Legendary oceanographer Sylvia Earle offers message of hope for Great Barrier Reef

By Chrissie Goldrick 23 January 2018
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Australia Geographic Editor-in-Chief Chrissie Goldrick meets Sylvia Earle at Mexico’s Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park, and gets her thoughts on the Great Barrier Reef.

I’M SPEEDING OUT into the Sea of Cortez on a dive boat and sitting beside me is one of the 20th century’s most legendary explorers, Dr Sylvia Earle, famously dubbed “Her Deepness” by The New York Times and recognised as a Library of Congress Living Legend.

I’ve been invited to Mexico’s Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park to see firsthand a location that Sylvia has designated a ‘Hope Spot’, a play on the term ‘hot spot’. It’s a 71sq.km zone off the east coast of the Baja California peninsula that Sylvia cites as a shining example of marine protection. Since it became protected in 1995, the reefs here have experienced
one of the most extraordinary recoveries recorded in marine science.

As our boat comes to a halt and the rest of us fuss about grabbing fins and trying on masks, Sylvia has already quietly slipped over the side and vanished into the midst of a large ball of schooling jacks, her enthusiasm to “get wet” undimmed despite seven decades of underwater exploration.

Sylvia Earle is on an urgent mission to save the oceans – an ambitious prospect for the highly respected 82-year-old explorer, scientist, aquanaut and marine conservationist. Don’t be fooled by Sylvia’s softly spoken, carefully articulated words and gentle manner. She packs a serious punch when explaining the inextricable link between the health of our oceans and survival of all life on Earth.

A living legend

At a time when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were synonymous with the greatest feats of exploration, Sylvia was pushing the bounds of human knowledge in the ocean when, in 1970, she led an all-female crew to spend two weeks living 15m under water in an experimental habitat, Tektite II, off the US Virgin Islands.

By then, she’d already clocked up 20 years of ocean exploration and spent more than 1000 research hours under water. The Tektite project made celebrities of the women scientists involved and Sylvia found herself in demand as a public speaker, particularly on the need for increased deep ocean exploration and research.

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The all female crew of TEKTITE II, including Sylvia Earle pictured in a black and white swimming costume (Image Credit: NOAA)

She was the first woman to be appointed a National Geographic Explorer in Residence and in 1982 became a Rolex Testimonee. Her reputation as a gifted science communicator grew and in 1990 she was appointed the first female chief scientist of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – ‘wet NASA’ as it’s known.

She’s achieved some notable exploration firsts including a walk along the ocean floor that was deeper than anyone before her, when in 1979 she descended 381m beneath the waters off the Hawaiian island of Oahu in a submersible. Wearing a pressurised metallic ‘spacesuit’, she spent two and a half hours exploring outside the tiny vessel, linked to it by just a communication cable.

Sylvia has pioneered human-piloted submersible technology, helping to develop a range of vessels capable of reaching ever-greater depths, and her family company engineered the Rolex-wearing manipulator arm on James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenger that took him to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in 2012.

It’s been Sylvia’s life’s work to open up the mysteries of the underwater realm to the largest possible audience.

“I love to communicate by every means possible and I take photographs,” she says. “Unlike other photographers who make images, I just take images. I take pictures as a record, like a notebook. I have files and files of what the ocean was like in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s up to the present and I’ve witnessed two remarkable things: the greatest era of exploration and discovery…and, at the same time, the greatest era of loss.”

Sylvia founded her marine conservation initiative, Mission Blue, after her landmark 2009 TED talk tapped into a groundswell of public concern for the declining state of the oceans. The Mission Blue alliance brings together more than 200 respected ocean conservation organisations and scientists from around the globe (including our own Reef Legacy.

Along with the support of Rolex Perpetual Planet , the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and National Geographic, it identifies and promotes Hope Spots – areas critical to the health of the ocean. Included among these are Queensland’s Coral Sea and Moreton Bay and the Houtman Abrolhos Islands off Western Australia. There are now more than 121 Hope Spots worldwide, some of which are already official marine parks, while others have varying levels of protection or none at all. Less than 4 per cent of the ocean is currently protected, with only 2 per cent free from commercial fishing. Mission Blue’s vision is to increase the overall figure to 30 per cent by the year 2030.

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Dr. Sylvia Earle diving at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in 2012. (Image Credit: Amanda Meyer/USFWS)

The Great Barrier Reef

Back on the dive boat, I ask Sylvia about her concerns for the Great Barrier Reef. She acknowledges it’s in better shape than many of the world’s coral reefs, but there’s much we’ve yet to learn.

“My first glimpse of the Great Barrier Reef was 1975 and I have been drawn back there repeatedly,” she says. “The greatest era of exploration of the GBR, and all of Australia’s waters, is out there in the future; it’s still to come. What’s there at 1000 feet? What’s out there in the deep water? Amazing opportunities…exist for Australia to embrace this greatest treasure of the natural world. But so much has already been lost, and more is at risk of being lost right now unless people step up…to save what remains, and restore what can still be restored.”

Sylvia shifts her comments to the oceans in general. “I said 10 years ago that the next 10 years will be the most important, and here I am in 2017 saying it again,” she says.“But there’s still time. We keep learning, we keep understanding, but we still keep losing. Everyone has power. Use your voice. Doing nothing is a choice. Somebody has to start something, somewhere, sometime. Why not you? Why not now?”

Listen to our full podcast with Sylvia Earle HERE