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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[…]

A conversation with the oceanographer and founder of Mission Blue.

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

 

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

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SylviarnEarle:As explorer inrnresidence at the National Geographic I have license to play.  I have a relatively long leash to bernable to do what the title suggests, go explore.  It’s really great to have the backing of thatrninstitution.  They give me a littlernnest in Washington D.C. and the support to go out and put together expeditions,rnto find the resources, to do what I try to do best, that is to explore,rnresearch, understand and take care of the ocean, especially the wild, naturalrnparts of the sea.

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

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Sylvia Earle: People have been exploring from the surfacernfor as long as people have been getting to the ocean, but getting into thernocean is still tricky business and it’s only in very recent times that we’vernhad the technology that can take us more than as deep as you can go holdingrnyour breath.  Perhaps some peoplerndid that centuries ago, but to actually go down and stay awhile, to be able torngo to 1,000 feet, 10,000 feet, ultimately the full ocean depth, that takes morernthan we carry around with us in our skin. rnYou need to have technology as a partner.  Why, because that is where the action is.  That is where most of life on earthrnis.  That is where most of thernwater is.  97% of Earth’s water isrnocean.  Without the ocean, withoutrnwater Earth would be much like Mars, a bleak, barren, inhospitable place forrnthe likes of us and the rest of life on Earth as well.  I somehow understood this from an earlyrnstage imagining first of all what does the ocean… what is the ocean and thenrnwhat would it be like without the ocean? rnOne thing that we didn’t know when I first began exploring was howrnextensive the mountains and valleys or even life itself is in the sea, therndiscovery of mountain ranges, of plate tectonics, the processes that drive thernmovement of continents that shape the character of oceans.  Oceans come and go over long periods ofrntime.  Those things have only comerninto focus during the 20th century, mostly during the latter part of the 20thrncentury and so far we have only seen about well 5% of the ocean.  It’s a huge part of the solar system,rnthis planet that has not been looked at even once let alone put on the ballotrnsheet with respect to understanding how the world works and why we need to takerncare of the ocean.

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

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SylviarnEarle:I fell in love withrnthe 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 NewrnJersey.  The ocean is on therneastern side of New Jersey.  It wasrnabout a 40 mile trip to go back and forth, but summer vacations for the familyrnbrought me to the shore to meet the Atlantic Ocean when I was about threernyears-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 craggyrnhorseshoe crabs that would come up on the beach, the seaweed that had that veryrndistinctive aroma, just the starfish, the whole sweep of things that you don’trnsee anywhere on the land.  Homernotherwise for me was on a small farm in New Jersey.  Both of my parents lived on small farms as youngsters.  Southern New Jersey, great farmingrncountry, so I had the joy of getting to play in the woods, to explore on my ownrnthings that are more difficult for children to do today, but when I was 12 thernfamily moved to Florida, then my backyard was the Gulf of Mexico, so instead ofrnexploring whatever kids do if they live in a city, the parks or the streets orrnwhatever, I got to explore the ocean. rn

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I had a faceplate, a little facemask.  It was a special gift because thatrnenables you to see in the water without your eyes burning.  Dolphins are lucky and so are whalesrnbecause they can easily transition from being underwater to above, but when werngo in the water, fresh water or saltwater everything looks blurry, but you putrna faceplate and suddenly you can see everything with clarity and comfort, sornthat was my first best piece of equipment for exploring the ocean.  It was quite a while before I learnedrnabout flippers, fins that you could enhance your speed through the water, butrnthat was sometime later.  I firstrnhad a chance to try breathing underwater when my older brother borrowed arncopper diving helmet in cohorts with our next-door neighbor whose father was arnsponge diver.  I was a kid sisterrnwho tagged along.  We went to thernWeeki Wachee River and we took turns. rnNo instructions, we just did it. rnWe had a compressor.  Thisrnhelmet was put on everybody’s shoulders in turn and over the side into thernriver.  It was exhilarating.  I thought that what we were there to dornwas go look at the fish underwater and I was amazed because the fish startedrngathering around looking at us. rnFor me that was a big breakthrough that fish were curious... and they are,rnwhich is why I suppose they go for hooks because they’re hungry maybe, but alsornbecause they’re curious. 

