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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
Exploration

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: 6 / 8)

Undersea Explorer

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  Sylvia Earle

Some of these dives are very dangerous. You've taken some big risks. In the prologue to The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe talks about the way the rest of us just shake our heads when we look at a guy who gets into a 30-story rocket, and is lifted into space. Why do something like that? How do you get up the courage to risk your life to make these technologies possible?

Sylvia Earle Interview Photo
Sylvia Earle: I get a lot of practice. I drive on the freeways almost every day. On the highways you can control what you do, but you cannot control those people who are coming at you at high speed from the other direction. I didn't feel that I was risking anything extraordinary making the Jim Suit dive. There were dangers involved, but they were known. I worked with good solid professional, engineers who racked their brains, trying to think of all the things that could go wrong. I think I was safer in that than I was driving home.

You minimize the danger, but I get the feeling you think this is a cause worth risking your life for.

Sylvia Earle: When you think about the pros and cons of doing something for the first time, you should weigh the risks and decide whether it's worth the trade-off. I am not a daredevil. In this case we really did think about the dangers, but we planned for them. We planned for the "what-ifs", and practiced. If this happens, then we'll do that. There were back-up contingency plans. No, you cannot plan for everything that can go wrong, and yes, you do know that there are some inherent risks. But at the end of the day, what are you going to do with your life? I could walk out on the street, and a truck could come by that I didn't plan for. I could inhale bacteria and find myself in the hospital. I'd rather do things that I think are worth achieving. When you have a chance to do something, and make a difference, and you have weighed the pros and cons, and you feel the odds are much better than even, go for it.

Though you have made these record-breaking dives by yourself, it sounds like this is a field in which team work is extremely important. Is that so?

Sylvia Earle: Absolutely. Team work is essential to the success of those who appear to be out there by themselves. I certainly haven't been, it's always been the effort of a lot of people. And all of us stand on the shoulders of those who preceded us, historically. There is this treasure house of mechanical solutions and other engineering solutions. We just pull all this stuff together and use it. It may seem as though some individual is doing something, but it's an individual in the company of this network of others. It's an illusion if you think you are out there all by yourself.

You rely on other people, in a very urgent way to protect you.

Sylvia Earle Interview Photo
Sylvia Earle: In the Jim dive, as an example, the focus quite naturally was on the individual inside the Jim Suit. 'Twas I, that is to say. But think about those on the surface who are communicating with me. Think of those in the submarine who transported me to the sea floor, who are watching and also talking with me. Those who are operating the ship, the support divers who helped attached the Jim to the submarine. The whole team of people who made that specific exercise possible. Then, on top of that, there is the history that goes back prior to the development of the ship, the development of the suit, the first test diver, Jim Jarratt, after whom the system was named. I just happened to step in and enjoy one moment out of this great history of events that interlocks to form who and what we are.

A great detour in your career was your work with humpback whales. How you were you first attracted to that field of study?

Sylvia Earle: In New York I attended a talk given by Roger Payne, who is a specialist on whales. At that occasion I also gave a presentation about diving. And after the two presentations, Roger and I sat down and began talking about these possibilities. Why not realize the vision that Roger Payne had of using diving techniques to get to know whales on their own terms. His work, along with his wife Katie Payne and associates, had been done from small boats, seeing whales on the surface, lowering microphones into the sea, recording their sounds, and trying to understand something about the nature of the songs that humpback whales create.

He knew a place in Hawaii where there is a wind shadow. There are high waves and winds elsewhere, but this is a place where the whales come, and you have calm water most of the time. We talked, back and forth, and finally said, let's dream up a project, and go see what we can do.

What followed over the next few weeks were telephone calls, and messages back and forth, writing several proposals to a number of individuals and institutions to patch together the wherewithal to make this happen. A critical element was being able to document what we saw, to make this more than just a scientific research project, and communicate with a broader audience. Al Giddings was the natural ally in this, a really fine underwater photographer and film maker. In a matter of six months, we had assembled the various ingredients needed to spend the next year getting to know humpback whales on their own terms, underwater. Survival Anglia Television Organization, in England, backed the film. That was one component. The National Geographic came through with support for part of the research funding. The New York Zoological Society, my home institution, the California Academy of Science, and the World Wildlife Fund also came through with additional support. Some individuals who had a sailing vessel allowed us to use it as our base of operations in Hawaii. For three months, we lived on this boat and used small rubber boats for our excursions back and forth.

