Krista Tippett, host: She’s known affectionately by her fellow scientists as “Her Deepness.” The oceanographer Sylvia Earle earned this nickname in 1979. That year, she became the first person to walk solo on the bottom of the world, on the ocean floor, under a quarter-mile of water — 600 pounds of pressure per square inch. She’s watched humanity’s enduring fascination with outer space while she has delighted in “inner space,” the alien and increasingly endangered worlds beneath earth’s waters. These frontiers, as Sylvia Earle points out, are our very life-support system. She takes us inside the knowledge she’s gathered there from a lifetime of research.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]
Sylvia Earle: That’s the joy of being a scientist and explorer. You do what little children do. You ask questions like: Who? What? Why? When? Where? How? [laughs] And you never stop, and you never cease being surprised. It’s just impossible to be bored.
Ms. Tippett: And you’re still diving, aren’t you?
Ms. Earle: Well, yeah: I breathe. So I can dive. [laughs]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]
Ms. Tippett: Sylvia Earle is a marine biologist and botanist, a National Geographic explorer-in-residence, and former chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In the course of her career, she has led more than 100 expeditions and logged thousands of hours underwater. In 1970, she led an historic team of all-female “aquanauts,” as they were called, living for two weeks in an enclosed habitat on the ocean floor. When I interviewed her in 2012, she’d just returned from a dive in Panama. Sylvia Earle spent the first part of her childhood on New Jersey farmland. Then her father moved the family near the ocean, to Clearwater, Florida, to take a new job.
Ms. Tippett: I want to tell you — I know I had heard of your work, but I was listening to the BBC in the middle of the night, which I do sometimes, and you were on a program. And you have the most beautiful voice. I’m sure people have told you that. But if you hadn’t been an oceanographer, the radio person in me, as much as the person who’s fascinated by what you do, just wanted to be talking to you, get you on the radio.
Ms. Earle: Well, thank you. I’m a fish whisperer. [laughs]
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Great, OK. And so it’s clear to me that you discovered the natural world in general, and water in particular, and then, the ocean, in your earliest life. This seems to have — from as far back as you can remember, have been part of you and your imagination.
Ms. Earle: A critter person — I think children generally start out that way, given a chance to explore even in their own backyard. So often, the adults around them will say, “Oh, don’t touch that beetle,” or, “Ugh, an earthworm,” or, “Caterpillars, yuck.” And my parents were different — especially my mother, who was known as the “bird lady” in the neighborhood, because any injured creature, not just the birds, found their way to her doorstep. And we had, almost always, a hospital for small injured animals in motion. And they mostly recovered too. She had a way with all kinds of life, including children, myself included.
Ms. Tippett: And then, eventually, you actually moved to Florida, and you were on the ocean.
Ms. Earle: Yes, the Gulf of Mexico was my backyard from the age of 12 onward, and I still regard it as my backyard, laboratory, play place.
Ms. Tippett: That’s lovely. Was there a spiritual background to your childhood, or a religious background to that passion that your mother had for nature?
Ms. Earle: I think there is a basic ethical attitude: respect for life, respect for other humans, certainly, but for all forms of life. It’s something that if everyone could just realize how special it is to be alive on this little blue speck in the universe, it’s a miracle that life exists at all and that we have a piece of time that is ours — whoever we are, shorter or longer, whatever it is, but — to really be a part of the action and to respect where we have come from, where we might be going.
And from my parents, I think I derived an attitude about wanting to make sure that whatever it is that we do, we try to leave the place better than we found it, or at least as good. My mother used to come into my room and remind me that I should try to leave the place better than I found it. [laughs] And my father would watch me try to take things apart — it was my inclination to see how things worked — and he reminded me that we should remember how to put things back together again when you take them apart, try not to lose any of the pieces.
And I’ve taken that to heart, over the years, just looking at what we generally are doing to the planet. We don’t know how to put things back together again. We certainly are good at taking things apart, and we have lost a lot of the pieces.
Ms. Tippett: Right. So I want to go through, a bit, your journey of knowing what you know, but also just this sense of discovery that I have, all the way through, and beginning — you often talk about this invitation in the summer of 1964 as one of the moments that literally changed your life.
