Pioneering aquanaut Dr Sylvia Earle speaks about life in the water and the hidden importance of the ocean.

Since the beginning of recorded history, humans have always been closely associated with the ocean. Considered to be the source of life, the ocean has a place in many of the creation myths of mankind. This is hardly surprising, as most ancient civilisations have been founded on the banks of large rivers, and with good reason – they are a source of food, allow for quick transport, and make the land around them fertile. Oceans provide the same benefits and much more, leading to their revered status.

Part of this reverence comes from the mysterious and unpredictable depths of the ocean. According to most estimates of modern science, a whopping 95% of the ocean lies unexplored. In fact, more people have been on the surface of the moon than to the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the ocean. However, there is a growing interest to uncover and understand the depths of the ocean, and its connections to the rest of the planet – and at the forefront of this movement is renowned marine biologist and oceanographer, Dr Sylvia Earle.

A Childhood Fascination

A natural water baby, Dr Earle’s introduction to the sea came at the age of three when she was knocked over by a wave while playing on a shore in New Jersey. She describes the experience as initially frightening, but exhilarating at the same time. “My mother was watching from the beach. She could have grabbed me, concerned for my safety, but she saw the big smile on my face and let me go back in – and I have been going back in ever since,” she says.

At the age of 12, Dr Earle and her family moved to Florida, where her love for the ocean truly took root. She recollects being delighted at having a new backyard to play around in, describing the Gulf of Mexico as a ‘great blue body of water’, one that she could see, hear, play and splash around in. “It was like going to the zoo. It was heaven for a kid. It will always be that way in my mind, it is just this paradise,” she explains. By the time Dr Earle was in high school, she had already made up her mind to be a scientist, at a time when women were still underrepresented in this heavily male dominated field.

Dr Earle exploring the ocean in a DeepSee submersible.

Plumbing The Depths

During her time as a research fellow at Harvard, Dr Earle came across a bulletin board notice for the Tektite project, calling for applicants to live underwater as a scientist. She jumped at the opportunity and was accepted to join the programme’s second mission a year later in 1970. The project was ahead of its time in many ways – it was the first to explore the feasibility of living underwater for prolonged periods of time, and the first to accept an all-female team of aquanauts, headed by Dr Earle. The team’s subsequent success paved the way for greater inclusivity of women in future aquatic missions.

A pioneer in the diving world, Dr Earle is often referred to as ‘Her Deepness’ in recognition of her groundbreaking diving and exploration expeditions in the marine field. She set the women’s world record for the deepest untethered dive of 381 m in the atmospheric JIM diving suit, a record she still holds to this day. She also holds the women’s record for deepest solo submersible dive, to a depth of 1,000 m. Well aware of the inherent risks of diving, she says, “Getting to the bottom of the ocean is easy. Sometimes you do not come back.”

The aquanaut holds the women's record for deepest untethered dive in the JIM diving suit.

Making Waves

In 1982, Dr Earle and her ex-husband co-founded Deep Ocean Engineering, a company focused on building and operating deep sea submersible research vessels. There, she was involved in the creation of the Deep Rover, the same vessel she deployed to achieve her solo submersible diving record. In 1990, Dr Earle was invited to serve as the Chief Scientist of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), becoming the first woman to hold the position. During this time, she played a vital role in accessing the environmental damage caused by the destruction of oil wells during the Persian Gulf War. In 1992, Dr Earle founded Deep Ocean Exploration and Research (DOER Marine), a marine engineering company that designs, builds and operates equipment for deep ocean environments. A front-runner in marine engineering, the vessels and research equipment created by DOER are now used for both scientific and marine conservation initiatives around the world.

As an acknowledgment of her expertise in marine biology, Dr Earle was named a National Geographic ‘Explorer in Residence’ in 1998, a programme that funds and supports groundbreaking scientists and conservationists to develop programmes and carry out field work in their area of expertise. This allowed her to spearhead the Sustainable Seas Expeditions, a five-year programme studying the impact of human activities in the US National Marine Sanctuary.

The Tektite II's all-female team of aquanauts, led by Dr Earle (far right).

Mission With A Vision

With most of her life spent in and around water bodies, Dr Earle is a direct witness to the anthropogenic damage to the oceans. “In all of Earth’s history, never have there been predators as powerful, comprehensive and destructive as humans are,” she notes, referring to the decline and disappearance of half the coral reefs in the world. Furthermore, ocean flora such as kelp forests, mangroves and sea grass have declined, while overfishing has led to the disappearance of the majority of fish consumed by humans.

As a diver from the pre-plastic era, she can attest to the drastic changes in the oceans today. “We have regarded the ocean as a great dumping site, a place to throw things or get rid of things we do not want,” she explains. “Now we are seeing the consequences of this ignorance; that lack of understanding that there are limits on what we can take out and put in. Everything we put in the ocean remains. They break down into small pieces, but they do not go away.”

Mission Blue is a non-profit organisation founded by Dr Earle to rejuvenate the oceans. In 2009, she won the TED Prize which gave her the funding she needed to fulfil her wish of cleaning up the oceans. Through the creation of Hope Spots, areas designated to be extremely important for the ocean, Mission Blue aims to restore the ocean. “The term Hope Spot was conceived to recognise that there are places in the ocean that have a heightened importance in terms of their role,” she says, comparing them to the rainforests on land. Rainforests may be the ‘visible’ lungs of the planet – but oceans generate almost 50-85% of the world’s oxygen through tiny phytoplankton. Mission Blue’s vision is to rouse an upswell of public awareness, creating an alliance of various organisations and companies that will work together to achieve protection of 30% of the ocean by 2030. Till date, more than 200 organisations have joined the cause.

The avid diver hopes to raise awareness on the effects of plastic pollution in the ocean.

Hope For The Planet

Now at 84, Dr Earle has led over 100 expeditions, logged more than 7,000 hours underwater and accrued over 100 honours including Time magazine’s first ever ‘Hero for the Planet’. This has however not slowed her down. She remains just as passionate and dedicated to saving the planet’s oceans. Her recent appointment to the scientific advisory board of Nanyang Technological University's (NTU) Earth Observatory in Singapore is testament to this fact. At NTU, Dr Earle will guide the direction of marine science research and help develop an ocean programme that can focus on mitigating rising sea levels, which are a huge cause of worry for the island state.

Despite the nearing crisis, Dr Earle is hopeful that it is not too late to reverse the damage. “We humans have a capacity which transcends what other creatures have — the ability to learn from the past and apply it to the future. It is what has caused us to prosper above all other creatures. But first we have to stop and think. Imagine what the future will be if we continue to do to the ocean what we have done to wildlife on land. While there is time, we must embrace places that still have abundant wildlife.”

Dr Earle is often referred to as 'Her Deepness' in recognition of her groundbreaking diving and exploration expeditions in the marine field.

This article was first printed in MillionaireAsia Issue 53 - September 2019

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