Women Of The Water

Dr. Sylvia Earle’s decades of groundbreaking marine research and redefining gender stereotypes has set the stage for the next generation of ocean activists.

Dr. Sylvia Earle is no stranger to navigating unfamiliar environments. From pioneering modern-day SCUBA gear, to setting records for deep-sea discovery, Dr. Earle has spent a lifetime studying the ocean and the many ways that humanity impacts it. An oceanographer, explorer, writer, and lecturer, Earle holds accolades that are just as significant in their scientific achievement as they are in their impact on gender roles. A National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence since 1998, Dr. Earle was named the first female National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) chief scientist in 1990, a position she held for several years.

Today, Time Magazine’s first Hero of the Planet remains just as busy running her organization Mission Blue, which aims to establish marine protected areas around the world in accordance with the United Nations 30x30 Initiative for biodiversity, and continues to lead expeditions, consult on projects, and serve as a reputable source of both scientific information and inspiration for ocean conservation.

Dr. Earle proved just how generationally impactful her ocean advocacy—discussing her conservation work, goals, and legacy alongside surfing activist Danielle Black Lyons and free diving filmmaker Faine Loubser at the 2022 Ohana Festival Storytellers Stage.

Dr. Sylvia Earle at the 2022 Ohana Festival in Doheny State Beach, Dana Point

Key Takeaways

Photos by Jordan King-Allen
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Holding Court With Her Deepness

“It’s been a lifetime of watching the changes… [such as] witnessing the collapse of coral reefs. From where they were when I first got a chance to take the plunge and get underwater in the 1950s to where we are today. I mean, the good news is that we still have about half of the coral reefs. The bad news is that we’re losing half of them in such a short period of time. Overall, there are more sea turtles today than when I was a kid, because fewer people are eating them and we’re doing a better job of protecting their nests. I think there are more of some kinds of whales today than when I was a kid, because at the time, killing whales was considered to be an exciting thing to do.” Dr. Earle explained.

Dr. Sylvia Earle’s life has been filled with moments reaffirming her love for the ocean and her biocentric philosophy is simple. Humanity is just one component of the diversity of life found on this planet, and we have an inherent responsibility to protect the rest of life on Earth. Thanks to the work of Dr. Earle and countless other researchers, citizen-scientists, activists, and ocean lovers, she noted that the tide is finally changing.

“I think many of the people here have developed the empathy and the understanding that there’s more to a whale than a bottle of oil and pounds of meat or fertilizer or dog food, or whatever they used to use whales for as products. We have reasons for real concern for the climate, for loss of biodiversity, but I can also see plenty of reasons for hope.”

Key Takeaways

Photos by Jordan King-Allen

Danielle Black Lyons’ On Inclusivity

Dr. Earle doesn’t have to look very far to find the hope she’s describing. Just one seat over from her sat Danielle Black Lyons, an artist, adventurer, and professional surfer committed to building diversity and inclusion within the Southern California surfing community. As an ambassador for global organizations like the Changing Tides Foundation and lifestyle brands like ROXY, Lyons also serves as the co-founder of Textured Waves, an African American female-led surf collective that aims to propagate surfing to women of color and other underrepresented demographics. A passionate advocate for ocean accessibility, Lyons has spent her lifetime submerged in waves across the world.

“I grew up by the water. I lived in the Bay Area when I was a kid. Then I moved to Humboldt County; Portland, Oregon; London, and now I’m in San Diego,” she said. “I’ve always been very earth-conscious. I grew up with a family that instilled that in me at a very early age. Living in California, we’re always in a drought so that’s always [at the] top of [my] mind, to save water, to conserve.”

Dr. Earle’s legacy has opened countless doors for women in ocean and marine science spaces, and Lyons is similarly thinking about the legacy she wants to leave for future generations.

“I have a son, and I think about the future for him, and I want to leave things better for him. I feel like [it’s] two steps forward, two steps back. We have oil spills constantly on our coastlines. It’s the one-year anniversary from the big spill last year up in Huntington, and that combined with seeing sea life in distress, wrapped in string or fishing line, these are things that I constantly saw growing up. I think it’s troubling, and it’s something that’s always been there and continues to be present in my daily life.”

When Lyons isn’t dancing across her longboard, she’s faced with the pollution plaguing ocean health firsthand.

“When I’m near the water, a lot of times I’m encountering—especially living down here–lots of tar pollution, tar balls, stuff on the beach. Check your feet all the time because you can track it into your house! I surf every day, and I can’t say that I walk away from the ocean unscathed by something slightly traumatic, whether it’s a balloon floating next to me when I’m on my board or plastic trash, [which I] stuff down my wetsuit. It’s ever-present, and I think you’re blind if you’re not seeing these things on a regular basis, whether it’s in the ocean or you’re walking down your streets.”

Representation Matters: The Accidental Activist

Though she never intended to have a global platform, Danielle Black Lyons stands at the forefront of intersectional activism, offering a glimpse of representation in the surfing community for those who may not have had it previously.

