Ever since she was knocked over by a wave as a little girl, oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle has been fascinated by the ocean. One of the world's best known marine scientists and a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, Earle loves to dive deep into the ocean. She has spent much of her life in or under the waves. Now in her effort to save the oceans, she wants to make it uncool to eat a tuna fish sandwich and to understand the impact that humans have on the ocean each time we eat seafood or use pesticide on the garden bugs.
What were you like as a kid and where did you grow up?
Earle: Growing up is a long process and I am not working too hard at achieving it. My personal beginning was in south (New) Jersey on a little farm. My parents moved to Florida when I was 12 and my backyard was the Gulf of Mexico.
My first encounter with the ocean was on the Jersey Shore when I was three years old and I got knocked over by a wave. The ocean certainly got my attention! It wasn’t frightening, it was more exhilarating. And since then life in the ocean has captured my imagination and held it ever since. The big craggy horse shoe crabs along the beach on the Jersey shore—I thought they were wonderful and I felt so superior to the adults who thought they were scary creatures. I knew they weren’t scary, and I knew they were beautiful. They weren’t trying to attack me or anyone else—they were just minding their own business.
How did you get to be a scientist or explorer?
Earle: It was easy. I started out as a kid and never did grow up. The best scientists and explorers have the attributes of kids! They ask question and have a sense of wonder. They have curiosity. Who, what, where, why, when, and how! They never stop asking questions and I never stop asking questions just like a five year old.
What do you daydream about?
Earle: Going under water...Saving the ocean...Being a fish…Or imagine being an eel and with no arms or legs and just slithery body, slide around, and then tuck back in a burrow with just your face sticking out....I would love to slip into the skin of a fish and know what it’s like to be one. They have senses that I can only dream about. They have a lateral line down their whole body that senses motion, but maybe it does more than that. Or to be a blue whale, the biggest animal on Earth and to sense sound that has traveled over hundreds, maybe thousands of miles, and to have it as a part of my life. I daydream about that, doesn’t everybody?
What do you do for fun or to be silly?
Earle: I live!
Do you have a hero?
Earle: I have lots of heroes. All my fellow National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence are heroes, each in his or her own way. They are wonderful creatures, every one.
As a child my parents were my heroes, and my brothers (I have an older one and a younger one); a few outstanding teachers along the way; and relatives, especially aunts and uncles. They took joy in making others happy. My family did not have wealth in the traditional sense, but they were blessed with the kind of wealth that really counts. I knew no matter much trouble I got into my parents would stand by me.
Did you get into a lot of trouble?
Earle: Of course! And they always stood by me.
What is the best place you have ever traveled to?
Earle: It’s always the next place. And I love to go back to the places I have known over the years, because one of the things that motivates me above all else is to do whatever I can to make the world aware of how much is changing and how fast it’s changing, and what the consequences are to us.
The impact that humans, our species has had on Earth since I was a child is greater than during all preceding human history put together. For one thing there are more of us. When I arrived there were two billion people and now there are more than six billion, so there are more than three times the people and the planet has not gotten any larger. The pressure that we are putting on the land, the air, the water, and the wildlife that keeps us alive has been stressed significantly. And as a witness to the changes, I feel compelled to share the view. Especially what’s happened to the sea.
I have had the privilege of spending more time than others in the ocean and seen things that others haven’t. People need to know. You can’t care if you don’t know and most people simply don’t know. My self appointed job is to inspire people to go see for themselves and to use their talents whatever they are to make a difference for themselves and for the natural world, because it all ties together.
Why is the ocean so important to life on Earth?
Earle: The ocean is the cornerstone of our life support system and the cornerstone of the ocean’s life support system is life in the ocean. The ocean is alive. Oxygen is generated by living creatures. They are part of the system and food chains in the sea drive those systems. Every fish fertilizes the water in a way that generates the plankton that ultimately leads back into the food chain, but also yields oxygen, grabs carbon—it’s a part of what makes the ocean function and what makes the planet function.
