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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 (page: 2 / 8)

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  Sylvia Earle

You've mentioned the books that you studied. Were there any particular books that you remember being very inspiring as a young person?

Sylvia Earle: I fell in love with the stories by William Beebe, who was an ocean explorer. He discussed what it was like to go down inside a submersible, and peer out of a port hole and see beautiful, luminescent fish, with lights down the side like ocean liners. Bizarre creatures of the sort that you just don't see walking down the street, or going into the forest, or even looking around in shallow water. The aquariums of the world, as wonderful and diverse as they are in terms of the creatures they show, do not have the sort of creatures that Beebe described from his exploration back in the 1930's. And that certainly, I found utterly inspiring.

For a long time I did not really like fiction at all. I was really hooked on looking in encyclopedias, because that I could trust. I thought that this was something that was for real. I later became aware of the great truth that can be conveyed in fiction, and the beauty in poetry. And so I have made the transition, not totally away from the non-fiction works by any means, but to expand my horizons.

In my early childhood, I enjoyed science fiction perhaps, and fairy tales and the stories that one grows up with. A lot of animal stories. But this evolved into a long era when I absolutely wouldn't read anything except things like the stories by Beebe. That was real, and that was the adventure. And nothing could touch the truth. And that's true. Nothing can.

You've said you used to amuse yourself reading the encyclopedia? How old were you at that time?

Sylvia Earle Interview Photo
Sylvia Earle: Before my family moved to Florida, so it was before I was twelve. It was like a discovery. You never knew what new things you were going to find on every page. It was a bit like walking out in the woods. Around every bush there was something new. Turn a page in a book, and a-ha! Another new discovery. New for me anyway.

What kind of student were you as a kid?

Sylvia Earle: I probably would be regarded as somebody a little on the boring side again, because I really loved school. I just again felt this joy of discovery. I was like a big sponge, absorbing as much as I could. And I enjoyed succeeding. I liked it when I could get my mind around the math problems. It was a sense of accomplishment, that I could figure things out. It was the joy of success. Like a flash of light in your brain, an insight that you have derived from getting this piece of information and that piece of information, and put them together, and independently come up with something else. I never did and still don't tire of that kind of sheer joy.

You graduated from college quite early. You just sort of breezed through it?

Sylvia Earle Interview Photo
Sylvia Earle: I finished high school when I was 16. In part, that was because I started school straight away in the first grade at the age of five. I didn't skip anything or compress anything. My brother and many of my classmates also went through the routine and came out the end of high school at sixteen. My birthday is at the end of August, and I just turned five before school started, so I was often the youngest in class. That set me apart a bit, and may be why some would say I was a loner. I enjoy the company of others, but I never was unhappy alone. I enjoy my own company. I enjoy having time to just walk around and think. I treasure the times when I'm out on my own on the water, or in the woods, or anywhere. It's a special kind of peace. I think it's the security that my parents instilled at a very early age. I felt good about myself and I think that has stuck.

So many people are afraid to be alone. That is like the absolute worst hell to go through.

Sylvia Earle: I suppose some people, many people, are afraid of being alone. But, for example when I go into the forest, I am not alone. There is life all around. If I go into the sea by myself, and I do it a lot, there is life everywhere. I feel sorry, I think, for astronauts who, if they were abandoned, if they were all by themselves on the moon, because that would be truly, truly alone. When Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were on the moon, they were alone. The closest living creature was Mike Collins out there in the spacecraft that was orbiting the moon. The next stop was earth. Underwater, every spoonful of water is filled with life. You are really never alone, it just depends on your perspective.

I know your parents lost several children before you were born. I wonder if that tragedy might have affected the way they related to you, in that very special relationship that you described.

Sylvia Earle Interview Photo
Sylvia Earle: My two brothers and I constituted a second family, in quotes, that my parents had. They lost the first four children, all boys. I think that they may have been a little more lenient with my older brother, with me, and with my younger brother, than they might have been with the first four children. Maybe not. I do know that they seemed to trust me, and trust my judgment from a very early time. They had confidence in me, and they certainly made it clear that they loved us. They really cared about us and were very gentle, not just with cats and dogs and grasshoppers and such, but with us. That has probably made a tremendous difference in my outlook on others, and my own children and life in general. An attitude of respect.

I would have expected them to be overprotective.

Sylvia Earle: One would imagine that having lost several children, that they might be overly protective of me and my brothers. But it didn't work that way. I think that they had seen enough, and been philosophical about the unpredictable aspects of life. Anyway, they were not. They have always been there. I never felt abandoned at all. I always knew that I could rely on them for support, for love, for caring. But I never felt smothered. I never felt that if I really wanted to do something that they would say, "no way, kiddo." Rather that they would say, let's see what we can do to make it happen. My parents were not financially able to support my brothers and me in school. We had to figure out a way to help ourselves. They helped as best they could, but it was not possible to pay big tuition. But they never said no. They said, let's see what we can do, let's find out. They took a loan, and helped during my early school years at Florida State University. I worked, and I got a scholarship when I went to Duke. They helped every step of the way. They have been just tremendously supportive.

What kind of work did you do to support yourself during school?

Sylvia Earle: Well, I say that I worked when I went through school, but it wasn't to me work. It was really a source of pleasure. I worked as a laboratory assistant, and it was throwing me right into the midst of the very people that I wanted to be with. And never mind that I was washing glassware, and whipping up banana medium to feed the fruit flies and things and things of that sort. I found it just that... that I was with the people I most admired. It gave me an entree. It gave me experience. It gave me acceptance with them - I became the lowliest member of the team, but part of the team.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

Even though I was a student, I was put in that category of people who are serious about what it is that they also were serious about. So that, I think that was very helpful, that from the earliest time going to school, I think I was recognized as someone who really intended to go on and do something more than just get out of that class as fast as I could, and on to something else. That I really wanted to use this towards some as yet undefined way, but to make it meaningful.

What kind of educational background did your parents have?

Sylvia Earle: My parents both went through grade school. My mother finished high school, my father did not. My mother was trained as a practical nurse. My father was a natural engineer, I suppose, and electrical engineer. He worked for DuPont for 28 years. Just short of retirement he moved to Florida and struck out on a second career. He went off on his own as an independent contractor, and became one of those individuals who creates the life-blood of America, a small business. He supported himself, and a team of others. It became known as Earle Electric. My younger brother took over that business, and still operates it in Florida.

So, they didn't have heavy educational backgrounds, but they obviously appreciated the value of education.

Sylvia Earle: Absolutely true. My parents have always appreciated the importance of an education. My mother had five sisters, six girls in all. My grandfather on her side was also a self-trained engineer. They all had respect for teaching and for learning. My grandmother stayed at home, but she was really a teacher to this whole family of young ladies. On my father's side there were 11 children. My father was the next to the youngest. They were a very lively family that really had a good time with one another. Every summer, 20 or 30 members of the family would get together for a big picnic. I had cousins all over the place. I knew that I was a part of this great Earle-Ritchie clan. It was a good feeling. So many families do not have that warmth and that mutual respect. They fight a lot, they have very hard feelings, and very intense rivalries. I escaped that somehow. Not that there weren't some rivalries and some hassles from time to time, but, I have in general the recollection of a very happy childhood. Lots of fun. A lot of joy.

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This page last revised on Sep 22, 2010 11:29 EDT
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