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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: 8 / 8)

Undersea Explorer

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  Sylvia Earle

You are sitting in front of your next great project. How will Deep Flight help scientists in the future?

Sylvia Earle: Almost before Deep Rover got into the water, Graham was designing the next step. Part of this came from discussions with scientists such as Bruce Robison. What can't you do that you need to do? Deep Flight is a system that can move swiftly through the water. Graham Hawkes really likes the idea of coming up with something that can behave like an aircraft underwater, that can do loop-the-loops that can do the equivalent of aerobatics - how about hydrobatics? To have the sheer joy of the freedom that aircraft give to those who fly them- - to have the equivalent in the sea. Most submersibles are more like the equivalent of balloons. They move with ballast systems. Even Deep Rover goes down heavy and comes up light. Deep Flight is constantly light, it is positively buoyant. So that If you take your hands off of the controls and do nothing, it will gradually come back up to the surface. In order to move, it has to be powered along, like an airplane. If you take your hands off an aircraft, it doesn't go up, it goes down. In order to stay aloft, you have to keep the power moving. With Deep Flight, many of the parallels with aircraft are obvious. It's streamlined, it has little wings. It will be able to do some maneuvers in relative slow motion, but remember, this is a thick medium compared to the atmosphere. This is the aquatic atmosphere, but some of the same engineering principals apply. So there is a very nice correspondence between aeronautics and hydronautics, aerobatics, and the new art of hydrobatics.

It doesn't weight very much compared to most submarines, so it can be transported, and perhaps even deployed from a helicopter. And recovered from a helicopter. It can go virtually anyplace in the world. We hope to go to the edge of the ice in the Antarctic, where no submarine has yet been for scientific research. We have had some underwater robots to the Antarctic, but no manned submarine. We may be the first to follow the little whales and see what they are doing. Instead of watching their tails disappear into the distance, we'll be able to go where they go, to see what a sperm whale feeds on. Maybe we will see that ultimate invertebrate, a giant squid. They might be 50, maybe 70 feet long. No one has ever seen one alive, only fragments and bits.

You have done a lot of speaking on behalf of ecological and environmental concerns. Why have you given so much of your precious time as a scientist to those causes?

Sylvia Earle: Years ago I became aware that the planet was changing. It's hard not to be aware of that, but having grown up in a time when the changes have been coming so fast, places I knew as a child are simply gone. They are leveled, they are covered with cement. The farm my father grew up on is no more. The farm that my mother knew as a child is simply gone. The sea coast everywhere has changed. It used to be possible to go out and dig clams, and feel happy about eating them. You knew that they were good for you, they were healthy. Now, people are very wary of eating any shell fish, oysters or clams or mussels, because of the pollution that may be really adverse to our health, never mind the health of the mollusks themselves.

That concern has caused me to become forthright about environmental issues. It's difficult to be complacent, difficult to focus on the fine points of scientific research that I have historically done. I haven't, by any means, stopped that. I still spend many happy hours hunched over a microscope and looking through the books, and doing the kind of detailed analysis that is the fundamental backbone of who and what I am. It provides the material necessary to come up with answers in an environmental sense. We must make decisions based on the best knowledge available.

It's possible now, to rely on this great body of information already amassed, with new studies that will give information that we need, about what to do. How do we maintain the good health of the planet? How do the systems work? What are we doing to damage these systems? The ozone layer is one example. It's one thing to document and record the fact that the ozone hole has been developing over the Antarctic area. It's another to know how to fix it. It's one thing to document increasing pollution in this city, but what do we do? How do we make it right? One of the things that increasingly has become clear is that we are losing the standards, losing the models, losing the basis for good health of the planet. That is the wilderness, on land and in the sea. Wilderness is not just valuable because it's beautiful, or aesthetically appealing, it is the stabilizing part of the planet that creates the good health that we have always taken for granted. Most of the sea is still in this healthy, wilderness state. But at an alarming rate, we are changing the oceans. We certainly can see the evidence that we have changed the terrestrial part of the planet. But it isn't just terrestrial/ocean, as if these are two separate things. They are all part of the interacting ecosystem of the earth.

Just recently I have accepted the role of chief scientist of NOAA. That's the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. I'm taking a leave of absence from Deep Ocean Engineering, where I have been the President and the CEO for the past several years. Of course, I am continuing to work with Graham, with Deep Flight, with Deep Ocean Engineering, and the new systems that will be cutting edge of exploration. We have a project we are calling Ocean Everest. It is the ultimate extension of being able to gain access to the sea. Whether it's a system that looks like Deep Rover, or long and slim like Deep Flight, or some as yet unimagined engineering design for access to the greatest depths, that vision remains. With the volunteers who are currently developing with Graham Hawkes and the others who are associated with Deep Ocean Engineering, and with Deep Flight, the next step will be Ocean Everest.

From my perspective as chief scientist at NOAA, I can provide the ongoing rationale for why we need to do these things. It is fundamentally essential that we have access throughout full ocean depth from the surface to the sea floor. Mostly what I will be doing in the near future, however, will be focused on the environmental concerns that you asked about. NOAA is an agency that embraces the National Weather Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the National Ocean Service, which is the aeronautic charts and the charts for navigation in the sky as well as in the sea, plus a great deal of the assessment of the marine environment. Mostly in U.S. waters, but in a global sense as well. It includes a satellite program for environmental assessment -- the weather satellites and so on. As well as the ocean and atmospheric research. These five offices that are encompassed in that. As chief scientist, I have an overview responsibility. It's a tremendous opportunity for me to learn more, and to encourage the use of whatever equipment, whatever tools, whatever knowledge we have to take care of the planet.

