Mission Blue: Sylvia Earle's Quest to Protect the World's Ocean

07/06/2017 09:36 am ET Updated Jul 06, 2017

Called “Her Deepness” by the New Yorker and the New York Times, “Living Legend” by the Library of Congress, and first “Hero for the Planet” by Time Magazine, Sylvia Earle is a pioneering oceanographer and explorer who has led more than a hundred expeditions and logged more than 7,000 hours underwater, including leading the first team of women aquanauts back in 1970. Formerly the chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA,) Earle is the founder of Deep Ocean Exploration and Research, Inc., founder of Mission Blue and SEAlliance and has authored more than 190 scientific, technical, and popular publications. She has lectured in more than 80 countries and appeared in hundreds of radio and television productions.

In her work with Mission Blue—her not-for-profit global organization dedicated to exploring and caring for the ocean, “our planet's blue heart,”—she endeavors to inspire a sea change in public awareness and support for a global network of Marine Protected Areas—what she calls “hope spots”—stretching from the deepest ocean canyons to the tallest underwater mountain peaks and from the most remote tropical reefs to the most lush coastal seagrass meadows.

Her special focus is on developing a global network of areas on the land and in the ocean to safeguard the living systems that provide the underpinnings of global processes, from maintaining biodiversity and yielding basic life support services to providing stability and resiliency in response to accelerating climate change.

I had the opportunity to talk to the world renowned oceanographer during the recent World Oceans Conference at the UN about her work and why she feels it is vital to "protect your life systems as if everything you care about depends on it, because it does."

Photo by Deb Castellana

Marianne Schnall: I think many people are just becoming aware of some of the threats to our planet and our ecosystem because of what just happened with The Paris Accord and becoming more aware in general about climate change and why this is something we need to care about.

So one of my first questions is, just because we're in the wake of the announcement that the U.S. withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement, how are you feeling about what that means for issues of the environment and of course its connection to the oceans and climate change?

Sylvia Earle: People ask me sometimes what the greatest threat to the ocean is, and there’s a long list of what we're taking out of the ocean that's causing trouble, but the biggest problem of all is ignorance. People don’t know that the ocean is in trouble, and even if they do know, they don’t understand why it matters.

And yet we've got the evidence that has mostly been learned in the last few decades since the middle of the 20th century, evidence of the role of the ocean in driving climate, driving weather, shaping planetary chemistry, knowing that 97% of earth’s water is ocean. And that it’s not just water, not just salt water, it’s a living system, the biggest ecosystem, and its continuous, it’s not oceans plural, its ocean singular, that embraces all of the land, whether it’s islands or whole continents.

We talk about species and concern about losing individual species, and we should be. The world is far less rich if you take away pandas, rhinoceroses or any of the species of elephants or birds —we’ve lost so much so fast throughout the history the last 10,000 years. It’s not just climate change, it’s the impact of humans as predators on wildlife. When our numbers were small and the natural world was mostly intact, we could get away with eating our neighbors so to speak [laughs]—wildlife of various sorts—but even then we eliminated what Ed Wilson refers to as the large, the slow and the tasty, the animals that were here 5000 years ago that are gone largely because we got really good at killing them.

And we were not aware that we could kill them all or we didn’t care whether they were wiped out or not. Even early into the 20th century when the last of the passenger pigeons were around, or fast forward to when I was in high school when the last of the Gulf of Mexico Monk seals existed—now they are gone, gone, gone. And now we know that we can eliminate species and we're also beginning to understand why it matters.

Anybody who has a car or rides in a car, anybody who has a computer or uses a computer, just take out one little piece. Sometimes it can keep right on going, doing what it has been doing, more or less. But you start taking out more pieces, and there comes a point when either it stops or it becomes wonky, and we’ve got a world that's going wonky right now.

MS: So how can we overcome the ignorance?

SE: An astronaut learns everything he or she can about their life support system, and then they do everything they can to take care of it because their life depends on it. We need to do the same thing about our life support system, and we need to learn more. We're largely ignorant about the ocean, we've seen only maybe 10% of what's out there, and even with our sophisticated new robots and with a handful of submarines we're beginning to understand this most important thing, the magnitude of our ignorance.

