At an early age, Dr. Sylvia Earle fell in love with the ocean. At three-years-old, she remembers the first time she stepped on the gorgeous, warm sand at the Jersey shore. Horseshoe crabs emerged from the depths of the ocean, tiny seahorses nested in the grass meadows, spiky sea urchins gripped onto the sides of the docks —she raised her brown eyes at the open waters, like a mirror reflecting the morning sky. She fell as a wave crashed, the foam washed over her. But she shook it off in awe, wanting to jump right back in. At 12, when her family moved from New Jersey to Florida, she became fascinated with the creatures in the picturesque Gulf of Mexico—no garbage to pick up, no ripped trash bags to throw out. It was the perfect backyard, her home away from home. She had the sound of the waves to lull her to sleep at night.
For someone like Dr. Earle, a legendary marine biologist and explorer, you can only imagine how frustrating it is when people are doing things every day that harm our oceans. After all, she's spent her entire life treasuring and protecting it. Imagine all the waste slipping beneath the surface that will continue to affect the ecosystem, sometimes unseen. Humans are not infallible. She says the good news is that the ocean, while it separates people all over the world, unites us together the same way the skies above do. Except, that is, when the pristine sand is littered with cigarette butts, empty water bottles and food wrappers. The bad news? What we do to our ocean effects everyone. Since the ocean wraps all the continents together, what someone tosses into our global waters impacts us all. She believes we have do a lot more to save our planet. We're destroying it day by day. And that's the problem.
Now at 84, Dr. Earle's logged more than 7,000 hours undersea discovering tens of thousands of marine species. The Smithsonian even houses her 20,000 plant specimens for research and conservation purposes. She was nicknamed "Her Deepness" by the New Yorker in 1986. Time magazine dubbed her "Hero of the Ocean" in their 1998 issue. She's been known as a living legend by the Library of Congress. Leonardo DiCaprio even called her an "inspiration."
In the 90s, she became the first female chief scientist at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), where she was responsible for monitoring the health of the ocean. She's been National Geographic's Explorer-in-Residence since 1998. She won a TED prize in 2009, which she used to further fund her nonprofit organization Mission Blue, which advocates for legal protection and conservation of the world's oceans. Soon afterwards, Netflix made Mission Blue, a documentary that chronicles her life's work, establishing marine protected areas she calls "Hope Spots" around the globe. She's walked, untethered, 1,250 ft below sea level on the floor of the Pacific Ocean, convinced George W. Bush to create the largest marine reserve in the world at the time and even held the solo deep-submersible dive record of 3,300 feet until James Cameron broke it.
Back in 2010, Earle and scientist Eric Hoffmayer were on a research mission right after the single biggest environmental catastrophe in the history of the United States. They were exploring near the explosion of BP's giant drilling rig Deepwater Horizon, which killed crew members and gushed thousands of barrels of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico. While there, they found a great discovery of dozens of whale sharks, which put the species at an even higher risk while they skimmed the ocean surface searching for food where the oil accumulated.
Earle and other environmental experts were called to give testimony to the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure on the impact of the deadly spill. She urged lawmakers to halt BP's use of dispersants, testifying about the toxic effect of chemicals and claiming that it could damage organisms that were vital to the deep sea. She believes, telling me in a phone interview, that what we put into our ocean and what we take out greatly impacts our future. If we continue to mistreat our environment and the oceans, we won't survive.
"It's so easy to play the blame game. It's the companies fault, the governments' fault, it's somebody's fault, but it's never our fault. But fault is not the issue," she says. "We've got problems. How do we solve these problems? What are we going to do irrespective of how we got here? How are we going to get out of this tough place? Those are the questions. Assigning blame might feel good, but it doesn't solve anything. We need to work together to figure out solutions."
Pausing for a moment of reflection, Dr. Earle tells me that her main concern right now is a massive plume of dust lofted into the air from the Sahara Desert in northern Africa. It's been traversing the atmosphere, thousands of feet above the tropical Atlantic Ocean. Nicknamed the "Godzilla" dust cloud, it's now traveling into the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico and closing in on the southeastern United States. Dr. Earle claims that when she was young, no one had been able to look at Earth and see what has been happening around us. She appreciates that NASA is able to observe and document the occurrences, which are now dusting the snows of the mountains in Colorado. "We can now see all these global connections. It doesn't matter where on the planet we live, we are all connected," she says. "It's being able to see that, understand it and incorporate that into our thinking."
