"I can still feel
that leap of enthusiasm, and real joy, at the prospect of finally getting
out to the beach, and running around. But probably the most important thing,
to me, aside from just the freedom of it and the power of it, was the kind
of creatures that you could see along the beach, that you can't find
That child's fascination with the crabs she found scurrying in the sand, was
the beginning of a remarkable career in marine science. Today, Sylvia Earle
is the best-known woman marine scientist on the planet. Among other
accomplishments, she has walked untethered on the sea floor at a lower depth
than any other human being.
When Sylvia Earle
first began her career, she met resistance. Some people could not accept a
woman traveling with men on long scientific expeditions, but her remarkable
accomplishments have won her a position in the oceanographic community that
transcends boundaries. Botanist, biologist, conservationist, entrepreneur,
Sylvia Earle has followed whales in the open sea, fought with sharks, and
lived for weeks at a time on the floor of the sea, in the Tektite undersea
station. She has challenged and overcome every obstacle that stood in the
path of her burning curiosity about the magical world beneath the waves.
Video: Sylvia Earle, How to
Protect the Oceans
Sylvia Earle was born in Gibbstown, New Jersey. Her parents raised her on a
small farm near Camden. From the time she was very small, Sylvia loved
exploring the woods near her home. She was fascinated by the creatures and
plants that lived in the wild. Neither of her parents had a college
education, but they too loved nature, and they taught young Sylvia to
respect wild creatures and not to be afraid of the unknown. Those who have
followed her adult career may wonder if she is afraid of anything.
When Sylvia was 13, the family moved to Clearwater, Florida, on the Gulf of
Mexico. Soon, Sylvia was learning all she could about the wildlife of the
Gulf and its coast. Her parents could not afford to send her to college
themselves, but she was an exceptional student and won scholarships to the
Florida State. Throughout her school years, she supported herself by working
in college laboratories.
Here, she first learned scuba diving, determined to use this new technology
to study marine life at first hand. Fascinated by all aspects of the ocean
and marine life, Sylvia decided to specialize in botany. Understanding the
vegetation, she believes, is the first step to understanding any ecosystem.
After earning her Master's at Duke University, Sylvia Earle took time off to
marry and start a family but remained active in marine exploration. In 1964,
when her children were only two and four, she left home for six weeks to
join a National Science Foundation expedition in the Indian Ocean.
Throughout the mid-1960s, she struggled to balance the demands of her family
with scientific expeditions that took her all over the world.
In 1966 Sylvia Earle received her Ph.D. from Duke. Her dissertation "Phaeophyta
of the Eastern Gulf of Mexico" created a sensation in the oceanographic
community. Never before had a marine scientist made such a long and detailed
first-hand study of aquatic plant life. Since then she has made a lifelong
project of cataloguing every species of plant that can be found in the Gulf
Dr. Earle's burgeoning career took her first to Harvard, as a research
fellow, then to the resident directorship of the Cape Haze Marine
Laboratory, in Florida. In 1968, Dr. Earle traveled to a hundred feet below
the waters of the Bahamas in the submersible Deep Diver. She was four months
pregnant at the time.
In 1969 she applied to participate in the Tektite project. This venture,
sponsored jointly by the U.S. Navy, the Department of the Interior and NASA
allowed teams of scientist to live for weeks at a time in an enclosed
habitat on the ocean floor fifty feet below the surface, off the Virgin
Islands. By this time, Sylvia had spent more than a thousand research hours
underwater, more than any other scientists who applied to the program, but,
as she says, "the people in charge just couldn't cope with the idea of men
and women living together underwater."
The result was Tektite II, Mission 6, an all-female research expedition led
by Dr. Earle herself. In 1970, Sylvia Earle and four other women dove 50
feet below the surface to the small structure they would call home for the
next two weeks.
The publicity surrounding this adventure made Sylvia Earle a recognizable
face beyond the scientific community. To their surprise, the scientists
found they had become celebrities and were given a ticker-tape parade and a
White House reception. After that Sylvia Earle was increasingly in demand as
public speaker, and she became an outspoken advocate of undersea research.
At the same time, she began to write for National Geographic and to produce
books and films. Besides trying to arouse greater public interest in the
sea, she hoped to raise public awareness of the damage being done to our
aquasphere by pollution and environmental degradation.
In the 1970s, scientific missions took Sylvia Earle to the Galapagos, to the
water off Panama, to China and the Bahamas and, again, to the Indian Ocean.
During this period she began a productive collaboration with undersea
photographer Al Giddings. Together, they investigated the battleship
graveyard in the Caroline Islands of the South Pacific.
In 1977 they made their first voyage following the great sperm whales. In a
series of expeditions they followed the whales from Hawaii to New Zealand,
Australia, South Africa, Bermuda and Alaska. Their journeys were recorded in
the documentary film Gentle Giants of the Pacific (1980)
In 1979, Sylvia Earle walked untethered on the sea floor at a lower depth
than any living human being before or since. In the so-called Jim suit, a
pressurized one-atmosphere garment, she was carried by a submersible down to
the depth of 1,250 feet below the ocean's surface off of the island of Oahu.
At the bottom, she detached from the vessel and explored the depths for two
and a half hours with only a communication line connecting her to the
submersible, and nothing at all connecting her to the world above. She
described this adventure in her 1980 book: Exploring the Deep Frontier.
In the 1980s, along with engineer Graham Hawkes, she started the companies
Deep Ocean Engineering and Deep Ocean Technologies. These ventures design
and build undersea vehicles like Deep Rover and Deep Flight which are making
it possible for scientists to maneuver at depths that defied all previously
existing technology. In the middle of this life of adventure, Sylvia Earle
has been married and raised three children, some of whom have worked side by
side with her at Deep Ocean Engineering
In the early 1990s, Dr. Earle took a leave of absence from her companies to
serve as Chief Scientist of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric
Administration. There, among other duties, Sylvia Earle was responsible for
monitoring the health of the nation's waters. In this capacity she also
reported on the environmental damage wrought by Iraq's burning of the
Kuwaiti oil fields.
Today she is explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society.
Wherever future journeys take her, we can be certain that Sylvia Earle will
be in the forefront of deep ocean exploration.