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Question: How do you prepare for a dive?

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SylviarnEarle:Well preparing for arndive takes different forms depending on what kind of dive you’re going torndo.  If you’re just going to gornsnorkeling or holding your breath diving down... no preparation needed, just takerna big breath and down you go.  Ofrncourse it’s nice to have a facemask. rnIt helps to have flippers. rnIt helps if you’re in cold water to have a wetsuit or even a dry suitrnthat will keep you warm if you want to stay more than just a moment or two.  For using scuba you first want to makernsure that you have air in your tank, that, again the same old thing, that yournwant to be warm diving in cold water. rnYou’ve got to prepare for that. rnUsing self-contained underwater breathing apparatus, SCUBA, requires arnlittle bit of training, not a lot. rnThe more you do it the more comfortable you are, the more experienced,rnthe more able you are to cope with the unexpected should circumstances arise,rnbut mainly it’s very simple.  Myrninstruction back in 1953, before there were classes in learning how to dive wasrnvery simple.  Two words, breathernnaturally, don’t hold your breath because if you do hold your breath while yournhave compressed air that you have taken in while breathing and you ascend thernair that is in your body, in your lungs, in your tissues will expand as yourncome closer to the surface as you begin to take the pressure off.  That’s dangerous.  You can embolize. You can get bubblesrnin your bloodstream. You can get the bends.  So "breathe naturally" was really good advice because as yournexhale you eliminate the air that you have in your lungs and so you learn notrnto stay too long because after awhile the air that you breathe, the nitrogenrnactually gets into your bloodstream, forms little bubbles and you can stay forrna short period of time and all of this is closely calculated. You know exactlyrnhow long you can stay before you have to count in decompression before comingrnback to the surface. 

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A lot of this has been learned in the last 50 years the hardrnway, by people who have made mistakes who have tried it and have learned thatrnthey need to do things differently. rnI have been part of that learning curve I suppose.  In 1970 for the first time I had arnchance to live underwater.  Theyrncall it saturation diving.  Yournstay underwater at a certain depth long enough for your tissues to becomernsaturated with the breathing mix that you’re inhaling.  In the first case it wasn’t justrnair.  It was a mixture of nitrogenrnand oxygen with somewhat less oxygen than we have at the surface and thereforerna little more nitrogen because oxygen actually can become toxic if you breathernit under pressure for a long time at a certain depth, below about 30 feet, 60rnfeet it becomes toxic, dangerous. rnYou can go into convulsions if you have too much oxygen.  "How can you have too much oxygen?" yournmight say.  "We need oxygen."  We do, but too much oxygen even for usrnunder the right or wrong circumstances can be lethal.  It can certainly be harmful, so these are all things that inrnthe process of learning how to dive you can learn and figure out and then… 

But it’s a bit like using arntelephone.  We take for grantedrnthat you can pick it up and talk into it. rnEngineers have carefully crafted the technology so that it is easy tornuse.  Engineers have carefullyrncrafted the mechanism so you can just breathe into a regulator and not actuallyrnhave to understand how it works if you trust the engineers and I’ve come tornrely on engineers through much of what I’ve done to gain access to thernsea.  I try to understand how thernprocesses work so that if something goes wrong I can react and adjustrnaccordingly, but since I personally am not an engineer I try to work with themrnto do the heavy lifting when it comes to doing the calculations, getting thernsystems so that they will work when they need to work.  That goes for scuba apparatus.  It goes for little submarines that I’vernhad the joy of using.  I’ve been onrnthe inside track of building submarines, so I do kind of understand what itrntakes, but I leave the actual calculations to those who know more about it thanrnI do.

