Sylvia Earle: the renowned marine biologist on her career and hopes for the future
American marine biologist Sylvia Earle tells us why she’s passionate about our oceans and marine life.
Renowned oceanographer, biologist and author Sylvia Earle has spent her career breaking barriers, researching marine wildlife and sharing the beauty of our oceans with millions of people around the world.
In this National Geographic Society book, she takes us on an in-depth tour of the oceans, following on from her previous Atlas titles with the Society. It’s a comprehensive guide, which leaves no stone unturned. We start with not just the origin on the ocean, but the origin of our solar system and planet, and how the movements of the continental plates have continuously created and destroyed the ocean crusts and formed the ocean basins we know today.
Throughout the book, there are celebrations of visionaries past and present such as Marie Tharp, whose plotting of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge revolutionised ocean cartography; Salomé Buglass, a marine ecologist working in the Galápagos Islands; and photographer Joel Sartore who has been capturing portraits of Earth’s species for Photo Ark.
Although the book doesn’t shy away from the devastating impact that humans have had on the ocean and the wildlife within it, Sylvia also shares stories of hope from across the globe – the Sargasso Sea Alliance is protecting this unique ecosystem and groundbreaking projects are safeguarding sharks in Palau.
Readers will come away with a newfound appreciation for the watery world that makes up most of our planet.
Read our interview with Sylvia Earle
What was your transformative moment, when you realised you wanted to be a marine biologist?
As a child, I did not know what to call it but I knew I would always be immersed in nature. I was inexorably drawn into the sea by curiosity for the weirdly-wonderful creatures that I discovered there but do not live on the land or even in fresh water.
What would you say is the single most damaging threat to the oceans?
Humans. The ocean is changing owing to what we put into the sea (massive amounts of toxic wastes and unprecedented levels of noise); what we are taking out (huge amounts of wildlife); what we are doing otherwise to change planetary chemistry and temperature; and what we are not doing to respect and protect the natural living systems that underpin our existence.
What changes have you seen?
Since I began exploring the ocean in the 1950s, 90 per cent of many commercially caught species have been extracted; tropical coral reefs, mangroves, marshes, seagrass meadows and kelp forests have declined by about half; and trash clogs the ocean everywhere. Places I knew and loved as a child on Florida’s Gulf Coast are buried under ‘landfill’ dredged from some of my favourite coastal haunts.
The charismatic Caribbean monk seal that once ranged as far north as Galveston, Texas, was last seen when I was a teenager in 1952. Restaurants in the Florida Keys featured sea turtle steak and soup in the 1950s and whales were being slaughtered commercially by many countries, including the USA and the UK.
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Since the global moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986, most of the great whales have increased in number, and today, owing to various forms of protection, there are more sea turtles than there were when I was a child. The best chance for recovery is when caring begins and the killing stops. A return to previously undisturbed conditions is not possible but actions taken now to protect the diversity of species and remaining intact systems can drive change to a better world.
How important are the oceans? And can they recover?
No ocean, no life. No blue, no green. The living ocean, not just rocks and water, make the world habitable. If we fail to protect the ocean, nothing else matters.
Return to previously undisturbed conditions is not possible, but actions taken now to protect the diversity of species and remaining intact systems, restore damaged areas, and develop an enduring ethic of respect and care for life can drive change from decline to a better world than there would be otherwise.
There is compelling evidence that abundance and diversity of life abound in places that are either protected by their inaccessibility or deliberately safeguarded. 'Managed' areas, where hunting and fishing are allowed even when regulated, are never complete and eventually unravel.
Twenty years ago, a fraction of one per cent of the ocean was legally safeguarded. About three per cent is now highly or fully protected. Nations around the world are committing to a goal of 30 per cent, land and sea, protected by 2030, and there is a growing voice for achieving 50 per cent by 2050. To secure an enduring future, it makes sense to treat all of Earth’s living systems as if our lives depend on them – because they do.
Are you still undertaking research? What are you currently working on?
Well, I’m still breathing. Once a scientist, always a scientist! How deep in the sea does photosynthesis occur? What is the role of chemosynthesis in food production and ocean chemistry overall? How do deep sea animals measure time in the absence of rhythms of light? How is bioluminescence used by marine animals and in ocean ecosystems? What processes are occurring within the living rocks known as 'manganese nodules?' How many of what kinds of organisms live where in the ocean and how do they connect to one another? And back to terrestrial life, including humans?
But most of all, I am focussed on how to convince my species that our survival and well-being absolutely depend on respecting and embracing the natural world with affection and gratitude for making our existence possible – and that caring for the rest of life on Earth is vital to everything we care about, from the economy and security to health and to our very survival.
What do you want readers to take away from your new book?
I hope readers will be inspired to learn more about the ocean and to dive in, to go see for themselves why the ocean matters. If they feel compelled to help the ocean, people might decide to skip dining on ocean wildlife, knowing that many fish, shrimp, squid, octopus, lobsters, oysters, clams and other creatures caught commercially are in sharp decline, and in capturing them, massive amounts of “bycatch” animals are killed and ecosystems destroyed. Lost and tossed nets, lines and traps continue to kill.
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