From the bottom of our blue hearts, we here at Mission Blue want to wish Dr. Sylvia Earle, our founder, the happiest birthday. Her unparalleled dedication to pushing forward the ocean conservation agenda on the world stage is only matched by her indefatigable passion for being beneath the waves with the creatures of the blue every chance she gets. Happy Birthday, Dr. Earle!
In celebration of Dr. Earle’s birthday, we bring you, dear reader, two special gifts.
The first, from famed creator of Sherman’s Lagoon and Mission Blue board member, Jim Toomey, you can see above. Indeed, the creatures of the sea are big Dr. Earle fans and also are also wishing her well in their own underwater way. Feel free to download this image and share around social media!
The second gift is a recent sit-down Mission Blue staff had with Dr. Sylvia Earle in the glorious Gulf of California, a Mission Blue Hope Spot. Dr. Earle not only has the unique ability to look back over decades of change in the ocean, but also an incredible gift of envisioning—and inviting people to join in on—her hopeful view of the future. Below, find the transcript from this interview and some pictures from the Gulf of California.
Dr. Sylvia Earle, Gulf of California, June 2015
My first opportunity to see beneath the surface near where we are right now, North of La Paz, was in 1965 — ha! — it was glorious. It still is glorious. But what’s missing are some of the big fish. And certainly a lot of the sharks. One of the things that impressed me the most about my first experience here in the 60’s and then over the years — the 70’s the 80’s — was how many big fish there were, especially the hammerhead sharks. And of course the whales.
One of the great things about this Gulf, the Gulf of California, the Sea of Cortez — whatever you call this magnificent place — is that it’s really deep. It’s like a crack in the ocean. And most of what people see is near the surface, like most of what I’ve had the chance to see. A few have had the opportunity to go down in little submarines and see what it’s like at 1000 feet below. But you have to go several thousand feet to get to the real heart of this magnificent body of water — and then everything connects. In our little glimpse, even today, we saw some of the great elements of what makes the whole system complete. Like dolphins, our fellow mammals, clowning around — doing their thing as dolphins are wont to do. Looks like they are having a great, good time. And, sea lions, again our fellow mammals, just doing what sea lions seem to love to do: hang out, do ballerina cavorting in the ocean, and looks like they are having such a good time. (It’s part of their lifestyle: in the ocean part of that amazing maneuvering is necessary to do what they have to do: catch fish. The little ones learn from their elders.) And, all the fish that we saw, many different kinds of fish. And the plankton! There was such an abundance of life that you could see when you tilt back against the sun and see the small creatures that drive the system as a whole, from the minute plankton, the photosynthesizers. And the tiny creatures that zero in on the phytoplankton and consume them and grow through the food chain to make the whole system prosperous. It starts with sunlight, photosynthesis, phytoplankton, and then this web of life.
But some things are clearly missing. The sharks. So far during our brief visit here, we haven’t seen any sharks. That would be unthinkable during dives in the 1960’s or 1970’s. This was one of the sharkiest bodies of water on the planet. And that’s good news! When you see sharks, it’s a sign of good health. Because it takes a lot of little fish to make the big fish. And something is right with the world underwater if you see a lot of big fish. That means that the system is prospering. People ask me sometimes “what’s the best place to go diving?”. And my stock answer is: almost anywhere 50 years ago. Well there are places here in Baja California that are like diving 50 years ago. Places that have been protected, that have the elements of whatever it takes to make this a thriving ocean again. It’s better than most parts of the planet, all things considered, but it’s also felt the bite of what humans have taken out of the ocean, like fish. And also to some extend what we’ve put in, like pollution. And even to some extent, what we’ve not put in: the water that once flowed from the Colorado River that today barely reaches the Gulf of California anymore because so much of the fresh water is used for other human purposes and never reaches the northern part of the Gulf. And all of the Gulf, this great body of water where I am right now, it’s all connected from way up at the headwaters, if you want to call it that, where the freshwater flows in, down to the place where it meets the broad Pacific Ocean. And the deep water below.
I think maybe all, but certainly most, of the elements in terms of the diversity of life, are here. But the abundance that once characterized this place and made it celebrated as one of the richest, most prosperous parts of the planet: that’s missing. Just as is the case in many parts of the world, the big fish have methodically been captured and sent to market. The good news is the elements are still here for recovery. In places such as Cabo Pulmo that has now been protected for 15 years, designated for 20 years as a place deserving of special attention. It shows what people can do, to take a place that has been depleted and watch it recover to a place that is really rebounding.
This body of water is entirely under the jurisdiction of Mexico. So those of us who have come as a part of the Mission Blue expedition include those who are Mexican citizens. They have a heightened responsibility and opportunity to use their influence — through the government of Mexico, through local communities, through their knowledge and their wisdom of what it will take to recover places that have been diminished through human activity. That’s really the goal of Mission Blue: to come as an ally and listen, listen to what needs to be done, and figure out how we can help. We want to be a voice, to be an amplifier for those who work locally, who work nationally, to do what they can to bring health and prosperity back to the ocean. It can happen. And it is happening. There’s plenty of reason for hope for the future of Baja California, the Gulf of California, for this beautiful Sea of Cortez.
Early in the 21st century, we have the benefit of knowledge that has been gained during all previous time. And what we know is we don’t have a lot of time to take action, to protect what remains of the natural systems that are the underpinnings of everything we care about: our economy, our health, our security, life itself. But never again will their be a time as good as what we have right now, there are still opportunities to protect this beautiful Hope Spot, as an example for providing hope to the rest of the world. Success here can serve as a model for other places that also are striving to do what it takes to restore health, protect what remains and make the world better. Not just for the fish, for the sea lions, and whales and plankton and all that, of course, but to make a better world for humankind.
If you’d like to help wish Sylvia an even happier birthday, make a contribution to Mission Blue! Your gift will be matched dollar for dollar by Mission Blue founding board director Shari Sant Plummer up to $80,000 in honor of Dr. Earle’s 80th birthday.