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

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SylviarnEarle:The one thing thatrnimpresses me every time I go into the sea and it should impress everyone is thernabundance of life.  The ocean isrnnot just rocks and water.  From thernsurface it looks pretty much the same everywhere you go.  Sometimes it’s a little bluer orrngreener or grayer than others, but most people I think have the impression thatrnit’s all about water and water of course is the key to life.  It’s the single non-negotiable thingrnthat life requires, but because most of Earth’s water is ocean you kind ofrnexpect 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 allrnthe way down.  It’s like divingrninto the history of life on earth to look around when you’re in the sea becausernyou see not just our fellow vertebrates, although there are plenty of them, thernfish.  In some cases you have luckyrnencounters with whales or dolphins. rnYou might see turtles, fellow vertebrates.  You might even see if you’re in the Galapagos Islandsrniguanas, fellow vertebrates. But the great sweep of life is mostly not aboutrnvertebrates.  It’s about therninvertebrates, creatures without backbones starting with the little tinyrnthings, the microbes that rule the world. rnThey were in the ocean in abundance long before there were organismsrnthat had multi-cellular structure. So having a chance to dive in and to bernaware even though you can’t see them you know that you’re surrounded by thisrngreat sweep of tiny things that generate much of the oxygen, that grab much ofrnthe carbon out of the atmosphere. rnThe photosynthetic bacteria and other forms of photosynthetic life thatrnare in abundance in plankton, you can’t really see them for the most partrnunless you have high magnification and divers usually just have arnfacemask.  You might see that thernwater is a little greener or not. rnSometimes you can actually see little particles, but those are relativelyrnlarge compared to those really tiny things that even with the closest look you canrndeliver with your eyes you really can’t see the bacteria that are there inrngreat abundance and in a just a you know a cup of water you may have millionsrnof bacteria.  You may have arnthousand different kinds of these little microbes.  It looks like water, but it’s still filled with life. 

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And of course there are the bigger things.  If you’re down on the bottom you mightrnsee sponges.  They’ve been aroundrnfor hundreds of millions of years; 400, 500 million years.  You might see starfish.  They’re ancient citizens too that gornback 500 million years.  You mightrnsee jellyfish pulsing by.  Thinkrnabout 500 million years, half a billion years.  Then you see some other creatures that have taken a littlernlonger to form in terms of looking at the history of life on earth.  Horseshoe crabs have a history thatrngoes back perhaps as much as 400 million years, but other arthropods, creaturesrnthat have jointed legs, crabs. Horseshoe crabs aren’t true crabs—they’re more closely related to spidersrnand scorpions even though they’re out there in the ocean, but crabs and shrimprnand the little copepods that feed on the algae, the photosynthetic things thatrnform the basis of much of the great food chains, food webs in the ocean.  All of that surrounds you as you divernin.  You see creatures whosernhistory preceded that of certainly humankind or anything closely related tornus.  Maybe sharks... they have arnbackbone or back cartilage anyway that have a history that goes back at leastrn300 million years.  We are reallyrnnewcomers.  Our history is mayberncontained within the last 5 million years or anything like humanrncivilization.  Think about 50,000rnyears or really when you think about civilization with language and art andrnthings that we really associate with who we think we are—maybe the last 10,000rnyears, since the end of the last ice age. rnThat is nothing in the history of the earth or life on earth.  As a diver you can think of yourself asrnalmost an alien, a newcomer on this ancient planet filled with creatures whosernlife preceded that of humankind by hundreds of millions of years.