Ms. Earle: I was a graduate student at Duke, on my way, I hoped, to get a Ph.D. I hadn’t crossed all the T’s and passed all the exams yet. But one of my fellow colleagues at Duke was scheduled to go on an expedition to the Indian Ocean for six weeks, and at the last moment, he had to drop out. He was much better qualified than I was to do this, and I had never been west of the Mississippi or out of the country, let alone to go to the Indian Ocean. But I was supported by my parents and by my then-husband, who I think would like to have gone himself, but he wasn’t invited; I was. And I said yes, and so I was accepted. And it was only when we were right in the closing, almost, hours of getting ready for departure, when I had a call from Ed Chin, who was the chief scientist. And he said, “You know, this may not be a problem, but you should know, you’re going to be the only woman on board, and there are 70 men.”
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Seventy.
Ms. Earle: I said, “Oh, I don’t see that to be a problem.” [laughs] And it really wasn’t.
The only thing was that when I got to Mombasa, our leaping-off place to get on the ship to take off on this cruise, I was interviewed along with the other scientists — there were 12 of us. And we were asked to describe what we were planning to do. And we poured our hearts out about the work that we were hoping to undertake, the explorations among the islands of the northwest Indian Ocean; the diving. We were able to dive there for the first time, in many places. The fish were totally innocent of the actions of any human being. And we had some deep-water equipment, as well. But the next day, The Mombasa Times headline said, “Sylvia sails away with 70 men.” And the subtitle was, “But she expects no problems.”
Actually, the kind of problems I think they were thinking of were not the kind of problems that were there at all. Our real problem was: How do you explore the ocean when you’re sitting on the deck of a ship, and the average depth of the ocean — average depth — is two and a half miles, and we’re right there on the surface with these pathetic little tools to try to sample this huge expanse of living blue?
Ms. Tippett: I was very struck to read that scuba, which was then called the Aqua Lung, had just been invented, I guess, when you were beginning your graduate studies.
Ms. Earle: Yeah, I was lucky to be among the first to have a chance to try scuba in the United States. There were a couple of units that my major professor, Harold Humm, had secured. They were really, it looked like, most appropriate for U.S. Navy divers, with a big mouthpiece and just very basic tank regulator and a weight belt. [laughs] I had two words of instruction: “Breathe naturally; over the side.”
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] But what did that make possible? It sounds like that really opened a whole new world.
Ms. Earle: Oh, it did, for me; it has, for millions of people now. Now we have been able to see, first of all, that the ocean is alive. It’s not just water; rocks, water, sand, whatever. It’s a living system, every spoonful that you look at. We think of life in the sea in terms of fish and whales and coral reefs and the like, but most of the action is very small, microscopic and submicroscopic.
Ms. Tippett: And that really was new knowledge in your lifetime.
Ms. Earle: I feel like a witness to — I am — to the greatest era of change on the planet as a whole. Anybody who’s been around even for ten years is a part of this, but the longer you’ve been around, the more you’ve seen. And the last half-century, in particular, has been a time of revolutionary change. We didn’t know the existence of those great mountain chains, hydrothermal vents, the existence of life in the deepest sea, seven miles down. Nobody had been there. Not until 1960 was it possible for two men to make a descent to the deepest part of the sea.
[music: “Sekundun” by Swod]
Ms. Tippett: You did a very remarkable thing — also one of those milestones — in 1979. This is, I think, at the time that people started to dub you “Her Deepness,” which — [laughs] what a wonderful nickname to have — which was called the “JIM dive.” And that’s after the suit, I guess, that made that possible. Is that correct?
Ms. Earle: Yeah, Jim is the name of the first person willing to put that one-person diving system on, going back to the late 1920s; Jim Jarrett, in England, working with the designer Joseph Peress, who came up with a way to build a diving suit made of metal. Most diving suits prior to that time were soft suits, so you felt the pressure, but the idea here was to develop something that a person could be inside the system at one atmosphere — no change in pressure from the surface — so that no decompression was required.
The system had to be strong, of course, like a submarine; but also, because it looked like an astronaut suit with arms and legs, his breakthrough, Joseph Peress’s breakthrough, was to have joints that could move under pressure. But the idea that you had a personal submersible, a submarine that you could wear and walk around, protected from the pressure, was sort of revolutionary.
Ms. Tippett: And so you actually walked — were the first person to walk the ocean floor at 1,250 feet without a tether.
