One of the most consistently frustrating things about humanity is our blithe willingness to allow all manner of industrially organized brutality so long as the end result is something chemically interesting sliding momentarily across the taste receptors of our tongues. On land, the result is the often grizzly but at least regulated horror of factory farming, but in the sea, oh it is in the sea that we have let our genius for devastation run truly rampant.  In international waters there is no law, and in the absence of law, there seems no viciousness we won’t take readily to hand so long as there is money in it.

Watch the crews of shark fin hunting expeditions reel in a shark, cut the fins from its body, and then throw it bleeding and alive back in the sea. Watch industrial fishing operations scoop entire schools of fish in one massive swoop from an ecosystem and dump all that trophically crucial life into a thresher to produce food for factory chicken farms. Watch massive tuna being kept just alive but in agony on the floor of a Tokyo fish market to preserve their freshness and jack up the price. The video is there, available to all, but we do not want to see it.  We want so very much to keep living as we always have and not ask about how our comforts are managed.

Without a voice to remind us of our better natures, we would quite readily let species after species get hunted to extinction until the sea becomes void, with the land following not long after, until the Earth becomes a still rocky tomb with “Because it tasted good” our none too glorious epitaph. It is a thankless task, reminding humans of the real cost of their thralldom to unique tastes and plastic conveniences, but none have done it with such steadiness, such inspiring vigor, and for so long as marine biologist and ocean conservationist Sylvia A. Earle (b. 1935).

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She grew up in a time when there were fewer humans making fewer demands on their surroundings. Exploring first the forests of New Jersey and then the waters of the Gulf of Mexico as a child, she was filled with wonder at the tiny crabs that crawled over her hand, the bullfrogs that she could scoop from the river, and the magical luna moths that would rest on her screen door. When someone in the neighborhood got a rudimentary diving helmet and air pump, she jumped at the chance to try it, to walk along the bottom of the sea and observe its inhabitants as one of their own. The reefs of Florida were a treasure trove of life, of brilliant colored fish and coral. It was a time when there was only one drilling platform in the entire Gulf of Mexico, and where the notion of a Dead Zone had yet to haunt the oceanographer’s lexicon.

At the time, a woman wanting to pursue careers in marine biology was a novelty, but not entirely unheard of. In 1953, when Earle was eighteen years old, Eugenie Clark published the best-selling Lady with a Spear, her account of traveling the world to collect and catalogue marine life, thereby putting the idea of a woman diver/scientist firmly in the mental space of the National Geographic set. Clark, in fact, took Earle on as temporary directory of her Cape Haze Marine Lab in 1965, but it was in 1970 that Earle blazed her way to the forefront of publicly known scientists as part of the Tektite II experiment.

Before Tektite II, Earle had been spinning many plates, as mother and wife, as a globe-traveling diver tasked with chronicling marine life in previously unexplored oceans, and as a marine botanist writing theses and papers on the intricacies of brown and green algae. It was solid work such as many marine biologists were producing, but from Tektite II onward Earle’s acts would always carry much more than purely academic significance.  Tektite was an experiment in underwater living, where scientists could live in a submerged pressurized habitat and visit the ocean whenever their work called for it without the bother of resurfacing and mind-numbing boredom of sitting in a decompression room for a few dozen hours.

The initial call for scientific proposals brought in a number from women marine scientists, including Earle, so many that it was decided to give the women a whole cycle in Tektite II entirely to themselves, thereby allowing their important and promising science to be done without any Victorian hand-wringing over What Might Happen if women and men were allowed to live in the habitat together. The press, with its deliciously consistent genius for missing the point, had a grand time over the idea of a group of women scientists living in an undersea dwelling. “Five Women, But Only One Hair Dryer” ran one headline while other publications fell over themselves in creating demeaning names for the team, “the Aquababes” being a representative sample.

But to Earle, living down on the floor of the ocean, getting to spend not just a few hours here and there investigating marine botany and animal behavior, but charmed days in a row, it was a magical opportunity to see the personality of aquatic life and appreciate its cycles. When she emerged at last from Tektite II, she was, as leader of the scientific team, a celebrity. She appeared on tv and was given the key to Chicago by Mayor Daley after a ticker tape parade.

Earle’s greatest foe, she has repeatedly said, is not nitrogen or industry, it is ignorance, the crushing force of people acting destructively because they simply don’t know the harm they are doing. 

Meanwhile, the ocean world she had grown up with was rapidly changing. Her beloved Florida coast was being hacked to pieces to make room for tourist accommodations. Massive scale agriculture in the corn belt was pushing unheard of amounts of Nitrogen into the water system, resulting in algal blooms in the Gulf that choked out oxygen, creating massive Dead Zones incapable of sustaining life. And that one oil platform was well on its way to becoming the 30,000 plus platforms currently boring through the sea floor. Worldwide, the hunting of tuna and sharks was plunging their numbers down to 5 and 10 percent of their post-war population, respectively, and the great coral reefs that harbored so much biodiversity were starting the great die-off that today sees them at just fifty percent of what they had been during Earle’s youth.

Through the 1970s and 80s, she concentrated on the technical means by which humans might explore more of the sea, and so observe more definitively our impact upon it. She piloted the revolutionary JIM armored suit down to a depth of 1250 feet, and started up a company with Graham Hawkes to develop submarines that would take humans easily and effectively to the very bottom of the ocean, some 35,000 feet below sea level, while simultaneously developing efficient undersea drones used by the military and oil industries to inspect and repair their marine equipment. The scientist/diver/mother added Businesswoman to her already impossible list of activities, and moved much of the submarine business into her own house to keep costs down.

In 1990, however, she was offered a chance not merely to investigate the ocean and collect data, but to shape government policy when she was nominated by George Bush as Chief Scientist for the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). She saw it as an opportunity to protect the ocean’s alarmingly dwindling reserves of key species, but after a fisheries meeting where she brought up the policies (or lack thereof) that had allowed them to hunt 95% of the ocean’s tuna with no evident intent on stopping, she was not invited to any more meetings. Frozen out from industry gatherings, and pressured to not speak what she knew to be the truth of the ocean’s predicament, she retired from that position and decided, at the age of 57, to combat the destruction of the oceans as a private citizen.

She wrote books pleading the case of the ocean’s importance, its role in providing us with oxygen and in absorbing carbon dioxide, its key position in balancing weather systems, and the thousand small connections that bind sea and land. She traveled the world to speak out directly to people about how their daily choices add up to massive ecological pressures that can not be easily reversed, and through her seventies was regularly on the road for three hundred days a year, speaking to people, diving, and documenting, all culminating in the Mission Blue project, begun in 2009 with the aim of doing for the oceans what the National Park system does for the land. Mission Blue finds oceanic areas of key importance and builds the international support necessary to protect them from dumping and fishing. It is a crucial task, especially given the fact that most of the oceans are International Waters under no nation’s direct control, and therefore require the coordination of massive international agreement if they are to be protected. Right now, 3% of the world’s oceans are protected, but Earle hopes, through Mission Blue, to raise that number to 20% by 2020.

Her story and dedication are inspiring to an almost paralyzing degree. It is humbling, deeply, to follow the life of somebody who turns each and every day to such massive account. But, for her to succeed, she needs, well, norms like us. Industrial fishing at extinction rates would not be there if we didn’t, through our choices, necessitate its existence. The ocean floors would not be choked with plastics if we didn’t accustom ourselves to gross over packaging of goods and the slick ease of use-and-toss products. Earle’s greatest foe, she has repeatedly said, is not nitrogen or industry, it is ignorance, the crushing force of people acting destructively because they simply don’t know the harm they are doing.

So, plant a bug in your brain to remind you to decline single use plastics when you are offered them. Unchain yourself a smidge from the tyranny of the taste bud, and find nutritionally equivalent substitutes to meat, and get your Omega fatty acids from products that don’t use fish oil. Join your local coastal clean-up day or, better yet, stop the problem at the source and get together with some neighbors for a monthly street litter clean up.  Choices made here and there become habits, and the habits of individuals become the expectations of societies, and those expectations will find their way to law, and thence, with much work powered by muchlier hope, might people swim in the Gulf of Mexico again and experience there, life.


FURTHER READING:  Earle has many books available, but Sea Change: A Message of the Oceans (1995) serves a wonderful double role as memoir and earnest report of the state of the world’s oceans. It is inspiring and dreadful, and the person that can finish it untouched by the urge to Do Something has never and perhaps never will be born. More recently, Mission Blue is a Netflix documentary that tells the story of her life and what her project is attempted to accomplish, and against what odds. You can also go to Mission Blue’s website to donate and receive updates on the work she is doing to protect important ocean habitats.

**And for more awesome Women in Science comics check out my books, Illustrated Women in Science – Year One and Year Two