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

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SylviarnEarle: The first time I had a chance to meet a whale and see a whale andrnwhales see whales, underwater, was in 1977.  It was a project that Roger Payne and I dreamed uprntogether.  I went to a conferencernin New York, listened to him talk. rnHe heard me talk at the same conference.  We felt we had common ground.  I was really interested in what he had to say aboutrnwhales.  He was really interestedrnin the thought that you might actually get into the water with whales because Irngave a talk about exploring the ocean from the inside out, not just from therntop down and so we dreamed up this project to go to Hawaii to work withrnhumpback whales, the singing whales. rnHe and Katy Payne, his wife had really been listening to whales from thernsurface trying to imagine what it looked like when they do sing.  Nobody knew.  They hadn’t been there to catch a singing whale inrnaction.  And to try to correlaternthe sounds that they make with the behaviors that they have. So we put togetherrnthis project, got the National Geographic and California Academy of Sciences,rnthe New York Zoological Society, Survival Anglia, a film company, otherrnsupporters to weigh in to craft an expedition that would take a big piece ofrn1977, take us to Hawaii.  We had arnboat contributed.  We had fuelrncontributed.  We had Al Giddingsrngot engaged as a filmmaker.  We hadrnPeter Tyack, a graduate student of Peter’s and of Roger Payne’s. So anyway,rnthis big expedition started from a little conversation into a big deal and thernday came.  It was the 13th ofrnFebruary, 1977 with Al Giddings, Chuck Nicklin and one other guy who wasrnhandling the boat, a little rubber boat, moving along, looking at a group ofrnwhales, five of them kind of cruising along and we just tried to parallel themrnat a respectful distance and then all at once the whales decided they wererngoing to come and check us out, so they did a sharp turn and headed for ourrnboat, so we stopped the boat and looked over the side and there were thesernwhales upside down looking at us like giant swallows.  People see pictures of whales in the old books.  They look like busses, loaves ofrnbread.  They’re kind of static andrnlike blocky creatures, but underwater they’re like ballerinas.  They’re upside down, right side up,rnturning and flying underwater. rnThey’re not stiff and blocky. rnThey’re slim and beautiful and they dance. 

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We had convinced all these supporters that what we reallyrnwanted to do is to get in the water with them, see the whales on their ownrnterms, to listen to their sounds and correlate sound and behavior and then camernthat moment when little tiny boat, little people and big whales looking overrnthe side.  There was no book ofrnetiquette that said "This is what you’re supposed to do when you meet a whalernunderwater," so it’s that little hesitation, maybe 30 seconds and then over thernside and here are these creatures. rnI mean I weigh 115 pounds and here are these creatures that weighed 40rntons and you know I’m 5’3’’. rnThey’re 40 feet long and what are you supposed to do?  It was up to them.  They came straight for us and Irncouldn’t get out of the way fast enough, so I just stayed there and letrnwhatever would happen, happen and then this big female came right out of thernblue, right for me and I thought it’s up to her what is going to happen.  What she did was just sweep by closernenough so I could feel the wash as she went by and this grapefruit sized eyedrnjust tilted and turned and she was checking me out and then I saw her turn andrngo toward Al Giddings, big fins, flippers 15 feet long with an edge ofrnbarnacles along the front of it like you know sharp barnacles.  If she had chosen to take a swipe at Alrnhe might not have survived it, but and knowing that this was possible, therernweren’t any books to say otherwise, Chuck Nicklin and I starting hooting underwaterrnyou know trying to warn Al that this whale was coming straight for him becausernhe was busy doing what filmmakers do. rnHe 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 somethingrnremarkable.  Instead ofrndecapitating 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 sleekrnthing like that and then I stopped worrying and I started really engaging them,rnengaging myself in this get acquainted session that went on for two and a halfrnhours.  They just kept circlingrnaround and coming back, five whales. rn

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It turns out we now know the one female who first camerntoward me at the time it was difficult to tell for sure who was a male, who wasrna female, but this was a big rotund female we determined, about to givernbirth.  That is what those whalesrndo when they come to Hawaii they come to give birth.  It’s a nursery area. rnThey stay there for awhile until they leave to make the journey back uprnto in this case the arctic waters for feeding and the others are likely to havernbeen males.  The years of studyrnthat have followed suggest that what we were seeing is a chase, males after arnfemale trying to engage her and we were just a part… we were incidental tornthis, but we were wide-eyed incidental and they were curious.  They diverted enough to from theirrnother business to make us part of their business and that’s it.  That’s the thing.  You go into the ocean and if you justrnlet things happen, you think you can script a scene about what you want torndo.  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 guestrnin a way and I’m never disappointed, but I never try to make things happenrnaccording to some plan.  Give itrnup.  The plan is to go and bernsurprised. 