Ms. Earle: Back to the surface; there’s a short line connecting me to my companion, that little submarine called the Star II. I rode down on the nose of that little submarine, and then I walked off. But there’s a line connecting the communication system from the submarine to me, so we could talk, and the submarine could talk to the surface, so we had this link back to those who were eager to know, “What’s going on down there?” And there was a through-water communication system that worked for the sub, but not for me in the little suit.
Ms. Tippett: So what was going on down there? What did you see when you looked around, when you looked up? What was that like?
Ms. Earle: Well, the first experience is going through the sunlit area and into what generally is known as the “twilight zone,” where sunlight fades and darkness begins to take over. It’s like the deepest twilight or earliest dawn. You can see shapes, but not really distinct forms. And this begins at about 500 feet. And by the time you get down to 600 feet, 200 meters or so, it’s really, really dark. It’s like starlit circumstances. A thousand feet and below, it is truly dark, but still, enough light penetrates clear ocean water in the middle of the day — and that’s when I made the dive, right about high noon in September — I could see shapes even at 400 meters, at 1,250 feet or so. That was exciting, just to be able to realize that that glow, that soft glow, was the sky above, separated by 1,250 feet of water.
[music: “Bronze Leaves Fall First” by Aeroc]
But the flash and sparkle and glow of bioluminescent creatures. There were corals that just grow in a single stretch, no branches, like giant bedsprings, from the ocean floor. And when I touched them, little rings of blue fire pulsed all the way down, from where I touched to the base of these spiraling creatures. They were taller than I. They’re just beautiful creatures. They call them bamboo coral, because they have joints that resemble the joints on a bamboo plant.
The submarine headlights were on, and I asked them to turn them off so that I could see the darkness and revel in the bioluminescence. It’s that firefly kind of light. But also, when the lights were on, I could see crabs that were attached to these large corals that grow on the sea floor. Some are pink, some are orange, some are yellow, some are black. They’re just beautiful. It’s a garden. It looks like a flower garden. And the red crabs were hanging onto these great sea-fan-like structures. They looked like shirts on the line. In that little bit of current, they were just slowly moving. There were eels that were wrapped around the base of the coral. It was just beautiful, really ethereal.
[music: “Bronze Leaves Fall First” by Aeroc]
Ms. Tippett: And you were down there for two hours?
Ms. Earle: On the bottom, two and a half hours; and I later spoke with an astronaut friend, Buzz Aldrin, and he said, “Well, that’s about as long as we had to walk on the moon, two and a half hours.” But what they did not have on the moon, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong and those who came later, they didn’t have just this avalanche of life, this great diversity all around, everywhere you looked. There were little fish with lights down the side. Of course, the corals themselves are alive. There were little burrows of creatures that were dwelling in the sediments on the sea floor. The water itself, it’s like minestrone, except all the little bits are alive.
Ms. Tippett: And, you know, as I hear you talk about that, and you made the connection with Buzz Aldrin — so I was born in 1960, and I still remember crowding around the television set with my family, and everyone I knew was doing this, when men first walked on the moon. And what you did was as remarkable, and it’s not something that made such a sensation, which — I know you’ve talked and thought about this a lot, our fascination as human beings with outer space, when, as you describe it, there’s this inner space, which is even less explored at this point.
Ms. Earle: And keeps us alive, oh, by the way. [laughs]
Ms. Tippett: And keeps us alive, right. [laughs]
Ms. Earle: And it’s changing. It’s in trouble, and that means we’re in trouble, and we know so little about the ocean. Only about five percent has been seen, let alone explored. Anyone looking for new frontiers, think: “ocean,” because it’s really important, and it is there to be done. It’s true on the land, as well. I had lunch once with Clare Boothe Luce, stateswoman, playwright, just a remarkable human being. And this question came up about why is it that people are so smitten with everything that goes up, skyward, and seem to neglect the ocean and, actually, this planet as a whole? And this was in her home in Hawaii, and there’s some big, puffy, white clouds drifting by, and blue sky. And she said, “Well, my dear, it’s actually simple. Heaven is in that direction, and you know what’s the other way.” [laughs]
And there is something to that. People are “uplifted.” And you think, “Oh, they’re feeling really down.” Our language reflects — “You’re in over your head” — that’s not a good thing, right? Anyway, it’s bizarre.
Ms. Tippett: Right, and light is up and dark is down. But then, what you discovered is …
Ms. Earle: There’s heaven on earth. It just happens to be in the ocean. [laughs]
[music: “Chris’s California Trip” by Michael Brook]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with the legendary oceanographer Sylvia Earle.