Sylvia Earle Interview Photo
In February 1977, the magic moment came when Al Giddings, Chuck Nicklin, and I, along with another individual, Terry Firm, were in a boat, a Zodiac vessel. We saw five humpback whales, cruising along, stopping and fooling around. We kept a respectful distance, but all of a sudden the whales decided that they weren't going to keep a respectful distance. They did a sharp turn, and came right over to our boat. We turned off the motor and stopped and looked. Having convinced the National Geographic, the World Wildlife Fund, the New York Zoological Society, the California Academy of Science, all these institutions that what we really wanted to do was to get in the water with whales, we had that heart-stopping moment when we had to convince ourselves that what we wanted to do was get in the water with these 40 foot-long, 40-ton creatures, who were really interested in us. They were rollicking like puppies.


Old time pictures of whales look like Greyhound buses, or loaves of bread. Big static-looking lumps. Whales are like swallows, they are like otters. They are in a three-dimensional world, and they move in any direction. They swim upside down. They're vertical. They're every which way. Sometimes they are horizontal, but not always. Once and a while they are horizontal. And they are so supple! Many of the renderings of whales that you see in books make them look big and fat and ponderous and lumpy. They are sleek and elegant and gorgeous, among the most exquisite creatures on the planet. They move like ballerinas. Well, all of this came to me in a very short few minutes, after I finally did convince myself. And it didn't take long, maybe 30 seconds before I went into the water. Here were these rollicking, frolicking creatures, doing all this wonderful dancing in the sea.


Al Giddings and Chuck Nicklin were preoccupied with their cameras. I had the freedom to just look around. And I saw, with my eyes getting increasingly large by the moment, this huge whale coming straight at me. I knew that if I didn't do something I was going to get smashed by this whale who probably didn't notice me anyway. I was so small, and she was so big. Would she notice?


I felt like a mouse next to a freight train. She did notice, at the last moment, before this seemingly inevitable collision took place. She simply turned, and moved on past. I could have reached out and touched her. I didn't. I was just watching this creature go by. Then she went over in the direction of Al. He was so busy filming another whale, that he didn't see that he was about to get clobbered by this whale. In fact, it looked as though this 15 foot-long flipper would decapitate him. Chuck Nicklin saw it too, and both of us started to hoot. You can yell underwater, and people can usually hear. I knew that Al heard us, but being a good photographer, he was really concentrating, wasn't going to be distracted. When the whale passed him, she lifted her flipper up and over his head to miss him. It created enough of a wash so that he was certainly aware that there was something very big, very close, and he almost dropped his camera. I've never seen him come so close to putting it down, forever. But he didn't, and the collision didn't happen. After that moment though, first my encounter, and then watching how this near-accident didn't occur, we just stopped worrying. It was very clear that they knew exactly where their big bodies were. They had no intention of bashing into us, they had complete control. And for the next two and a half hours, these five whales and these three human beings just had, at least from our standpoint, the most incredible experience perhaps of my entire life up to that point. It was just amazing.


Sylvia Earle Interview Photo
Our goal was to try to get to know individual whales, just as Dian Fossey got to know individual gorillas, to track them. There had been some success already on the east coast getting to know individuals by their tails. Each tail is like a fingerprint. The patterns, and the configuration of the tail itself are very distinctive. But it's not just the tail. The whole whale is distinctive. We know they are all humpbacks, of course, but like cats and dogs and horses and people, if you look carefully, you can see the distinguishing characteristics. By photographing them, it's possible through time to make matches, and see who is who. Just as people have done with chimpanzees and with the great apes, and with other creatures. It isn't necessary to tag them, you get to see them and know them and recognize them, and verify it with these very distinctive photographic records.

Well, this was the beginning. In that first year, we did not have too many satisfactory opportunities to get to know the idiosyncrasies of individual whales, but we started the catalogue, and started the information gathering. After more than a decade, year after year, people now have information on individual whale . That first whale, that I saw, Daisy, has been seen now with different cows over the years. One of the questions no one knew at the time we started was, how long does a calf stay with it's mother? How many calves does a female have in the course of her lifetime? If you only study dead whales, you get one point in time. Lots of information, but it's stopped with that one dead body. By getting to know individual whales and following them for a lifetime, you get these interactions, you get to know the society of whales, worlds of information that are only possible by getting to meet them on their own terms.

In that same year, 1977, we went to Alaska to get to know whales on their feeding grounds. They appear to be mating and giving birth to young in the tropics, and then go to cold water where food is abundant, and they really concentrate on getting fat. They grow up in the cold water areas where krill, and small fish are abundant. That is in the northern hemisphere. In the Southern Hemisphere, the same species of whales do a similar pattern, but in reverse. They go down to the Antarctic in that case, and then come to the tropical areas for breeding and calving. In between, they travel thousands of miles. They communicate with these hauntingly beautiful sounds. The sounds that Roger and Katie Payne have made so well known through their recordings and records, have largely been recorded in the tropics. When they are in the feeding grounds, they're a little quieter. Some people say it's because they don't sing with their mouths full, but that's just a joke of course. They do make sounds, but the songs seem to be associated with courtship and other forms of behavior that inspire song in many creatures.

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