We know enough to know that the ocean keeps the planet and everything in it alive, full stop. The ocean is vital to life on earth. But how does it work? We need to explore it, and really understand it and be really, really careful not to disrupt it any more than we already have, and to try to restore the damage that we've already inflicted. The good news is we know that when we pull back and give nature a break, keeping in place the things that are still in good shape and giving nature time to heal, that's the best medicine we can apply.

There’s a little place in Mexico called Cabo Pulmo where they have stopped killing the animals, the fish, the sharks, protecting that little piece of ocean. It’s not huge, but 20 years later, you can dive in Cabo Pulmo and actually see large fish, you can see sharks. But if you go five miles down the coast, you see emptiness, you see corals that are either dead or in seriously bad condition. But within Cabo Pulmo, you see cause for hope. They are actually recovering.

That’s why knowing is the key. That's why the biggest problem is ignorance and the biggest solution is doing exactly what you're doing, Marianne—you’re reaching an audience of people to maybe inspire them to go find out things for themselves.

MS: What concerns you about how climate change affects our earth and our oceans?

SE: It really gives me pause when I think what my kids and grandkids and the kids everywhere coming along into the world, what they will have or not have or whether things we now take for granted, like breathing. Already that's becoming something that we have to think about—Los Angeles in the 70s before we had The Clean Air Act, people in Beijing today wearing masks. It isn’t just because of the contamination of air, it’s the production of oxygen that we always have taken for granted.

Air is air, and most people probably don’t think about the fact that it’s 20% plus or minus a bit of oxygen and the rest of it mostly nitrogen. And the rest is just enough carbon dioxide to power photosynthesis that keeps that turnover going—captured carbon dioxide by photosynthesis, green plants that turns the CO2 into simple sugar combined with water. It’s water and CO2 that make sugar and make food, and releases oxygen into the atmosphere. If you stop photosynthesis, the engine that creates or generates oxygen out of CO2 would just stop. But what are we doing to that green engine? We're clear-cutting forests. We're not mindful of what it takes to make a healthy forest.

So what we're looking at now is a worrisome trend toward changing the chemistry of the ocean. Excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere becomes carbonic acid and changes the Ph of the ocean, so it’s becoming more acidic. It’s not good for an aquarium at home if your system becomes too acidic—you have to adjust it or the fish die. The ocean is becoming more acidic at a rapid pace. We've witnessed most of the change in the last 10 years. Where will we be in the next 10 years? Unless we take action to stabilize the ocean systems that are currently serving to hold the planet steady, we will be in deep trouble.

The extraction of wildlife is one of the most damaging things we are doing. Of course, burning fossil fuels is a driver of planetary warming, melting of ice, sea level rise, expansion of water. Water that's warm takes up more space than water that's cold, so as the planet warms it fosters sea level rise.

And there is also the killing of wildlife through a change in chemistry, altering the nature of the sea. We are now seeing broad low oxygen levels in the ocean. That makes it hard for the fish to breathe, and so much more.

I think it’s cause for worry. What we're doing to the ocean is causing not just dead zones in coastal areas because a small number of phyto plankton organisms prosper, but those that make up the complex diversity of life in an ecosystem are suppressed—the oxygen is gobbled up and they die, the ones that are not in favor at the moment disappear.

So I guess the bottom line is that it would serve us well to first of all do what an astronaut does and what I do when I go down in a submarine: you do everything you can to take care of your life support system. We're here hurtling through space on earth with a life support system, the living ocean, the fabric of life on the land, all of this providing the means of our existence.

We're here because of this great ecosystem earth with a miracle ocean and the connections between the tiniest microbes to the largest whale or the tallest tree where it’s all connected. You cannot pull it apart without creating a ripple in the system.

MS: Oftentimes these problems can feel insurmountable and people don’t feel that anything they alone do can make a difference. What advice would you have, particularly right now as people are becoming aware, on the entry points to feeling like they can contribute to positive change?

SE: Well, if you think there’s nothing you can do to make a difference, get over it [laughs], because think about whoever in history has made a difference. How do we have electric lights, how do we have cars, how do we have books, how do we have an alphabet, how do we have numbers? Somebody somewhere at some point discovered these and changed the world.