[music: “Chris’s California Trip” by Michael Brook]
Ms. Tippett: It seems to me that in the mid-20th century, late 20th century, there was this idea out there that the ocean, of all things, could take care of itself; that it was vast, so powerful, so inscrutable. I wonder, how do you trace your sense — and I do sense that this evolved — that the ocean is in trouble and much more vulnerable and responsive to human life than, I think, most of us anyway, realized?
Ms. Earle: Well, it’s not just clear to me. It’s the recognition that we have the capacity to draw down the “assets,” if you want to call them that, but the populations of wildlife in the sea. There are policies put in place in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, and even current policies, that seem, perversely, to be based on the assumption that there’s a large quantity of excess out there that we can extract from the ocean, in terms of the number of fish or whales.
Ms. Tippett: That it was kind of a limitless supply, right?
Ms. Earle: Right, and that no matter how much we took, it would always regrow. And now we know otherwise, because since the 1950s, and in some cases, since the 1980s, we have gone from one species after another and drawn them down by as much as 90 percent. In some cases, 99 percent of some species are gone because of our capacity to find, kill, extract, and market, consume, things such as — well, we already, by the 1950s, had demonstrated our power to do this with whales.
Right now, the number of several of the great whale species is so depressed, they may not recover: bowheads, a few thousand. Some of the smaller dolphins and small whale species — in the Sea of Cortez, the vaquita, a few hundred individuals; in New Zealand, there are two kinds of dolphins that are limited to just a few hundred individuals. So we may be the last to know them. The last seal in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, the monk seal of that area, was seen in 1952.
Ms. Tippett: I didn’t know that.
Ms. Earle: I was a child, and I didn’t even know they existed. Imagine: seals on Miami Beach or seals in Galveston Bay. They used to go as far north as Galveston. And they’re gone forever. There’s still maybe a thousand individual monk seals of a different species in Hawaii, and fewer than that in the Mediterranean, but that’s it. So this is a critical time. We are at tipping points, not just for big, conspicuous species like goliath groupers and whale sharks and whales, but small creatures that we haven’t even discovered. Many are homebodies, so if you lose a particular stretch of reef, destroy it through dynamite fishing or through coastal transformation for building houses and things — so much has been lost in coastal areas — they’re gone before —
Ms. Tippett: So they lose their home, and they go to…
Ms. Earle: Well, and their lives — their lives. There are habitats with a whole host of creatures that occur there and only there.
Ms. Tippett: I read an interview that you gave together with Roger Payne, who you spent some time working with, and he and Katy Payne were known especially for studying the songs of whales and understanding how this worked and how, in fact, complex it is. You made this statement in this interview, I wanted to ask you about. You said, “For whatever it’s worth, the songs of the ’60s” — you were talking about the whale songs — “are much more beautiful to human ears than the songs of the ’70s.” You heard the change between the generations.
Ms. Earle: And now there’s so much sound in the ocean — something that we were simply not tuned into until fairly recently — that because of shipping, because of seismic surveys, the Navy does testing — even for science, in terms of trying to understand the temperature over broad areas of the sea; since sound travels at different rates, depending on the temperature, it’s possible to get some idea of what’s the ocean doing, because, since the ocean governs temperature, regulates climate and weather and so many things, it’s a valid experiment. But it’s a valid concern about what that sound, these pulses of sound, so large that they can travel across entire ocean basins — what that might do to wildlife that require sound for their mode of existence. And it’s not just marine mammals, although it certainly is marine mammals. It’s fish. It’s crustaceans. It’s life, generally, affected by the atmosphere of sound in which they live.
Ms. Tippett: I just recently interviewed an acoustic ecologist who’s working on — he’s very concerned about the preservation of natural sound and silence, but silence which he doesn’t define as the absence of sound, but the absence of noise.
Ms. Earle: That’s a wonderful definition.
Ms. Tippett: But he’s working in places like Yellowstone, and again, you’re just extending that.
Ms. Earle: Well, acoustic signals are so important to creatures in the sea. You can only see, even in the clearest ocean water, we’re talking a few hundred feet.
Ms. Tippett: So these creatures live by their ears and not their eyes, which is also hard for us to remember.
Ms. Earle: Most of the ocean is dark all of the time. And therefore, other signals — chemical signals, acoustic signals — really have a magnified importance over what we think of as communication.
