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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: 4 / 8)

Undersea Explorer

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  Sylvia Earle

There is a quote from Thomas Edison that genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. I hear so much joy when you talk about your work, yet I know that you must work very, very hard to accomplish all you do. What is your take on that formula?

Sylvia Earle: A good friend of mine who has been a hero to many in engineering and in science was Ed Link. He said "I've never worked a day in my life." He worked very hard by anybody's standards, but he loves what he did, or he did when he was alive. He died a few years ago, but he lives on with the work that he accomplished, and the inspiration that he provided to many, including me. My father worked very hard, but he really enjoyed what he did. He made whatever it was, however seemingly mundane, a pleasure. Life is a joy, and if it isn't, then it's your own fault in many cases. At least in this country at this point in time. We are so blessed with the kind of freedom that makes it possible for us to have choices. I think I became aware of that at an early age. Not just through the ethic of my parents, but those who surrounded me, who made me understand that freedom is precious and that it isn't something that we should take for granted.

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream

Through traveling, I have come to understand that others do not have the choices that are available in the United States or other free countries. We really are peculiarly blessed. Some would say it makes life more difficult because there are so many choices, but if you have something that you really like to do, you are in the best of all possible situations.

That's true. Was there any luck involved in your career?

Sylvia Earle: Luck, or chance if you will, is a factor that comes ten thousand ways. Things change every day. It was good fortune I think that as a student I met Harold Humm, who later became not just my professor, but my lifetime friend. We correspond, not on a regular basis, but often enough so that it is a real continued contact, even though I haven't seen him for more than a year. There were times when I haven't seen him for several years. But true friends, you don't really have to see all the time. It's wonderful when you can, but you pick up, whenever you get together, and it's as if you have never been apart. That's a bit of an exaggeration to say it like that, but the rapport is steadily there, despite the long distances and the long separations.

Sylvia Earle Interview Photo
It was good fortune, I think, as a student making a transition from New Jersey to Florida, that there was one teacher in junior high school who eased the transition for me. She was the science teacher, and saw the special sparkle in my eye and took me under her wing. Edna Tenure. And just encouraged me. I don't know that I needed a great deal of encouragement, but it was wonderful to know that there was someone who appreciated my kind of curiosity and enthusiasm. I'd do special projects. I guess you could call it that. I'd write stories and draw pictures and do things. Instead of saying it was nonsense, or don't bother, this is not one of your assignments, she encouraged me and suggested other things that I could do, and showed me books that I could read. That was very helpful at that crucial stage -- the age of 12 and 13.

My family was always there, but you expect your family to like you. It gives you a special kind of confidence to find someone who didn't know you before. It's a special kind of endorsement to find that they too have said you are okay, you are doing all right.

I'd like you to remember, if you can, your first dive, and how you felt when you did that.

Sylvia Earle: Remembering my first dive is easy. Anyone who has never dived should try it, and you will find why it's easy to remember the first time. I think it must be like asking an astronaut what was it like the first time you went into space.

It was a life-changing experience to go to that part of the world. It's a life-changing experience to put your face in the water, and be able to breathe underwater. To dive, I'd been using just a face mask -- holding your breath and going down. That too is a revelation. That little piece of glass that enables you to see clearly underwater. And to get a look at the fish on their own terms. That was just enchanting. I cannot remember the exact first moment when I did that. I think it was in the back yard pool, and I was looking at baby ducks in the water with us, swimming around. And that's just very exciting. But it's nothing like having the ability to go and stay underwater, and breathe underwater.

My first opportunity came as a student of Harold Humm's. I was taking a class in marine biology. I was 18, and was in the Gulf of Mexico. The boat was about five miles off shore. The depth of the water was 15 feet. We had two scuba tanks and two of the old Navy-style aqualungs. No instructions except "breathe naturally." Which meant, simply, don't hold your breath.

Go overboard and just breathe underwater as you take for granted that you breathe above water. And the effect was astonishing. You go down into this clear realm. Well first of all, you are weightless. Which I already knew from using a mask and flippers. But to be down there and then, you breathe in and expect to have water come in and gurgling around. No. It's just, you can breathe. I couldn't believe it! You really can do this!

[ Key to Success ] Courage

So you exhale, and then you inhale, and then you exhale. What I do remember is that they had a hard time getting me to come back to the surface. I didn't want to come. I wanted to stay right there. But we had to take turns on those two tanks with eight students. So it was only consideration for them that I finally came back to the surface.

Tell us about the Tektite II project. You were excluded from the first mission, Tektite I.

Sylvia Earle: In 1969 a notice was circulated among universities in the United States, and elsewhere, that scientists who were interested in living underwater should submit a proposal about what they would do given that opportunity. There was no mention of male or female; it was just sent around with no comment. I put together a proposal of what I would like to do. I thought it sounded like an interesting thing to do. I wasn't convinced that you could do anything more that way than just by diving in and out. I had done quite a lot of that in expeditions on research vessels around the world.

I had been to the Galapagos, out off the southeastern Pacific, to the Juan Fernandez Islands, known as Robinson Crusoe's Island. I spent quite a lot of time in the Indian Ocean and in the Caribbean, and all over the place. But the idea of just staying under water for two weeks, I figured that given that kind of time, I should be able to get to know the fish pretty well and find out who was eating what. To first survey the plants and then see if I could identify preferences about who ate what and see who the grazing fishes were, and follow them around, and see their day/night behavior. That was my plan. So I wrote this up and sent it off the Smithsonian Institution. They were doing the review process for the research proposals. I was surprised when I got a call back, and there was some hemming and hawing on the other end of the line, about -- they thought the project was really good, but what did I think about actually maybe getting together with some other women to stay, for this project. I really wanted to go with three fish people, ichthyologists. I was the plant person, I thought we could work together. We had agreed that this would be a good project to do together. But the powers that be in Washington -- in 1970 this was, by the time the proposals all came through -- were really appalled at the thought of men and women living together under water. So they came up with this scheme to have a women's team.

Sylvia Earle Interview Photo
There were enough qualified women with qualified proposals that it developed that way. We became quite a curiosity. I can see why. There should not really have been a selection on that basis. I wasn't really with the team that I intended to be with, but it turned out to be just fine. I had not met any of the others before we started the project, but we soon became good friends. We met on our way to the Virgin Islands where the project took place. Became acquainted on the airplane, and then for two weeks of training and learning to use the special equipment, especially re-breathers. These are devices that provide more time than scuba tanks, and they do not create bubbles. It's a system that is much like what astronauts use on the moon in that air is recycled. Carbon dioxide that you generate as you breathe out is absorbed chemically, and oxygen is added automatically as it is consumed. It's a nice little package that fits neatly on your back, instead of being limited to a single hour at 50 feet as is traditional with a scuba tank. With the most refined device, of the sort we were using, you could get as much as twelve hours time. Typically, we only used them for half that time or less. During the two weeks that followed, when we were living together in the Tektite and conducting our research, we got along very well, became very good friends. I still stay in contact with two of the individuals. I have lost track of the other two. I know where they are and what they are doing, but I'm sure that if we got together, we would pick up where we left off and enjoy telling sea stories all over again.

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