Sylvia Earle is always seeking the unknown–even if she isn’t guaranteed a precise answer. The legendary oceanographer–the New Yorker dubbed Earle “Her Deepness”–has been exploring the deep sea for more than four decades, leading countless underwater expeditions (including the first team of female aquanauts, in 1970), conducting game-changing research on marine ecosystems, and setting a solo dive record.
She’s also one of National Geographic’s explorers-in-residence, an elite group of scientists and adventurers who, with the Society’s support, serve as visionaries in their field, doing groundbreaking work that not only improves our understanding of the planet we share but makes it a better place. Earle recently returned from a trip with National Geographic Expeditions in Palau, and took time to share reflections on her career, her thoughts on travel, and what it’s like to swim with 13 million jellyfish.
Andrea Leitch: What’s your happy place?
Sylvia Earle: Being underwater.
AL: What is it like to be a National Geographic explorer-in-residence?
SE: To have a mandate to explore, to take risks, to ask questions and seek answers even if there is no certainty that you will find them, is a rare position to have. Often support is given to scientists only if they can demonstrate with reasonable certainty that their research predictions will be fulfilled. Actually, unexpected results often turn out to be much more interesting. This is what puts the NGS in a league apart from most–a commitment to go for the unknown, the unpredictable–to go to the edge, then leap or fly or swim off.
AL: What inspired you to become an oceanographer?
SE: [Growing up] in New Jersey I was enchanted with horseshoe crabs that come ashore to lay their eggs and was thrilled to see them in the Gulf of Mexico when my parents moved the family to Florida when I was 12 years old. My backyard was blue and filled with amazing creatures.
I have always wanted to be a scientist, a biologist who focuses on living plants, animals, and systems in their own element, not in the confines of a laboratory. Early on I discovered that the greatest diversity and abundance of life on Earth are in the ocean, so it was natural that I would make choices that led to being a marine scientist, an oceanographer who uses the living ocean as the ultimate “laboratory.”
AL: What’s your favorite thing about scuba diving?
SE: Scuba gives those willing to take the plunge a passport into the ocean–and for me, it inspired an insatiable desire to go deeper and stay longer.
AL: What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen underwater?
SE: I have been lucky to experience many “first encounters” with creatures innocent about the nature of human beings. I have done my best not to betray the trust and curiosity fish have when they come toward me, unafraid, and follow me around, looking over my shoulder.
Every dive is memorable for many reasons, but I had a unique encounter with a large animal in 1,300 feet of water that very nearly did not happen.
I was preparing to return to the surface after a four-hour dive in the Deep Worker sub when I glimpsed a shadowy “something” just at the edge of my vision and far from the camera’s view. Following a hunch, I moved the sub for a better view and saw eyes looking back at me from the silver-red body of a huge octopus. I begged the sub crew on the surface ship for an extension of time, although my buddy sub had already been retrieved and a storm was closing in.
The octopus was clearly curious about the glowing thing in her midst–a tightly held cluster of eggs defined her gender–and repeatedly she glided to the sub’s clear dome, glided away, and remained in place as I glided toward her. In a slow motion hour-long dance, we ascended to about 1,000 feet, all fully recorded except for the first ten minutes when I was so excited that I forgot to put a DVD in the machine!
AL: How does it feel to walk untethered on the ocean floor?
SE: I was thrilled but not surprised to see thriving communities of corals, red long-clawed crabs, small fish with lights down each side–many things I had previously seen crumpled together in nets that had been dragged through their midst.
While doing research for the Exploring the Deep Frontier, I learned of the existence of an articulated metal suit called JIM that enables divers to remain at surface pressure while diving more than 1,000 feet underwater. Arrangements were made with the suit’s owners, Oceaneering International, for me to use JIM to make scientific observations–and to write about the experience for the book and an article for National Geographic magazine.
I knew from thousands of hours of diving in shallower depths that there was no substitute for actually being underwater observing fish and other animals on their own terms, but this was the first time I had been able to explore in a diving suit that enabled me to go deeper–much deeper!–than I could with scuba.
I thought of what Jane Goodall would know of her beloved chimpanzees if she studied them dead, captured in a net and dragged up to an aircraft flying over the forest–equivalent to the way many marine scientists have sampled the ocean from the deck of a ship before submersibles could take them into deep water directly.
AL: What is the most memorable underwater scene you witnessed?
SE: There is no one “most memorable thing,” but taken as a whole, the swift, dramatic decline of the ocean since I first began exploring the sea is by far the most shocking scene of all and has provoked me to spend many days every year doing my best to convey the urgency of taking measures to reverse the alarming trend–for the sake of life in the sea—and the future of human lives as well.
AL: Have you ever been afraid while diving?
SE: I am much more concerned about dangers on the highway than I am while underwater. Nothing in the sea is as unpredictable or hazardous as meeting traffic head-on while traveling 60 miles an hour separated by a line of yellow paint and (you hope) a mutual desire to live.
AL: What do you never leave home without while traveling?
SE: I am not a professional photographer, but I always always always take one or sometimes many cameras with me to document what I am seeing and doing.
AL: What makes Palau unique, and why is it an important place to you?
SE: Eugenie Clark wrote about her experiences as a young ichthyologist diving in Palau in the 1950s in search of her favorite group of fish, the puffers, and their relatives. I dreamed of seeing for myself the spectacular reefs she described and meeting the people of Palau who welcomed her and shared their wisdom concerning the amazing diversity of fish and other wildlife that make their home there.
For years, I read, wrote, and spoke about the special nature of Palau, and finally, in 2007, I managed to go to there on a diving expedition with my daughter, Gale Mead, and the “original mermaid” (remember Splash?), Daryl Hannah, and for the first time I was able to personally revel in the legendary populations of sharks, see the magnificent reefs, and begin to personally document the astonishing diversity of marine plants and animals that live there.
Since then, I have been to Palau several times and enjoyed meeting with the president, Tommy Remengesau, and other officials and residents concerning their efforts to increase protection for the country’s greatest asset–a healthy ocean.
AL: What does it look like underwater in the Rock Islands?
SE: Disney’s Fantasia doesn’t come close to the interplay of light, color, and motion, and best of all–it’s real and alive.
AL: What’s it like to swim with 13 million jellyfish in Jellyfish Lake?
SE: Imagine immersing yourself in a pool of warm, salty water with blue sky above and below, soft, warm, pulsating gelatin slathering your body. Actually, that description doesn’t do justice to the beauty of being in the midst of thousands of delicate animals whose history precedes that of humans by hundreds of millions of years, and who are serenely indifferent to the presence of primates gliding around in their space.
AL: How can travelers help protect marine areas they visit?
SE: First, be respectful of what is there–the culture, the traditions, and certainly the natural systems. It seems odd to me that many people look forward to going to beautiful places such as Palau and then order fish, lobsters, and other local wildlife to eat– rather like going to Africa to see the wildlife, then dining on the lions. Your choices–and your voices–can help by encouraging responsible tourism–a valuable form of education.
AL: What would be your trip of a lifetime?
SE: Repeated, meaningful, round-trip working dives in a glass submarine to the greatest depths of the sea, accompanied by my children, grandchildren, and others for whom such an experience would have an enduring impact.
AL: Any last words?