Leading the Fleet: Explorer Sylvia Earle’s Pioneering Life in Marine Science and Conservation
August 30, 2012
By Mera McGrew
A host of names gets thrown around when oceanographer, undersea explorer and advocate Dr. Sylvia Earle gets mentioned. Hero of the Planet. Living Legend. Ambassador of the World’s Oceans. Pioneer.
Earle has led more than 400 expeditions, logged more than 7,000 hours underwater, holds multiple diving records and has been instrumental in developing and engineering deep-water submersibles. She has authored more than 125 publications focused on marine science and technology.
She is the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s former chief scientist and is now a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, founder of the global ocean advocacy initiative Mission Blue and serves on multiple boards.
Q: When did you first know you wanted to dedicate yourself to studying and advocating for the world’s oceans?
Sylvia Earle: Since I was a child. I was always trying to figure out as much as I could about the natural world. I fell in love with the ocean at age three. But, it wasn’t the water that was most compelling; it was the life that was in the water — the big glossy horseshoe crabs that came out during the summer months. I spent a lot of time trying to turn horseshoe crabs around and get them back into the ocean, not realizing that they really wanted to come up on the beach and lay their eggs. I suppose I was always trying to be a scientist and an explorer.
Q: Were there other girls in the classes you took?
SE: I made choices along the way to take all the science classes I could possibly fit in. It was unusual to have other girls in my science classes—in most I was either the only woman, or one of very few. That has changed. It’s really exciting to see that in many marine science classes today, nearly half the students are women.
Q: What inspired you to pursue a career in marine science?
SE: My parents encouraged me to follow my heart. A number of books were also truly influential. One by William BeeBe called “Half Mile Down,” published in the 1930’s. BeeBe and his engineer associate actually built and used a bathyscaphe [ed.- a deep-sea submersible] in the waters off Bermuda. His descriptions and the images, the pictures that were rendered in beautiful paintings just captured my imagination. I just became fascinated with the whole idea of being able to access the sea. And, of course, Cousteau. When I read his book, “Silent World,” I knew I really wanted to try that.
Q: Do you have any stories that make you cringe or laugh about being a woman in the field?
SE: There are a number of headlines that signify some of the experiences. One was a headline in the Mombasa Daily Times that read, “Sylvia Sails Away with 70 Men, But She Expects No Problem.” Another came out when I was preparing for the Tektite II, mission 6 project, an all-female research expedition. The Boston Globe reported, “Beacon Hill Housewife to Lead Team of Female Aquanauts.” Another headline came out when I was using a diving suit called Jim. The system could go more than a thousand feet down. The Star, a tabloid, ran a double-paged spread that read, “Brave Mom Dives to 1,250 Feet.” So, over the years I was a Beacon Hill housewife, a brave mom, an Aqua-Babe’ and ‘Sailing away with 70 Men.’
At Duke University, I was told flat out I could not have the position I had applied for to be a research assistant because I was just going to get married and have kids. They told me they had to give those positions to the young men because they would stick it out and become professionals. To them, it was a logical thing. Today, that would never fly. But back then it did.
I didn’t end up getting the position. But some of the other faculty members were sympathetic, so I got another job for less money.
In the 1960s and 1970s, I was on half-dozen international expeditions and I really wanted to be the chief scientist. On one expedition in particular, I felt very strongly I had helped craft the work being done and it just seemed logical that I would have a chance at chief scientist. Again I was told flat out that it didn’t seem appropriate for a woman to be a chief scientist on a ship. It is so different from today. Many women now serve in that position.
Q: What is the biggest problem that needs to be addressed within your field?
SE: I think there are many people who still think the ocean is too big to fail—that what we put in or what we take out doesn’t matter; that even though fish are declining by as much as 90 percent or more for some species, it doesn’t matter. Whatever we have put our sites on to extract we have managed to overdo to the point of real concern.
It is an awareness of the ocean that really matters. Every breath we take and every drop of water we drink, or even that we are alive at all on Earth, relies on the existence of the ocean and its life. The biggest problem is making people become aware. The ocean is fundamental to everything we care about—our economy, our security, our health.
Another big problem is our capacity to alter the nature of the ocean. There is a lack of awareness that the ocean is changing and that it matters. The solution is to expand exploration, to communicate the importance of the sea and to inspire a much greater commitment than we currently have to care for it.
It’s becoming clear that fish are more valuable swimming around as part of the systems that keep us alive than swimming with lemon slices in butter on a plate.
We are investing substantial resources into exploring the skies above and the heavens beyond. But we’re neglecting this part of the universe, this part of the solar system, this blue planet. What is under the surface is still unknown, unexplored. What we do know is that it keeps us alive. It’s where most of earth’s water is; it’s where most life is. Failing to recognize the significance of that is incredibly dangerous.
Q: What advice do you have for girls and women who look up to you and are interested in following in your footsteps?
SE: It’s pretty simple: Go for it! There will be people who will say that it’s inappropriate, that you can’t, you mustn’t, you shouldn’t. But if it’s what you really love, then find a way to do it. There are always obstacles and that is not a bad thing, because it causes you to be creative in figuring out how to get over them, around them, under them or through them. Whatever you do, don’t let the obstacles stop you.
This post was originally published on the txchnologist as part of a women in STEM series.
Top photo: Kip Evans/ Mission Blue