Sylvia Earle
Oceanographer & Founder, Mission Blue

Why We Explore the Oceans

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97% of Earth’s water is ocean. Without the ocean, Earth would be much like Mars: a bleak, barren, inhospitable place.

Sylvia Earle

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.

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.

Recorded April 14th, 2010

Interviewed by Austin Allen