An Interview with Sylvia
Earle

Wolfson :   What would you say to people who go to their favorite restaurant and order a thick piece of tuna?
Earle :   I say, "Think again." Before you take that first bite, understand what it is you're eating. Every tuna that is consumed reduces the chances that there will be tuna tomorrow. Moreover, just from a personal health standpoint, there's higher risk in consuming wild-caught game that feeds at the top of the food chain than there is for farm-raised creatures where there is close monitoring about the quality of what ultimately winds up on the consumer's plate.

But wild-caught game from the sea is not so monitored, so we can expect higher levels of things that we don't want in ourselves, like mercury and other toxic materials. Most of the fish that we eat are top-of-the-line predators -- shark, tuna, codfish, flounder, sole, halibut. They eat fish that eat fish, that eat fish, that eat crustaceans. Especially the bottom feeders. They eat mud; they eat the organic debris, which is just loaded with the kinds of things that we'd like very much to keep out of our systems.

Although I grew up in a family that adores sea food, and really loved lobster and crab and all those, I came to understand what it takes to make a tuna, that most of the tuna that are caught are 8 or 10 years old, or older. That what is invested in a pound of tuna fish amounts to on the order of a hundred thousand pounds of plants because of the food chain.

Every step along the way, you retain maybe 10% of the energy; you burn the rest just living. Think of how many Big Macs and buckets of Kentucky Fried that a 10-year-old kid has consumed. And yet a 10-year-old kid is only so big. The rest of it has been burned in energy. The tuna has eaten fairly sizable fish that have eaten some medium-sized fish and then on down through the food chain. And each step of the way, 90% of the mass that is consumed is burned.

On the other hand, it takes less than 2 pounds of plants to make a pound of farm-raised catfish. But that same catfish out in the lake somewhere may have been around for 6, or 8, or 10 years. So when you take it out, it represents a big investment from the system. And you've taken out the creatures that are most likely to perpetuate the species on into the future. You've taken out the moms and dads.


Mars once had an ocean. What happened to the oceans on Mars? Wouldn't it be nice to find out?

Right now, with swordfish, we're taking the babies because there aren't any big ones left. We're taking them before they can even reproduce. We just don't understand how the system works. All we understand is that fish taste good and they're free. All we have to do is go out and grab them.

Wolfson :   I'd like to ask a question that goes in a different direction. Could you tell us an exciting sea adventure story?
Earle :   Oh, I have lots of those. I had the fun of watching a sketch of a small submarine on a napkin come to be a 3-dimensional reality to then actually flying it around and having a significant record-breaking dive of a thousand meters. Only two people in all the history of the planet have been to the bottom of the ocean, the deepest part, 7 miles down, and come back. There may have been lots who've gotten there and never came back. Getting back is the real trick.

Most of the fish that we eat are top-of-the-line predators -- shark, tuna, codfish, flounder, sole, halibut. They eat fish that eat fish, that eat fish, that eat crustaceans. Especially the bottom feeders. They eat mud.

The sketch on the napkin in the Washington restaurant was made in 1980. And the sketcher was Graham Hawkes. And I was provoking him a bit, I suppose, to come up with an answer to my question: What is it going to take to be able to go to the deepest part of the sea? We can go to the moon. We can send little probes to Mars. Why are we having such a tough time as a species getting to the bottom of the ocean?

So the engineering solution was, at least the first concept was, a sphere. Made of a clear material. With manipulators so you could actually do something. Small, so that it could be transportable and easily deployed and relatively low-cost. And safe because something small and round can withstand pressures over the hull.

In order to get the dream machine built, we started a company called Deep Ocean Engineering in 1981. I had friends who were astronauts, including Kathy Sullivan who was the first woman skywalking astronaut from this country.

And I tease her sometimes about being astronaut. All you have to be is the very best at what you do. But somebody else builds your spacecraft. Then when you come back from being up in the sky in this machine that somebody else has built and funded, people listen and really hear what you have to say.

