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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
Profile of Sylvia Earle Biography of Sylvia Earle Interview with Sylvia Earle Sylvia Earle Photo Gallery

Sylvia Earle Interview (page: 5 / 8)

Undersea Explorer

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  Sylvia Earle

With Tektite II, you lived in for two weeks underwater. Could you describe that environment?

Sylvia Earle: It described by some as the Tektite Hilton. It's a beautiful four-room underwater motel, hotel, laboratory. The outside was white, two columns side by side, with cords running off to one side that supplied the power, the water, and the air that kept the underwater laboratory functional. The system was constructed by General Electric and we teased them saying that it looks like a big kitchen appliance.

Inside it was very comfortable. NASA engineers had looked at human factors, looking at living underwater as a counterpart for living in space. So efforts were made to really focus on what would make a pleasant living surrounding. We had some nice touches, such as different colors in different rooms, carpets on the floor. There was a television set, although nobody bothered much to watch it, because outside it was the greatest show on earth, literally, with a constant changing scene of fish and other creatures that would come by. We were outside as much as we were in. We might be ten or twelve hours out in the water. There was a nice hot shower. There was a freezer filled with frozen foods, and a complete kitchen with range and all the niceties of a nice efficiency apartment. Plus a laboratory set up so that we could bring things inside and look through the microscope. We had room for a few books, and so on. It was a very comfortable place to be.

But the most comfortable, the most appealing place to be was out on the reef. The project that I chose to work with was such that I couldn't get enough time outside. I really slept as little as I could get by with so that I could be out there with the fish, day and night. If I could, I would have been outside 24 hours a day. Couldn't quite arrange to do that, because we human beings do have to eat and sleep, alas. Not that I don't enjoy eating and sleeping, I do. But when there is so much going on, the astronauts surely have the same problem. You have to go to sleep when this incredible scene is out there. And yes, they do have to go to sleep so that they can be alert for the times that they are out trying to do that work. So, we did sleep from time to time in the Tektite habitat.

But we were just one of ten teams in all. The others were all male teams. We constituted the only all women's team. The previous team left some nice little mementos around, such as a little sign over one of the portholes that said "In case of fire, break glass." This, 50 feet underwater, of course. On the shower curtain, because NASA was interested in the behavior of the aquanauts as an analog for what might happen to astronauts in space. So 24 hours a day, they had cameras inside, looking at what we were doing. It was all right with the men's team, but what about men watching the women in the shower? Well, they put a shower curtain up there, but so as not to discourage the poor watchers, they put a pin-up on the outside of the shower curtain. Nice little mementos such as that greeted our arrival.

The best part of the whole experience though was having access to this beautiful clear water that surrounded the reef. This was in the area around St. John, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. About 600 feet off shore, 50 feet down. We had the ability to range out as much as a quarter of a mile away, using either scuba tanks or the rebreather systems. We were able to navigate using compass, we also used a system by simply putting a piece of line along the reef. We could follow it like a highway. That made it possible for us, even at night, to see where we were going, to go out to a station and then find our way safely back.

The opportunity to get to know the fish was extraordinary. We found soon that a fish is not a fish is not a fish, that they all are different as individuals. Of the five angel fish that I saw almost every morning, I'd get up before dawn so that I could watch the change-over time, when the night fish -- the ones that are active at night -- tuck in, and the day fish, the ones that sleep at night, come out. Just as on land there are creatures -- not just fish, a lot of other things as well, corals even -- there are some that are open by day, and many more in fact, that are open at night. A complete change-over of the kinds of creatures that are obvious at night and at day. So I wanted to be out there just at that moment, that half hour or so, just at dawn. The five angel fish that were almost always there -- they're all angel fish, like all Labrador retrievers have certain waggly tail kinds of characteristics that identify them as Labrador retrievers, but every one is different. Some are more shy, some are more aggressive, some are more curious. Some kinds of fish, like groupers, have a particular kind of personality that make it very tough to eat fish after you've gotten to know them on a one to one basis. I certainly don't eat anyone I know personally anymore.

I take it that this project, just the aspect of living underwater for two weeks, really energized you and had a significant impact.

Sylvia Earle: I soon found the opportunity to stay underwater, was more than just a quantitative advantage. We had more hours in the course of a day than you could achieve on the short scuba tank passport. Using standard scuba diving techniques, it's possible to go to 100 feet for about 20 minutes without decompressing. Decompression is the process that allows the gasses that have entered your system while diving to gradually escape so that you can safely return to the surface. If you stay longer than 20 minutes at 100 feet, it's necessary to take steps as you return to allow this decompression process to occur.

