Meet ‘Her Deepness’

Sylvia Earl

How much of your lifetime, I asked Sylvia Earle, have you spent underwater? It was a glorious morning in Mexico and we were on a small boat, bobbing on a gentle swell in the Gulf of California, a few hundred yards off the coast from the village of Cabo Pulmo. Setting out from shore to the dive site, we had spied a group of dolphins leaping in the distance.

We had cut the engine close by an outgrowth of rocks, where three pelicans circled, riding upwards before corkscrewing their bodies and plummeting into the water, their gullets palpitating with their catch, before rising up to circle, twist and plummet again.  Earle observed the scene thoughtfully, considering my question. ‘Not enough,’ she replied with a laugh.

At 82, Earle is America’s most distinguished oceanographer and marine biologist, and now its most fervent champion for ocean conservation. She estimates that in the time since her first dive, aged 16 – clamping on a sponge-diver’s helmet and descending 30ft to the bottom of the Weeki Wachee River in Florida – she has spent close to a year underwater, at times for 14 days at a stretch, living on the bottom of the ocean in research installations.

Having led more than 100 marine expeditions, setting a record for solo diving 1,000m in depth, and piloting any number of submersibles, there is not an ocean in the world Earle has not dived, investigated and researched.

Yet here in the gentle waters off Cabo Pulmo, with a group of divers, her enthusiasm was undiminished, as if she was about to discover the wonders of the ocean for the first time. Strapping on her scuba gear, pulling on the state-of-the-art red fins that she calls her ‘ruby flippers’ (the military, she says, ‘does them in black’) and adjusting her mask, Earle was first over the side of the boat and into the water.

Cabo Pulmo is designated by the Mexican government as a National Marine Park. It is also a shining example of what Earle calls Hope Spots, areas in the ocean recognised by scientists as meriting special protection because of their unique ecological attributes.

After more than five decades of exploration and research, and association with some 20 marine science and conservation bodies, in 2010 Earle founded her own non-profit organisation, Mission Blue, with the aim of galvanising global support for the establishment of marine-protected areas through scientific expeditions, public outreach, and partnerships with corporations and government bodies.

At present less than five per cent of the world’s oceans are protected. Mission Blue, which is partnered with some 200 like-minded organisations, aims to extend that to 10 per cent by 2020.  With support from National Geographic (Earle has been its explorer-in-residence since 1998), and a substantial grant from Rolex (she has been a Rolex testimonee since 1982), Mission Blue has designated 86 Hope Spots around the world, each selected through a process of nominations from the public.

A further 400 nominations are awaiting further investigation. Off Cabo Pulmo, clamping on a mask and snorkel, I followed Earle over the side of the boat, plunging into a seemingly solid, shimmering, silver wall of fish – sardines – that parted like a curtain as I approached. Larger grouper, cornet and jackfish darted hither and thither in search of food.

Thirty feet below, I could see Earle and four other divers hanging in the limpid water, the air bubbles from their scuba equipment rising towards the surface, the shoal of sardines undulating around them. Breaking surface, I could see the pelicans soaring, twisting and diving. After 30 minutes, Earle finally came up, grinning like a child. ‘It’s just fabulous down there,’ she laughed. She was the last one out of the water.

‘Children,’ Earle says later, ‘don’t start out killing things, they start out wondering about things.’

The day’s diving done, we are sitting on the terrace of a restaurant, the sound of the surf crashing on the nearby beach. The daughter of an electrical engineer who worked for DuPont, Earle grew up in a farmhouse in New Jersey.

She remembers an abundance of wildlife – squirrels, raccoons, birds – but her favourite place was a pond, where she would spend hours filling jars with frogs, tadpoles and small fish, and keeping notebooks of her observations. ‘I always knew, somehow, that I was going to be a biologist or a botanist or something, even before I knew what those things were called.’

When she was a teenager, the family moved to Florida. As a botany student she became fascinated by phycology, the study of algae. She would become one of the first marine scientists to use scuba equipment. ‘There was no training in those days,’ she says. ‘The only instruction was, “Breathe naturally.”’ She laughs. ‘It worked. I’m still here!’

After her PhD, Earle concentrated on research. She married and had a child. But this did not prevent her becoming a pioneer in a field that, at that time, was almost exclusively the preserve of men. In 1964, she was invited to join a six-week expedition to India. Stopping in Mombasa, a newspaper report declared: ‘Sylvia sails away with 70 men, but she expects no problems’.

In February 1968, on an expedition in the Bahamas, she became the first woman scientist to descend to a depth of 100ft in a submersible with a lockout chamber – called Deep Diver – that permitted divers to leave and return to the vehicle. Having remarried, Earle was four months pregnant with her third child at the time. She had consulted doctors beforehand and been told to expect no difficulties with the pregnancy.

Her daughter Gale was born the following July. A year later, she applied to join a project called Tektite, sponsored jointly by the US Navy, the Department of the Interior and NASA, which involved teams of  scientists living for weeks on end  in an installation 50ft below the surface of the sea, off the coast of the US Virgin Islands.

