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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.

Recorded April 14th, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen

More from the Big Idea for Tuesday, June 22 2010

 

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