Big Think Interview With Sylvia Earle

A conversation with the oceanographer and founder of Mission Blue.
  • Transcript


Sylvia Earle: I’m Sylvia Earle.  I’m an explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic, an oceanographer, founder of something called Mission Blue.  


Question: What do you do as National Geographic's explorer-in-residence?


Sylvia Earle: As explorer in residence at the National Geographic I have license to play.  I have a relatively long leash to be able to do what the title suggests, go explore.  It’s really great to have the backing of that institution.  They give me a little nest in Washington D.C. and the support to go out and put together expeditions, to find the resources, to do what I try to do best, that is to explore, research, understand and take care of the ocean, especially the wild, natural parts of the sea.


Question: How does the undersea world relate to our life on land?


Sylvia Earle: People have been exploring from the surface for as long as people have been getting to the ocean, but getting into the ocean is still tricky business and it’s only in very recent times that we’ve had the technology that can take us more than as deep as you can go holding your breath.  Perhaps some people did that centuries ago, but to actually go down and stay awhile, to be able to go to 1,000 feet, 10,000 feet, ultimately the full ocean depth, that takes more than we carry around with us in our skin.  You need to have technology as a partner.  Why, because that is where the action is.  That is where most of life on earth is.  That is where most of the water is.  97% of Earth’s water is ocean.  Without the ocean, without water Earth would be much like Mars, a bleak, barren, inhospitable place for the likes of us and the rest of life on Earth as well.  I somehow understood this from an early stage imagining first of all what does the ocean… what is the ocean and then what would it be like without the ocean?  One thing that we didn’t know when I first began exploring was how extensive the mountains and valleys or even life itself is in the sea, the discovery of mountain ranges, of plate tectonics, the processes that drive the movement of continents that shape the character of oceans.  Oceans come and go over long periods of time.  Those things have only come into focus during the 20th century, mostly during the latter part of the 20th century and so far we have only seen about well 5% of the ocean.  It’s a huge part of the solar system, this planet that has not been looked at even once let alone put on the ballot sheet with respect to understanding how the world works and why we need to take care of the ocean.


Question: When did you fall in love with the ocean?


Sylvia Earle: I fell in love with the ocean when I was just a little girl growing up along the shores.  Well not the shores exactly.  I was in New Jersey.  Home was on the western side of New Jersey.  The ocean is on the eastern side of New Jersey.  It was about a 40 mile trip to go back and forth, but summer vacations for the family brought me to the shore to meet the Atlantic Ocean when I was about three years-old and I got knocked over by a wave.  The ocean caught my attention.  It’s held my attention for well ever since.  Life, life in the sea, those big craggy horseshoe crabs that would come up on the beach, the seaweed that had that very distinctive aroma, just the starfish, the whole sweep of things that you don’t see anywhere on the land.  Home otherwise for me was on a small farm in New Jersey.  Both of my parents lived on small farms as youngsters.  Southern New Jersey, great farming country, so I had the joy of getting to play in the woods, to explore on my own things that are more difficult for children to do today, but when I was 12 the family moved to Florida, then my backyard was the Gulf of Mexico, so instead of exploring whatever kids do if they live in a city, the parks or the streets or whatever, I got to explore the ocean. 


I had a faceplate, a little facemask.  It was a special gift because that enables you to see in the water without your eyes burning.  Dolphins are lucky and so are whales because they can easily transition from being underwater to above, but when we go in the water, fresh water or saltwater everything looks blurry, but you put a faceplate and suddenly you can see everything with clarity and comfort, so that was my first best piece of equipment for exploring the ocean.  It was quite a while before I learned about flippers, fins that you could enhance your speed through the water, but that was sometime later.  I first had a chance to try breathing underwater when my older brother borrowed a copper diving helmet in cohorts with our next-door neighbor whose father was a sponge diver.  I was a kid sister who tagged along.  We went to the Weeki Wachee River and we took turns.  No instructions, we just did it.  We had a compressor.  This helmet was put on everybody’s shoulders in turn and over the side into the river.  It was exhilarating.  I thought that what we were there to do was go look at the fish underwater and I was amazed because the fish started gathering around looking at us.  For me that was a big breakthrough that fish were curious... and they are, which is why I suppose they go for hooks because they’re hungry maybe, but also because they’re curious. 