Ms. Tippett: You have said that if you could travel back in time, you’d go to the Florida Gulf coast, 1,000 years ago. What would you find if you went there?
Ms. Earle: Well, people ask me, sometimes, “Where’s the best place to go diving?” And I say: Almost anywhere, 50 years ago. [laughs] Fifty years is a horizon, in terms of change — more change, truly, than during all preceding human history.
[music: “Lost” by Zoë Keating]
Here’s the wonderful thing, though. Diving into the ocean, it’s like diving into the history of life on earth, not just over the last 50 or 1,000, but the last million, 10 million, 100 million years, because creatures are there that have been there for several hundred million years, not those same creatures, but their near relatives, like jellyfish; like — well, sharks have been around for 300 million years; horseshoe crabs, creatures that lured me into the ocean as a child in New Jersey, have a history that goes back at least 300 million years; so many forms of life that were found in the ocean long before there were multicellular creatures occupying space on the land.
Ms. Tippett: So we talk about geologic time, but there’s also ocean time.
Ms. Earle: That’s right — [laughs] which is geologic time. It’s just a different way of thinking.
[music: “A Brief Walk in the Sea” by L’Eixample]
Ms. Tippett: You can listen again and share this conversation with Sylvia Earle through our website, onbeing.org. I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.
[music: “A Brief Walk in the Sea” by L’Eixample]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with marine biologist and ocean explorer Sylvia Earle. In 1979, she became the first person to do a solo walk on the sea floor without a lifeline, and it earned her the nickname “Her Deepness.” We’ve been talking about Sylvia Earle’s life of discovery of this vast realm of the natural world that is hidden from most of us. In recent years, she’s led the team of marine scientists providing content for the “Ocean in Google Earth.” She’s also often called in for counsel in ocean ecosystems after natural or manmade disasters.
Ms. Tippett: I know that over the years you’ve been called in, in times of epic catastrophes like the Exxon-Valdez spill, but you’ve also observed what happens to oceans after wars, and also are very aware of the accumulated effect of garbage, the great Pacific garbage patch. These are not things that I had really heard of, even as a fairly well-informed person.
Ms. Earle: Well, they didn’t exist until fairly recently. I think one of the reasons I am truly optimistic is that 50 years ago, even 20 years ago, we didn’t know. We did not have the capacity to see, to understand, what we now can see, can understand, about what we’re doing to the life-support system, the systems that keep us alive. Some people call this phenomenon the “boundaries” that hold the world together, if you will, and make a world hospitable for the likes of us. So now we know.
It’s partly because, ironically, the burning of fossil fuels — coal, oil, gas — to give us the energy in a very short period of time — dense forms of energy that enable us to send rockets into space, that enable us to power submersibles into the sea, and instrumentation that gives us communication that has — now we know, because of this capacity to look at ourselves with new eyes. But it couldn’t happen, had we been powering our civilization on whale oil or its predecessors. It’s only because of this amazing transformation, made possible through the energy sources that now, it turns out, are coming back to haunt us.
Ms. Tippett: Right; no, that is ironic.
Ms. Earle: But now we know, so we can use the power of knowledge. It’s all very straightforward, but it gets complicated when you think about the politics. That’s the problem.
Ms. Tippett: Well, it does, and so I’m wondering how what you know — what are some of the most direct and basic forms for ordinary people to take this knowledge in and act on it? We’re told to eat fish now, because it’s good for us. I’ve heard — I’ve understood that you don’t eat fish, or you don’t eat much fish, so tell me about that. How might we think differently about that, simple eating habits?
Ms. Earle: Well, the first thing that I suggest that people should do is, first of all, get informed, get up to speed. Everybody has access to information on a scale that is just breathtaking, compared to what was available even ten years ago. We can download Google Earth. We can look at the “Ocean in Google Earth” and dive beneath the surface. We can connect the dots. We can see wars, and we see the impact of wars on the other side of the planet, what that does to water.
Second, look in the mirror. Whatever it is, whoever it is you are, you have some kind of talent. It first starts with knowing — but do you have a way with music? A way with numbers? Are you a lawyer? Do you have some insight into policy? Do you have any position in office? Are you a mom? Are you a teacher? Are you a dad? Are you a fisherman? A communicator? Use your power.
