Feature: Hope for the Ocean

by Catherine Trifiletti

Dr. Sylvia Earle with a picture of the Tosanoides obama fish, named after Barack Obama (Photo by Tony Powell)

The Library of Congress calls Sylvia Earle “a living legend” and when the 81-year-old conservationist, oceanographer and Explorer-in- Residence at National Geographic stops by her office, in between public appearances and deep sea expeditions, she is treated like a celebrity.

She has spent over 7,000 hours underwater, “lived with the fishes” on 10 separate occasions and explored the farthest depths of the ocean floor in 30 different types of submersibles. Her accolades in and of themselves are enough to fill the entire magazine – yet it’s not her firsts, her records, her countless awards or glowing achievements that she wants to be recognized for, it’s her experience.“It has nothing to do with me as a human being but me as a witness,” she says, “as a voice for seeing things that others have not had the opportunity to see.”As a humble ambassador for life in the sea, she has persuaded two U.S. presidents and countless other world leaders that urgent action must be taken to preserve the largest expanse on earth.

Earle was struck by the ocean for the first time as a child – quite literally, she jokes, a wave knocked her over while vacationing at a beach in New Jersey.The force of the ocean got her attention, but it was life in the water that kept it. She has often compared a glass of seawater to “minestrone,” every drop teeming with life, most undetectable to the human eye.

As an adolescent living in Florida, Earle counted the Gulf of Mexico as her playground, exploring mangroves and seagrass meadows, then watching curiously as the natural buffers and thriving ecosystems were decimated and turned into parking lots.“At the time is seemed like a good idea,” she says, noting that “we can now see our prosperity has come at the cost of consuming much of the natural world.” That was a tiny moment in time from the decades worth of destruction and devastation that have damaged the ocean’s natural systems and threatened life on earth since. Rising sea temperatures due to global warming, pollution and overfishing are just a few of the problems at hand. The forecast is gloomy. Projections show there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050. A new study by the Australian government says that over two-thirds of the country’s vibrant Great Barrier Reef is dead, much with no chance of rebounding, due to warmer sea temperatures.

Even in a time where all hope seems to be lost, Earle is optimistic. “We are the first people ever, at this juncture, to understand the world more than the smartest people who have ever lived,” she says “we could not know then what 10 year olds today have access to knowing.”

Through a Netflix documentary called “Mission Blue” and an eponymously named organization, Earle worked to ignite support for a global matrix of marine protected areas named “Hope Spots.” She says proper protection will ensure these ecosystems have a chance to replenish and thrive. Earle has tirelessly advocated for blue parks under the same pretenses as America’s national parks on land, citing their success as places “that protect our cultural, historical and natural heritage.”

As a fearless crusader for the ocean, Earle has never cowered in the face of naysayers.When she was chief scientist of the National Oceanic Atmospheric Association in 1990, she called out fisheries for the rapid endangerment of Blue Fin tuna point blank, saying “What are we trying to do, exterminate them? ’Cause if so, we are doing a great job as we only have 10 percent to go.” She proceeded to cite data showing the Atlantic’s tuna population had been slashed by 90 percent in a mere 20 years. Earle’s defense of the threatened fish earned her the title “Sturgeon General” – a name she recalls with a fond chuckle. She also stood up to almighty Google, pointing out its Google Maps feature should actually be called “Google Dirt” for its lack of information about the ocean.“It’s only most of Earth!” she quipped.

She is credited with lighting a fire under then-President George W. Bush to create the nation’s first Marine Protected Area after sitting next to him at a dinner. Her charm and passion was not lost on President Barack Obama either. Before he left office last year he expanded the protected area around Hawaii making it the largest marine reserve of its kind on the planet. Although Trump has threatened to cut funding for the Environmental Protection Agency altogether, Earle is open to discourse with his administration or anyone else who will listen.

Barack Obama snorkeling in Midway Atoll in Hawaii © Brian Skerry / National Geographic from the February issue of National Geographic magazine (story available on nationalgeographic.com)

In her latest effort to reach the public, she worked in tandem with National Geographic to film “Sea of Hope” featuring footage of Obama’s snorkeling excursion in Hawaii’s Midway Atoll, marking the first time a sitting president was photographed under water.The film was released in conjunction with her photo-focused book, “Blue Hope,” showcasing the colorful, eclectic creatures that call the ocean home.

Limits on the fish we eat are an important step, Earle explains, using the species Orange Roughy as an example of food items humans have no business consuming because of their place in the food chain. She compares most of the fish on restaurant menus to lions and eagles, animals that no one would dream of eating. Without such fish doing their part, the underwater life systems become imbalanced.

Earle, once dubbed “Her Deepness” by the New York Times, might as well have a blue halo to match her cobalt blazer for the unwavering commitment she has dedicated to preserving the ocean that she affectionately calls the “blue heart” of our planet. Though her knowledge runs as deep as the sea floor, it is Earle’s striking hopefulness that keeps you listening.

Her advice to the children set to inherit a defaced environment: “Never for a moment think you’re powerless.” Earle is careful not to preach, but her words are hard to ignore. “What right do we have to destroy things that we don’t know how to put back together once they’re gone?”

Earle calls herself one of the lucky ones for the magical corners of the world she has been privileged to experience. Her eyes sparkle with childlike excitement, and she can’t help but smile widely, as she recalls being inspected by whales and being surrounded by schools of curious fish, changing course just to swarm around her. But she is quick with a reminder that we are all blessed with life thanks to the ocean, so protecting it should be a priority and a no brainer.“This is our home and it is unique, just as every human being, every fish, every tree,” she says “And there’s no place like home.”

HAWAII- Dr. Sylvia Earle, National Geographic Explorer in Residence throws her hands up in excitement as she makes her way into the Pices V submersible. Sylvia is about to dive 1,300 feet below the surface to visit a forest of bamboo coral that she last visited 4 decades ago. She hopes that the bamboo coral is still there and thriving so that the Blue Centennial crew can capture for the first time in HD and in color, bioluminescence of the bamboo coral. (Photo credit: Taylor Griffith)

This article appeared in the April 2017 issue of Washington Life Magazine.

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