A profile on Sylvia Earle and her sustainability efforts.
A trailblazer in the fields of oceanography and marine exploration, Dr. Sylvia Earle helped thrust the issue of marine conservation into the national spotlight at a time when the world’s understanding of natural resource conservation was in its infancy.
She holds the world record for the deepest untethered ocean dive, and she was the first woman to hold the title of Chief Scientist of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), acting as an ambassador for the world’s oceans and leading future generations into the fascinating field of marine biology.
Childhood Surrounded by Nature
Sylvia Earle was born outside of Camden, New Jersey, in 1935 and spent her summer days at the pond on her family farm, collecting tadpoles in jars and taking notes on her observations. At 13, the nascent scientist then moved with her family to Dunedin, Florida, on the Gulf of Mexico, a move that would instill in Earle a lifelong fascination with the ocean. It was there that she first learned to SCUBA dive, a skill that would allow her to get a firsthand view of the aquatic life that fascinated her.
A straight-A student, Earle successfully completed high school by the age of 16 and obtained her masters in botany from Duke University in 1956 at the age of 20. Insatiable in her desire to learn as much as she could about marine biology, she immediately began her doctoral studies at Duke, focusing on the aquatic life that produces the vast majority of the oxygen in the earth’s atmosphere: algae.
Early Career Success
While completing her doctoral studies, Earle was already invited to participate in groundbreaking research and aquatic expeditions. In 1964, Earle was invited to join the National Science Foundation on a six-week voyage exploring the Indian Ocean, an invitation that was rarely extended to women at the time. Her research throughout the 1960s would take her on expeditions throughout the world, including Panama, Chile, and the Galapagos Islands. And before completing her Ph.D., she was named resident director of the Cape Haze Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida.
As part of her work in marine exploration, Earle participated in a number of initiatives aimed at studying the effects of living in underwater habitats.
Earle’s final Ph.D. dissertation, completed in 1966, was an innovative study that was one of the first to use SCUBA technology to look at marine plant life firsthand. It included a collection of over 20,000 algae specimens collected from the Gulf of Mexico, harkening back to the place of Earle’s early childhood fascination with the ocean.
As part of her work in marine exploration, Earle participated in a number of initiatives aimed at studying the effects of living in underwater habitats. In 1968 she joined a group of scientists in the Bahamas as part of the Smithsonian Institution’s Man-in-Sea project. She was the first woman to enter the habitat, located 100 feet below the surface of the ocean. In 1970 she created the first all-female group of scientists to participate in the Tektite II Project, an initiative spearheaded by the U.S. Navy and NASA. Earle and several other female scientists descended 50 feet below the surface of the ocean to live inside a habitat for two weeks, studying and photographing the surrounding aquatic life. The project turned the women into celebrities, and the group was invited to the White House and honored with a parade in Chicago.
Using her newfound national platform, Earle began her mission of advocating for the earth’s oceans through education and activism. She moved to Los Angeles and began teaching at UCLA and writing books on marine conservation. She went on speaking tours and wrote articles for National Geographic. Her goal was to increase public interest in the world’s oceans while also advocating for greater awareness of the damage and degradation being caused by human activities and pollution. In 1979, Earle broke the world record for deepest untethered dive when she descended 1,250 feet (381 meters) underwater to walk along the floor of the Pacific Ocean. She later wrote a book about her experience.
Throughout the 1980s, Earle’s work on designing and engineering underwater vehicles allowed scientists to dive to unprecedented depths and maneuver underwater in ways that allowed for incredible oceanic discoveries and research.
In 1990 Earle was named chief scientist of the NOAA, the first woman to hold the title. As the national ambassador to the oceans, the position allowed her to continue her tireless work advocating for greater awareness and protection of the ocean and marine wildlife. By 1998, Earle was National Geographic’s first female Explorer-In-Residence and was named TIME’s first-ever Hero for the Planet. She would grace the front cover of the magazine later in 2017 as one of TIME’s “Women Who Are Changing the World.”
Today, Earle is the Explorer-at-Large for the National Geographic Society. She has also served on the Google Ocean Advisory Council, which provides information and scientific oversight for Google’s “Ocean in Google Earth” project. She has written over 200 publications and led over 100 marine expeditions. She has been called a “Living Legend” by the Library of Congress. Through her work as the President and Chairwoman of the Mission Blue/Sylvia Earle Alliance, Earle’s work to fiercely advocate for the protection of the earth’s oceans continues to this day.
Dr. Sylvia Earle is a pioneering American marine biologist who advocates for the protection of the earth’s oceans.
She holds the world record for deepest untethered dive, and she has broken many glass ceilings for women in science, including as the first female chief scientist at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Today, Earle is the Explorer-at-Large for the National Geographic Society and continues to advocate for the world’s oceans as the President and Chairwoman of the Mission Blue/Sylvia Earle Alliance.