Question: How do you prepare for a dive?


Sylvia Earle: Well preparing for a dive takes different forms depending on what kind of dive you’re going to do.  If you’re just going to go snorkeling or holding your breath diving down... no preparation needed, just take a big breath and down you go.  Of course it’s nice to have a facemask.  It helps to have flippers.  It helps if you’re in cold water to have a wetsuit or even a dry suit that will keep you warm if you want to stay more than just a moment or two.  For using scuba you first want to make sure that you have air in your tank, that, again the same old thing, that you want to be warm diving in cold water.  You’ve got to prepare for that.  Using self-contained underwater breathing apparatus, SCUBA, requires a little bit of training, not a lot.  The more you do it the more comfortable you are, the more experienced, the more able you are to cope with the unexpected should circumstances arise, but mainly it’s very simple.  My instruction back in 1953, before there were classes in learning how to dive was very simple.  Two words, breathe naturally, don’t hold your breath because if you do hold your breath while you have compressed air that you have taken in while breathing and you ascend the air that is in your body, in your lungs, in your tissues will expand as you come closer to the surface as you begin to take the pressure off.  That’s dangerous.  You can embolize. You can get bubbles in your bloodstream. You can get the bends.  So "breathe naturally" was really good advice because as you exhale you eliminate the air that you have in your lungs and so you learn not to stay too long because after awhile the air that you breathe, the nitrogen actually gets into your bloodstream, forms little bubbles and you can stay for a short period of time and all of this is closely calculated. You know exactly how long you can stay before you have to count in decompression before coming back to the surface. 


A lot of this has been learned in the last 50 years the hard way, by people who have made mistakes who have tried it and have learned that they need to do things differently.  I have been part of that learning curve I suppose.  In 1970 for the first time I had a chance to live underwater.  They call it saturation diving.  You stay underwater at a certain depth long enough for your tissues to become saturated with the breathing mix that you’re inhaling.  In the first case it wasn’t just air.  It was a mixture of nitrogen and oxygen with somewhat less oxygen than we have at the surface and therefore a little more nitrogen because oxygen actually can become toxic if you breathe it under pressure for a long time at a certain depth, below about 30 feet, 60 feet it becomes toxic, dangerous.  You can go into convulsions if you have too much oxygen.  "How can you have too much oxygen?" you might say.  "We need oxygen."  We do, but too much oxygen even for us under the right or wrong circumstances can be lethal.  It can certainly be harmful, so these are all things that in the process of learning how to dive you can learn and figure out and then… 

But it’s a bit like using a telephone.  We take for granted that you can pick it up and talk into it.  Engineers have carefully crafted the technology so that it is easy to use.  Engineers have carefully crafted the mechanism so you can just breathe into a regulator and not actually have to understand how it works if you trust the engineers and I’ve come to rely on engineers through much of what I’ve done to gain access to the sea.  I try to understand how the processes work so that if something goes wrong I can react and adjust accordingly, but since I personally am not an engineer I try to work with them to do the heavy lifting when it comes to doing the calculations, getting the systems so that they will work when they need to work.  That goes for scuba apparatus.  It goes for little submarines that I’ve had the joy of using.  I’ve been on the inside track of building submarines, so I do kind of understand what it takes, but I leave the actual calculations to those who know more about it than I do.


Question: What do you see at the bottom of the sea?