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

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SylviarnEarle:  I tend not to bernafraid underwater except of mechanical things that can go wrong—and that hasrnhappened any number of times—but the way not to be alarmed is to rehearse,rnrehearse, rehearse.  You think inrnyour mind what can go wrong and then on the rare occasion when it does go wrongrnyou’re ready to react and follow the procedures that you’ve rehearsed for inrnyour mind in anticipation that they could happen.  You run out of air. rnWhat are you going to do? rnWell if you have a buddy you say, “Hey buddy, I’d like a breathrnplease.”And if it’s a good buddyrnthey’ll give you some air and that is typically what does happen and if yournhave 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 orrna spare tank to see you through a time that you anticipate could happen.  When diving in a submersible you have arnfinite amount of air, so you go with a plan to have plenty of spare air in casernsomething goes wrong—and sometimes things do go wrong and then you’re glad tornhave that spare air and have the ability if necessary to drop weights to comernback to the surface if your other systems have for some unanticipated reasonrnfailed. 

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So people say, “Well but aren’t you afraid of sharks?”  Well I have to admit that when I firstrnbegan diving my heart began to pound a little bit when I saw a shark becausernI’d been told sharks are dangerous:rn“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 realizedrnthe joke, man-eaters, I don’t have to worry.  I don’t qualify. rnThey don’t attack women. rnNo... well they do attack whatever, but very rarely and mostly if they’vernbeen provoked.  What I came to seernand what everybody who has been diving over the years since the '50s, sincerndiving became accessible to the public at large and certainly to scientists isrnthat you’re really lucky to see a shark. rnThey’re beautiful animals and when you see a shark or sharks morernhappily, if you’re lucky to see lots of them that means that you’re in arnhealthy ocean.  You are in an oceanrnwhere things are okay.  They havernto be okay to be able to support big predators like sharks, tunas, swordfish orrnon a coral reef to see groupers and snappers and other predatory fish.  It means, right, you’ve got a systemrnthat 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, andrnif the ocean is in trouble we’re in trouble.

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Question: What kinds of sea life arernparticularly intelligent?

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SylviarnEarle:Young thingsrngenerally tend to be curious, especially those that have something you canrnreally get your mind around, say, "Those creatures have brains.They have enough of a concentration ofrnnerve cells that they can have a reaction to things.  They might even anticipate danger and reactrnaccordingly. 

Do they dream?  Do they anticipate the future orrnreflect on the past the way humans do? rnWell we’re still trying to figure that out.  I’m convinced that other creatures, many other creaturesrnhave more going for them in terms of intelligence and reasoning capacity thanrnwe give them credit for.  I’mrnconfident that dolphins and whales have a level of intelligence in some casesrnthat we wish we had.  We don’trnthink about sperm whales.  Theyrnhave the biggest brain on the planet. rnThey have closely knit societies. rnThey do things that we don’t know why they do them.  We see them doing group behavior,rngetting together in a circle that some have designated a margarita formation becausernit’s a bit like the glass that a margarita is served in.  Like a flower with a narrow base to it,rnthey all on some signal get together and dive down all at once.  To do what or why? We’re not smartrnenough yet to figure it out.  We’rernnot sperm whales, but that they do and that they can hold their breath for anrnhour and find food that they engage, big squid, that they travel over thousandsrnof miles with no roadmap, go back to the same place time and time again,rnthere are things that I wish we had inherit in our capacity.  Or to be a tuna fish for heaven’s sakesrnthat travel over thousands of miles and come back to the same place. To havernchemoreceptors.  We can smell, that is a kind of chemoreception. Butrnto have a face that has taste buds that extend around up over your whole facernthe way many fish do or to be able to sense as sharks do, an electricalrnfield.  All creatures have somernkind of an electrical field around them. rnWe do.  Fish do.  Lobsters do, but to be able to sensernit, 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,rnbut sharks really have it.  That’srnhow they find food at night.  Yourncan’t see, but they can sense where they are. 

