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IFLScience Meets: Marine Biologist Sylvia Earle "The Greatest Era Of Exploration Is Just Beginning"

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Rachael Funnell

Social Editor and Staff Writer

clockDec 9 2021, 16:33 UTC
sylvia earle

"As never before, this is the best time to be a human being with a desire to explore." Image credit: Kip Evans Photography

Oceanographer, National Geographic Explorer-In-Residence, Founder of Mission Blue, and 2009 TED Prize Winner Sylvia Earle recently took a short break from her oceanic adventures to deliver National Geographic Ocean: A Global Odyssey. The expansive book, both in size and substance, tracks the history of the ocean from where on Earth (or beyond) saltwater first emerged and what creatures would later occupy the Blue Planet.

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We caught up with Sylvia to find out a little more about the book and catch a brief glimpse into her impressive archive of marine anecdotes, as well as what it’s like to live underwater for weeks at a time.

How do you approach putting together a publication as vast as National Geographic Ocean: A Global Odyssey?

I thought, if I were a kid, and I wanted to know something about the ocean, what would I want to know? And so, with the help of my National Geographic colleagues and partners all over the world who contributed their expertise, got to work trying to answer these questions. The first part of the book is really what is the ocean? What's saltwater? Where did it come from? What is water anyway, from its physical-chemical beginnings?

The middle section is about life in the ocean. After all, the ocean is alive. It's not just rocks and water. It is filled from the surface to the greatest depths with abundance and diversity of life incomparable to anywhere else on Earth.

National Geographic Ocean: A Global Odyssey by Sylvia Earle is published on 9 December (£45)
National Geographic Ocean: A Global Odyssey by Sylvia Earle is published on 9 December (£45 / $65) 

In the last section, we touched back on things people might wish to know about the ocean’s future: How is climate affecting the ocean? How does the ocean affect climate? What are we doing to the ocean?

There are a lot of questions, then. What were the questions that inspired you to tackle marine biology in the first place?

I began exploring the ocean using scuba, and later had opportunities to live underwater on 10 different occasions. That is, to saturate and remain underwater for a week or two at a time. And years at sea, from using ships to little submarines to explore the ocean. That amounted to thousands of hours underwater always with questions: Who lives here? How do they live? What's life like in the ocean?

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My special focus starting out was looking at seaweeds. I love those beautiful equivalents of trees and forests and shrubs and things on the land, but with divisions of life that are, in some cases, unique to the ocean. To be able to get to know them, to see them, and to try to understand how they live and what they are. Ultimately, to see how life in the ocean connects to life on the land and connects back to humans. Not only how do they affect us, but how are we affecting them in this greatest era of planetary change in the history of humankind?

This might be an unfair question from thousands of hours of ocean exploration, but are there any stories from your adventures that stand out?

The best ones are yet to be. Everything in the past builds toward whatever you're going to do next. But getting to see whales underwater for the first time in the 1970s sticks in the mind. This was before we had access to scuba and other equipment to explore the ocean, so sea creatures on their own terms came into focus.

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It was really awe-inspiring to have a creature that is as big as a bus, not just silently gliding by but turning and coming right toward you. We thought we were there to watch the whales and it turned out the whales spent a lot of time looking at us. We were trying to understand their behavior and the sounds they were making… We know so much more now than then but to be among the first to witness these behaviors, and to feel this immense sound throbbing through your whole body was really something.

Living underwater day and night was also an experience.  You get to know individual fish. I suppose when a fish sees a crowd of people, they probably think that we all look and behave alike. We are complacent about fish and what we do to them… but getting to see them as individuals, how they bond with one another and even with fish of different species changes your outlook.

Offshore from South America's Patagonia, dusky dolphins communicate with whistles and clicks Brian Skerry NGIC
Offshore from South America's Patagonia, dusky dolphins communicate with whistles and clicks. Image credit: Brian Skerry NGIC

Grouper and moray eels team up regularly to hunt, and they know each other. They work together to go out fishing together, not just any old hunting partner. It's all about getting time underwater to be able to observe the way scientists on the land do.

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Understanding their communication, their societies, that matters. You don’t look at wildlife in the ocean in terms of pounds of meat, or barrels of oil the way we used to think of whales and still think of fish as products and commodities.

Spending lots of time underwater changes your attitude and we need to change our attitude throughout society. About fishes, shrimp, lobsters, squid, krill. These are all living animals with communication and senses that we're only just beginning to appreciate.