There was a little girl, a young woman in Texas who was disgusted by the trash on the beaches, this would have been in the 70s, and she started picking up the trash. She didn’t ask anybody. She didn’t join an organization, she just did what she felt. She just couldn’t let it sit there, and she started picking it up, and people around her saw her and they started picking it up too.

And then pretty soon it got to be a thing, and an organization called The Centre for Marine Conservation, now the Ocean Conservancy, adopted it as a beach cleanup effort. Well, it wasn’t just that girl in Texas—around the world, other individuals saw there was a problem and decided they would do what they can to fix it one plastic thing at a time. And it has made a difference.

What are we going to do about the exorbitant extraction of wildlife in the sea? We can start with one choice at a time: “I think I’m not going to eat fish anymore,” “I could not have popcorn shrimp—I’d rather the shrimp be alive in the ocean than dead on my plate.” Take a child out to some wild place and just listen to their sense of wonder and get inspired again, as you must have been a child yourself. Or if you are a kid, take a grown-up someplace and get after them—tell them the world is in trouble and it needs their help and you want their help. Try to bring them from where they are to a better place. Write letters—letters from kids are dynamite, they are really packed with power because they touch your heart.

There are so many things that you can do. There’s a little book called 50 Ways you Can Save the Ocean, but you can write a book yourself. Look in the mirror and think about [this]: you’ve been commissioned to figure out how you, one person, can make a difference. Take on the responsibility of giving it some thought. Maybe if you can't think of some good ideas, enlist the kids, ask them. Think of one thing, ten things, a hundred things, whatever it is. And then get the information out there. What do you have that is your personal power, whether it’s music, art or science? Or just simply, “I want people to know and I’m going to use my sense of caring. I’m going to take pictures of good stuff and bad stuff. I’m going to take pictures of garbage, and here’s what we’re going to do about it.” There are so many things that are now possible.

The most important thing that I can convey to anybody is go find out—go follow a trail, pick up anything and learn about it. If you want to know where that fish came from that's on your plate, just try to imagine that fish when it starts out in life, the journey, how it got to the supermarket or the restaurant or the end of your hook, wherever it is.

Take a journey, but make it your journey. And get out there, get wet. I love the idea of—as far as education goes—no child left dry. [laughs] Get kids out in a lake or a river or stream or the ocean, and do it with an open mind. Think about who lives there and how they live and how what we're doing affects them. Take a journey, and the information, wonderfully, is there on a scale that's never been available before.

MS: Find your own pathway to create change. So that even if the government isn’t dealing with these issues the way we would like to see, we as citizens can be advocates.

SE: Exactly. Get the right people IN office and maybe seriously if you have the ability to run for office yourself. But you don’t have to do it only in public office, you need to do it right there at home and in your community or state or country and be a voice.

MS: Do you think it’s harder for people to care about the animals in the ocean, since not everyone actually gets to experience ocean life up close?

SE: A lot of people think of animals as cats and dogs and horses, and sometimes remember that we're animals too, or that oh yeah birds are animals and oh yeah fish are animals—they’ve got a heart just like a dog or a cat or a horse, and they actually have a brain. It’s harder for people to relate to jellyfish and starfish and even fish. But the ocean is where the action is. Diving into the ocean is literally like diving into the history of life on earth. You can find most of the major categories of life that now exist, and also those who have ever existed.

ME: I’m launching a whole platform called What Will It Take, which encourages women’s civic engagement and advancing women in leadership positions in all sectors, and I wanted to ask you a question because you are such a pioneer for women and we're also trying to get more women into STEM where there is still so much disparity. Back in the 1970s you led the first all-woman team of female aquanauts—what would you say in terms of how we can encourage more women to go into these fields and what are the rewards of a career in these fields?

SE: In response to the sentence that begins “I can't do this because…” just think about the answer: “I can't do this because I’m a woman” or “I can't do this because I’m a kid.” “I can't do this because I’m too tall or I’m too short or I’m too old or I’m too young or I’m from this country or that country.” I just have to say, “Get over it. Come on! [laughs] Use what you’ve got.”

In 1969 when the program was first started, to have a chance to live underwater at the same time that the first astronauts were flying around in the sky, there were no woman as astronauts. And when the program started as for aquanauts they didn’t bother to say that woman need not apply because it was just for men, but it was just for men. But some women applied, in innocence, because they didn’t say this is men only.