From the Tektite habitat, we were able to stay at 100 for an indefinite period of time, because we were at 50 feet to start with. At the end of the excursion for two weeks, we had to decompress for a long period of time. It wouldn't have mattered had we been there for one day, 14 days, 30 days. Once our tissues became saturated at the depth that we were at, at 50 feet, the decompression time is the same. In our case, it was 21 hours of decompression. We did that in a cylinder that we entered at the end of the dive, and gradually returned to surface pressure. Obviously, there is an advantage in having essentially unlimited diving time, as long as you have energy to go out. Instead of just two or three, maybe four hours in the course of a day at shallow depths, if you space it with time to decompress and have a programmed recovery time in between dives. But, six hours, eight hours, ten hours, twelve hours essentially, as much time as you could stay awake you could be in the water. But it's more than that. There is a qualitative difference in living underwater, and the insight that you can get because we start to have the perspective of a resident. You are there day and night. You see the sun come up. You see the sun go down. You see the whole interacting suite of creatures that come in and out in the course of a day. You don't get that on an in and out passport. You just catch a little glimpse. By becoming a part of the action, you really do see things differently.

The difference could be compared to driving through the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, and going there to live there for a couple of weeks, to camp there, and feel the temperature of the air on a regular basis. Not to just glide through and then you are gone. You can get a lot from a short glimpse, it's better than not being there at all, but boy, there is nothing like making a commitment and staying for some prolonged period of time.

Was there a turning point in your career when the potential of what you might be able to accomplish in this field opened up to you? When, instead of just studying what others have done, you discovered new avenues that you yourself could explore?

Sylvia Earle Interview Photo
Sylvia Earle: I came along at a time when new techniques were opening avenues for exploration in the sea. The use of scuba, for example, was new when I began as a student. Every time I went out in the ocean with a scuba tank, I saw things that weren't in books. I can still do it. It's still that unexplored. The oceans are still virtually unknown. At first, scuba diving was considered to be a sport so fun that a scientist couldn't possibly be using it to any serious advantage. I found that using scuba was like using a microscope. It enabled me to see things better that I could catch a glimpse of from the surface. It was such a difference to actually be there and get to know creatures interacting. It made it possible for me to really use the ocean as a laboratory.

My colleagues, by and large, who studied the ocean, operated from the surface, dangling nets and dredges and bottles, and pulling fragments up and looking at the bits and pieces, glommed together in a mass on the deck. I've done a lot of this myself, but it forces you to be a great detective, trying to put the pieces of the puzzle back together again, and imagine what things are like below. I have a chance to actually go below, at least within the range of diving depth, and see for myself. Try to imagine dragging nets or dredges through a city. Imagine the fragments of this, the chunks of that. What do oceanographers really understand about the sea, based on such techniques?

I think I gained a certain amount of confidence in having been there, seeing it for myself. I became aware that I could contribute something special: this first-hand insight. It is still going on, and it will go on for a long time. We're rewriting the books. These books were written based on these indirect methods of gathering blindly, in fragments and chunks and bits, without knowing what the real situation is like. We're gaining access to the sea, first with scuba tanks, and subsequently with tricky submarines, and even underwater robots that give us a first-hand presence.

You have been so instrumental in devising more sophisticated technologies for exploration. When did you realize that what existed wasn't enough, that you had to create new suits, new devices for getting below.

Sylvia Earle: As I have come along as a marine biologist, using such things as scuba tanks, and the Tektite habitat, and various submersibles, I've gained an appreciation for the dependence that we have on technology to get where we need to go underwater. We are as reliant on technology to explore the oceans as astronauts are. We are earth-bound either way. Without technology, we have a very limited perspective. With technology, responsibly used, the horizons are infinite. I constantly found myself frustrated diving. Looking at my watch: too little time. Looking at my depth gauge: can't go beyond this depth because I'll get into trouble. Two hundred feet seems like a long distance for a scuba diver. It is deep, deeper than most care to go. But it's ridiculous when you think that the ocean has an average depth of something like 14,000 feet. We are still diddling around the surface up here at 200 feet. The maximum depth is seven miles, about 11,000 meters. And we are just beginning to overcome the problems.

Sylvia Earle Interview Photo
I guess it was a sense of frustration that drove me to try to come up with some solutions to the problem. A willingness to try alternative methods. I had an opportunity to use a system called the Jim Suit in 1979. I was interested in trying it in part because at the time I was doing a review of underwater exploration for a National Geographic book called Exploring the Deep Frontier. It gave me an opportunity to look at the technology that has helped our access or advance into the sea. I was very curious to know, and so were the powers that be at the National Geographic, what's the latest? What's new? What's around the corner? Two things seemed to be in that category. Underwater robotics were just getting started: the idea that you could vicariously go exploring sitting on the surface, watching a television monitor and flying the machine that would be equipped with at least a camera, and maybe tools as well. The alternative, or another approach, was through manned devices. Instead of forcing our physiology to adapt to conditions of the deep sea, to do what astronauts do, wrap yourself in a one-atmosphere containment. Don't try to bend physiologically, just create an appropriate shell around yourself. That shell can be small like an astronaut's suit, or it can be large like a space ship. It can be like a submarine. That's the equivalent of a space ship.