Sylvia Earle: The one thing that impresses me every time I go into the sea and it should impress everyone is the abundance of life.  The ocean is not just rocks and water.  From the surface it looks pretty much the same everywhere you go.  Sometimes it’s a little bluer or greener or grayer than others, but most people I think have the impression that it’s all about water and water of course is the key to life.  It’s the single non-negotiable thing that life requires, but because most of Earth’s water is ocean you kind of expect that is where most of life will be and that is the fact.  That is the way it is.  Dive into the ocean, there is life all the way down.  It’s like diving into the history of life on earth to look around when you’re in the sea because you see not just our fellow vertebrates, although there are plenty of them, the fish.  In some cases you have lucky encounters with whales or dolphins.  You might see turtles, fellow vertebrates.  You might even see if you’re in the Galapagos Islands iguanas, fellow vertebrates. But the great sweep of life is mostly not about vertebrates.  It’s about the invertebrates, creatures without backbones starting with the little tiny things, the microbes that rule the world.  They were in the ocean in abundance long before there were organisms that had multi-cellular structure. So having a chance to dive in and to be aware even though you can’t see them you know that you’re surrounded by this great sweep of tiny things that generate much of the oxygen, that grab much of the carbon out of the atmosphere.  The photosynthetic bacteria and other forms of photosynthetic life that are in abundance in plankton, you can’t really see them for the most part unless you have high magnification and divers usually just have a facemask.  You might see that the water is a little greener or not.  Sometimes you can actually see little particles, but those are relatively large compared to those really tiny things that even with the closest look you can deliver with your eyes you really can’t see the bacteria that are there in great abundance and in a just a you know a cup of water you may have millions of bacteria.  You may have a thousand different kinds of these little microbes.  It looks like water, but it’s still filled with life. 


And of course there are the bigger things.  If you’re down on the bottom you might see sponges.  They’ve been around for hundreds of millions of years; 400, 500 million years.  You might see starfish.  They’re ancient citizens too that go back 500 million years.  You might see jellyfish pulsing by.  Think about 500 million years, half a billion years.  Then you see some other creatures that have taken a little longer to form in terms of looking at the history of life on earth.  Horseshoe crabs have a history that goes back perhaps as much as 400 million years, but other arthropods, creatures that have jointed legs, crabs. Horseshoe crabs aren’t true crabs—they’re more closely related to spiders and scorpions even though they’re out there in the ocean, but crabs and shrimp and the little copepods that feed on the algae, the photosynthetic things that form the basis of much of the great food chains, food webs in the ocean.  All of that surrounds you as you dive in.  You see creatures whose history preceded that of certainly humankind or anything closely related to us.  Maybe sharks... they have a backbone or back cartilage anyway that have a history that goes back at least 300 million years.  We are really newcomers.  Our history is maybe contained within the last 5 million years or anything like human civilization.  Think about 50,000 years or really when you think about civilization with language and art and things that we really associate with who we think we are—maybe the last 10,000 years, since the end of the last ice age.  That is nothing in the history of the earth or life on earth.  As a diver you can think of yourself as almost an alien, a newcomer on this ancient planet filled with creatures whose life preceded that of humankind by hundreds of millions of years.


Question: Did you feel a sense of connection with the whales you swam with?


Sylvia Earle: The first time I had a chance to meet a whale and see a whale and whales see whales, underwater, was in 1977.  It was a project that Roger Payne and I dreamed up together.  I went to a conference in New York, listened to him talk.  He heard me talk at the same conference.  We felt we had common ground.  I was really interested in what he had to say about whales.  He was really interested in the thought that you might actually get into the water with whales because I gave a talk about exploring the ocean from the inside out, not just from the top down and so we dreamed up this project to go to Hawaii to work with humpback whales, the singing whales.  He and Katy Payne, his wife had really been listening to whales from the surface trying to imagine what it looked like when they do sing.  Nobody knew.  They hadn’t been there to catch a singing whale in action.  And to try to correlate the sounds that they make with the behaviors that they have. So we put together this project, got the National Geographic and California Academy of Sciences, the New York Zoological Society, Survival Anglia, a film company, other supporters to weigh in to craft an expedition that would take a big piece of 1977, take us to Hawaii.  We had a boat contributed.  We had fuel contributed.  We had Al Giddings got engaged as a filmmaker.  We had Peter Tyack, a graduate student of Peter’s and of Roger Payne’s. So anyway, this big expedition started from a little conversation into a big deal and the day came.  It was the 13th of February, 1977 with Al Giddings, Chuck Nicklin and one other guy who was handling the boat, a little rubber boat, moving along, looking at a group of whales, five of them kind of cruising along and we just tried to parallel them at a respectful distance and then all at once the whales decided they were going to come and check us out, so they did a sharp turn and headed for our boat, so we stopped the boat and looked over the side and there were these whales upside down looking at us like giant swallows.  People see pictures of whales in the old books.  They look like busses, loaves of bread.  They’re kind of static and like blocky creatures, but underwater they’re like ballerinas.  They’re upside down, right side up, turning and flying underwater.  They’re not stiff and blocky.  They’re slim and beautiful and they dance. 


