Every day, millions of people fly 35,000 feet (11,000 meters) above sea level. Around 500 humans have traveled to space, and we’ve even set foot on the moon multiple times. But only 13 people have reached the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest point on Earth at 36,200 feet (11,034 meters) below sea level in the Pacific. From 1960 to 2012, there were only three successful attempts.
The exploration and study of the ocean’s depths is much less extensive than research of the Earth’s surface or the skies above. Sylvia Earle, a marine biologist and explorer, has devoted her entire life to delving into the mysteries of the ocean and is baffled as to why there is so much more interest in space. “The ocean is also part of the universe and it’s right here,” she said. While most people look skyward for spiritual inspiration, Earle finds heaven in the depths below.
Such steadfast commitment to the ocean has earned Earle nicknames like “Her Deepness” and “Queen of the Deep,” and accolades like Spain’s Princess of Asturias Award in 2018. She has achieved multiple ocean exploration records, logging over 7,000 diving hours, spending weeks in underwater laboratories, and being the first person to walk on the ocean floor. Yet the world’s focus on space rather than the underwater world is still frustrating for her. “Why? Because the technology exists... Water is essential for life — no water, no life. It’s important to be sustainable and greener, of course. But we can’t forget about water — it covers a whopping 97% of the planet. It’s where life thrives and diversity flourishes. Our biosphere is mostly blue.”
Petite, agile and always smiling, Dr. Sylvia Earle radiates curiosity and kindness. Her fascination remains beautifully intact as she continues to dive at age 88. Today, she is at the Oceanogràfic marine complex in Valencia, Spain, where she took part in Science Week. Scientists and admirers surround her, eager to take selfies. In our interview, Earle explains that, unlike astronauts who don’t build their own spaceships, she had to collaborate with engineers to explore the depths of the sea. She also started a group to develop underwater technologies that aid scientific research. Earle believes that while space exploration has given us a better understanding of the vastness of the Earth’s oceans, “we know the surface of Mars better than our ocean floors. You can’t care about something you don’t know.” That’s why she continues to spread awareness about the significance of sea life. For Earle, the great era of ocean discovery and exploration “is just beginning.” She also thinks it’s important to recognize how much we don’t know and not solely rely on existing knowledge. “We should care more about what we don’t know,” she said.
“We need to give access to children, teachers and scientists,” said Earle, which is why she has embarked on a project to build two submarines that can descend to 3,300 feet (1,000 meters) where you can see squid, crustaceans, jellyfish and many fish species ascending to the surface every night. “It’s the biggest migration on earth and we know very little about it. I feel privileged to have been there and want everyone to go.”
Earle doesn’t think that more interest in the deep sea will lead to overcrowding. “It’s ignorance that’s killing the ocean.” One of the big problems in her view is that the oceans are full of millions of tons of wild animals, yet “We call them all fish — seafood. We don’t call them ‘magnificent wild animals.’ People don’t know what a tuna actually is. All they know is a piece of meat… If you only knew dogs as pieces of meat, you wouldn’t care about them as we do… If we knew the ocean, if we knew fish, we would think differently about them. They have faces and personalities.”
Dr. Sylvia Earl always knew she wanted to dedicate herself to the marine world, despite facing stereotypes and societal expectations. People advised her to work as a stewardess or nurse, but she doggedly pursued her dream of becoming a scientist. While she acknowledges that times have changed, there’s still progress to be made, which is why she actively encourages young girls to explore her world. “There are still biases,” said Earle. “But it isn’t just gender — you’re too old or too young, you’re the wrong color or speak the wrong language… Never let anyone tell you that you can’t do something, and don’t let anyone steal your dream.”
Earle will be off to Patagonia soon, where she will participate in a Mission Blue project accompanied by ocean policy expert Maximiliano Bello and Juan Antonio Romero, a biologist and ocean explorer. “Her Deepness” wants to protect an area of Chile known for its vast kelp algae forests. These underwater forests capture carbon and release oxygen up to 20 times more than tropical forests on land. The Mission Blue team will spend over a month working in the area, which is under threat from salmon farming. They are tirelessly fighting to raise awareness about the importance of oceans in protecting the environment because, as she says, “life is precious.”
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