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If you like Sylvia Earle's story, you might also like:
Robert Ballard,
Lee Berger,
Elizabeth Blackburn,
Linda Buck,
Gertrude Elion,
Jane Goodall,
Stephen Jay Gould,
Susan Hockfield,
Meave Leakey,
Richard Leakey,
Mario Molina,
Sally Ride,
Donna Shirley and
Edward O. Wilson

Sylvia Earle can also be seen and heard in our Podcast Center

Sylvia Earle's recommended reading: Galapagos: World's End

Sylvia Earle also appears in the videos:
Women and the World of Science and Exploration,

Frontiers of Exploration: From the Cell to the Solar System

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Sylvia Earle in the Achievement Curriculum section:
Earth Day

Related Links:
National Geographic
Texas A & M
Women's Hall of Fame
Ocean Doctor
Marine Sanctuary

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Sylvia Earle
Sylvia Earle
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Sylvia Earle Interview

Undersea Explorer

January 27, 1991
Oakland, California

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  Sylvia Earle

When did you first become drawn to studying plants and animals?

Sylvia Earle: I've loved working with plants and animals, thinking about them, and the idea of working them for a lifetime goal, ever since I can remember. I think most children are attracted to critters of all sorts. You just see a two or three year-old child encountering a grasshopper or a caterpillar. Unless someone has frightened that child into not touching it, the natural thing is to express the curiosity that is inherent in most young things and check it out. I was very lucky I think.

My parents used to bring frogs over for my brothers and me to get to know. But we were very carefully told always to put them back in the pond where they were found. Or to allow a caterpillar to gently walk across your hand, and not to disturb them, because you might get stung by some of their bristles. I learned very early on that if you show respect for other creatures, they won't go out of their way to harm you.

I grew up more or less fearless with respect to all sorts of things -- spiders, squirrels, birds, mammals -- because of the gentleness that both my father and my mother and my family in general expressed toward our fellow citizens on the planet. That empathy for living things became naturally expanded as I grew up into a study of living things. I became a biologist just following my heart, I suppose. I couldn't imagine wanting to do anything else.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

Describe the places you grew up in as a kid, and how they inspired you and kind of encouraged this life work.

Sylvia Earle: As a small child I lived on a farm in New Jersey.

Both my parents grew up on farms, and therefore understood the importance of rain. Sometimes rain could be a nuisance because it interrupts picnics and things like that, but by and large you welcome rain because it's important for plants to grow. You need it in order for crops to grow and produce. So I came to enjoy walking in the rain. And oh, the power of a storm! Instead of being frightened, I really enjoyed it. At night, I can remember pressing my nose against the glass of the window and watching the trees outside and thinking how marvelous it was.

Sylvia Earle Interview Photo
I think my childhood was especially happy. I understand that many do not have the kind of special early period in their life that I did. Part of it was because my parents really made me feel special, made me feel loved. And my brothers, and the rest of the family. But I always felt, even as a small child, that I couldn't do anything so bad that I couldn't come home, and that it would be all right. Somebody would take me in their arms and I would be reassured that it would be okay. We'd figure out some solution to whatever problem there might have been.

Early on, there was an opportunity, because of the neighboring woods, to explore quite a lot on my own, and I did. I would just spend a lot of time out in the nearby woods, and feel such sympathy, such... I feel so sorry for those who don't have an opportunity in their early years to go out on their own. Sometimes with others, but really by yourself, to go out and just see what's going on. Find out what's under that bush, or what is around the other side of that tree. And not feel afraid. Quite the contrary. I almost can't stand not knowing.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

Sylvia Earle Interview Photo
When did you become interested in the ocean and sea life?

Sylvia Earle: As a child the family used to go down to the New Jersey shore for vacations. We didn't live near the beach, but it wasn't that far away. New Jersey is a relatively small state; nothing is very far from anything else. I think in my earliest years, the ocean became particularly special because it wasn't there all the time, I never took it for granted. It was a very special treat.

They say that in some countries such as Peru, they worship the sun because they only see it when the fog breaks, and they see the sun. I didn't exactly worship the ocean, but I really regarded it as a very special opportunity. I can remember, as we traveled across the pine barrens, we came to the sand dunes along the shore, before we could see or hear the ocean, I could smell it. And then hear it. And then finally, there it was, this great incredible expanse. And I can still feel that leap of enthusiasm, and real joy, at the prospect of finally getting out to the beach, and running around.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

The most important thing, to me, aside from the freedom and the power of it, was the kind of creatures that you could see along the beach that you can't find anywhere else.