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The lateral line down many bony fishes that enable them tornsense—we think... we don’t know... we don’t have a lateral line—but wernspeculate that it enables them to sense movement, so you get these tightrnformations of fish that look as though they’re moving as one fish.  They are so close.  It’s like the Blue Angels, but times arnthousand because they move like this, like streams of silver made of 10,000rnlittle pieces that move as if they’re just all coordinated on wires, butrnthey’re not.  They’rernindependent.  If only we could feelrnwhat they feel and see what they see. rnTo have the eyes of some of the deep sea fish that are exquisitelyrndeveloped to be able to see in low light levels with receptors and things thatrnglow like a cat’s eye or a dog’s eye that sense the tiniest amount ofrnlight.  When we get to 1,000 feetrnin the sea—even in high noon, the broadest daylight and the clearest oceanrnwater at 1,000 feet—you can still barely make out shapes and forms, but beyondrnthat it is really dark to our sensors. But to a fish, to these deep sea fishrnfor them they can see like a cat can see at night, only much morernsensitive.  It’s because many ofrnthese are tuned to sense bioluminescent light, the firefly kind of light thatrncharacterizes most of the ocean. rnYou get below 1,000 feet it’s dark, but there are these little lightsrnthat flash and sparkle and glow.  It’srnlike diving into a galaxy.  Evenrnour eyes pick up the light, but these creatures that have enhanced light-gathering capacity it’s like having night vision goggles, like Silence of thernLambs.  There you are.  You can see.  Nobody else can see. rnThese fish have the capacity to see what we can’t see, so they haverngifts.

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

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

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I had already sort of phased out because I value them morernalive than cooked.  They have a rolernin the ocean that is critically important and I don’t really need to eatrnthem.  They are so much morernvaluable on my list if they’re out there swimming around or really for all ofrnus if we value a healthy ocean we will value the components of what make anrnocean healthy.  That includes tunasrnand swordfish and lobsters and grouper and snapper and clams and oysters and... Dornwe have to stop eating them?  No,rnbut we need to think about what the consequences are, not just to them, but alsornto us.  Think about what they havernbeen eating that you don’t necessarily want in you, given what we’ve done to thernocean in the last few decades that come back to haunt us in heavy loads ofrnmercury and PCBs and all the pesticides and herbicides that are accumulating,rneven the antibiotics, the hormone, the endocrine disruptors that we havernallowed to go into the ocean that are now coming back to us in what we take outrnof the ocean.  They getrnconcentrated.  The further up thernfood chain you go the higher the concentration and we tend to eat high on thernfood chain when we take from the sea and we tend to take creatures that arernmore than just a year old.  We tendrnto take the ones that are the big creatures that also have the highestrnconcentrations of what you don’t want in you. 
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Question: What was the aim of your Mission Blue voyage andrnwhat did it accomplish?

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SylviarnEarle:Over the years I’vernbecome impressed with how much the oceans have changed just in my lifetime andrnI realized that since the middle of the 20th century more has changed perhapsrnthan during all preceding human history... That we can see the change.  Other creatures may as well.  Grouper may live 50 years and recognizernthat the ocean is not the same ocean that they experienced as little fish.  Dolphins certainly may recognize therndifference.  They can live to be 50rnor 60 years old.  Bowhead whalesrncan be 200 years old.  Orange roughly can be 200 years old.  Tunarnmay be 25 or 30 years old.  Anyway,rnduring this time the ocean has changed, but they don’t know why and they don’trnknow what to do about it.  We dornknow why and we do know what to do about it, but it’s taken us a while.  It’s taken half a century to reallyrnunderstand the view of Earth from space to see that, you know, you look allrnaround, there is only one place where we can actually have a hope of goingrnforward in time.  We can reflect onrna long and illustrious history, but what about the future?  What about the kids 50 years from now whornwill look back on us and say, “Why didn’t you do something when you had arnchance and when you knew that 90% of the fish had been taken out of the sea ofrncertain species, the tunas, the swordfish, the sharks?”  “The big fish are gone and yet you keptrneating tuna.”  “You kept eatingrnswordfish.”  “What were yournthinking?”  If we continue rightrnnow doing what we’ve been doing there won’t be these large creatures 50 yearsrnfrom now and the kids will say, “Why didn’t you do something when you still hadrna chance?”  That is what has shapedrnmuch of what I do, have been doing, what drives me now. 