Despite having spent more than 1,000 hours underwater, more than any other applicant, Earle’s application was rejected – it seems the review committee could not countenance the idea of men and women living together underwater. But the following year on she led a team of five female scientists on Tektite II, spending two weeks on the ocean floor.

‘The head of the programme was generous,’ she remembers with a wry smile. ‘He said, “Well, half the fish are female, so I guess we can put up with a few women as aquanauts.”’ The project was an unqualified scientific success, if a lowering insight into prevailing attitudes of the day. Earle’s team spent longer underwater than any of the male ones; psychologists monitoring the project marvelled at the women cooperating and working as a team.

‘We thought you’d tear each other apart,’ one psychologist told Earle.  Three years later, she remembers, ‘a crusty naval commander’ who had been associated with the project approached her at a gathering. ‘He said, “I have to say you did an OK job, but I did not really approve of having you involved. It wasn’t that I was opposed to having women, but I just didn’t think you should be involved, because you’re a mother. None of the other women was a mother.”

I said, “Well, there were dads…” He said, “That’s different. If something had happened to you that would have been a real problem for us.”

‘So people do view men and women differently. I’m a scientist – I know men and women are different. Praise be for that! But we need to think we’re all in this together. And increasingly the voices of women are out there, being heard. And the perspective that comes from being the primary care-givers maybe extends to an attitude and ethic to the world that is not unique to women, but there is a sensitivity that you expect more in women that is perhaps now being listened to. I hope so.’

In the years since the Tektite project, Earle has lived for extended periods underwater on 10 occasions. And in 1979, she descended 1,250ft to walk on the ocean floor off the Hawaiian island of Oahu, in a pressurised Jim suit – the deepest dive ever made without a tether to the surface. Living on the bottom of the ocean is an experience that Earle says she wishes everybody could have.

‘It changed me forever.’ Close and sustained exposure to fish made her see them as individual creatures with identity and personality. ‘They all have faces that are different. It was a big thought to me as a kid that every person throughout history has a different face, and the fact that each of us has our own DNA, our own microbiology. And that’s a thought you carry with you at the bottom of the ocean.’ She laughs. ‘I’ve met some incredibly smart fish.’

Speaking with Earle, one is forcefully struck not only by the deep sense of scientific curiosity that led her to explore the worlds beneath the surface of the sea, but also by her profound and enduring sense of wonder, reverence even, for what she has found there – the feeling, as she puts it, of being ‘a part of what they also are a part of’.

Talking of the thousands – tens of thousands – of sardines that she had been swimming among that morning, she says that people often dismiss them as ‘bait fish’ or ‘food fish’ – ‘I call them miracles’.

Later in the conversation she would caution me to remember that when eating cod – which can live up to 25 years – ‘you’re eating somebody, not something’.  Earle herself stopped eating fish years ago.

‘I don’t eat my friends,’ she says. ‘Once you start diving and see these animals on their own terms, you realise they’re not just pieces of meat waiting for us to catch.’

The Tektite project gave Earle a public profile beyond the hermetic world of scientific research. Her team were given a ticker-tape parade through the streets of Chicago by the city’s mayor. For Earle it was a watershed moment in recognising the importance of being not simply a researcher, but an educator.

‘It really was my introduction to trying to go beyond speaking in this arcane language that scientists use with other scientists. Even now, most have this hesitation, because you get branded as a populariser. But increasingly there’s a need for scientists to come out of their ivory towers and to tell why what they’re doing matters.’

In America, her public advocacy of the ocean led to Earle being dubbed ‘Her Deepness’. She would receive another moniker – ‘The Sturgeon General’ – when in 1990 she was appointed chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a government agency focusing on the condition of the oceans and atmosphere.  It wasn’t a happy pairing.

‘They wanted me to be what they called “a team player”, which meant: we make the rules and you follow them.’ Her responsibilities involved fisheries. ‘From the point of view [of those involved], fish have zero value while they’re live in the ocean; it’s only when they’re dead that they have an accounting base. That doesn’t make sense – a live fish has to be worth more than a dead fish.’ Her appointment lasted two years.

‘I was not popular,’ she says. Earle explains that Cabo Pulmo is a model of what a Hope Spot should be. Situated a 60-mile drive on a rough dirt road from the tourist town of Los Cabos, it is a region of spectacular mountains, untouched desert, and pristine beaches and coral reefs.  For generations, fishing was the region’s principal livelihood, but over the years, due to overfishing, the fish stocks declined, and the waters’ fragile ecosystem began to change.

Key species such as sharks, the apex predators, disappeared, and the coral reefs deteriorated. Recognising the problem, local people lobbied to have the area inside the reef declared a no-fishing zone. Their efforts were rewarded in 1995 when the Mexican government designated a 27.5 square mile (7,111 hectares) area surrounding Cabo Pulmo as a ‘no take’ National Marine Park.  The results have been spectacular.

In the years since, fish biomass in the waters has increased 460 per cent – the largest measured increase in any marine protected area in the world – bringing the reef to a level similar to that of pristine coral reefs that have never been fished. It has also made Cabo Pulmo a mecca for divers.