Astronaut Kathy Sullivan


Only two people in all the history of the planet have been to the bottom of the ocean, the deepest part, 7 miles down, and come back. There may have been lots who've gotten there and never came back. Getting back is the real trick.

But those of us who yearn to go down in the sea, first of all, you've gotta design your spacecraft. Then you have to find the money to build it, and then you have to find the money to operate it. And meanwhile, you have to find money to live on. So that's why Deep Ocean Engineering started as a company. Our underwater robots made the money that made the manned system possible. But we had to sell the first one to a company in Canada in order to build it. And then we had to hire it back in order to use it.

And now the sea story I was getting to!

Having built this little submarine and hired it back from the people who actually owned it, there was this magic time when Graham, who was the designer of the system, climbed in and took it to its full rated depth, to a thousand meters, off San Diego. He did it successfully. As an engineer, he was most interested in all the little creaks and groans and pops.


It was fabulous. As I descended, it got darker and darker. But it never got completely dark because of the bioluminescence of creatures. It was like falling into a galaxy.

I was the lucky one who got to go down second. I had used it in shallow water before, so running the thing was not my concern. I knew how to do that. It was like second nature. So I used it to get to where I wanted to go.

I wanted to be a piece of plankton. I just wanted to turn off all the lights, which I did. And turn off the thrusters and just move around for a while and see what happened. And then turn the thrusters on and move a little bit and see what happened. It was fabulous. As I descended, it got darker and darker.

But it never got completely dark because of the bioluminescence of creatures. It was like falling into a galaxy. Little pops and bursts and flashes of living light, blue fire for jellyfish and the little shrimp with luminous puffs and the octopuses and squids that fire up. It was just an amazing array. It was truly, always is, a light show that surpasses the 4th of July.


I saw something glistening with a strange kind of reddish glow.

And then getting down to the bottom. And, again, turning out the lights or turning them on. And finding that the carefully configured chart of the area, that I thought was pretty good, wasn't right at all. The bottom wasn't like that at all. It had steep drop-offs and little ledges.

And then, I saw something glistening with a strange kind of reddish glow. Silvery with a red glow. And I was so excited. I couldn't imagine what it was from a distance. And I remember thinking I would really be very careful about approaching this, not to startle it. So I crept up with the submarine.

You can treat the submarine almost like a suit of clothes; it's small and very dexterous. It was only when I got about as close as I am from here to the end of the table that I realized it was an RC Cola can. I was so discouraged. This was no wilderness. This was a place that had already felt the heavy hand of humankind.

Wolfson :   Listening to you talk, in almost poetic terms, reminded me of what some of the astronauts have said about looking down on the planet. That they experienced a kind of awakening or epiphany that changed them as a person. Have you experienced anything like that?
Earle :   A spiritual experience? Not in terms of "seeing things", but more like a jolt of reality. The perspective change. The sea change. The sharp awareness of how much we don't know and how important these creatures are to the healthy functioning of the ocean.

Look at what we're putting into the oceans. We're doing a pretty good job of turning things into a different kind of place than the one we inherited.

You look at the surface, and many oceanographers do just look at the surface. It looks like water. They think of the ocean in terms of temperature patterns and solidity patterns and current patterns. Oceanographers invest quite a lot in terms of understanding how the ocean functions as a physical/chemical system. And that is really important.

But what has been missing from our understanding of the ocean is the importance of life to the chemistry and the physics and the nature of the sea as a whole. And thus, to the functioning of the planet as a whole.

What drives the system is, I think, still an open question. Life. It isn't just water, isn't just salt water. It's salt water as it is influenced and changed every day by the presence of all the critters that are out there. And especially the micro-beasts. Especially the minute creatures that, because of our enormous size, we tend to discount. We just don't notice them till we catch a cold.

And this should make us driven to take care of the place. Do everything we can to understand it. Do everything we can to take care of it, not to perturb it. And, instead, we're removing, every year, on the order of a hundred million tons of wild-caught game from the ocean.

And look at what we're putting into the oceans. We're doing a pretty good job of turning things into a different kind of place than the one we inherited.


