Sylvia Earle's Excellent Adventure

The renowned oceanographer's passion for scientific exploration is surpassed only by her efforts to protect the underwater realm

  • Mark Wexler
  • Apr 01, 1999
The size of the United States, as any almanac will tell you, is about 3.7 million square miles. But in fact, that figure leaves out some of the most dramatic and productive regions in the country. "They just happen to be underwater," says Sylvia Earle, referring to the 2.2 million square miles of territory that make up the country's exclusive offshore economic zone. "We have complete jurisdiction over all of the natural resources in this vast area, so doesn't it make sense that we should learn as much as we can about it?"

If Earle has her way, Americans will soon know a lot more about a valuable portion of that underwater territory: the 18,000 square miles of coastal waters currently protected as National Marine Sanctuaries. During the next five years, Earle will lead a team of researchers in conducting landmark studies with the aid of one-person submarines in all 12 marine sanctuaries. The project, called Sustainable Seas Expeditions, is the latest chapter in the life of one of the nation's most-renowned oceanographers.

Behind her soft-spoken, petite facade, Sylvia Earle is a woman who lives on the edge--an inveterate worker who relishes adventure and speaks with an evangelical zeal about the watery realm that makes up 75 percent of the planet's surface. "The living ocean," she says, "drives planetary chemistry, governs climate and weather, and provides the cornerstone of the life-support system for all species on Earth. If the sea is sick, we will feel it. If it dies, we die. Our future and the state of the oceans are one."

During a career that spans four decades, Earle has won international acclaim as a scientist who has made a number of important discoveries regarding the ecology of marine plants, a record-setting diver who has logged more than 6,000 hours underwater, a businesswoman who is involved with deep-sea submersible technology, and a maverick who once gave up a prestigious U.S. government position to devote more time to fieldwork.

"Sylvia Earle has earned tremendous credibility among her peers in the scientific community," says National Wildlife Federation President Mark Van Putten. "But perhaps her greatest accomplishment is her ability to popularize the mysteries of the oceans for nonscientists all over the world." In recognition of her achievements, NWF selected Earle for its highest honor, the J.N. "Ding" Darling Award, as the 1998 Conservationist of the Year. "If Rachel Carson and Will Rogers had somehow gotten together and produced an offspring, it might well have been Sylvia," adds Canadian engineer Phil Nuytten, who designed the submersibles for the Sustainable Seas project. "She possesses a wonderful combination of ecological expertise and homespun good sense."

Sylvia Earle's love affair with the sea began when she was a child. "On my first visit to the shore, a great wave knocked me off my feet," she says. "I've been irresistibly drawn to the ocean ever since." Earle eventually earned a doctorate in oceanography at Duke University, where she initiated a now-classic study of underwater plant life in the Gulf of Mexico--a project she continues to this day. (At her home in Oakland, California, she has cataloged more than 20,000 marine plant specimens.)

When the budding scientist began her fieldwork in the early 1950s, scuba equipment was just becoming widely available. At the time, Earle was one of the world's few diving female oceanographers. "To conduct research, I knew I had to play by men's rules--or not play at all," she says. "But I was confident opportunities would come my way."

In 1970, Earle and four other women lived for two weeks in an underwater habitat off the coast of the Virgin Islands. The federally sponsored Tektite Project, which helped pave the way for women to be included in the space program, enabled the researchers to study marine life continuously without having to surface. It also represented a turning point in Earle's career. "Tektite lifted me from the realm of pure science to communicating with a broad audience," she says. "Suddenly there were microphones in front of me and millions of people were hearing what I had to say. I felt a strong obligation to help educate them about the oceans."

Nine years later, a decade after the first men walked on the Moon, Earle planted the Stars and Stripes on the ocean floor 1,250 feet below the surface. It was the deepest untethered human dive in history. Wearing a special suit designed by Nuytten, she spent two and a half hours exploring the ocean bottom--a dangerous proposition, considering the fact that if her life-support systems had failed, the pressure at that depth is a crushing 600 pounds per square inch. The walk demonstrated to other scientists that research at such depths was possible.

In 1985, operating a submersible built by a California company she helped found, Earle descended to a depth of 3,000 feet in the Pacific--another record for solo diving. "We humans have explored less than 5 percent of our planet's ocean territory," she says. "Yet our lack of knowledge of the underwater realm has not prevented us from polluting and overharvesting the seas' resources." According to a recent report from the National Academy of Sciences, 30 percent of the world's fisheries are declining because of overharvesting and an additional 44 percent are on the verge of overexploitation.

In 1990, Earle became chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a $1.5-billion agency that manages fisheries, responds to oil spills, and oversees the weather service and marine sanctuaries. She accepted the Bush administration appointment--the first woman to serve as the agency's lead scientist--because she felt it offered an opportunity to work within the system to improve coastal protection. "The one thing that surprised me about her appointment," observed California Academy of Sciences marine scientist John McCosker at the time, "is that they would do it realizing they have a hot potato on their hands."

Too hot, as it turned out. After a year and a half on the job and several confrontations with lawmakers, Earle realized she wasn't cut out for dealing with the politics of the bureaucracy. She resigned her position. "I was suffering from dry rot," she says. "I wanted to spend more time at sea and I also thought I could be more effective speaking out as a private citizen."

Today, Earle divides her time between directing Sustainable Seas Expeditions and serving as explorer-in-residence for the National Geographic Society. "I hope my visibility over the years has enticed both men and women to the field of oceanography," she says. The scientist was pleased not long ago to hear about a five-year-old boy who read a children's book about her and said to his father, "When I grow up, can I do this--can boys do this too?"

Mark Wexler is editor of this magazine.

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