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As much as I love just exploring the ocean, studying plants,rnseaweeds, I love them.  They arernjust infinitely fascinating.  Torndive into an ecosystem and be a part of it and try to understand how does itrnwork just for its own sake, just for wanting to know to satisfy my personalrncuriosity, to add a little fragment of knowledge to the great body of knowledgernthat might lead to wisdom for our species... but now we’re running out ofrntime.  I can’t indulge myself asrnmuch 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 werncan to embrace what remains of healthy ecosystems on the land and in thernsea.  I’ve been working with thernNational Parks Service and with protected areas the whole concept on the landrnfor many years through IUCN, the International Union for the Conservation ofrnNature, with World Wildlife, with the National Geographic, ConservationrnInternational, with any organization that will have me basically to try to helprninspire care for the natural systems as if our lives depend on them becausernthey do.  They do.  It’s life that generates oxygen.  It’s living systems that drive thernwater cycle.  You know protectingrnwatersheds to maintain the integrity of that which keeps us alive.  For the ocean... for years I’ve beenrntrying to do for the ocean what has been done for the land starting early inrnthe 20th century, not early enough, but protected areas on the land, nationalrnparks and wildlife reserves and so on that we should think of as peoplernreserves because they restore our life, not just about other creatures. 

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In the sea it is a relatively new concept.  Starting in the '70s, in Australia, inrnthis country with protected areas, the Great Barrier Reef, a system ofrnsanctuaries in this country, now around the world, 4,500 or so marine protectedrnareas, but they’re mostly really small. rnIt amounts to a fraction of 1% of the ocean.  So when I had a call from Chris Anderson from TechnologyrnEntertainment Design, TED in the fall of 2008 saying that I had been awardedrnthe TED Prize and I could make a wish. rnIt had to be a big wish, big enough the change the world.  It was really easy to think what itrnwould be.  It would be to try tornwin support for what I’ve been trying to do with other organizations andrnpeople, my fellow scientists and others who care for most of my life.  Let’s try to inspire a network, arnpublic… sort of ignite public support for hope spots, protected areas aroundrnthe world.  It doesn’t matterrnreally what you call them; a sanctuary, a reserve, whatever it is.  Different organizations have gone byrndifferent names, but it’s time to have an umbrella term, something that willrnallow others to do their thing, but within a framework of working together, sorn"hope spots."  Mission Blue to pullrntogether, to get others engaged who haven’t typically been engaged.  Pull on them.  Draw on the entertainers to celebrate using theirrntalents.  People ask, “What can Irndo?”  I hold up a mirror.  What can you do?  What are you good at?  Do you write?  Do you sing?  Dornyou have a way with numbers?  Arernyou 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 Saidrnexpeditions and again the TEDsters as they are known… call themselves... and ChrisrnAnderson pulled together to have an expedition and we worked with LindbladrnExpeditions, the National Geographic Lindblad ship the Endeavor to go to thernGalapagos Islands, a place is an iconic place that has lots of reason for hope.  Good things are happening there, butrnthere are also concerns because fishing continues to degrade the oceansrnsurrounding the islands and degrade the chances that wildlife have and peoplernhave to make this a source of hope for the future, so we had the expeditionrnthere with 100 people from different areas of expertise that even thernscientists, although we’re scientific colleagues and know one another and therernwere maybe 30 of us in this mix of 100 people who are experts in our relativernrespective disciplines, but we hadn’t been captured together in a place for arnpiece of time where we had a chance to really think in new ways about this realrnproblem of how do we take care of the ocean and inspire the public at large andrnpeople with other talents to pull together and that what actually did happen inrnthe Mission Blue expedition that has had a magical effect on everybody who wasrnthere to mobilize the powers that they have and pull together and to create arnnew wave of understanding.

Recorded April 14th, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen

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