Humble diving fins sped this scientist into history

National Geographic’s archive collects famous footwear—including these flippers worn by Sylvia Earle during some of her 8,000 hours under water.

This story appears in the December 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine.

They’re humble plastic-and-rubber dive fins, aged by hundreds of hours of exposure to salt water and sun—but they’ve been on great adventures. That’s because their owner is the barrier-breaking, record-setting oceanographer Sylvia Earle.

As a student of marine science in the 1950s, Earle adopted scuba equipment early on. She was the first woman to enter a lockout chamber of an underwater submersible (and was four months pregnant at the time); she led the first all-woman aquanaut team to live underwater for two weeks. In 1979 she descended 1,250 feet in a pressurized suit to walk on the ocean floor off Oahu, setting a record for the deepest dive made without a tether. On land Earle, a National Geographic explorer-in-residence, was the first woman to be chief scientist of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

How many pairs of fins has Earle gone through in her decades of scientific research? No one has an exact count. Nowadays she prefers a more high-tech fin design, a type also favored by U.S. special forces. The military’s fins are black, though, while Earle’s are a luscious red. She calls them her “ruby flippers.”

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