Artists use their power: Jackson Browne has written a song that talks of — if he could be anywhere in time, it would be now. Why? Because this is the time. Ten years? Fifty years? We may have lost the chance to save bluefin tuna, because starting in the ’70s, we started to consume bluefin and other tunas at a scale that is unlike anything that they or any other creature in the ocean has ever known. We’ve drawn down the large fish, and many of the small ones too, by — on the average — 80 percent; sometimes, 90 percent, in some cases, 99 percent. There’s still a chance as long as some of them are there. Ten percent of the sharks are all that remain from when I was a child.
Ms. Tippett: I’ve read that you really enjoy swimming with sharks. Is that right?
Ms. Earle: Well, I go to Wall Street sometimes, yeah. [laughs] Washington, D.C.? Oh, yeah.
No, we used to think of sharks as bad guys — like the only good shark was a dead shark. And “man-eaters” — they used to tell me to “watch out for the man-eaters.” I said, “Well, I don’t qualify. You don’t have to worry about man-eaters. Women are safe.” But actually, sharks have to worry about humans eating sharks. We consume millions of sharks.
Ms. Tippett: Shark-eaters.
Ms. Earle: Yeah, we’re shark-eaters. If 50 people a year get bitten by sharks, that’s big news. But consider the number of shark deaths that we cause every year. Maybe as many as on the order of 80 million sharks are taken, largely for shark fins for the soup. That’s a new taste — not new in China, but newly accessible globally now. There are people who consider it a luxury, a delicacy, to eat sharks, who never would have dreamed of doing this even ten years ago, let alone 50 or 100.
Ms. Tippett: Clearly, there are people who survive on fish. But if you …
Ms. Earle: Not many.
Ms. Tippett: Not many? So I was going to say, would you like for people stop eating fish, based on what you know, if they could survive?
Ms. Earle: Well, for your own health, you should know what you’re eating. When you get served “catch of the day” or fish and chips, you have no idea what kind of fish it might be or where it’s been swimming or how old it is. Most people are not aware that unlike chickens, that can go to market from egg to adult to your plate in maybe six or seven months, maybe a year, but even little fish like herring take about three years to get to maturity. And a big fish, like tunas, according to Barbara Block, who studies bluefins in particular, but many other forms of life in the sea as well: 10 to 14 years for maturity. They can live to be 20, or maybe even 30 years, if left in the sea.
Orange roughy, a creature that is new on the menu in the last 20 years or so, because they occur in deep water — we never fished in 2,000 feet of water before — like Chilean sea bass, they take a long time to mature. For orange roughy, it’s on the order of 30 years. And that little fillet on your plate that may cost $8.95 a pound in your local supermarket — more than that in a restaurant, but nonetheless — may take 100 years. They can live to be, it seems, on the order of two centuries, like some whales; the bowhead whales may be as much as two centuries old. And so there’s not great efficiency in feeding ourselves with life from the sea that takes so long to grow.
The few fish that really are good choices, I think, are catfish, tilapia, and the variations on the theme of carp — the plant-eating creatures that — sunlight; plants; protein. And they grow fast. They taste good.
Ms. Tippett: Do you eat those?
Ms. Earle: I don’t. But for those who really want fish, or even for an efficient way to get protein, animal protein, it is better than chicken, to raise catfish and tilapia. It’s very fast and very efficient, and in closed systems.
[music: “A Little Something” by Aeroc]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with the legendary oceanographer, Sylvia Earle.
[music: “A Little Something” by Aeroc]
Ms. Tippett: I don’t want to finish before noting another piece of social change — evolution, if you will — that’s happened in your lifetime. You did mention, in that early expedition you were the one woman, and there were 70 men. And it’s just so interesting, looking through — reading you and reading about you, the headlines that accompanied you through your life: “Beacon Hill housewife to lead team of female aquanauts.” Or, after you were the first person, the first human being, and still that same only human being to walk at that depth on the ocean floor — “Brave mom’s historic dive to the bottom of the world.” [laughs].
How was that, being a mother, raising children, while doing all these amazing, historic things?
Ms. Earle: Well, first of all, they didn’t seem amazing, nor of historic consequence, at the time. And I guess time will tell, just how…
Ms. Tippett: It’s a funny thing about life, isn’t it?
