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Diving with Sylvia Earle in Palau

She’s the happiest woman in the world with a dour message of doom.

“Half of the world’s coral reefs are now gone—or at least in a state of severe decline,” says Oceanographer and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, Sylvia Earle.

She’s reporting a tragic truth that I’ve witnessed firsthand—bleached and broken coral in the Caribbean, Hawaii and Africa, or worse—land “reclamation” projects that involve dumping trash and bulldozing dirt over coral reefs, all in the name of progress and development.

“It’s not just what we’re taking out of the oceans that matters, but what we’re putting in—old fishing nets, chemicals, and garbage!” Sylvia goes on, emphatically shaking both hands.

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Oceanographer Sylvia Earle enters the water before diving in Palau. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic)

I met Her Deepness, Queen of the Oceans Sylvia Earle, aboard our private jet en route to Palau. Outside my round window, the ocean shone a heavenly turquoise, while inside, Sylvia danced between waving the flag of hope and some of the most depressing facts I’ve ever heard.

“90% of all sharks are now gone, compared to Earth’s shark population from half a century ago,” I remember her saying, as she presented her lecture on the plane.

Sylvia cares deeply about sharks, and now that we are in Palau, she is eager to see some. Palau is the very first Shark Sanctuary in the world, with marine areas set aside specifically as protected shark habitat.

“White tips, black tips, gray reef sharks,” Sylvia lists which species we might encounter on our Halloween dive. “Tiger sharks, too!” she smiles. She is not afraid of sharks—or anything, it seems. A good time for Sylvia is climbing into a 3-person submarine and descending to incomprehensible depths of the ocean, or meeting some hideously-looking sea creature that she can observe up close, underwater.

Together, we zoom across the flat dark blue surface of the sea, out to the famous Rock Islands of Palau. I am disappointed that at this hour of the morning, they do not resemble the postcard image I was expecting. Instead of emerald drops in a flawless green-blue sea of glass (like all the pictures show), the sea is opaque, the sky dark and the islands grey. A pile of clouds to the northwest displays an approaching storm and now I am feeling utterly unlucky.

As a diver, I prefer bright, sunny days, where the ocean turns into a cathedral of blue light and every fish glitters as it swims past. But now I fear that cloudy skies will make the ocean green and gloomy—bad for diving and even worse for filming underwater.

I am first to enter the water—slipping into the blue, and sticking my face mask into the dark deep. In a blink of light, a new world opens up, like stepping into a shadowed dream, where a million little fish are twirling around every odd-shaped clump of coral. All my apprehensions from the surface simply vanish. Here, now, immersed in the ocean, the force of wonder takes over and I float like a jellyfish, watching the sea down below.

Sylvia rolls backwards into the water with a carbonated splash, rivers of bubbles shoot upwards. I watch her descend twenty, thirty, forty feet as if the deeper she dives, the younger she becomes. At sixty feet, she transforms into a ballerina in blue, twirling, whirling and pointing her two fins just so, then shining her light on the coral or some timid, big-eyed squirrelfish.

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Oceanographer Sylvia Earle guides me along the reefs of Palau, in the South Pacific,(Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic)

“Fish—they all have faces!” I remember Sylvia saying, “Think of that next time you open a can of sardines!” It is a disturbing thought, actually, especially now that I am peering through my mask at so many of these faces all around me.

Watching fish on the reef is like watching people on the subway—some are totally placid and trucking along without a care, others are darting about nervously, looking for something important, while others are barreling past, in a rush.

“In the ocean, creatures will come down and inspect you—they are not afraid of you. Getting acquainted with them is part of the joy.” Sylvia said that, too, and we spend the greater part of an hour doing just that—getting acquainted with all the fish in the sea of Palau, from the teeny tiny juveniles to the immense Napoleon wrasse that passes overhead like a ship on auto-pilot.

The whole dive is glorious, but we see no sharks. I am disappointed, and so is Sylvia—a healthy reef has sharks on it, and though Palau remains one of the premier spots on the planet for spotting sharks, our foray along this particular reef turns up none of the predators.

But with Sylvia there is always hope. She is a glass half-full kind of person, so that even with all the destruction of coral reefs around the globe, she can point out that we still have 50% of our reefs left, and that it’s up to us to keep them alive and well.

Our little dive is reminder why it is so important—why these reefs matter, and what a good reef looks like—so that one day, none of us will be content until every coral reef in the world looks as nice as this one, in Palau.


This trip is one of the many ways to travel with National Geographic Expeditions. To learn more about all of our travel programs, click here.

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