sea.

August 1998, Big Sur, California: Marine biologist and oceanographer Sylvia Earle at Garrapata State Park. (Macduff Everton/Corbis)
August 1998, Big Sur, California: Marine biologist and oceanographer Sylvia Earle at Garrapata State Park. (Corbis)

I don’t think there is any known shark species that has gone extinct through the direct effects of humankind, but it could happen, just as it happened with many creatures that seemed to be infinitely available on land. Think how many passenger pigeons there were. Think of how close we came to eliminating the buffalo. It could still happen. But at least there are some buffalo around, and they seem to be thriving under our close scrutiny and our care. Sharks haven’t yet reached our minds as creatures worthy of our respect, let alone horseshoe crabs or lobsters, as worthy of anything but being served with lemon slices and butter. They are very tasty, I agree, but there are other values, just as we have come to look at other creatures for more than just what use we can make of them. In fact, the whole world is of immense value to us. Just try to create one of these lovely creatures. Nobody knows how to make a dinosaur. To put one back, to start from scratch, even if we had all the ingredients, how do we create these things? It’s a wealth of knowledge that we take for granted. Even beyond that, it’s this interacting living system to which we are tied, that we are utterly dependent upon for our health. Donald Johanson is absolutely right when he shows concern about how detached we are becoming from our roots. People who grow up close to the land, or close to the sea, can feel it, they see themselves reflected in the lives of all these other creatures, and realize that we are a part of this interacting system.

As a biologist, there are two things that I have come to see as the most wondrous aspects of living creatures. One is that no two are alike. It isn’t just that there are no two human beings — but that in itself is remarkable enough. Think about all the human beings that have ever been on the planet, billions, but no two alike. Not even identical twins are alike. There are subtleties that set them apart. Go beyond that, and think about all the other kinds of creatures that have ever been. There aren’t any two that are precisely, identically, exactly, molecularly — behavioral, or otherwise — exactly alike. Mosquitoes look alike to us, but there are no two that are identical. Every fish is different. I don’t mean just the 25,000 different species of fish — but every individual herring is different from every other one. So that is one aspect of life that is just stunning. The other part is the flip side of it: the common ground that all life has. We see basic physiological patterns repeated time and time again. The process of digestion: lobsters do it, horseshoe crabs do it, sharks do it, we do it, mosquitoes do it. Much of the chemistry is the same. Why else would our experiments with white mice be so relevant? They are mammals, but lift yourself out of mammals and look at birds. Lift yourself out of vertebrates, and look at other divisions in animals that are distinctively different, and you see patterns repeated over and over again. This is why, among other reasons, we ought to be concerned about pesticides. Things that aren’t good for living things are probably affecting us. They might not kill us, but it isn’t without some impact. We are all together in this, we are all together in this single living ecosystem called Planet Earth.

Dr. Sylvia Earle (Stern)
Sylvia Earle was awarded the National Audubon Society’s Rachel Carson Award, honoring distinguished American women environmentalists. In 2014, she was selected as a United Nations “Champions of the Earth” Award winner.

As we learn how we fit into the greater scheme of things, and begin to understand how the system works, we can plan ahead, we can use the resources responsibly, to show some respect for this inheritance that goes back 4.6 billion years.

Why should we be so arrogant as to think that we know it all? Do we think we can improve on these incredible living systems? Why shouldn’t we be prepared to put our arms around and embrace as much wilderness as still remains, as an example of how it has been done over the eons, right? We have come in and wiggled the system, lurched the system, destroyed whole chunks of the system. We are living in the midst of this big experiment. Things are rapidly changing. Is global warming a phenomenon that is real? It appears to be. What are the consequences? How do we fix it? The best chance we have for understanding and for doing something about it so that we can have a future at least as good as the dinosaurs, and maybe as good as the horseshoe crabs of the world, or the sharks, it will come because we have some models still remaining in the wilderness ocean, in the wilderness rain forest, in the grasslands that somehow have managed to remain through this vast, almost unimaginably long period of time. We newcomers have been around here maybe five million years, this little thin skin of time in the long history of the planet. But we’re endowed with this special insight, this intelligence. If we are really intelligent, we will learn that we are a part of this system, and not apart from it.