Ms. Earle: It just happens. But I think these headlines, like — “Sylvia sails away with 70 men” — I think the real turning point probably came in 1970, when I applied to participate in the underwater living experiment that was taking place in the U.S. Virgin Islands, called the Tektite Project. I had already been diving in many places around the world by that time, and it didn’t occur to me that women would be excluded, and it didn’t occur to some other women who applied, as well. They just didn’t even bother to say that it was just for men. And when applications came in from women that had qualifications on a par with the men, the decision had to made: Shall there, or shall there not, be women? And Jim Miller, who was the head of the program, who I think had a really good relationship with his wife and probably had a really good mom — he had the decision to make, and he said: “Well, half the fish are female, half the dolphins and whales. I guess we could put up with a few women.”
But going back to the living underwater experiments and being referred to not as aquanauts, the women were referred to as “aqua-babes” and “aqua-bills” and even “aqua-naughties.” [laughs] It’s just astonishing.
Ms. Tippett: It is.
Ms. Earle: But we didn’t care what they called us as long as they let us go, and they did, fortunately.
Ms. Tippett: Here are some lines you wrote, I believe, and similar to how you described to me what it was like to walk on the bottom of the ocean, you said: “As I wandered through the area, the sub powering along behind, I concentrated on observing the corals, especially the bioluminescent spirals of bamboo. Why do they pulse with light? Why do they glow at night? How did they and their neighbors survive in the eternal night of the deep sea?” Are you still making discoveries, being surprised, asking new questions like that?
Ms. Earle: Always, always; that’s the joy of being a scientist and an explorer. You do what little children do. You ask questions, like: Who? What? Why? When? Where? How? [laughs] And you never stop, and you never cease being surprised. You just never stop that sense of wonder. It is fantastic that life exists at all. And I revel in just the joy of being out in some wild place, or even in my own backyard. Just look at a leaf. It’s an amazing thing what goes on in a leaf; and it happens all the time, and we can breathe because of it, or because of photosynthesis that takes place there and in the sea. Knowing that, I think it’s just impossible to be bored.
Ms. Tippett: And you’re still diving, aren’t you?
Ms. Earle: Well, yeah: I breathe. So I can dive. [laughs]
Ms. Tippett: Well, tell me, where have you been recently?
Ms. Earle: Well, a couple of weeks ago I was on an expedition off the coast of Panama, to a group of little islands called Coiba — beautiful little offshore islands, reefs, that have been, unfortunately, heavily exploited by fishing in recent times. I first went to Panama in 1965. And I go back — both coasts; Panama’s one of those blessed nations that has two oceans. And the changes in just the sharks — you used to see sharks all over the place. And now you’re lucky — I feel, really, so fortunate when I see a shark. It’s a sign of health, if you see a shark, because the system has to be in pretty good shape to accommodate big predators.
The site where the Tektite operation took place in 1970, I was back last year. The reefs are simply gone. They’re not there. The elkhorn and staghorn coral — it’s like a meltdown. It’s just rubble. And the fish? The scientists who worked on the fish — I was mainly looking at the interactions between the seaweeds and the fish that tend to munch on the seaweeds, the parrotfish and surgeonfish and the like, but there were about a dozen variations on the theme of grouper. And I saw one variation on the theme of grouper when I went back, and very few fish of any kind. It’s just heartbreaking.
But the good news is, nature is resilient, and places that have been protected in the last ten years show remarkable capacity to improve. That’s why I’m so pleased to be able to have this interview, to tell people, look, it’s not too late. There are things that you can do, that all of us together can do, to protect nature: to respect the trees, respect the fish, respect all forms of life, and realize, we’re part of the action.
[music: “Pompidou” by Portico Quartet]
Ms. Tippett: It seems like we are able to make a connection with creatures we see around us — birds, for example; a prominent example.
Ms. Earle: Right, right.
Ms. Tippett: It strikes me — when you talk about being at the bottom of the ocean, and there’s this incredible proliferation, this profusion of life and beauty and strangeness — is “mystery” a word you use? Is there something mysterious about the fact that there is such beauty and wildness kind of hidden from us?
Ms. Earle: Well, the whole planet is like that.
Ms. Tippett: The whole planet is, yeah — really?
Ms. Earle: But for sure, when you go into any part of the ocean — the kelp forests of California, the coral reefs of the Florida Keys, or in Hawaii or anywhere, even in lakes and rivers and streams — you’ll see creatures in a different way. Our atmosphere is air; theirs is water.