You feel that in a lot of ways we have neglected the ocean. We've polluted it, and we've also taken it for granted.

Sylvia Earle: As human beings, we are basically terrestrial. It's sometimes easy -- easy for some people apparently -- to forget that planetary health, planetary wealth, is very directly linked to the health of the oceans. To the extent that we take care of the sea, we will help insure our ultimate survival and well being. To the extent that we ignore this, forget about it, become complacent, or believe that it is so infinite that it can take care of itself, we are in trouble. We are in trouble now, unless we deliberately take actions to take care of the nature of the sea, and make sure these systems continue to operate as they have for millions of years. We sit right now with this incredible inheritance. The planet is thought to be on the order of 4.6 billion years in the making. Creatures that we take for granted, such as lobsters, have been around for something like 500 million years. Sharks for 300 million years. Dinosaurs became extinct long ago, something on the order of 65 million years ago, but these other creatures, with a more distinguished past and history, are still around. If we saw a dinosaur walking down the street, we would be so grateful that they were still here., and we would protect this dinosaur as an example of what life was all about that preceded us. We would want to know everything about those crazy creatures. Oh! If only we could find even one, how we would respect that marvelous creation. But we are so casual about things like lobsters, or sharks. Or about things that I grew up with, the horse shoe crabs that have persisted through something on the order of more than five hundred million years in a relatively unchanged form. And now there are only five species left. They are very vulnerable to what we do or don't do. It could be that in our lifetime, we will see the demise of these ancient creatures. We are already perilously close to doing that with many creatures in the sea.

Sylvia Earle Interview Photo
I don't think there is any known shark species that has gone extinct through the direct effects of humankind, but it could happen, just as it happened with many creatures that seemed to be infinitely available on land. Think how many passenger pigeons there were. Think of how close we came to eliminating the buffalo. It could still happen. But at least there are some buffalo around, and they seem to be thriving under our close scrutiny and our care. Sharks haven't yet reached our minds as creatures worthy of our respect, let alone horse shoe crabs, or lobsters as worthy of anything but being served with lemon slices and butter. They are very tasty, I agree, but there are other values, just as we have come to look at other creatures for more than just what use we can make of them. In fact, the whole world is of immense value to us. Just try to create one of these lovely creatures. Nobody knows how to make a dinosaur. To put one back, to start from scratch, even if we had all the ingredients, how do we create these things? It's a wealth of knowledge that we take for granted. Even beyond that, it's this interacting living system to which we are tied, that we are utterly dependent upon for our health. Donald Johanson is absolutely right when he shows concern about how detached we are becoming from our roots. People who grow up close to the land, or close to the sea, can feel it, they see themselves reflected in the lives of all these other creatures, and realize that we are a part of this interacting system.

As a biologist, there are two things that I have come to see as the most wondrous aspects of living creatures. One is that no two are alike. It isn't just that there are no two human beings -- but that in itself is remarkable enough. Think about all the human beings that have ever been on the planet, billions, but no two alike. Not even identical twins are alike. There are subtleties that set them apart. Go beyond that, and think about all the other kinds of creatures that have ever been. There aren't any two that are precisely, identically, exactly, molecularly -- behavioral, or otherwise -- exactly alike. Mosquitoes look alike to us, but there are no two that are identical. Every fish is different. I don't mean just the 25,000 different species of fish -- but every individual herring is different from every other one. So that is one aspect of life that is just stunning. The other part is the flip side of it: the common ground that all life has. We see basic physiological patterns repeated time and time again. The process of digestion: lobsters do it, horseshoe crabs do it, sharks do it, we do it, mosquitoes do it. Much of the chemistry is the same. Why else would our experiments with white mice be so relevant? They are mammals, but lift yourself out of mammals and look at birds. Lift yourself out of vertebrates, and look at other divisions in animals that are distinctively different, and you see patterns repeated over and over again. This is why, among other reasons, we ought to be concerned about pesticides. Things that aren't good for living things are probably affecting us. They might not kill us, but it isn't without some impact. We are all together in this, we are all together in this single living ecosystem called planet earth.

As we learn how we fit into the greater scheme of things, and begin to understand how the system works, we can plan ahead, we can use the resources responsibly, to show some respect for this inheritance that goes back 4.6 billion years.

Why should we be so arrogant as to think that we know it all? Do we think we can improve on these incredible living systems? Why shouldn't we be prepared to put our arms around and embrace as much wilderness as still remains, as an example of how it has been done over the eons, right? We have come in and wiggled the system, lurched the system, destroyed whole chunks of the system. We are living in the midst of this big experiment. Things are rapidly changing. Is global warming a phenomenon that is real? It appears to be. What are the consequences? How do we fix it? The best chance we have for understanding and for doing something about it so that we can have a future at least as good as the dinosaurs, and maybe as good as the horseshoe crabs of the world, or the sharks, it will come because we have some models still remaining in the wilderness ocean, in the wilderness rain forest, in the grasslands that somehow have managed to remain through this vast, almost unimaginably long period of time. We newcomers have been around here maybe five million years, this little thin skin of time in the long history of the planet. But we're endowed with this special insight, this intelligence. If we are really intelligent, we will learn that we are a part of this system, and not apart from it.

Thank you so much for speaking with us today. It was wonderful.

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