‘What I love about this place in particular,’ explains Earle, ‘is that it did not take a learned scientist coming to Cabo Pulmo and saying, “You’ve got to stop.” People could see for themselves over generations how the ocean had changed. They were already being the essence of what a Hope Spot should be, using their power and imagination to say, “We’re going to take charge and restore this area, for our economy and health, but mainly because we caused the problem and we want to fix it.” They’ve done a pretty good job of figuring out that the way to extract enduring value is by not killing things.’

Change does not happen overnight. It took 10 years to see the first signs of recovery in the waters around Cabo Pulmo. Bull sharks, which had completely disappeared, began to return in 2005. The blacktip shark is abundant. Whale sharks, manta rays, humpback whales and endangered sea turtle populations have flourished. Altogether, more than 300 species of fish are to be found there.

The change from fishing to ecotourism has proved an economic boon to the village. While other fishing communities along the coast have grown poorer, income in Cabo Pulmo is more than double the national average. It is a model of low-impact tourism; development is strictly controlled. In 2008 a government offer to build a tarmac road to the village – a harbinger of big hotels and mass tourism – was rejected by the local people.

‘We don’t want Cabo Pulmo to become another Cancún,’ the Marine Park’s director, Carlos Ramón Godínez Reyes, told me. But the waters elsewhere in the Gulf of California are troubled. Earle first dived in the region in 1965 – a time, she says, ‘when it seemed that we had no power to harm the ocean’. Diving off the coast of La Paz, 100 miles north of Cabo Pulmo, she encountered ‘a galaxy of sharks, especially the hammerheads’.

Now hammerheads have all but vanished from the area and of the 70 species of shark found in the Gulf, two are endangered and 10 described as ‘vulnerable’. Sharks are killed primarily for their fins, which are dried and sold to Asian markets for shark fin soup, a ‘status’ dish.

A dead hammerhead is worth $500. (By comparison, studies done around the world have concluded that a shark alive in the water is worth up to $2 million through ecotourism and its value to the ecosystem.) Altogether, 90 per cent of the world’s shark population has vanished over the past 50 years, along with grouper, swordfish and bluefin tuna. Recent studies suggest that the number of tuna in the Pacific Ocean has declined by almost 98 per cent over the past 40 years.

‘We’re really good at finding, catching, killing and marketing them,’ Earle says. ‘But we can’t go on killing them at the rate we do now.’

Overfishing is just one of what Earle describes as ‘the target issues’ threatening the health of the ocean, along with plastics and excessive carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels and methane, which dissolves in water to produce carbonic acid.

‘But the biggest problem,’ Earle says, ‘is ignorance, complacency borne of people not knowing what is happening or why they should care. “So there are no more coral reefs, why should I care?”  ‘Our lives depend on taking care of the systems that generate oxygen, that capture carbon, that create this amazing web of life. Never before could we know what we now know because of technology, and never again will we have a better chance to act on that knowledge to safeguard our life- support system. We have the knowledge; we have the power. What we need is the will.’

Much of Earle’s time now is spent on being, as she puts it, ‘a voice for the ocean’. Doing the work she loves most – being in the ocean, observing and documenting – is a luxury she says she can  no longer afford.

‘There are lots of people doing that, but not so many with the years of observation I’ve accumulated. But you have to get out there. I say, “If I don’t get wet at least once a month in a Hope Spot, dry rot sets in and I shrivel up.”  ‘People look at how old I am and say, “Are you still diving?” I say, “I’m still breathing, so of course I’m diving and doing everything I can to get others to jump in themselves.”’

Her mother was 81 when she took the plunge. ‘She scolded me for not getting her in the ocean earlier,’ Earle laughs. ‘I thought I’d tried.’

She has been married three times. Her dedication to her work, she admits, has taken its toll on her personal life. ‘But I think one thing that has helped me communicate with the public is having had three children. [She also has four grandsons.] I’ve had to explain to them, “I’m sorry, I really want to be here, but I’m going to be gone for a week, and I’ll try and share it with you and tell you why it matters.” And, of course, when I can, I scoop them up, then go and dive with whales and meet dolphins. They’ve all had chances to do that, but I know it doesn’t compensate for missing being with them at the times that matter to them.’

She does not dwell on this. Her conversation returns obsessively to the ocean. I have seldom met anybody so driven by a single, all-consuming passion – for the miracle of life beneath the seas and the need to convince the world of how inextricably entwined it is with all our lives.

‘People say I’m an activist. But I think of myself as a scientist,’ she says. ‘I explore and inform. And what I can do best is continue doing what I’ve always done – look at the evidence.

‘We have to realise that the most important thing we take from the ocean is not minerals, not oil, not gas, it’s not fish, not lobsters, not oysters – not a lot of things. It’s our existence.

‘If we so dismember the natural systems that generate oxygen, take up carbon, hold the planet steady, it’s not just the fish and the whales and the coral reefs that are in trouble – we’re in trouble.’ She looks at me. ‘I’m not making this up. You like to breathe? Well take care of the ocean, because your life depends on it.’