As one of conservation’s most accomplished and recognizable leaders, Sylvia Earle has campaigned on behalf of the ocean for half a century. Now well into her eighties, Earle maintains a demanding schedule of exploration, education, and advocacy work that has her spanning the globe and meeting with everyone from world leaders to school children.
Although it is often out of mind to the general public, the ocean is critical to life on Earth, says Earle, who has broken many exploration records in her long career, earning her the nickname “Her Deepness.”
“The ocean is so much more than fish,” says Earle, who is also a Rolex Testimonee. “Think carbon cycle, think climate, think the chemistry of the planet that has shaped all life on Earth.”
Earle has inspired millions of people around the world to care about the ocean, as well as conservation more broadly. One of the people she has reached is National Geographic explorer Jessica Cramp. Since 2011, Cramp has been living and working in the Cook Islands, where she studies sharks and marine ecosystems and advocates on their behalf. Her work helped build the case for the islands creating the world’s largest shark sanctuary at the time.
National Geographic sat down with Earle and Cramp for a conversation on their careers and the big issues affecting our ocean and the planet.
Coming from different generations of women marine scientists, what have you learned from each other?
SE: I love what Jessica does. She’s out there on the islands, just doing it. She’s seized this moment in time.
JC: I am very inspired by Sylvia. I think my work has only been possible because of her, and a handful of others who paved the way. It’s easier for me than it was for you, Sylvia.
What challenges have you both faced?
SE: The idea of a woman as equally competent is now more acceptable. We are getting there.
JC: There is still a lot of work to do, even in the country where I live [the Cook Islands]. I was recently the leader of an expedition there, and some of the locals didn’t know how to handle that. They kept looking to the men on my team for direction. They’d say things like, “Wait, she’s the boss? Really? There must be something really special about her.” They told me, “Why don’t you let the men do that and go learn the hula?”
SE: The media used to ask me questions about my hair and lipstick. They asked why I brought a hair dryer on expeditions. Well it wasn’t for our hair, it was for our ears. But I realized, at least I had their attention, so I would use that to tell the story of the ocean.
JC: A reporter recently told me that they didn’t know that scientists looked like me. Well, what does a scientist look like?
JC: Sylvia, I wanted to ask you, how did you get started on your journey?
SE: I started as a witness. As a kid, I saw the woodlands of New Jersey where I lived turned into housing developments. When my family moved to Florida when I was 12 it was a very different world, wonderful. I immersed myself in nature and the sea. But over time, I saw more transformation into bricks and mortar. Tampa Bay was so quickly altered. So I became a scientist.
At first, I just wanted to focus on the science. But I was eventually forced out of my shell by the media and public attention. Before long, I was testifying to the City of Chicago or to Congress on important issues. (Watch Earle introducing a president to his namesake fish.)
Jess, much of your work involves trying to get local communities involved in marine conservation. Why is that so important?
JC: I am a scientist, but all the science I do is policy oriented. Working with the local community is the central core to everything I’m doing. If you don’t follow up with the community, you have no backbone to any conservation protections. It won’t stick.
Sylvia, your work often spans from the local to the global. Can you share how you navigate such a wide scope?
SE: We need to work with local communities, just as we need to work with presidents, ministers, CEOs, and everyone else. And the fishermen, too, because they are out there all the time on the water and they know so much. It is often the fishermen who are the first to notice something, like crashing catches. Scientists sometimes fail to engage the people who are the best witnesses of all.
It is our role as scientists to convey to the public what we know. Generally, people want to have protected areas because they see it really matters.
You have both used advanced technology in service of ocean conservation; how important has that been as a tool?
SE: Millions of people are now getting out into the ocean, thanks to advances in technology like SCUBA gear. Rachel Carson only got to dive once in her life. In a copper diving helmet, she went about 10 feet down a ladder in murky water. But imagine if she had the ability to see what any hobbyist can see now? Let alone sophisticated tools like drones, ROVs, subs, and monitoring stations.
JC: You even lived underwater, didn’t you?
S: 10 times. Spending so much time underwater led to a breakthrough: I got to know fish as individuals. They do not behave the same. They each have their own attitude.
JC: Speaking of technology, a lot of data I rely on now in my conservation work comes from satellite tracking. We can see where commercial fishermen are operating, which is key to enforcement. Are they fishing where they are supposed to? It allows me to follow wide-ranging sharks and sea birds, which don’t respect national or park boundaries.
SE: That kind of work has led to shipping industries slowing down in critical migration pathways for whales and turtles.
JC: Technology has helped us develop policy to protect what we love.
SE: Technology does cut both ways. It’s a boon for science and a boon for exploitation. Fishing magazines are full of ads that say fish have no place to hide, because of sonar. The pinpoint navigation that is so important for science also gives fishermen an edge to go back to places precisely. When I was first starting out, it was very difficult to find the same exact spot in the ocean again.
Let’s talk about sharks, which you both have intimate experience with. Why do you think people find them so fascinating?
JC: I call sharks the gateway drug of the ocean. Kids love them. Adults either love them or are afraid of them. But either way, they are interested. By drawing people in with sharks, you can trick them into learning more about the ocean.
SE: Sometimes I call sharks honorary dinosaurs, for that reason. In the ocean, sharks are great indicators of health. A healthy reef has a lot of sharks, and an unhealthy reef has none. People think of sharks as the ultimate predators, but they’re not. We are.
In all the challenges of conservation work, what keeps you inspired?
JC: I’m so humbled. For me, Sylvia.
It’s also that these problems are solvable. We no longer have the excuse that we don’t know what to do. People are more aware now. Many politicians know the issues and are willing to fight for them. We just have to get over that hump of doing it.
JC: I’ve been wanting to ask you, Sylvia, what pulls you through the tougher times in this work?
SE: It’s a combination of things. It’s belief in the human spirit, in our ability to care. It’s also the resilience of nature. There’s more turtles and whales now in the ocean than when I was a kid. Hawaii’s Nene geese had just a handful left, but now they are coming back. There are many other examples.
Is there advice you’d share for future generations interested in protecting the ocean?
SE: It’s particularly satisfying to see the interest from kids, who don’t come with preconceived ideas as much as elders do. They ask questions and are eager to find answers. Although it can be harder, I also think it’s c
ritical to find the kid in everybody. Because the ocean is in trouble.
JC: I hope the next generation will find balance with the environment.
How can everyday people contribute to a cleaner ocean?
SE: If you are a kid take a grownup to a wild place and try to get them to see the future through your eyes. If you are a grownup do the same thing with a kid. When you go to the ocean, especially to a Hope Spot [a special place with high conservation value], share your photos and data, because you can help serve as a witness.
JC: Put pressure on your leaders. Volunteer.
SE: Today we live longer and better, partly because we know so much about what it takes to live a healthy existence. A key part of that is a largely plant-based diet, which reduces our impact on the planet and other species. We have choices and we need to respect other forms of life just because they exist. None of it is trivial. It all goes to make us who we are. And we have a sweet spot in time right now to act.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.