(In her 2014 address to the American Academy of Achievement, Council member Dr. Sylvia Earle elaborated on the role the ocean plays in making Planet Earth habitable.)

Sylvia Earle: The ocean is the planet’s thermal regulator. It governs climate, weather, home for most life on Earth because that’s where the water is. All life requires water. Where’s the water? Where’s life? It isn’t on the land. We are terrestrial so we have this bias about where the action is and what really matters, but aliens coming from somewhere else wanting to explore the earth, they’d probably jump in the ocean first because that’s where the greatest diversity of life is. I know it’s where most of life on Earth actually is. It’s where most of the oxygen comes from. I mean trees, yes; grass, yes; ferns, all the green stuff on the land, but the ocean — Prochlorococcus bacterium that we just discovered in the mid-1980s; didn’t even know it existed — is responsible for generating 20 percent of the oxygen in the atmosphere. Who knew? One in every five breaths you take generated by a creature so small that it took a special technique and quite by chance looking for something else and stumbled on Prochlorococcus. Huh, I mean how many of you have heard of Prochlorococcus? Yay! Woo-hoo! Kids will be putting on their t-shirts. And we should be singing our phrase — singing the praises of this little guy. But here’s the thing. Just as we’re at the point of really understanding something about how the world functions, we are waging war on the natural world. Look at what we’ve lost just in the last half-century. Ninety percent of many of the fish in the ocean already extracted and along with it using techniques so destructive that the possibility that they could recover greatly diminished. Fifty years ago the concept of a dead zone in the ocean didn’t exist. There may be some troubled areas. Pollution was not just invented 50 years ago, but now there are more than 500 coastal areas around the world, not just in the Gulf of Mexico, not just along certain areas of the California Coast, but around the world globally mostly associated with where human population allows pollutants and things such as nitrates and phosphates from fields, farms, mostly agricultural but not entirely toxins that flow into the sea altering the nature of nature.

2012: Dr. Sylvia Earle and wildlife artist and ocean conservationist Wyland share their first dive together at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. (Amanda Meyer/USFWS)
2012: Dr. Sylvia Earle and wildlife artist Wyland share a dive together at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.

About 14 percent of the land around the world now has some form of protection of the natural systems, watersheds, wildlife, places where birds can nest, flyways also protected. You know, we’re beginning to understand not just because they’re beautiful and aesthetically pleasing but also because we see other values. We see we need to protect insects, bees, and other pollenators because they serve us well. They keep the planet steady in so many ways that until right about now we could perhaps take these things for granted. But the ocean, you know, the land you can see when a forest is levelled, clearcutting the land, the ocean of today looks probably pretty much the way it did a thousand years ago from the surface. But under the surface a lot has changed. Plankton, those little guys, microbes, bacteria, but also other organisms that are photosynthetic in the sea, some say that the measure of phytoplankton has decreased in the last 50 years by maybe as much as 40 percent. Maybe it’s not 40 percent, maybe it’s only 10 percent, but whatever it is, there’s a downward trend in terms of the oxygen generating carbon-capturing organisms that hold the planet steady.

We know that it works when you protect the systems that have taken all preceding history to get into play — the old growth forests — whether it’s on the land or in the ocean. Now, we don’t know how to make them, but we do know how to protect them and give such places a chance to restore, and recover the places that have been depleted. But if we lose the ingredients — extinction of species, we are — again, it’s not just about losing sharks or whales or redwood trees or whatever it is. It’s about the components of our life support system that make it possible for us to survive in the only place that we will ever know as home, at least for 7 billion people more or less.

2014: Several Ocean Elders attended the launch of Hokule’a and its sister vessel, Hikianalia, in support of fellow Ocean Elder Nainoa Thompson and all of the Polynesian Voyaging Society as they embarked on their worldwide voyage. This is a monumental 3-4 year journey to learn, create global relationships, and explore how to care for our oceans and island Earth. Pictured below are the two vessels (Hokule’a in front,) flanked by paddlers as they left the harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii. Ocean Elders pictured from left to right are Jackson Browne, Nainoa Thompson, Jean-Michel Cousteau, Captain Don Walsh, and Dr. Sylvia Earle.
2014: Several Ocean Elders attended the launch of Hokule’a and its sister vessel, Hikianalia, in support of fellow Ocean Elder Nainoa Thompson and all of the Polynesian Voyaging Society as they embarked on their worldwide voyage. This is a three to four-year journey, to explore how to care for our oceans and Island Earth. Ocean Elders, are Jackson Browne, Nainoa Thompson, Jean-Michel Cousteau, Captain Don Walsh, USN, and Dr. Sylvia Earle.