“I’m kind of an accidental activist. I fell into this work, and I feel like it’s just a human responsibility more than anything else. I live on this planet, I take from this planet. I need to give back to this planet the same amount, you know? I guess some opportunities fell in my lap, especially during the pandemic. During the Black Lives Matter movement in particular, I had a lot of people knocking on my door and asking me to speak up on behalf of Black women surfers, which is hyper-niche—there’s not very many of us, especially living in this space,” Lyons shared.

Her work is evidence that societal issues shouldn’t be siloed, but are in fact connected—without addressing racism and socioeconomic inequalities within our own communities, we’ll never have the cohesiveness we need to turn the tide on climate issues.

“It’s important to share my message because I am a Black woman, and that is what people see first and foremost,” she continued. “I can’t hide that. No matter how much I would like to just be out in the water and just be a person floating and surfing. People should know me and judge me based on those things, but the first thing they see is my big hair, and the color of my skin, and the second or third thing they might notice is “Oh, she surfs.” People have shouted at me in the water, “I’ve never seen a Black surfer before!” And I’m like, “Welcome to 2022. There’re lots of us!” We exist, and we’re also not a monolith—we’re all different, just like every other race is different and every other species that shares this planet. I don’t always want to wear the hat of the Black surfer girl, but that is the hat that I’ve been given.”

Whether you’ve seen her shredding at one of Southern California’s many ocean breaks or have stumbled across her bright and beachy presence on Instagram, Lyons has taken her role model status in stride. She is demonstrating how the power of social media can bring together what may seem like disparate groups, linking issues together and creating new communities.

Key Takeaways

Photos by Jordan King-Allen

Faine Loubser’s Stories Of The Sea

On the other side of the world, Faine Pearl Loubser spent her formative years exploring the Great African Seaforest, which stretches from the shores of her native South Africa northward to Namibia.

“My connection to the sea has really been instilled in me since I was a child from my parents—they both grew up in Namibia, which is a country just north of South Africa, on the West Coast. And they were deeply connected to the ocean,” Loubser shared.

Now a free diver and filmmaker, Loubser utilizes the power of film to document these human impacts on the flora and fauna of coastal marine ecosystems. She’s contributed her multimedia work to visual exhibitions, social media campaigns, and several film projects, most notably Craig Foster’s Oscar-winning documentary, My Octopus Teacher, TIDAL, and AZILALI: THEY DO NOT SLEEP, her directorial debut. Most recently, she helped create Forests of the Sea, a collective effort between several global marine conservation organizations to protect and restore kelp forests around the world.

Growing up and listening to her parents’ stories of their ocean adventures was a catalyst for Loubser to dive in and create some of her own. “[My dad] told these crazy stories about seals and growing up as a child, hearing the stories and getting a sense of what it’s like to connect to an animal that lives in the sea was deeply inspiring and moving for me.”

“My dad did diamond diving in his twenties, and during that time he found a Cape fur seal, a juvenile, washed up on the beach,” Loubser continued. “That seal was totally dehydrated, malnourished, and he had no idea what to do but wanted to help. He brought the seal back to his tiny town on the coast of Namibia, and fortunately was staying right next to a marine biologist who happened to be studying seals. And he asked this marine biologist what to do, and he said, “You have to give him fish. That’s how they get their warmth, that’s how you start to rehydrate them.” So my dad ended up developing this relationship with this seal, called it Nellie, which was short for Smelly, because it had a terrible smell. And this seal went in and out of his house, they stayed right next to the water.”

She added, “[My dad would] have to drive into the Sperrgebiet zone—this was the prohibited section where they’d dive for diamonds—which was a two-hour drive up the coast. And one day he was diving and had this seal arrive next to him and started swimming around him and playing with him. And my dad couldn’t understand because the seals there usually don’t interact—so my dad assumed that it was the seal that he’d come to befriend, Nellie. Turns out it was, and he came out of the water with him, got in the car, and they drove back home together.”

Inspired by these tales of human-ocean connection, Loubser has been exploring the beauty of the coastal ecosystems around her native Cape Town ever since—diving, surfing, swimming, and magnifying the stories of the Great African Kelp Forest.

Shifting Baselines: Observing Generations Of Ocean Changes

Like Loubser and Lyons, Dr. Earle spent her formative years exploring coastlines, where she cultivated an interest in marine life. Decades of exploring the ocean have allowed her to witness the slow anthropogenic decay of the marine environment—over the years, overfishing and environmental stressors have caused gradual changes in what we consider to be normal conditions.

“At least 90% of the sharks overall have been taken—are still being taken—even though we know that it’s happening. The knowledge is there. Some shark species are down to a half of one percent—Mako sharks are targeted because they take longlines like tunas [and] swordfish,” Dr. Earle said.

“We have this habit of taking wildlife from the sea. It’s like going to a grocery store, except you don’t have to pay. It’s all free goods. We don’t have a clue for the most part, who they are, how old they are, what their numbers are. But numbers aside, we should not be looking at life in the ocean as a grocery store where everything is free. When you take it out, you’re damaging the very system that keeps us alive,” she added.