Everybody can become more knowledgeable about what the issues are. And then, from there, you can say to yourself: "Who am I and what makes my heart beat fast?"
All of us should be grateful to the national park system that was set in motion 125 or so years ago. If we hadn't taken little steps to protect certain parts of the land, the big trees would have been logged. No question about it. We need to do much. In the ocean, we started much more recently, 1972. Under legislation called the National Marine Sanctuary Act, we started to do similar things in the ocean. The Monterey Sanctuary is one great example.

The California system of sanctuaries encompasses about 5,000 square miles -- so-called protected area. But it's really not as protected as the terrestrial counterparts. Commercial fishing is allowed virtually everywhere. Not much is restricted.

Haag :   Could you talk some about what individuals, teenagers, could do.
Earle :   It varies for the individual. But everybody can become more knowledgeable about what the issues are. And then, from there, you can say to yourself: "Who am I and what makes my heart beat fast?"

If you have an interest in little kids, take them to the beach. Show them how fantastic a starfish is. Get them turned on.

If you're a musician, you can use that talent in ways that can move others as some musicians are doing. If you have a way with words, you can write, whether it's in terms of scientific documentation or stories or poetry or songs or books for kids or a letter to your congressman, or to your newspaper, or to your mom and dad. Or to anybody. Let them know that you care. That somebody cares. That you are worried about the problem.

And I don't mean just do this once. I mean use your talents whatever they are.


Develop in them a sense of caring. Take an adult. Ask them, challenge them about what they're doing to make a difference.

If you have a way with math, that's a major talent. If you have an interest in little kids, take them to the beach. Show them how fantastic a starfish is. Get them turned on. Develop in them a sense of caring. Take an adult. Ask them, challenge them about what they're doing to make a difference.

There are organizations out there with kindred souls. And one thing has a way of leading to another. You can set about the business of, say, cleaning up the beach. It matters. It makes a difference. It matters even more if you can get 2 or 3 or 6 others to go out there because you can clean up more beach.

But also, maybe you can get to the source and do something that influences policies, that encourages people not to put the junk there in the first place. It's amazing how one caring individual can turn the world around. When you really think about it, it's only because caring individuals in the history of the planet have taken a stand at one point or another, that anything has ever happened. A piece of legislation doesn't magically fall out of the sky. Somebody cares. And somebody gets the ball rolling. And so why not you?

Wolfson :   I have a series of questions that require short, fast answers. The first thing that comes to mind. If you were going to be reborn, what would you like to be? Man, woman, plankton, blue whale? Your choice?
Earle :   It's great to be a human being. All things considered, we have the greatest number of options of any creature that has ever been. We not only can physically take ourselves all over the planet from the deepest sea to anyplace on the surface of the planet that we care to go through the technology that we harness to serve our interests, but also high in the sky and even to the moon and on beyond. Being a human being has got lots of advantages.

A piece of legislation doesn't magically fall out of the sky. Somebody cares. And somebody gets the ball rolling. And so why not you?

On the other hand, it would also be nice to have the ability that Merlin bestowed on King Arthur in the Once and Future King story where I could become a fish. Feel what it's like to be a fish. I would love to know what a fish feels with the lateral line that it has down its body. It can be so sensitive to subtleties that we're totally unaware of.

Or to hear the way a desert fox hears. Or to see the way a deep sea creature sees. Or a cat that moves in the forest. Or an owl. To be able to fly like a bird. Or to dive like a whale. Or to be like a penguin.

I can't look at a creature and not wish. But that's another nice thing about being a human being. We can use our imagination.

Wolfson :   What historical period would you like to visit?
Earle :   I'd have to take a life-support system to go back a billion years, but I'd sure like to see what the planet was like then. Or to stomp around with dinosaurs -- with a nice, protective suit of some sort. And I'd love to zip forward and see how it all comes out in 500 years or a thousand.

But I think of all the times ever, this is the time. We still have a fair representation of the wild planet, of the history of all that has preceded the present time. Especially in the ocean. You can still see the history of life on earth. You can see it during almost any dive.