We had convinced all these supporters that what we really wanted to do is to get in the water with them, see the whales on their own terms, to listen to their sounds and correlate sound and behavior and then came that moment when little tiny boat, little people and big whales looking over the side.  There was no book of etiquette that said "This is what you’re supposed to do when you meet a whale underwater," so it’s that little hesitation, maybe 30 seconds and then over the side and here are these creatures.  I mean I weigh 115 pounds and here are these creatures that weighed 40 tons and you know I’m 5’3’’.  They’re 40 feet long and what are you supposed to do?  It was up to them.  They came straight for us and I couldn’t get out of the way fast enough, so I just stayed there and let whatever would happen, happen and then this big female came right out of the blue, right for me and I thought it’s up to her what is going to happen.  What she did was just sweep by close enough so I could feel the wash as she went by and this grapefruit sized eyed just tilted and turned and she was checking me out and then I saw her turn and go toward Al Giddings, big fins, flippers 15 feet long with an edge of barnacles along the front of it like you know sharp barnacles.  If she had chosen to take a swipe at Al he might not have survived it, but and knowing that this was possible, there weren’t any books to say otherwise, Chuck Nicklin and I starting hooting underwater you know trying to warn Al that this whale was coming straight for him because he was busy doing what filmmakers do.  He was focused on that other whale over there.  He didn’t even see her coming.  What happened just changed everything.  As she approached she did something remarkable.  Instead of decapitating him as she might have with her big fin.  She just lifted it up over.  She knew exactly where her body was.  She had meant us no harm.  She was just curious and did this sleek thing like that and then I stopped worrying and I started really engaging them, engaging myself in this get acquainted session that went on for two and a half hours.  They just kept circling around and coming back, five whales. 


It turns out we now know the one female who first came toward me at the time it was difficult to tell for sure who was a male, who was a female, but this was a big rotund female we determined, about to give birth.  That is what those whales do when they come to Hawaii they come to give birth.  It’s a nursery area.  They stay there for awhile until they leave to make the journey back up to in this case the arctic waters for feeding and the others are likely to have been males.  The years of study that have followed suggest that what we were seeing is a chase, males after a female trying to engage her and we were just a part… we were incidental to this, but we were wide-eyed incidental and they were curious.  They diverted enough to from their other business to make us part of their business and that’s it.  That’s the thing.  You go into the ocean and if you just let things happen, you think you can script a scene about what you want to do.  I want to go film sharks.  Well good luck.  They’ll do what they want to do.  You are there as a witness, as a guest in a way and I’m never disappointed, but I never try to make things happen according to some plan.  Give it up.  The plan is to go and be surprised. 


Question: What is the strangest or scariest encounter you’ve had while diving?


Sylvia Earle:  I tend not to be afraid underwater except of mechanical things that can go wrong—and that has happened any number of times—but the way not to be alarmed is to rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.  You think in your mind what can go wrong and then on the rare occasion when it does go wrong you’re ready to react and follow the procedures that you’ve rehearsed for in your mind in anticipation that they could happen.  You run out of air.  What are you going to do?  Well if you have a buddy you say, “Hey buddy, I’d like a breath please.” And if it’s a good buddy they’ll give you some air and that is typically what does happen and if you have made the right kind of plan you don’t run out of air or you have a spare.  You have enough balance in your tank or a spare tank to see you through a time that you anticipate could happen.  When diving in a submersible you have a finite amount of air, so you go with a plan to have plenty of spare air in case something goes wrong—and sometimes things do go wrong and then you’re glad to have that spare air and have the ability if necessary to drop weights to come back to the surface if your other systems have for some unanticipated reason failed. 