Look at a dragonfly larva. They have a face. Look at a dragonfly, an adult. It has a face. It’s odd; it looks alien, perhaps, to us. But if you line up 5,000 dragonflies or 5,000 grouper of one species or 5,000 black cats, you’ll find every one is different.
And it isn’t just that you can see subtle differences that set them apart, like — we know that with cats and dogs and horses and kids, humans, every face is really different. But it’s true with all forms of life. And I have such fun taking people to the Monterey Aquarium or the Aquarium of the Bay in San Francisco or anyplace — Boston Aquarium, New England Aquarium, whatever — where they can actually see fish swimming with something other than lemon slices and butter; they can actually see them face to face. And I say, “OK, now try to find two that are just exactly alike.” And you can’t. If you really look, the spots are different, the stripes are different, the position of the eye is just slightly off.
Ms. Tippett: It’s amazing, isn’t it?
Ms. Earle: It is. And the capacity for variation, coupled with the common ground that we share with bacteria, with jellyfish, with sponges, with groupers, with cats and dogs and horses — there’s a chemistry of life that has this capacity for enormous variation, maybe infinite variation. It’s a source of endless wonder and something that — it’s worth using our minds, that special gift that we have. There are other intelligent creatures out there — whales, dolphins, elephants, fish. Some of them are really smart. But they don’t know what we know. They can’t see the inside of a star or the inside of a starfish — except some of them, maybe, to eat them. But we have this power not only to explore, but we can go back in time. We can anticipate the future, far into the future. We can plot a course for ourselves based on intelligence. And the trick is: OK, homo sapiens, the smart ones, the wise ones — let’s take advantage of that capacity.
Ms. Tippett: Prove it. [laughs]
Ms. Earle: Yeah, prove it. Let’s put that into action and not just be like the bacteria on a dish that consume everything until they die. We don’t have to do that.
Ms. Tippett: I was going to ask you, as my final question, how this life that you’ve led, what you know, makes you think about what it means to be human; how that’s evolved. I think you probably just started to answer that question.
Ms. Earle: Well, humans — we are still the same basic creatures that we were, 10,000 years ago and before, so that we look at other forms of life, and the basic question comes to mind — “Is it going to eat me?” Or, “Can I eat it?” Some very basic things; or even, for other human beings, it’s — “Caution” — because survival is there. So we’re afraid of differences in others, whether it’s other people or other forms of life. But we have that power of knowing, power of judgment — the ability to choose. So I’m so glad to be a human, and I hope that I will live long enough to see this transition from an accelerating decline of circumstances that do not bode well for the human future or for life on earth as we know it.
Ms. Tippett: Well, I’m glad you’re a human too, and I have loved talking to you.
Ms. Earle: We’ll see you underwater someday, I hope.
Ms. Tippett: I’d love that. I was gonna ask, do you think everyone should scuba dive? Would that be a prescription?
Ms. Earle: Absolutely, everyone should.
Ms. Tippett: Yes? Did I read somewhere that your mother started scuba diving when she was 80 or something?
Ms. Earle: Eighty-one, yeah, and she scolded me for not getting her out there sooner, so hear, hear. Don’t scold me. I’m just trying to get you out there. If you’re 81, don’t wait any longer.
[music: “Escape Artist” by Zoë Keating]
Ms. Tippett: Sylvia Earle is founder of The Sylvia Earle Alliance and Mission Blue. She’s a National Geographic explorer-in-residence. Her books include The World is Blue, Sea Change, and Blue Hope: Exploring and Caring for Earth's Magnificent Ocean.
[music: “Escape Artist” by Zoë Keating]
Staff: On Being is Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Malka Fenyvesi, Erinn Farrell, Laurén Dørdal, Tony Liu, Brettina Davis, Bethany Iverson, Erin Colasacco, and Kristin Lin.
Ms. Tippett: Special thanks this week to National Geographic.
[music: “Good Luck Shore” by United Future Organization]
Ms. Tippett: Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice you hear, singing our final credits in each show, is hip-hop artist Lizzo.
On Being was created at American Public Media. Our funding partners include:
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Kalliopeia Foundation, working to create a future where universal spiritual values form the foundation of how we care for our common home.
Humanity United, advancing human dignity at home and around the world. Find out more at humanityunited.org, part of the Omidyar Group.
The Henry Luce Foundation, in support of Public Theology Reimagined.
The Osprey Foundation, a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives.
And the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based, private family foundation dedicated to its founders’ interests in religion, community development, and education.