It is not an easy time for people to feel hopeful, especially with the effects of global warming and our oceans being polluted. Dr. Earle's surveyed oil-blackened beaches and knows the government's actions are lagging considerably. "If we didn't know we had a problem, we wouldn't know what to do. We wouldn't know we had to work on something. It's clear now that we are at a time like never before. We are armed with knowledge and we can address climate change. We've got the strength of knowing. Our biggest challenge is taking the knowledge we have and doing something about it."
Even though she feels President Trump and his administration aren't taking environmental protection seriously enough, she believes that there will be a turning point soon. "For the first time, we can begin to see and communicate internationally and globally about the consequence of our actions. It has nothing to do with what country you are from, how tall you are, how old you are or what color you are. It doesn't matter," she says. "We are all part of this living system called Earth. We are all vulnerable to the ups and downs of a natural system that we are now impacting in a way that is unprecedented in the history of our species. Now we are taking almost deliberate action to destroy those systems that keep us alive." Her normally soft voice is loud enough to put the room on pause. Exasperated, she says, "That's like committing suicide."
What would you say is our biggest problem with the oceans right now? What's causing the most amount of harm?
The biggest problem is complacency and ignorance. Complacency is born of ignorance. If you don't know and you aren't inclined to look at the evidence, it's a problem. If you shrug your shoulders and say "whatever," or place blame on others and think someone else will take care of our world's problems—that's also the problem. It's also the solution. The wonderful thing is that kids get it. They don't see that something is too big to conquer. They think, "Let me at it. I'm going to pick up this little piece of trash because it will make a difference." An adult might say, "It's just one little piece of trash. It isn't going to make a difference." But the kid is right. Imagine if eight billion people each day picked up one piece of trash. It would make such a difference. Since not all of us are going to do that, we may have to carry the weight for a lot of people who don't know or don't care. But we have to do it. We need to have greater respect for nature and give back to the systems that have given us so much. Nobody wants to breathe poisoned air or drink poisoned water. We need to make our world more habitable for all of us and for the rest of life on Earth. It will keep us alive.
You began diving before plastic became a significant problem. How has the ocean changed since you started researching and exploring it?
In many ways, we just couldn't appreciate it when I was a kid. We didn't know what Earth looked like from space because no one had been up there. They hadn't been to the deepest part of the ocean to say with confidence that there is life all the way from the surface to the greatest depth. No one had been able to grasp the connections that we can now. Since I began exploring the ocean, humans have really impacted them. We are extracting fish and other wildlife, which is considerably declining by 90%. Tuna, sharks, swordfish, cod—things that were once very common now are increasingly rare. What we are putting into the ocean like plastics, existed in very small amounts before. Now it has become more widespread and misused. People use it once and throw it away in such a cavalier manner. We burn oil, but it's transformed into energy, carbon dioxide and soot with residue. There are other fossil fuels, coal in particular, which contaminates the air, water, soil and humans with mercury. Humans have had a growing impact on the world around them. It's taken us 10,000 years or so to largely demolish the wild places on the land. It's taking us about ten years to do the same thing for the ocean.
There is so much garbage on the beach and underwater. The are so many toxins that are going into the ocean like excess nitrates and phosphates from agriculture, pesticides, herbicides, etc. Even oils spills. Who is causing the most damage?
When you trace back to the source of the problems, you have to look in the mirror. We are the problem. We have to look at the products we buy that are made possible through the application of things like Roundup. We have chosen that path and we continue to choose that path. We are taking ourselves to a very bad place and encouraging companies that manufacture these things. WildAid has a motto: When the buying stops, the killing can too. It's the purchasing power of people. When they buy the plastic products, they are empowering the companies to continue manufacturing them because it's profitable to do so. We need to exercise our power of choice. We need to use our voice and say, "Give us alternatives!" We can take a stand not to buy the products. That hurts the bottom line and that's where we have the ability to make a difference.
Are you frustrated that companies supply harmful products that deeply affect our environment?
