An Interview with Sylvia Earle
Photo of Sylvia Earle

Interview by Jill Wolfson, San Jose Mercury News; and Mariel Haag Senior, Prospect High School

Interview photos by Len Lahman, San Jose Mercury News

Transcribed by Jean Ricket, Tech Museum volunteer


Mariel Haag

Internationally renowned as the ambassador-at-large to the world's oceans, Dr. Sylvia Earle, 61, is the former chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a distinguished marine biologist, a veteran of more than 6,000 hours underwater, leader of the first team of women aquanauts and holder of a depth record for solo deep diving, 1000 meters.

Sometimes referred to as "Her Deepness," Dr. Earle is the founder of an ocean engineering firm and is an eloquent spokeswoman for marine conservation. Her 1995 book, "Sea Change: A Message of the Oceans," (Fawcett Columbine) has been described as a Rachel-Carson-like plea for the preservation of the oceans. Her honors include the Explorers Club Lowell Thomas Award and the Director's Award of the National Resources Council.

When not underwater, Dr. Earle lives in a home in the Oakland Hills in a wooded setting that she shares with her daughter and a menagerie of cats, dogs, birds and horses. She spoke with writer Jill Wolfson and student Mariel Haag.

Haag :   Were you always successful in life, or was there some kind of inspiration that motivated you?
Earle :   Success is one of those tough-to-define terms. If success equals happy, then thus far I've been happy with what I've been doing.
Haag :   What motivated you to do so well in life?
Earle :   As a little girl, I had family surrounding me who enjoyed reading and who really encouraged the inquisitiveness that I think is natural with kids.

Most young creatures -- not just human beings but youngsters of all sorts -- are curious. And scientists maintain that curiosity. I think most people would if they were lucky enough to have people around them, who rather than inhibiting questions such as why and how and what, where and all that, encourage it.

My mother would bring things in to my brothers and me, such as a frog with golden eyes, and say, "Look at what a beautiful creature this is."


Most young creatures -- not just human beings but youngsters of all sorts -- are curious. And scientists maintain that curiosity.
And then, after we had a chance to admire it, we'd take it back to where it came from. Not just throw it back in the pond, but put it exactly where it had come from in the pond. It was recognizing a kind of respect for other forms of life, an acknowledgement that we are all of us in this together.

There's a widespread attitude that human beings are the big boss and that everything is here to serve us. And we behave in that way.

The truth is we're not in charge. And what we're doing is impacting the means of our survival. My mother and my aunts and my father never really came out and said that directly. But in showing a respect for life, they showed that we're a part of the system, not apart from it, and this idea came to me as naturally as breathing.

So when you asked what motivates action, I think it's curiosity. It's delight in discovering new things. If you are inquisitive and you enjoy the opportunity to find out more all the time. School for me was never a chore. It was never a pain. It was always something I looked forward to because there was so much to do.

There were a lot of books that were available at school that I didn't have at home. I was one of those weird kids who liked to read the encyclopedia; I still like to read the encyclopedia. I can't imagine people being bored. I'm never bored. If success means never being bored, I succeed.

Wolfson :   Why the ocean? You had an early interest in nature, in frogs and bugs. Was there a moment when you said, "This is it." The ocean is where I want my life to be?
Earle :   Starting from the earliest times that I can remember, 2 or 3, my family went to the Jersey shore for brief vacations during the summer. So I remember the anticipation of going to the ocean because we lived in a wooded area with streams and fresh water, and so on.

I can remember the first thing on approaching the sea, I could smell the ocean. There was this aroma that was distinctively different when you got close to it. And then, you could hear the sound of the waves. I can hear it now. Just the roar as they came on shore. And then, finally, you came up over the dunes and, BOOM, there it was! There was the ocean!

What really moved me into the sea and has kept me there was the presence of a great variety of creatures that you couldn't find on land. People have become impressed with the diversity of life in the rain forests and there's a lot of focus on that, as there should be. But there's nothing like the diversity of life in the sea. That's where the true, big, broad divisions of life really are.


There's a widespread attitude that human beings are the big boss and that everything is here to serve us. And we behave in that way. The truth is we're not in charge. And what we're doing is impacting the means of our survival.
Nearly all, with a few small exceptions, of the major divisions of plants and animals have at least some representation in the ocean. Nowhere else do you find this sweep of the history of life that you can find a few feet from any shore. You can find a dozen phyla of animals, including many that occur only in the sea. Only about half the big divisions of plants and animals have any representation at all on land.

When I was 12, my parents moved to Florida, where I had the Gulf of Mexico as my backyard. It was like living on the edge of the great unknown every day. I'd come home from school and spend my time getting acquainted with the crabs and the fish and the sea urchins and the star fish.