I’m confident we’ll have outposts someday if we keep our act together on the moon, Mars, and maybe elsewhere. But it’s not an alternative to Earth. If we go to Mars, we have to take our life support system with us. There is water there but not an ocean that maintains the planet that works in our favor. We talk about “terraforming” Mars, while at the same time we’re Mars-aforming Earth, putting more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, destroying the capacity of this planet to maintain the things that we care about. So in the ocean I have witnessed the decline of coral reefs by about half in the time when I first began to dive.

Keys to success — Vision

I had a moment of insight, I suppose, two years ago when I met an albatross on an island. Midway Island, known to those of you who follow wartime activities. This was a bird, an albatross sitting on her lone egg of the year, a Laysan albatross. And she was banded back in the 1950s. We know that she is at least 62 years old. She began to fly at about the same time that I was learning how to dive. And I thought about what that bird had seen in her lifetime and what I had seen in mine. She and her mate, they’d fly over literally thousands of miles of ocean. They’d do it in order to get food and mostly squid and small fish that they’d bring back to feed their hungry chick of the year, and of course themselves. But the changes in the ocean, more ships, more noise, more aircrafts overhead, fewer fish, fewer squid, all the stuff we’ve been putting in the ocean, clogging our life support system. You think somehow if you put things in the ocean, it goes away, but it doesn’t. It stays there. There is no “away” in the ocean. So plastic, especially, something that didn’t exist when I was a kid. I come from a pre-plastic-ezoic. And so, “Where is it going?” she may wonder. She certainly must recognize that the world has changed. She doesn’t know why, and even if she did know why, wouldn’t know what to do about it. Well, I am burdened with knowing. It’s one of those things that humans now know more than anyone could know even 50 years ago, let alone a thousand.

Our decisions that have consumed the natural world to the point of collapse were not made because we want to destroy the natural world. It isn’t because we don’t care. It’s because we didn’t know it mattered. But now we know it matters. We can’t use as an excuse anymore that we can get away with putting noxious things into the atmosphere that are warming the planet. Carbon dioxide is necessary for photosynthesis, but too much of a good thing causes problems like warming the planet and causing the ocean to become more acid. We’re changing the chemistry of the ocean and, therefore, the chemistry of the planet.

August 2015: Dr. Earle dives at Cashes Ledge. Led by National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Dr. Sylvia Earle, the Mission Blue team recently returned from a Hope Spot expedition to Cashes Ledge, a pristine biological hotspot off the coast of New England. It contains Ammen Rock, a peak so tall that it disrupts the Gulf of Maine current, creating massive upwellings of cold nutrient-rich water that fuels an explosion of life from plankton and squid to mackerel, tuna, billfish, sharks, seabirds, and a high diversity of marine mammals. The area is home to the largest cold water kelp forest on the Atlantic seaboard and provides a nursery for important New England fish species like cod, pollock, Atlantic halibut, and white hake.
August 2015: Led by National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Dr. Sylvia Earle, the Mission Blue team recently returned from a Hope Spot expedition to Cashes Ledge, a pristine biological hotspot off the coast of New England. It contains Ammen Rock, a peak so tall that it disrupts the Gulf of Maine current, creating massive upwellings of cold, nutrient-rich water that fuels an explosion of life, from plankton and squid to sharks, tuna and seabirds.

The problem — the biggest problem — now facing the ocean is not what we’re putting in, although that’s a problem, not what we’re taking out, although that’s a big problem. It’s the ignorance that most people have about why the ocean matters to them. I mean, who cares if the ocean dries up tomorrow? Who cares? Why should anybody care? Well now we know, or it is known, that the ocean should and does matter to everyone. Even the people who have never seen the ocean, never touched the ocean, are touched by the ocean with every breath you take, every drop of water you drink.