Out of the blue, a custodian of the deep
November 26, 2011
Courtesy of the Sydney Morning Herald
By Jo Chandler
“Are you still diving?” Given that the legendary lady of the water, Dr Sylvia Earle – ”Her Deepness”, as she was long ago anointed by her peers – is now 76, you have to ask. ”Of course. I’m still breathing.”
|Photo: Rebecca Hallas|
And by yesterday afternoon the oceanographer and explorer, who has clocked up well over 7000 hours swimming with the fishes was back in the realm of the blue, just off Portsea, exploring Pope’s Eye, a favourite Victorian dive spot. Having spent the past week advocating to packed public meetings, politicians and journalists the case for protecting the seas, the woman recognised as a ”Living Legend” by the US Library of Congress, and was Time magazine’s first ”Hero for the Planet”, seized the opportunity to slip under the waves and silently commune with friends in ”the other Australia”. ”That’s the area out there under Australian jurisdiction that is larger than the land, and filled with wondrous things.”
Despite so many waterlogged years – she once spent two weeks leading a team of aquanauts living in a habitat on the sea floor – Sylvia Earle still finds the creatures of the sea astounding for their diversity and their complexity. Sharks and tiny pteropods, squids and clouds of krill, ”they have eyes, they have a brain, they have social structures, they have intelligence”.
She once ventured, untethered, 400 metres to the sea floor, walking around like an astronaut on the moon, entirely alone, through gardens of bioluminescent spirals, wondering why they pulsed with light, and how they survived ”in the eternal night of the deep sea”. In 1986, she set a depth record when she travelled alone 1000 metres down in a submersible.
In her eyes the fauna of the sea deserve the same recognition and regard given to the ”charismatic megafauna” of the land – pandas, lions, tigers and the like – and yet their value is still measured by the kilo as commodities. If she can’t persuade other members of her species to pass on the seafood platter on the grounds of morality or affinity with fish, algae and crustaceans, then she approaches from another flank, arguing the merits of ocean protection from a deeply human perspective of self interest.
”Our health is inextricably linked to the nature of the sea, because it dominates the world. Only at this point in science have we come to realise that the ocean shapes climate – weather, temperature, the water cycle, the oxygen cycle, the carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle – it’s all anchored in the blue. Our focus has mostly been the green, the land. But if we don’t take care of the blue, nothing else matters.”
Over the 50-something years of her professional life – she has evolved through phases as scientist, explorer, entrepreneur and inventor of submersible craft (with her engineer husband), environmental ambassador and repair technician (she is an expert on the effect of oil spills, and led efforts to clean up the mess of the Exxon-Valdez) – Earle says she has observed firsthand catastrophic degradation of ocean conditions.
She grew up in Clearwater, Florida, ”back when the water was clear. Now they should call it Murky Old Water, which is true of coastal waters globally. Systems that were intact, robust and healthy in the middle of the 20th century were lost as our technical ability to dredge harbours, change waterways, catch fish got better and better. The predators of the past were feeding themselves.
”We are feeding this appetite for wild creatures not for food, but largely to service the luxury market. Indeed, the capacity for some cultures to have the option for taking wildlife from the ocean for food is greatly diminished because of industrial-scale fishing stripping the ocean bare.”
She no longer eats any seafood, her small personal protest against the damage she has observed from fishing practices that have worn down populations of some species by 90 per cent. Over recent years she has also watched, with dismay, escalating attacks on science, particularly in regard to findings on climate change.
”I don’t call it a debate. A debate suggests opinion: two sides presenting opinions. ”Scientists do their utmost to present evidence – facts. They are not making this stuff up. They are saying, ‘Here it is, you decide – do you want a long, enduring future on a planet that works? Or are we going to careen through the assets in a few decades and forever alter, diminish, the chances for human kind to have a prosperous future?’
”The scientific ethic is to do your best to articulate fact, evidence, and show your sceptical fellow scientists that you can prove what you are saying through peer review. You don’t just recklessly make claims. ”But the other side doesn’t have to adhere to that discipline. They can just say anything they want that seems to support their point of view.”
As international climate talks loom in South Africa next week, with little expectation that they will yield commitment to strategies that will cut human carbon emissions, Earle – the author of more than 125 publications on marine science and technology – echoes the message of the broader scientific community that the opportunity to haul back human emissions is closing.
”Maybe private initiatives will find answers. Maybe it’s the kids who can see more clearly, who don’t have the vested interests that maybe inhibit their judgment, their power.”
For her, one of the biggest looming climate issues is ”the other carbon dioxide problem” – ocean acidification, the consequence of rising atmospheric carbon on the chemistry of water. A report published yesterday by Australian scientists on climate change in the Pacific anticipates acidification will, within the next few decades, potentially disrupt the health and sustainability of coral reef systems.
”I think [acidification] could overshadow everything else,” she says, because it permeates right through the marine systems, from the tiny shelled creatures at the bottom of the food chain, through to the coral gardens that support vast ecosystems.
”The analogy of spaceship Earth is real. We are chopping up the pieces of the engine, consuming them … not thinking about whether we will be able to fly along in this little blue speck in the universe.”
Earle first came to Australia in the 1970s to champion the preservation of the Great Barrier Reef, which subsequently gained World Heritage protection. This week she was back in Canberra urging legislators to again put Australia at the vanguard of marine protection initiatives.
The federal government has been assessing waters off south-west Australia, from South Australia’s Kangaroo Island to Geraldton on the West Australian coast, and the Coral Sea off the coast of North Queensland for further protection.
Yesterday it announced a proposal to establish the world’s largest marine protected area in the waters of the Coral Sea within Australia’s exclusive economic zone, covering almost 1 million square kilometres, banning oil and gas exploration and imposing new limits on fishing. Recreational fishers would still have access to about half the park, and commercial fishing – other than trawling – in about one quarter. Conservationists and scientists welcomed the move, but some want stricter protections, including a full ban on fishing.
Earle says the proposal is ”a move in the right direction – the government should be applauded for moves to recognise Blue Australia, the neglected part of the country.
”Now there is a sense of urgency to take action while there is still time. The next 10 years will literally be the most important in the past 10,000 years.”