From a young age, what did it take to get into marine biology?

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When I was a kid, science generally was not favored as a topic for a lifetime of endeavor. In high school, there was only one other student who shared my passion for science. It was a guy who really just loved chemistry, and he went on to be a renowned biochemist.

Being a woman scientist also have some special challenges because, overall, more guys tended to lean in that direction. There's a long history of women being excluded from science. You can't go to sea on boats as readily as male counterparts, at least historically.

One woman who was is justifiably credited with great breakthroughs in terms of ocean mapping, Marie Tharp, as a graduate student could not accompany her scientific colleagues to go out and take the measurements that led to defining the Mid Atlantic Ridge; seafloor spreading plate tectonics; this whole revolution about understanding the nature of the earth. She had to wait until the calculations that her male colleagues assembled came back and then she crunched the numbers. She made the images, but she never got to gather the evidence herself.

A green turtle swims said a school of bigeye jacks near its nesting grounds on Malaysia's Sipadan Islan d BluePlanetArchive David B. Fleetham
A green turtle swims said a school of bigeye jacks near its nesting grounds on Malaysia's Sipadan Island. Image credit: Blue Planet Archive, David B. Fleetham

That is changing fortunately, and I came along at maybe just the right moment in the 1960s to be part of this beginning of change. The first real oceanographic expedition and I joined in 1964, I was the only woman in 70 men. I created a minor sensation when we arrived in Kenya, and Mombasa. The Daily Times interviewed us, just 12 scientists in this large crew managing this research vessel. The question was, basically, what do you hope to discover, but the headline was Silvia Sails Away With 70 Men, But She Expects No Problems.

The only problem was the same problem that scientists still face in exploring the ocean. When you're sitting on the surface as terrestrial creatures, how do you really get to know the nature of what is in the depths below? It used to be a lot of using nets and hooks to scrape the ocean floor and bring it back, but to be able to get into submersibles and go and observe, take selected samples, is really exciting.

It's exciting to see how far we've come with men and women working together, even living together, not only in space, but in the depths of the ocean.

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I imagine staying for weeks underwater must be as strange as moving to the ISS. What’s it like down there?

In the space station, the atmosphere is close to one atmosphere, only a bit above that which you experience at sea level. Living underwater, largely, has been done under pressure. Most of the saturation dives that I've made have been at about 20 meters which equates to two-and-a-half times the pressure that you have on the surface. That means when you speak, you’re speaking against greater pressure, so your voice becomes huskier. You can’t whistle! You can try and sometimes you can get a little something out but that’s it.

What’s advice would you give to someone wanting to embark on the same career?

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As never before, this is the best time to be a human being with a desire to explore. The greatest era of exploration is just beginning. Those who say the greatest era of exploration was in the 1400s – it’s all over, or that you have to go to space to get to some great new breakthroughs. Nonsense.

The greatest breakthroughs are really just beginning and they’re helping us to understand who we are, where we've come from, and where we might be going. The nature of our own bodies, the nature of. Those who preceded us began to unravel some of these mysteries, but it led to even greater mysteries which remain to be solved.

How can we make a place for ourselves within the natural systems that make our existence possible? We still have the best chance we will ever have to figure it out. You can be that hero who sees what we couldn't see before. The smartest people who ever lived did not have the jumpstart you have right now to see who we are and where we might be going. To see how to fix the problems that we've generated in ignorance.

From its land base a polar bear paddles up to six kilometers per hour through Arctic waters to hunt seals, propelled by large front paws. Andy Mann
From its land base a polar bear paddles up to six kilometers per hour through Arctic waters to hunt seals, propelled by large front paws. Image credit: Andy Mann

There's still time, but not a lot, to secure a safety net for ourselves by looking at our life support systems that are now in shreds… We have to stop eating the wild creatures that are part of what keeps Earth safe in a universe that is not very friendly at all. We can find a way to better, nutritiously, and deliciously feed our current numbers and allow for what appears to be an inevitable increase in population, but we also need to realize that Earth as a system can only accommodate so many of us.

We're already pushing the envelope. Can we learn to make peace on our spacecraft? How many people can live and live well in a peaceful relationship with our planet? That has to be the goal that all of us aspire to and try in everything we do to be a part of the solution and give up being part of the problem.

National Geographic Ocean: A Global Odyssey by Sylvia Earle is published on 9 December (£45 / $65) 


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