Sylvia Earle Interview Photo
The idea of a suit like an astronaut's suit that I first became aware of was a suit called the Jim Suit. I really wanted to see what it was like. Could we use this technique as scientists to gain access to greater depths than were possible just scuba diving? It isn't exactly freedom; scuba divers can fly, and stand on one finger. The Jim Suit looks like a human being but it weighs 1000 pounds. It's not something that you are likely to just step into and jump off a dock. If you do, the question is how do you get back up the ladder? It's necessary to play by the rules. These atmospheric diving suits resemble a walking refrigerator or the Michelin Man, or a big white bear with joints.

Sylvia Earle Interview Photo
This Jim Suit is cumbersome, but it does provide access, and it is a step in the right direction. Other suits are now being devised that provide greater flexibility of the limbs. The idea is simply to have a case around you, that gives you one atmosphere, surface pressure, no matter what depth you are at outside. The life support is supplied, as with astronauts, or as we Tektite aquanauts used, and that is through a re-breather like device, with oxygen being added as needed, carbon dioxide scrubbed out chemically and air otherwise circulated regularly. Breathe in, breathe out, and you just forget essentially that anything special is going on. It seems very natural. The time that I used the Jim Suit, a special arrangement was worked out. Typically it is deployed by a cable, launched from the surface and a big winch is used to reel it in and reel it out, like a fish on the end of a line. But in this case, deployment in this way was not appropriate. Also, I really prefer, when possible, to not be tied to a tether.

The combination inspired the system that ultimately was devised. And that is to be deployed on the front end of a little submarine, the Star II from the University of Hawaii, that took me down like a taxi. I was a taxi cab passenger, but I was riding on the front end of the taxi instead of in the passenger seat. We went down to the bottom, 1,250 feet. A strap that kept me attached to the submarine was then released, and I walked off. I was still attached to the submarine by a communication line, but I was not attached back up to the surface by any cable. It's the only time that this atmospheric diving suit, or any of the atmospheric diving suits have been used in this way. Typically they do have the cable going back up to the surface.

Sylvia Earle Interview Photo
The whole idea is to improve access and avoid decompression. This system is transportable, and enables people who are not superman or superwoman, just ordinary people, to have access to almost 2000 feet. There were 18 of these so called Jim Suits built. They were named after the first person willing to put one on, Jim Jarratt. It seemed at the time to be at the cutting edge of modern technology but, in fact, that suit was first devised back in the 1930s. It was devised in response to another kind of frustration. In this case the reason was to go down and salvage the Lusitania, the passenger liner that was sunk in the North Atlantic. The suit was proven successful with Jim Jarratt salvaging some things from the Lusitania, but was essentially put aside and ignored for a number of years. In the early 1970s the offshore oil and gas industry needed cost-effective alternatives to traditional diving techniques, and someone thought of using this one-atmosphere diving suit approach. That someone was Phil Newton who, through Oceaneering International, the owners of the most of the suits, helped inspire the technique. Graham Hawkes was one of the engineers who helped reconfigure it for modern application. Both Phil Newton and Graham Hawkes were along on the expedition and helped make the whole thing possible. Al Giddings filmed it from inside the Star II submersible and I had the great fun of simply enjoying the experience and using it to explore and evaluate the potential for scientific possibilities.

I saw in the Jim Suit at 1,250 feet in midday, in Hawaii, six miles off shore, 1,250 feet down. I imagined that it would be completely dark, just black, black dark, but it wasn't. There was enough sunlight coming down at midday in this clear ocean water that it looked like the deepest indigo, like twilight. There weren't stars visible to me, but there were bioluminescent creatures flashing with their blue fire, some of the same creatures that I had become enchanted with in childhood reading the works of William Beebe. He looked out of the porthole of his little bathysphere and saw little fish go by with blinking lights, saw octopuses that flashed with blue fire. Instead of squirting a puff of black ink, the squids and the octopuses that he described sometimes squirted a puff of bioluminescent ink. What good does black ink do in a black environment? It's nice to have something that flashes, that will distract a would-be predator. A puff of bioluminescent glow-in-the-dark substance is what they do. I saw a shark, but it wasn't a big one. It was only about 18 inches long, with a luminous green eye. So many wonderful creatures!

Most interesting perhaps was a whole field of coral, but not branching coral, just single, whisker-like spirals of coral that grew from the sea floor, up over my head. Some of them were six feet tall or so. Bamboo coral. Generally a pale white structure, like a big bed spring, a big spiral, with bands of black. When I touched the living polyps, they just flashed with rings of blue luminescence. If I touched up near the top, you could see the pulses of blue, like little blue donuts of light, pulsing all the way down the spiral of the coral. If I touched it near the bottom, I could set in motion, simultaneously, pulses of light coming from the bottom and from the top. It was just extraordinary.

It was wonderful to be able to be there. If I had used a net, or a dredge, the typical oceanographic techniques, I might have captured some of that coral, but, I wouldn't know that they flashed with that blue fire, or that the creatures around behaved as they did. I'd only get their dead remains, and that's a poor substitute.

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