So people say, “Well but aren’t you afraid of sharks?”  Well I have to admit that when I first began diving my heart began to pound a little bit when I saw a shark because I’d been told sharks are dangerous: “There are man-eaters out there. You’ve got to be careful. If you see a shark, get out of the water.”  And at first that is what I tried to do and then I realized the joke, man-eaters, I don’t have to worry.  I don’t qualify.  They don’t attack women.  No... well they do attack whatever, but very rarely and mostly if they’ve been provoked.  What I came to see and what everybody who has been diving over the years since the '50s, since diving became accessible to the public at large and certainly to scientists is that you’re really lucky to see a shark.  They’re beautiful animals and when you see a shark or sharks more happily, if you’re lucky to see lots of them that means that you’re in a healthy ocean.  You are in an ocean where things are okay.  They have to be okay to be able to support big predators like sharks, tunas, swordfish or on a coral reef to see groupers and snappers and other predatory fish.  It means, right, you’ve got a system that is working, so rejoice and don’t be afraid.  You should be afraid if you go down and don’t see sharks.  That means the ocean is in trouble, and if the ocean is in trouble we’re in trouble.


Question: What kinds of sea life are particularly intelligent?


Sylvia Earle: Young things generally tend to be curious, especially those that have something you can really get your mind around, say, "Those creatures have brains.They have enough of a concentration of nerve cells that they can have a reaction to things.  They might even anticipate danger and react accordingly. 

Do they dream?  Do they anticipate the future or reflect on the past the way humans do?  Well we’re still trying to figure that out.  I’m convinced that other creatures, many other creatures have more going for them in terms of intelligence and reasoning capacity than we give them credit for.  I’m confident that dolphins and whales have a level of intelligence in some cases that we wish we had.  We don’t think about sperm whales.  They have the biggest brain on the planet.  They have closely knit societies.  They do things that we don’t know why they do them.  We see them doing group behavior, getting together in a circle that some have designated a margarita formation because it’s a bit like the glass that a margarita is served in.  Like a flower with a narrow base to it, they all on some signal get together and dive down all at once.  To do what or why? We’re not smart enough yet to figure it out.  We’re not sperm whales, but that they do and that they can hold their breath for an hour and find food that they engage, big squid, that they travel over thousands of miles with no roadmap, go back to the same place time and time again, there are things that I wish we had inherit in our capacity.  Or to be a tuna fish for heaven’s sakes that travel over thousands of miles and come back to the same place. To have chemoreceptors.  We can smell, that is a kind of chemoreception. But to have a face that has taste buds that extend around up over your whole face the way many fish do or to be able to sense as sharks do, an electrical field.  All creatures have some kind of an electrical field around them.  We do.  Fish do.  Lobsters do, but to be able to sense it, to know that they’re there, maybe we do have some primitive or shadow effect that gives us some sense of where we are in relation to other things, but sharks really have it.  That’s how they find food at night.  You can’t see, but they can sense where they are. 


The lateral line down many bony fishes that enable them to sense—we think... we don’t know... we don’t have a lateral line—but we speculate that it enables them to sense movement, so you get these tight formations of fish that look as though they’re moving as one fish.  They are so close.  It’s like the Blue Angels, but times a thousand because they move like this, like streams of silver made of 10,000 little pieces that move as if they’re just all coordinated on wires, but they’re not.  They’re independent.  If only we could feel what they feel and see what they see.  To have the eyes of some of the deep sea fish that are exquisitely developed to be able to see in low light levels with receptors and things that glow like a cat’s eye or a dog’s eye that sense the tiniest amount of light.  When we get to 1,000 feet in the sea—even in high noon, the broadest daylight and the clearest ocean water at 1,000 feet—you can still barely make out shapes and forms, but beyond that it is really dark to our sensors. But to a fish, to these deep sea fish for them they can see like a cat can see at night, only much more sensitive.  It’s because many of these are tuned to sense bioluminescent light, the firefly kind of light that characterizes most of the ocean.  You get below 1,000 feet it’s dark, but there are these little lights that flash and sparkle and glow.  It’s like diving into a galaxy.  Even our eyes pick up the light, but these creatures that have enhanced light-gathering capacity it’s like having night vision goggles, like Silence of the Lambs.  There you are.  You can see.  Nobody else can see.  These fish have the capacity to see what we can’t see, so they have gifts.

