Who’s Looking At Who?

Known as "Her Deepness" by the New Yorker and the New York Times and a "Living Legend" by the Library of Congress, Sylvia Earle is an oceanographer, explorer, author and lecturer committed to research through personal exploration. She has spent more than 6,000 hours underwater on more than 50 expeditions worldwide. In 1979, Earle walked untethered on the sea floor at a lower depth than any other woman before or since. In the 1980s she started the companies Deep Ocean Engineering and Deep Ocean Technologies to design and build undersea vehicles that allowed scientists to work at previously inaccessible depths. In the early 1990s, Earle served as Chief Scientist of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Currently she is the explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society. Earle remains a dedicated advocate for the world's oceans and the creatures that live in them. Her latest endeavor, Mission Blue, seeks to ignite public support for a global network of marine protected areas and hope spots large enough to save and restore the ocean.
  • Transcript


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. 

Recorded April 14th, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen