Written by Christel Schultz
As International Women’s Day (March 8, 2019) came and went this month, I was reminded of several strong female influences in my life. The world is full of women committed to lives of integrity and perseverance. Those in my circle of family, friends, and colleagues are no exception. I hope that’s the case for many women today. Though females still face a number of challenges, many barriers that previously posed limitations are not a major issue. Women committed to their beliefs and purpose fought to pave the way for future generations.
A particularly inspiring, ambitious, and dedicated woman of science who has devoted her life to our oceans is Dr. Sylvia Earle. She is a pioneer on multiple fronts in a field dominated by men. Earle was captivated by the ocean early on. She pursued an oceanography career, earning her B.S. degree at Florida State University, M.S. and Ph.D. from Duke University. Earle received her Ph.D. in 1966, and in 1969 she applied to be part of the Tektite I underwater habitat study.
Major Strides for Women in History and Science
Sylvia was denied inclusion in the all-male Tektite I team. In 1970, Earle led the first all-female Tektite II underwater habitat mission. Four women accompanied Earle on the two week study. The Tektite II was located 50-feet below the water surface in the U.S. Virgin Islands’ Great Lameshur Bay. The facility was equipped with air, electricity, and water via a connection to the surface. Living at depth, the divers could be in the water conducting research up to 12 hours per day.
In 1979, Sylvia made the deepest solo dive in history inside a pressurized suit named JIM. She was tethered to a submersible craft off the coast of Hawaii and descended to 1,250 feet. Once on the sea floor, she disconnected from the submersible and explored for approximately 2 ½ hours. At one point, she requested that all lights be shut off to view the ocean floor in its natural state. The darkness was filled with the bioluminescence (production emission of light by living organisms) from creatures of the deep. Sylvia has spent over 7,000 hours underwater. She recounts her diving experiences in a number of books including Exploring the Deep Frontier: The Adventure of Man in the Sea (1980) and Dive!: My Adventures in the Deep Frontier (1999).
In 1990, Earle made another mark in women’s history. She became the first female Chief Scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Earle resigned less than two years later. As a private individual, she had more leeway to act on behalf of our oceans and marine environment. The restrictions for a government official were not in line with her marine conservation objectives.
Sylvia’s Personal Mission
In 2009, Sylvia was awarded the Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) Prize. She subsequently established the Mission Blue™ non-profit organization with her TED wish. As stated on the home page, “Mission Blue inspires action to explore and protect the ocean.” The Mission Blue global conservation campaign oversees the designation of ecologically unique ocean areas as Hope Spots. These include Marine Protected Areas (MPA) that need attention or new marine sites. A 2014 Netflix documentary entitled Mission Blue details Sylvia’s life, career, and Mission Blue™ organization. Her knowledge and enthusiasm are evident in all that she does. This is well captured in the award-winning film!
Ongoing Contributions and Achievements
Currently, Sylvia Earle is National Geographic’s Rosemary and Roger Enrico Chair for Ocean Exploration and a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence. She is an oceanographer, founder of Mission Blue, SEAlliance and Deep Ocean Exploration and Research (DOER). She is also the Council Chair of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies, former chief scientist of NOAA and a founding Ocean Elder. Sylvia has authored more than 200 publications and lectured in 90 countries. She holds 29 honorary doctorates and serves on various boards and commissions. Her more than 100 honors include the 2013 National Geographic Hubbard Medal, 2009 TED Prize, 2000 induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, Netherlands Order of the Golden Ark and medals from the Explorers Club, the Royal Geographical Society, the Lindbergh Foundation and the Dominican Republic. Her most popular book is The World is Blue: How Our Fate and the Ocean’s are One (2009), and her latest book is Blue Hope: Exploring and Caring for Earth’s Magnificent Ocean (2014). I hope you find inspiration in the woman, scientist, and conservationist that is Sylvia Earle.