6 Questions With Sylvia Earle, the Greatest Living Ocean Explorer

This story originally appeared at OnEarth.org

She knows the ocean better than any other person alive. Reverently nicknamed “Her Deepness,” Sylvia Earle has spent 7,000 hours underwater over seven decades. And on those dives she has witnessed first hand the havoc we wreak upon the sea—from coral bleaching and shark finning to the disappearance of once-abundant species such as tuna and menhaden. She has received virtually every honor in exploration and conservation science, and has served as chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. When Sylvia Earle talks about the ocean, you listen.

Mission Blue, a documentary about her life and work that carries the name of Dr. Earle’s ocean conservation organization, debuts today on Netflix and in theatres. She spoke with OnEarth about her career, the film, and, of course, the state of the world’s oceans.

You've built your career on seeing the ocean with your own eyes and collecting samples with your hands. What changes have you witnessed?

We now know that the ocean drives climate and weather, shapes planetary chemistry, and holds most of the life on Earth. We didn't appreciate the importance of the oceans so much when I first began diving. No blue, no green. No ocean, no life—and, therefore, no us.

We know, too, that the ocean is in trouble. We're seeing a breakdown of major systems, the loss of big wild animals in the sea, and many of the small ones, too. A reduction on the order of 90 percent of many fish—sharks, swordfish, tuna, cod, grouper, snapper, and herring. You name a creature that is in trouble, and you can trace it back to human predation.

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_original","fid":"579614","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image media-image-right","height":"55","style":"width: 228px; height: 55px; margin-left: 4px; margin-right: 4px; float: right;","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"228"}}]]We now know that half of the coral reefs are either in trouble or are already gone. We've seen the loss of mangroves, sea grass meadows, and shoreline. These are barriers against storms. They hold the edges of the land in place and provide basic services like generating oxygen and picking up carbon. They maintain a steady planet that works in our favor.

We have the power now to do something about it. In another 50 years, that time will be lost, maybe much sooner. The next 10 years may be the most important of the next 10,000. It's not too late to return sharks, tuna and swordfish, even coral reefs to a better state than they are today. We have the power to destroy, but we also have the power to restore.

What's the most amazing thing you've ever seen underwater?

The larval stages of many creatures—starfish and big fish start out as tiny eggs. You might look at a glass of ocean water and it appears to be just water, but the ocean is a living soup. I find that enchanting. I'm entranced by the abundance and diversity of life. Even in places that have been seriously depleted, there's still life, there's still hope.


Have you ever been scared down there?

[laughs] Technical failures can cause your heart to stop for a moment. But the scariest times I’ve ever had are not underwater. They occur on the highway. [laughs] That's scary. Getting into my submarine isn't the most frightening thing that I do.

The movie graphically depicts Chinese fisherman finning sharks—catching sharks, cutting off their fins, and then returning the mortally wounded animal to the water. It's easy for Americans to criticize that practice because it’s not part of our culture. Is there an American equivalent of shark finning—an indefensible practice that severely damages the ocean ecosystem?

The American public and people around the world need to recognize that shrimp, fish, lobster—whatever it is that we extract from the ocean—they are the ingredients of what makes the planet work in our favor. They take up oxygen, and take up carbon.

People should just give tuna—all kinds of tuna, not just the blue fins—a break. Give swordfish a break. Give all kinds of wildlife a break, and lay off for a while. That doesn’t mean we have to never eat fish, but you have to know what you’re eating and what it costs to have that tuna fish sandwich or that sashimi. They have a value, even when they’re not in a lemon and butter sauce.

You express frustration in the film about the way the government interacts with scientists. Can you talk about how that relationship is broken and how it may be fixed?

I was frustrated as chief scientist at NOAA because there were policies in place that were not based on the latest evidence about fishing and the changing chemistry of the planet. The system—not just in the United States, but globally—is slow to respond to new knowledge. Politicians respond to public pressure. We vote people into office. We endorse the laws. If we don't, then we have the power to do something about it. The solution is an informed public and informed individuals. Everyone can make personal decisions that transcend laws, too. People can choose to behave well in spite of the laws of the day.

Speaking of laws, I'm a legislative genie and I'm going to grant you a single wish. If you could pass one ocean conservation law, what would that law say?

It would establish broad areas of the ocean that will be protected. Our conservation areas in the ocean are inadequate to actually protect underlying mechanisms that are important to everything—our economy, our health, our security, and life itself. I’m working to establish Hope Spots—ocean networks and areas large enough to protect a part of the planet.

In the film, director James Cameron calls you "The Joan of Arc of the Oceans." Thankfully, you haven't had to martyr yourself. But do you feel that you've had to suffer personally because of your devotion to ocean conservation?

There are tradeoffs and consequences of the decisions you make. I regret time lost with my family that I can never recover, but I focus on the positives. I am really blessed with extraordinary experiences that I want to share with others to encourage them. Let them see for themselves what is so wonderful about the ocean, and be inspired to do what they can to take care of the ocean that takes care of us.


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