Although Loubser hasn't swam through as many decades as Dr. Earle, she’s aware of this same decline. “My mom told me this story of how when she was growing up, she and her dad would harvest rock lobster right in the shallows. They’d be able to pull out forty, fifty crayfish—rock lobster—which they’d give to their entire neighborhood."

"And now, that same species of rock lobster, along with most of South Africa, has 2% left of the population,” she said. “That sense of loss is incredible, and the scariest thing for me is that when I look at the sea, when I’m under the sea and in that environment—that is my assumption of what that environment is like. I don’t necessarily have a sense looking at it, of how much has been lost. So that’s sort of this whole “shifting baselines” concept. I guess, for me, it’s trying to come to terms with that and trying to put a marker on that. And hopefully, make that marker move in the direction that means that that 2% goes up to 3% and that 3% goes up and up.”

Dr. Earle added, “I had a chance to go to the place [Loubser] was describing, around Cape Town in the 1970s, and already the little lobsters were being taken in large numbers. There was a little piece of coast, around two miles, where the lobsters were safe. So, we went diving there. And it was amazing because every crevice, every crack, every ledge, had these little antennae sticking out. It worked. Because outside the area that was protected, you had to really look to find one. Now you have to look all over the ocean to find a few fish of almost any kind.”

These shifting baselines are often so gradual that they can only be noticed over decades of careful observation. From the beginning of Dr. Earle’s career until now, the differences, as seen with the rock lobster, have been drastic. Through careful scientific documentation and powerful visual storytelling, Loubser and Dr. Earle’s work creates a holistic and telling narrative that illustrates marine species decline.

Key Takeaways

Photos by Jordan King-Allen

Building Empathy Through Accessibility

These ocean advocates agree that cultivating a personal relationship with the sea is the first step towards building awareness and ultimately motivating ocean conservation. A good starting point in increasing ocean accessibility is by learning how to swim, according to Dr. Earle.  “My bottom line is no child left dry. Get out there, if you don’t have an ocean nearby, usually there’s a river or a lake, or something.”

Lyons regularly faces this issue firsthand in her advocacy. Creating greater representation for Black and Brown people in the surf community leads her to confront a much bigger, systemic problem—finding equity in coastal accessibility for communities of color. “There are still barriers to entry for a lot of different folks out there, a lot of different groups are being excluded from these places and I think those are the Black and Brown communities that are the most deeply affected. They have the most difficult time accessing nature and the sea, in particular, for leisure,” she said.

“I think we take it for granted, living so close to the water. We do have this easy access to just grab our board and go out to the ocean, whereas a lot of these Black and Brown communities on the West Coast are being pushed east, further and further away from the water. So, we need to keep programming going so that we can continue to build more access to these spaces.” Lyons continued, “That’s how you get people to care about nature, and about the ocean, is by introducing it to them early, and having them visit it often, and creating routine. It is absolutely necessary to have those points of entry.”

Lyons has worked to collect resources that will connect communities of color with opportunities to get in the water. “We have a massive list on our website, specifically targeted for people of color to have those entry points. We have vetted these organizations—we know them, we’ve talked with them, we interact with them, and they are safe spaces for these folks to enter,” she said. “There’s fear, and there’s usually trauma associated with the ocean in particular for Black and Brown people, and that can’t be taken lightly. So, there’s generational trauma there that has to be undone, and getting people in the water swimming is step one. Once you know how to swim, it opens up so many other doors to beautiful sports like surfing, diving, all of that.”

Storytellers Stage at the 2023 Ohana Festival

A Sea Of Change: Continuing Dr. Earle’s Legacy

Dr. Earle has been paving the way for generations, breaking down barriers for women while making valuable contributions to our knowledge of life underwater. While ocean activists like Loubser and Lyons continue to amplify her message through diverse mediums, channels, and audiences, her life’s work is still far from complete.

“Now like never before we can see that the climate is changing, the living planet is being consumed by us on a scale that is not sustainable. The word “sustainable" is just tossed out there as if it’s realistic but it’s not, given what we’re currently doing. But when we really take it seriously, stop the killing, and really start caring, we make some progress. Climate is the big headline, and the new headline is blue carbon, all life in the ocean,” Dr. Earle explained.

She’s dedicated her life to the ocean, studying the scientific complexities of marine ecosystems, and the equally convoluted relationship between humanity and the environment. “We need to start really caring for the [sea]life rather than killing it. We’re good at killing things, including one another. We’re good at annihilating life.” According to Dr. Earle, the first step is simple,

“We’ve got to get a lot better at caring. We’ll never make peace amongst ourselves if we don’t first make peace with nature.”

From Dr. Earle’s scientific research to Loubser’s compelling visuals to Lyons’s work in diversifying ocean spaces, the future of our climate relies on the creativity, optimism, and the dedicated efforts of activists and ocean-lovers. Humanity has a long way to go in protecting the oceans, but as Dr. Earle has demonstrated via a lifetime of oceanographic research, activism, and education, creating an inclusive community in the fight against climate change is the best way to start.

Key Takeaways

Photos by Jordan King-Allen