Question: As a conservationist, are there certain sea creatures you won’t eat?


Sylvia Earle: I once had an encounter with a lobster, a young and curious lobster.  It was not big enough to qualify as one that people would normally take home for dinner.  It was in the Florida Keys.  It was in shallow water about ten feet deep.  I was using scuba even in ten feet of water, but I was exploring the sea grass meadow that was in many ways as rich as a rainforest, but even wetter than a rainforest.  Lots of little creatures, great diversity of life, big wedges of life that you don’t find in anyplace on the land—even in the most diverse and rich rainforest, because the ocean has whole categories of life that never have occurred on the land they are there, even in this sea grass meadow—and then about 30 feet away I saw this lobster just ambling out, broad daylight, usually you see them at night.  This was in the middle of the day and it was out exploring as young things are likely to do and it caught a glimpse of me and instead of darting away it did this most remarkable thing like the whales in Hawaii years before.  It did its little change of direction, came right over to where I was.  You know if it had been you know ten feet long and six feet high I would have been terrified because look at a lobster.  They look like some imaginary creature might, some Hollywood concoction, but no, it was this little lobster and I was… as it approached I didn’t move.  I just stayed and let it do its thing and what it did was come over, take it’s antennae and start touching my facemask and then its little pinchers and started touch, touch, touch, not pinching, just touch, touch, touch around my face and it started making these little lobster purring sounds and I never thought about lobster the same way since then.  I certainly have never eaten a lobster since then. 


I had already sort of phased out because I value them more alive than cooked.  They have a role in the ocean that is critically important and I don’t really need to eat them.  They are so much more valuable on my list if they’re out there swimming around or really for all of us if we value a healthy ocean we will value the components of what make an ocean healthy.  That includes tunas and swordfish and lobsters and grouper and snapper and clams and oysters and... Do we have to stop eating them?  No, but we need to think about what the consequences are, not just to them, but also to us.  Think about what they have been eating that you don’t necessarily want in you, given what we’ve done to the ocean in the last few decades that come back to haunt us in heavy loads of mercury and PCBs and all the pesticides and herbicides that are accumulating, even the antibiotics, the hormone, the endocrine disruptors that we have allowed to go into the ocean that are now coming back to us in what we take out of the ocean.  They get concentrated.  The further up the food chain you go the higher the concentration and we tend to eat high on the food chain when we take from the sea and we tend to take creatures that are more than just a year old.  We tend to take the ones that are the big creatures that also have the highest concentrations of what you don’t want in you. 

Question: What was the aim of your Mission Blue voyage and what did it accomplish?


Sylvia Earle: Over the years I’ve become impressed with how much the oceans have changed just in my lifetime and I realized that since the middle of the 20th century more has changed perhaps than during all preceding human history... That we can see the change.  Other creatures may as well.  Grouper may live 50 years and recognize that the ocean is not the same ocean that they experienced as little fish.  Dolphins certainly may recognize the difference.  They can live to be 50 or 60 years old.  Bowhead whales can be 200 years old.  Orange roughly can be 200 years old.  Tuna may be 25 or 30 years old.  Anyway, during this time the ocean has changed, but they don’t know why and they don’t know what to do about it.  We do know why and we do know what to do about it, but it’s taken us a while.  It’s taken half a century to really understand the view of Earth from space to see that, you know, you look all around, there is only one place where we can actually have a hope of going forward in time.  We can reflect on a long and illustrious history, but what about the future?  What about the kids 50 years from now who will look back on us and say, “Why didn’t you do something when you had a chance and when you knew that 90% of the fish had been taken out of the sea of certain species, the tunas, the swordfish, the sharks?”  “The big fish are gone and yet you kept eating tuna.”  “You kept eating swordfish.”  “What were you thinking?”  If we continue right now doing what we’ve been doing there won’t be these large creatures 50 years from now and the kids will say, “Why didn’t you do something when you still had a chance?”  That is what has shaped much of what I do, have been doing, what drives me now. 


