What You Can Do For Our Oceans

As the oil spill continues to plague the Gulf, the deep-sea explorer makes a passionate case for saving ocean life.
  • Transcript


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