I remember the big horse-shoe crabs for example. I thought they were just charming, most people think they're old ugly beasts. Maybe that's part of their charm. They look so strange, but absolutely harmless. Because of the early opportunities to get to know creatures and realize that they really weren't out to bite me or hurt me. If I approached them with gentleness they would respond with gentleness. I found myself, even as a very small child, playing with these big horse shoe crabs, and people coming by and wondering at this little kid fooling around, not hurting them, but just really curious about what made them move. Some of them would seem to get stranded on the beach, and I used to entertain myself by struggling to pick them up, and turn them around and send them back into the sea.

Not realizing that they were supposed to come up on the beach and lay their eggs.- I thought I was doing a good thing anyway.

You must have been a very self-contained child. You were able to occupy yourself and entertain yourself really just being alone with nature. That's unusual.

Sylvia Earle: I never thought it was unusual to feel self-contained, or to entertain myself for long periods of time with nature. It's endlessly fascinating. You never know what you were going to see, and it changes all the time, even the same place every minute is different. The wind blows, the trees move, butterflies come in, somebody takes up and leaves. You see birds come by, it's just constantly changing. And endlessly fascinating.

It sounds like it was always clear to you that you would become a scientist. What about the focus on marine biology? When did it first occur to you that that's what you wanted to do.

Sylvia Earle: When I was twelve, my parents moved from New Jersey to Florida. We lived right on the water. My back yard became the Gulf of Mexico. So instead of going out to climb trees and watch the squirrels and otherwise have the fun of being out in the hills, I had the pleasure of getting acquainted with salt marshes, and sea grass beds, which were populated with things such as sea horses and sea urchins, and great crabs with long, spindly legs that were absolutely fascinating. You never knew what you were going to find just walking around in these squishy, but beautiful, clear water areas. That used to be a place that lived up to its name. It's called Clearwater. At the time I was there as a child it had clear water. It isn't quite that way anymore.

And so you really had a vision of doing this as a profession, as early as twelve?

Sylvia Earle: When asked as a child "What do you want to be when you grow up?" I didn't know exactly what to call it, but I did know that I wanted to do something that related to plants and animals. I think for a while I entertained the thought that maybe I wanted to be a veterinarian. I knew about veterinarians, and I loved cats and dogs and horses, and all the traditional kinds of creatures that human beings surround themselves with. But I was increasingly interested, fascinated, and really enchanted by the wild creatures. As I grew older and learned more about them, I think I determined that was the direction I would be taking.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

Sylvia Earle Interview Photo
The decision to really focus on marine science took a while. I didn't love it, but I loved everything else as well. It was hard to actually say, "I will just study fish, I will just study birds. I will concentrate on this narrow discipline." What caused me to focus on marine plants was the inspiration of my nature professor, Harold Humm. He introduced me to the beauty and the interest and the good common sense of looking at plants. By knowing the plants, you get some feel for how the whole system works. Plants provide shelter, whether it's underwater or above. They provide food. They provide the energy that supplies a whole interacting system. So if you know the plants, you get a good cornerstone on how all the rest of the system works. I began, When I was still an undergraduate student at Florida State University, I began my life-time project with that as a starting point. I am still working on it, and expect to continue working on it. If I had ten lifetimes, I'd still be working on that same project, I'm sure. It's just to explore the plants in the Gulf of Mexico. That's not the whole world, it's just one rather substantial body of water that is mostly in the waters of the United States and Mexico, with the Caribbean islands to the south. But it is an endlessly fascinating, forever changing body of water. There are certain patterns that you can find and expect, but every day is different, every minute is different.

At first, I thought I couldn't possibly learn anything new, it's all there in all those libraries filled with books. I thought there was nothing I could add to this body of knowledge. Quite the contrary. There is so much that we do not know. Each of those books represents a door that can lead you to hundreds, thousands of questions. There are plants growing where people didn't expect to find plants. That leads to a whole host of questions. Why is this so? Why do they occur here? Why don't they occur somewhere else? Who eats them? Are they there throughout the whole year? How far do they range? It could take ten lifetimes. You never run out of questions to ask.

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