As much as I love just exploring the ocean, studying plants, seaweeds, I love them.  They are just infinitely fascinating.  To dive into an ecosystem and be a part of it and try to understand how does it work just for its own sake, just for wanting to know to satisfy my personal curiosity, to add a little fragment of knowledge to the great body of knowledge that might lead to wisdom for our species... but now we’re running out of time.  I can’t indulge myself as much as I once did as a young explorer, as a younger scientist.  I now am compelled to share the news.  The ocean is in trouble.  We’re in trouble.  We have to go flat out to do what we can to embrace what remains of healthy ecosystems on the land and in the sea.  I’ve been working with the National Parks Service and with protected areas the whole concept on the land for many years through IUCN, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, with World Wildlife, with the National Geographic, Conservation International, with any organization that will have me basically to try to help inspire care for the natural systems as if our lives depend on them because they do.  They do.  It’s life that generates oxygen.  It’s living systems that drive the water cycle.  You know protecting watersheds to maintain the integrity of that which keeps us alive.  For the ocean... for years I’ve been trying to do for the ocean what has been done for the land starting early in the 20th century, not early enough, but protected areas on the land, national parks and wildlife reserves and so on that we should think of as people reserves because they restore our life, not just about other creatures. 


In the sea it is a relatively new concept.  Starting in the '70s, in Australia, in this country with protected areas, the Great Barrier Reef, a system of sanctuaries in this country, now around the world, 4,500 or so marine protected areas, but they’re mostly really small.  It amounts to a fraction of 1% of the ocean.  So when I had a call from Chris Anderson from Technology Entertainment Design, TED in the fall of 2008 saying that I had been awarded the TED Prize and I could make a wish.  It had to be a big wish, big enough the change the world.  It was really easy to think what it would be.  It would be to try to win support for what I’ve been trying to do with other organizations and people, my fellow scientists and others who care for most of my life.  Let’s try to inspire a network, a public… sort of ignite public support for hope spots, protected areas around the world.  It doesn’t matter really what you call them; a sanctuary, a reserve, whatever it is.  Different organizations have gone by different names, but it’s time to have an umbrella term, something that will allow others to do their thing, but within a framework of working together, so "hope spots."  Mission Blue to pull together, to get others engaged who haven’t typically been engaged.  Pull on them.  Draw on the entertainers to celebrate using their talents.  People ask, “What can I do?”  I hold up a mirror.  What can you do?  What are you good at?  Do you write?  Do you sing?  Do you have a way with numbers?  Are you a politician with a kind of power at this moment in history?  Are you a teacher?  Are you a mom?  Are you a dad?  Are you a kid?  Whatever you are you have power.  The trick is using that power.  Part of the wish with TED Said expeditions and again the TEDsters as they are known… call themselves... and Chris Anderson pulled together to have an expedition and we worked with Lindblad Expeditions, the National Geographic Lindblad ship the Endeavor to go to the Galapagos Islands, a place is an iconic place that has lots of reason for hope.  Good things are happening there, but there are also concerns because fishing continues to degrade the oceans surrounding the islands and degrade the chances that wildlife have and people have to make this a source of hope for the future, so we had the expedition there with 100 people from different areas of expertise that even the scientists, although we’re scientific colleagues and know one another and there were maybe 30 of us in this mix of 100 people who are experts in our relative respective disciplines, but we hadn’t been captured together in a place for a piece of time where we had a chance to really think in new ways about this real problem of how do we take care of the ocean and inspire the public at large and people with other talents to pull together and that what actually did happen in the Mission Blue expedition that has had a magical effect on everybody who was there to mobilize the powers that they have and pull together and to create a new wave of understanding.

Recorded April 14th, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen