Sylvia Earle was born in Gibbstown, New Jersey. Her parents raised her on a small farm near Camden. From the time she was very small, Sylvia loved exploring the woods near her home. She was fascinated by the creatures and plants that lived in the wild. Neither of her parents had a college education, but they too loved nature, and they taught young Sylvia to respect wild creatures and not to be afraid of the unknown. Those who have followed her adult career may wonder if she is afraid of anything.
When Sylvia was 13, the family moved to Clearwater, Florida, on the Gulf of Mexico. Soon, Sylvia was learning all she could about the wildlife of the Gulf and its coast. Her parents could not afford to send her to college themselves, but she was an exceptional student and won scholarships to the Florida State. Throughout her school years, she supported herself by working in college laboratories.
Here, she first learned scuba diving, determined to use this new technology to study marine life at first hand. Fascinated by all aspects of the ocean and marine life, Sylvia decided to specialize in botany. Understanding the vegetation, she believes, is the first step to understanding any ecosystem.
After earning her Master’s at Duke University, Sylvia Earle took time off to marry and start a family but remained active in marine exploration. In 1964, when her children were only two and four, she left home for six weeks to join a National Science Foundation expedition in the Indian Ocean. Throughout the mid-1960s, she struggled to balance the demands of her family with scientific expeditions that took her all over the world.
In 1966 Sylvia Earle received her Ph.D. from Duke. Her dissertation “Phaeophyta of the Eastern Gulf of Mexico” created a sensation in the oceanographic community. Never before had a marine scientist made such a long and detailed first-hand study of aquatic plant life. Since then she has made a lifelong project of cataloguing every species of plant that can be found in the Gulf of Mexico.
Dr. Earle’s burgeoning career took her first to Harvard, as a research fellow, then to the resident directorship of the Cape Haze Marine Laboratory, in Florida. In 1968, Dr. Earle traveled to a hundred feet below the waters of the Bahamas in the submersible Deep Diver. She was four months pregnant at the time.
In 1969 she applied to participate in the Tektite project. This venture, sponsored jointly by the U.S. Navy, the Department of the Interior and NASA allowed teams of scientist to live for weeks at a time in an enclosed habitat on the ocean floor fifty feet below the surface, off the Virgin Islands. By this time, Sylvia had spent more than a thousand research hours underwater, more than any other scientists who applied to the program, but, as she says, “the people in charge just couldn’t cope with the idea of men and women living together underwater.”
The result was Tektite II, Mission 6, an all-female research expedition led by Dr. Earle herself. In 1970, Sylvia Earle and four other women dove 50 feet below the surface to the small structure they would call home for the next two weeks.
The publicity surrounding this adventure made Sylvia Earle a recognizable face beyond the scientific community. To their surprise, the scientists found they had become celebrities and were given a ticker-tape parade and a White House reception. After that Sylvia Earle was increasingly in demand as public speaker, and she became an outspoken advocate of undersea research. At the same time, she began to write for National Geographic and to produce books and films. Besides trying to arouse greater public interest in the sea, she hoped to raise public awareness of the damage being done to our aquasphere by pollution and environmental degradation.
In the 1970s, scientific missions took Sylvia Earle to the Galapagos, to the water off Panama, to China and the Bahamas and, again, to the Indian Ocean. During this period she began a productive collaboration with undersea photographer Al Giddings. Together, they investigated the battleship graveyard in the Caroline Islands of the South Pacific.
In 1977 they made their first voyage following the great sperm whales. In a series of expeditions they followed the whales from Hawaii to New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Bermuda and Alaska. Their journeys were recorded in the documentary film Gentle Giants of the Pacific (1980).
In 1979, Sylvia Earle walked untethered on the sea floor at a lower depth than any living human being before or since. In the so-called Jim suit, a pressurized one-atmosphere garment, she was carried by a submersible down to the depth of 1,250 feet below the ocean’s surface off of the island of Oahu. At the bottom, she detached from the vessel and explored the depths for two and a half hours with only a communication line connecting her to the submersible, and nothing at all connecting her to the world above. She described this adventure in her 1980 book: Exploring the Deep Frontier.
In the 1980s, along with engineer Graham Hawkes, she started the companies Deep Ocean Engineering and Deep Ocean Technologies. These ventures design and build undersea vehicles like Deep Rover and Deep Flight which are making it possible for scientists to maneuver at depths that defied all previously existing technology. In the middle of this life of adventure, Sylvia Earle has been married and raised three children, some of whom have worked side by side with her at Deep Ocean Engineering
In the early 1990s, Dr. Earle took a leave of absence from her companies to serve as Chief Scientist of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. There, among other duties, Sylvia Earle was responsible for monitoring the health of the nation’s waters. In this capacity she also reported on the environmental damage
wrought by Iraq’s burning of the Kuwaiti oil fields.
Today, Dr. Earle is Explorer in Residence at the National Geographic Society. More recently, she led the Google Ocean Advisory Council, a team of 30 marine scientists providing content and scientific oversight for the “Ocean in Google Earth.” To date, she has led over 70 expeditions, logging more than 6500 hours underwater. Among the more than 100 national and international honors she has received is the 2009 TED Prize for her proposal to establish a global network of marine protected areas. She calls these marine preserves “hope spots… to save and restore… the blue heart of the planet.”
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