It's frustrating because companies can behave in a perfectly legal fashion based on laws that were put into place and haven't changed. To have harmful chemicals in their products and to dispose of waste is disheartening. We know it's not the right thing to do. But it takes time for laws to catch up with reality. It has to do with what we are taking out of the ocean on a scale that is far over what the ocean can continue to give. There also needs to be more policies about what we can put into the ocean. By no means do they take into account today's reality of the magnitude of single use plastics or the materials that go into various products that are harmful when they enter the ocean or us. I also think we should really put the spotlight on individual power and responsibility. It's so easy to point fingers at somebody else. The question is what are we going to do about it? What are you going to do about it? What am I going to do about it? Let's get with it.
When the news reported that you and four other women were exploring in the Virgin Islands in 1969, they made sure to mention you were "real live mermaids" and "not men with extraordinary physical endurance and stamina." They described all of you as young and attractive. Even in your documentary Mission Blue, they often referenced your looks. Were you not taken seriously as a scientist because you were a woman?
Absolutely, and it's still true. It's just the reality of social habits. It's learned behavior. It's still very much a part of our culture. Things need to change a great deal more in order for humans to realize the real and full potential of women. It's called respect and dignity across the board. Whoever you are or wherever you are from, people need to give women respect. As a girl who wanted to be a scientist, the only girl in science classes, the only woman aboard search vessels, the only woman doing this or that—I did it because I wanted to be the best I could be at what I loved. It wasn't because I was trying to be a man. A lot of people never get to be the best they could be. I know there were a lot of avenues that were not really open to me because I was a woman. Had I been a man, I probably would have gone a somewhat different route. It was hard as a mother with children. Back in the 1960s and '70s, you had to do what was expected as a disciplined scientist. Some women were able to pull that off and be a mother, but not with the ease men could with their wives serving as their support system. I looked at examples of women who inspired me and thought, "Well, they got through it. Maybe I can too."
As NOAA's chief scientist, you were asked not to speak out and reveal that bluefin tuna were on the edge of extinction during their fishery council meeting. You left in the early '90s. How did it feel being silenced?
I can't tell you how many times I got the lecture, "Sylvia, you've got to be a team player. Here are the policies. You need to follow the rules." As a scientist, I could see that the fishery policies weren't logical. The tuna policies were really taken us in a bad direction. The fishermen wanted to take the tuna to a point of no return. I was supposed to follow the established policies. I was expected to do, say and articulate what those policies were. But they didn't make sense to me. After that first meeting with the fishery council, I was not invited back. I couldn't say what I believed was the right thing to do. I didn't agree with them. NOAA's a weather service and research agency. They do so much that is vital to the science in this country for the atmosphere and for the ocean. But it has this fisheries element—which is now on the order of a billion-dollar agency—that is mainly geared to assist in the extraction of ocean wildlife. It's there to help fisherman catch, market and sell fish. It's so inconsistent with what I know to be true as a scientist. The same is true with the U.S. Department of the Interior working side by side with the mining, oil and gas industry. It's a contradiction. I felt like I could accomplish more supporting new technologies for ocean exploration, new submersibles and all that it takes to gain access to the sea. I wanted to take care of the ocean, understand our relationship with it and really try to make peace with the natural world. That's what's taken me to where I am today.
The BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig released 130 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. A decade later, deep-sea coral and spotted sea trout are still struggling. The spill has harmed bottlenose dolphins and sea turtles. Will the ecosystem ever recover?
The positive side is that nature is resilient. The negative side is that nature is not infinitely resilient. When a disaster of that sort happens, everything changes and it changes permanently. It will never be back to what it was. There is no way, but recovery is possible. In the Gulf of Mexico, I can see changed populations and the diminished number of some species. But I've also seen others that have managed to recover and accommodate the change. Things shifted permanently. it had an impact on the chemistry of the ocean. It didn't just stay in the Gulf either. It's obviously having an impact on a much wider scale. Can we see the change? In some measure. But the subtle changes we'll probably never be able to fully understand. We just know that we shouldn't let that happen again.
Is it infuriating that millions of gallons of oil are released into the ocean each year? It angers me that more isn't being done.