Take away the ocean and we don’t have a planet that works. Take away life in the ocean and we don’t have a planet that works. All life needs water, but all life needs other forms of life to have the prosperous, complex communities of life, ecosystems of life that ultimately over four-and-a-half billion years arrived at a state that is just right for humankind.
If we could magically transport ourselves back to the young Earth, when it was only a billion years old or two billion years old or three billion years old, or four billion years old we wouldn’t be able to survive. We would have a hard time surviving if we were transported to the time when dinosaurs were around.
There is a terribly terrestrial mindset about what we need to do to take care of the planet—as if the ocean somehow doesn’t matter or is so big, so vast that it can take care of itself, or that there is nothing that we could possibly do that we could harm the ocean. I have heard endlessly that fish are so resilient that there is no way that you could exterminate a species. We are learning otherwise.
What is the best piece of advice anyone has ever given you?
Earle: Don’t take no for an answer and find out what you want to do and then find a way to make it happen. You can spend many lifetimes fulfilling the dreams of others. But if you have a dream of your own, don’t wait. Just find a way to make that dream come true. Don’t let people say it’s impossible or it’s foolish.
That is the great thing about dreams they never stop. That’s the great thing about exploration—it’s never over.
What can’t you travel without?
Earle: I rarely travel without a camera. I am not a photographer, but taking photographs helps me to remember and to document. Oh, and a bathing suit.
What can kids do to help the ocean?
Earle: The ocean is vulnerable. What we do or don’t do will make a difference. As individuals, kids can make a difference. The only difference that has been made ever in the world, for good or for not so good, always starts with somebody, an individual. It might as well be a kid!
The first thing you need to do is hold up a mirror and ask yourself who am I? What do I love? What am I good at? If you are good with words, then use those words. If you are good with numbers, use numbers. Do you play a musical instrument, write a song and play an instrument. Are you a teacher, use that talent. Adults, take a kid to a wild place. If you are a kid, grab an adult and take them somewhere and show them the future through your eyes.
We need to convey a sense of urgency because the world is changing. The next ten years is likely to be the most important time in the next 10,000 years. We have options that we are going to lose within ten years unless we take action now. Every day options close. When I was a child the last monk seal in the Gulf of Mexico Caribbean Sea was seen. None has been seen there since 1952. I never got to see one. What else are we losing every day that children will never get to see that we can see now, like tuna fish?
I have seen the decline of tunas that should cause everyone to shriek in horror when they see a tuna fish sandwich, or sushi or sashimi and say, what? We can’t eat tuna! They are endangered. They may not be officially on someone’s list, but just look at the numbers. We have lost on the order of 90 percent in a few decades. So how many decades before the [tuna] are all gone if we keep eating them this way? So everyone can make a difference just by changing what they eat. Give up tuna. It’s not going to be a big loss, because going back not so many years ago, no one ate tuna unless you were on an island somewhere where tuna were easy to catch. It’s new item in our diet, and it’s taken a short period to come close to eliminating not one species, but a whole series of these fast moving top predators in the sea that are so important to the health and integrity of ocean systems.
We need to make it uncool to eat tuna, or swordfish, or grouper, or snapper, or other ocean wildlife. We need to give them a break. In the stone age we had no choices. We had lots of wildlife and few of us. Now we have six-and-a-half billion people with wildlife under great stress, we need to protect every fish alive because they are much more valuable as part of the natural world that keeps us alive, than they are cooked on a plate. When you think about it, it’s barbaric, that we should consume ocean wildlife even before we have names for some of these creatures. We should eat low on the food chain. Once I understood the real cost of ocean wildlife, I lost my appetite for it and it appalls me that we are so indifferent to the destructive activities that bring seafood to our plate. In the process we are not just losing the wildlife in the sea, we are losing the integrity of the life support system—their future and ours.