I was so pleased to get a face plate. That was my first piece of real ocean exploration equipment. And it's still probably the most important. Just a little piece of glass you put over your face so you can see underwater. Snorkels are nice, flippers are nice, scuba tanks are nice. But, number-one is to be able to actually see clearly what's down there. That's what lured me into the ocean. All those critters! It still does.

Wolfson :   Tell us about your first dive.
Earle :   The first real dive in the ocean, aside from splashing around as a youngster with a face plate, was using a scuba tank at Florida State University when I was taking a summer course. I was one of eight students who signed up for marine biology, and for almost 2 months, day in and day out, we had a chance to saturate ourselves, getting to know who lives in the ocean and what it all means.

This was in 1953. The professor had two of the first units of scuba tanks and so-called aqua lungs that were available in the country. We went out in a little boat, 5 miles off shore, where the water was 15 feet deep. We sat on the edge of the boat, and each of us had a few minutes of instruction. I remember the most important words were "breathe naturally. Don't hold your breath. Just put the regulator in your mouth, and just don't stop breathing."

This was before there were handy guides on scuba diving, before there was a lot of the understanding about how quickly you can get into trouble breathing compressed air and holding your breath or coming up too fast.

This was my first experience in having the sensation of breathing under the water and feeling free, being thrown over the side, and feeling that gasp of astonishment: I'm underwater and I can breathe.


There's nothing like the diversity of life in the sea. That's where the true, big, broad divisions of life really are.
I was so impressed that I could stay there and didn't have to go back up after 30 seconds or so. I could just watch these little creatures. And engage them, and let them engage me. I could stand on one finger! And do back-flips! I could be a genius under water without any special skills. Or a ballerina! But, mainly, I was awed by this new ability to be able to meaningfully engage the creatures there. I had to be dragged out of the water!
Haag :   What was the most amazing thing you've ever seen?
Earle :   There's no single answer to that. I think one of the most amazing things is this 82-year-old man with whom I was diving a year ago in the South Pacific. He was just having the time of his life. Some people think you have to be big and strong and a super-athlete, but diving is really for everyone. My mom is now 94, but she was 81 when she put on a mask and flippers and went down to visit with the fish.

My kids were all fairly young when they had a chance to get underwater for the first time and splash around. My youngest daughter was 6, and I don't advise people to start scuba diving when they're 6.


Without water, there can be no life. It's the single non-negotiable thing that life requires. And scientists who are looking afar, looking at other places where life may occur, look first for the existence of water.
Except under really exceptional circumstances, and this is one. I was willing to take responsibility for her and we didn't go deep. When she got to be 14 or 15 years old, she went ahead and got certified, as my other two children have as well.

Before, you asked "why the ocean?" An alien would have no trouble answering that question. He'd look at the planet and if he wanted to understand how this world works, he'd dive in the ocean because that's where the action is.

We terrestrial creatures are the minority.

Wolfson :   You've been called the Rachel Carson of the ocean. What's the warning cry that you would like to sound?
Earle :   With increasing urgency, it's important for people to be aware of what we're doing that is changing the nature of the oceans. First of all, to be aware that the oceans represent a cornerstone of our life support system. Without the oceans, the planet would not be hospitable for us. The oceans drive the climate and weather, create the atmosphere we take for granted. We just assume that things have always been this way, and they always will be this way.

Without water, there can be no life. It's the single non-negotiable thing that life requires. And scientists who are looking afar, looking at other places where life may occur, look first for the existence of water.


"Why the ocean?" An alien would have no trouble answering that question. He'd look at the planet and if he wanted to understand how this world works, he'd dive in the ocean because that's where the action is. We terrestrial creatures are the minority.
Maybe Mars? Mars once had an ocean. What happened to the oceans on Mars? Wouldn't it be nice to find out? We risk losing our oceans. Then we risk losing life on this planet. Was there life on Mars? The recent discovery of a rock that presumably originated on Mars with some evidence of what may have been life, is a very tantalizing clue about how things started.

We are nudging our planet in many ways. So I just can't imagine that we aren't having some impact. I can't predict, and nobody else can either, for sure, what the impact will be for our future. And that's really the question: How's it going to affect us? Or our descendants, we being the selfish creatures that we are. We have the power to eliminate not just individual species, but whole ecosystems.

I'm impressed that there has been positive action to turn things around with, say, whales. If we had continued with the same policies that we were following in the 1940s, we'd have a hard time finding a single blue whale today. Or most of the rest of the great whales. But, still in fact, we may have already doomed some because the deaths are outweighing, outnumbering the births. But it's encouraging to me that at least we came to the point that as a society, we're going to at least stop for the most part killing whales deliberately.