I totally agree. When enough people see it and feel it, change will happen. But right now, it hasn't come to the point of recognition that something needs to be done. If people really could see what you and I see, it wouldn't take long to insist we look at alternatives to mining oil, gas and coal. It takes millions of years to develop what we are burning in decades. The same is now true with the focus on deep-sea mining. Mining with any sort—we have to get better about using what we've already got. There is much talk about the circular economy, like taking computers and turning it into the next generation of computers or taking our automobiles and reforming them into the next generation of cars. Even saving our paper goods instead of burning them or throwing them away. I believe plastics are here to stay. But throwing them away is not an option. Yes, there is a vigorous and growing recycling program, but we aren't taking it seriously. We need to take that to a new level of commitment. It's good for the economy, our health and the security of our existence. Maybe we need to give kids the reins? They get it. Kid power is magical. They're helping. Perhaps they need to take charge now. [Laughs].
Two months after the oil spill, you swam with a group of whale sharks off shore in the Gulf. Why were they there?
They were there to feed on the eggs of spawning bonita or little tuna. In that area, 100 meters down, there is a top of an undersea mountain. It's a gathering and mating place for species. This was a hot spot for whale sharks and for the tunny. We went back two years ago and the whale sharks were there again. But not in the same numbers. You can draw a conclusion from that. Maybe the big oil spill really did an impact on the whale shark numbers.
Are you afraid to swim with sharks? You were also with them in the Galapagos in 1966.
No, no. They are mindful of your presence. They are not concerned about us. They should be, but they're not. As long as you treat them as you'd like to be treated, don't poke holes in them or get in their way, they're fine. Just give them space and respect them. Some scientists have found it useful to tag whale sharks to see where they go when they dive deep or when they come to the surface. Sometimes a certain type of tag can give a satellite transmission to track and download information that can be communicated to the satellite whenever it comes near the surface. It's also done with tuna, turtles, other sharks, sea lions and penguins. But the whale sharks don't try to eat us. They don't turn around to bite us. They are really amazing in their tolerance. We should show consideration for them in the same way.
Is shark finning still a major problem?
It's a huge problem. Again, it goes back to individual choices whether to buy or not. The shark isn't the problem. We are the problem. Even though there are laws coming into place, they aren't catching up with reality. It should be illegal to kill any shark. Not just for their fins—there are still shark tournaments to see how many sharks you can go out and kill in a day. You get prizes for the biggest shark or the heaviest shark. It's insane. It should be addressed. Our culture should not tolerate such bad behavior. It spills over into how we treat one another. There should be no room for that in a civilized society.
Green Peace interferes with whaling boats. Activists have even used their own bodies, like when they interfered with a Japanese whaling fleet illegally hunting for minke whales inside Antarctica's whale sanctuary in 2010. You've documented fisherman collecting thousands of fish. Do you ever stop or interfere when you see things happening in the ocean that are unjust?
I was on an expedition where we were off the coast of Africa years ago and we encountered illegal fishing. They had turtles and skins of sea snakes. They were clearly taking whatever they wanted from the sea. They knew they were in the wrong. We wound up towing them back to shore and turned them over to the authorities. They didn't arrest them. In most cases, people don't get arrested. In the Galapagos, you often see fishing where they shouldn't be. The best approach is to take a photograph or call the marine operator. You can sometimes reach someone and do something about it. People can get arrested and taken into custody there. On a more personal scale, I try not to come in like a blue meanie and yell and scream. In some cases, people aren't aware of what they are doing—like walking across a tide pool and killing all the sea urchins without understanding that they are living things. A lot of things people shouldn't be doing are perfectly legal, but not right. I have rescued little fish on the docks in Florida. Fishermen throw the fish they catch on the dock, which is perfectly legal, but they don't intend to use it for bait or for dinner. They just catch it. I ask, "Do you mind if I give this buddy a chance?" I gently throw it back in the water. They aren't thinking about the fish or considering what they are doing. They are living animals too.
CNN recently reported most of Alaska's 23-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve would be open for oil and gas leasing under a new Trump administration plan. How do you feel about them drilling oil and gas wells in the Western Arctic, which would do immense harm to the wildlife? How would this impact the marine life?
