National Geographic Explorer in Residence
When Dr. Sylvia Earle, dubbed “Her Deepness” by the New York Times, began her undersea career in the 1960’s, female scientists were regarded as a novelty. In 1970 she joined Tektite II, an all-female research team living 50 feet below the sea surface in the Virgin Islands for weeks on end. A film clip from the era referred to Earle’s team of aquanauts, quaintly, as “the world’s first real-life mermaids.”
“I wasn't trying to knock down barriers,” Earle remembers. “I responded to a notice that was on the bulletin board when I was at Harvard…it just didn't say that women need not apply.” So while space travel and moonwalking was, seemingly, the province of men only, women were welcome in the world of undersea exploration.
Dr. Earle was visiting The Commonwealth Club to share the view from deep below the ocean, “the blue heart of the planet,” as she has called it. It’s a world where she seems to feel just as much at home as the rest of us do on land.
“The ocean is where most of the action is,” Earle maintains. “It's not just where most of the water is, it's where most of life on earth is. It's where the greatest diversity of life is.”
Earle, who has led more than 100 undersea expeditions and spent over 7,000 hours underwater, traces her lifetime passion for science back to a childhood inquisitiveness that has never left her. Now nearing eighty, her current title is National Geographic Explorer in Residence, but “I think all kids start out as explorers,” she says. “I think even all of you, whoever you are or wherever you are, you don't lose that part of being a kid, asking questions: who, what, why, where, when, how?
“That's what explorers do. That's what scientists do.”
Although the ocean may look much the same as it did sixty years ago, much has changed under the surface, Earle says.
“In that time, on the order of 90% of many of the big fish have been extracted from the sea,” she explained. Changes brought on by global warming, overfishing and pollution have taken their toll on the undersea environment. Coral reefs and kelp forests have been reduced by half, compromising the diets and habitats of the creatures who live there.
“The decline is heartbreaking.”
Asked how climate change is affecting the ocean, Earle turned the question around. “What impact is the ocean having on climate?” she countered. “Because climate is driven by the ocean.
“The ocean is earth's great thermal regulator,” Earle explained. “It holds heat, releases it slowly, holds cold, releases it gradually…the ocean governs climate, governs the weather.”
So as the health of our oceans go, so goes the health of our planet.
“It's important to recognize that earth has always been changing every day, every minute,” says Earle. “But the changes, generally, are gradual…what we're witnessing now is accelerated warming. We're accelerating the change of chemistry of the ocean with the acidification that has happened in the past.”
Even the fish on our dinner plate has an environmental cost, says Earle. “We think of fish as free. We have an accounting base of zero when they're swimming around in the ocean, and that's false accounting. We have to face up to the cost of what we consume really is when you put nature on the balance sheet.”
Dr. Earle urged those who are concerned about climate change and its effects to exercise their own youthful curiosity. “Become science literate, be science savvy,” she urged. “Do what you do as a kid - ask questions, demand evidence, don't just take stuff for granted.” And then, she says, raise your voices, take action. “Let’s see what we can do, now that we know.”
After winning a TED prize in 2009, Earle established Mission Blue, an initiative to establish marine protected areas (or “Hope Spots,” as she calls them) around the globe.
And she had nothing but encouragement and enthusiasm for the youngest members of the audience, many of whom came armed with questions. “What was your favorite part about the ocean?” asked a girl named Cassidy.
“I love the fact that the ocean is alive…that there's life in the ocean, and it's endless,” Earle told her. “There is so much out there yet to be seen that everyone can be an explorer. And even though you've been to the ocean a thousand times, and I have, you never know what you're going to find the next time!”
For a high school student who said she aspires to a career in marine biology, Dr. Earle had some important advice: “Go get wet!” she laughed.
“Choose something that you really love and become as good as you can. Follow your heart…and don't let people say you can't do it because you're a girl!”