The head of the program at the time was Dr. James Miller who was reviewing the applications and saw that there were a number of really highly qualified women, at least as qualified as any of the men. And legend has it that he said, “Well, half the fish are female, I guess we could put up with a few women.” And you know I didn’t push for it, I just innocently, like the others, applied. And [thankfully] there was a champion on the other side who respected women and didn’t see a problem.

There were some problems that I was told later by a captain in the navy, George Bond, who said “You know, I didn’t mind having women as aquanauts, but I did mind having you as the leader.” [laughs] And I said “Why? What did I do to offend you?” He said “Well, it’s not you personally, but you're a mother.” I had three kids, and I said “Well, there are a lot of fathers, and you're discriminating against mothers?” He said “No, we just got more protective because there are some unknowns associated with [the job] and you know it could be dangerous. The last thing we wanted to do was to hurt a mother.” Well, anyway they let me go, and it was years later he told me that he had opposed it, but in the end he was glad—he said, “You did a really good job.”

MS: Are you feeling hopeful that we will be able to make the necessary shifts and changes that you envision as necessary to protect the world’s ocean? And how do you stay positive?

SE: I see a trend in the right direction. Going back in the middle of the 20th century, there were no parks in the ocean, no protection at all because we didn’t think we needed them. We thought the ocean was too big to fail, the ocean takes care of itself, and nothing that we do could possibly harm the ocean. We put laws, policies, beliefs, attitudes in place based on that perception, and many are still in that place.

But many have emerged into this era of really understanding that the ocean keeps us alive. The ocean is in trouble, so we're in trouble. We have to take action, and part of it is in policies that look at pollution, part of it is in policies to be careful about fishing, to protect the ocean. So systems of Blue Parks are beginning to emerge just as National Parks got started in the U.S. Is it the best idea America ever had? Maybe, that's what some say. But are Blue Parks at least as good an idea for the ocean? In 1961 John F. Kennedy protected the little area around Buck Island in the Virgin Islands, and in 1972 we got the National Marine Sanctuary Program in U.S. legislation. About the same time that the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park authority began in Australia because the decline of the ocean was beginning to be noticed. So embracing the ocean with the kind of care that we have for protected areas on the land began to catch on.

But it’s been relatively slow until recently. It was George W. Bush when he took this extraordinary action toward the end of his administration establishing the largest marine protected area on the planet, The Papahānaumokuākea Marine Reserve in Hawaii, and the people took notice. Around the world, that was the turning point; there had already been kind of a slow build up. At the time .01% of the ocean was protected and after that action by someone who had not been largely identified with conservation actions on ocean or land, he did this—he protected more ocean than all of the National Parks put together with a stroke of his pen. Then just last September President Obama made headlines when he quadrupled that legacy with an expanded Papahānaumokuākea Marine Reserve.

Chile has established reserves along the coastal area and areas off shore looking at the exclusive economic zone under their jurisdiction. And moving out into the sea, the little island nation of Palau, declared 80% of their exclusive economic zone under protection, but beyond that, it’s a gift—Palau is a gift to the world. So I see a trend. It’s now about 4% which is still not much, with 96% of the ocean up for exploitation.

But combined with awareness, the nations at this conference are making a difference. We must remember, half the world is in the high seas, and interest in it is expanding greatly. Maybe even fully protecting the high seas from industrial fishing could happen, it’s there to be done. Protect your life support systems as if everything you care about depends on it, because it does.

For more information on Sylvia Earle and her work, visit Mission Blue.

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Marianne Schnall is the founder of What Will It Take Movements, a media, collaboration, learning, and social engagement platform that inspires, connects, educates and engages women everywhere to advance in all levels of leadership and take action. She is also a widely-published journalist whose writings and interviews have appeared in a variety of media outlets including O, The Oprah Magazine, Marie Claire, CNN.com, Forbes, the Women’s Media Center and The Huffington Post. She is the co-founder and executive director of the women’s website and non-profit organization Feminist.com, as well as the co-founder of the environmental site EcoMall.com. She is the author of Daring to Be Ourselves: Influential Women Share Insights on Courage, Happiness and Finding Your Own Voice and What Will it Take to Make a Woman President? Conversations About Women, Leadership, and Power. You can visit her website at www.marianneschnall.com.

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