My position is the oil, gas and coal that are in the ground today should stay there. Period. It's especially egregious if such materials are extracted from protected areas. The policies of this current administration are a giant step backward for the economy and the environment. If we are harming the environment, then we are harming the economy and the health and our future. Even President Nixon—who was not beloved for a lot of things he did—really seemed to appreciate in the '70s that we were environmentally in trouble. He allowed the people who worked with him to establish the EPA. NOAA was formed as an agency. A host of moves were enacted that were trying to address some of the obvious and terrible wrongs that were being committed. The most terrible thing today is that legislation has been a powerful tool in not turning things in a better direction. It's not just individual actions, it's unraveling the laws that do exist. Like the National Marine Monuments that are under fire from this administration—they are trying to open them up for fishing. In the same way, as opening up land areas for mining and drilling. Fishing is destructive in very much the same way oil and gas are.
Greta Thunberg is really leading kids and adults alike to think differently about our planet and climate change. When people like Trump question global change, or we withdraw from the 2015 Paris Agreement on global warming, what impact does that have on our planet?
This country is not leading in a better direction. As powerful and influential as we are, we don't really rule the world. It's encouraging to see other countries care about ocean protection. There are protocols in place that are still in place, like protecting the ozone with the Montreal Protocol, for instance. It's really a pivotal time in history. We don't have time to waste. I think that we have to do more. Scientists have to take some responsibility for getting more involved in a public way and communicate evidence. Scientists have been reluctant to be on the front line. They are much more comfortable communicating in the arcane language that they understand within their small group. I don't understand the idea of staying quiet. They have insights that need to be made public that help inform decisions. The evidence is there. The public needs to hear it. We need leaders who are science-savvy or who recognize the value of people who have really looked at the levels of nature. We really need to move to get to a better place. Individuals do matter and count. We need to be aware of individual and collective power. We have to do what we can to change the laws and policies.
The oceans are a buffer against global warming. But the extra heat is making the ocean expand, causing sea levels to rise and threatening coastal communities. Marine life is suffering. Half the coral on the Great Barrier Reef have experienced mass bleaching events. At this rate, we are going to destroy our planet. How do we fix this? What can we do now?
The key to all of this is being aware of the problems and the solutions. It's being aware of the consequences, things we care about individually and collectively. The connection between ocean health and human health is obvious to those who understand these processes. Once people see it, they are more motivated. Until you see it, you get the shoulder shrug and people don't care. It's the gap that needs to be filled. That's part of what we are trying to do with Mission Blue and developing networks of protected areas or Hope Spots in line with literally hundreds of organizations. Every organization has its own special character and power. It's going to take all of us doing whatever we can to get to a better place.
There are currently 127 Hope Spots around the world. Why is this initiative important for you?
There is only one Hope Spot and it's called the ocean. The idea of protecting nature has been my lifelong objective. It's about creating an ethic of caring. We launched the ocean in Google Earth with 12 Hope Spots embedded in 2009. That was the same week I won the prize. TED brought it public. That's how it got wind in its sails and keeps going. I started the Hope Spot concept when I was an explorer in residence after a five-year program called Sustainable Seas Expeditions at National Geographic. That was primarily aimed at beefing up the marine protected areas. The idea originated from the concept of hot spots for terrestrial places, which are really targeted because they have high diversity, but are also under higher threat. Sort of building on that concept, I said we should call them Hope Spots. I thought if you can protect these hot spots, it gives you hope for really recovering some of the damage we've inflicted on the planet. We certainly want every wild place to stay wild if possible and restore what we can that's been lost. With care, you can get areas to a better place. It is a hope big enough to change the world.
Do you still have hope that humanity can save the ocean?
You can get really depressed. You can say, "There is no hope. I think I'm going to have to coast along." But that's part of the problem. If everybody did that, we would absolutely wind up in a terrible place. It's a self-fulling prophecy. If you are sure that's the way it's going to be, you won't do anything to keep from going over the cliff. Even a nudge to go away from the edge is better than complacently. When people say, "I'm going to enjoy my life for the rest of time I have left. That's it. Kids will figure it out or they won't." I mean, come on. We are all the beneficiaries of generations of people who preceded us, who did what they could, learned and passed it along. In every point in time, there are those who are concerned about the future and those who don't care.
What do you say to those people who don't care?
It's the first time we are able to embrace the world as a whole and see what's happening on a global scale. We get to truly see how we are connected and one with nature. It's the best chance we ever had. We are the luckiest people ever to arrive because of this new insight that could not exist and didn't exist before. What's not to love about being alive right now? We're armored with the best knowledge we've ever had and the power to do something about it. Yes, I am frustrated with the policies of my own country. But I don't feel powerless. Neither should you.