The Woman Who Has Spent Almost a Year of Her Life Underwater

Scientist and explorer Sylvia Earle warns that the oceans are “not too big to fail.” But she also says that just maybe, we’re growing wise enough to save them.
Dr. Sylvia Earle prepares for a dive in the DeepSee submersible – Coiba, Panama. (©Kip Evans/Mission Blue)

Sylvia Earle hasn’t quite spent a year under water—yet. At age 78, she’s at over 7,000 hours, which translates to about 292 days.

But she’s going strong. “I just added a few more hours to time under water,” Earle says, “because I’ve just returned from the Gulf of Mexico, 100 miles offshore to a place called the Flower Garden Banks, where at this time of the year, several key species of corals whoop it up and do what it takes to make more corals.” Earle is referring to the phenomenon of mass coral spawning, in which huge numbers of corals all release gametes into the water at once, which in turn float to the surface where fertilization occurs. To hear divers tell it, these events of mass reproduction are one of the great wonders of the undersea world—one that all too few of us ever get to see.

“We were diving three times a day, and then another dive at night,” Earle continues, “to observe the action on these reefs.”

If you’re inspired by Earle’s ability to pull this off at age 78, just wait: The real inspiration lies in her stunning plea for ocean conservation. In this episode of Inquiring Minds (click above to stream audio), Earle doesn’t shy away from giving us the really, really big picture. She explains that we’re the first generation of humans to even know what we’re doing to 96 percent of the Earth’s water—through assaults ranging from over-fishing to noise pollution to global warming’s evil twin, ocean acidification.

Earlier generations just didn’t get it; they simply had no idea they could have this effect. “We have been under the illusion for most of our history, thinking that the ocean is too big to fail,” Earle says. Now, thanks in large part to the work of ocean adventurer-scientists like Earle, we know better. And we’re right at that crucial moment where knowing something might actually help us make a difference.

Earle ought to know: She hasn’t just studied the oceans, she’s lived them. Her titles include National Geographic Society Explorer in Residence, and former chief scientist at NOAA—plus she’s a TED Prize winner who used that award to form Mission Blue, an ocean conservation initiative. Her unofficial titles go further: Time called her “Hero of the Planet,” and many other call her “Her Deepness.”

Earle has set several underwater depth records, including diving to 1,250 feet without a tether (in other words, without a safety line connecting her to another human at the surface) in 1979. Oh, and then there’s her scientific research: Over 100 publications on topics including marine flora and fauna (Earle hasdiscovered several new species), the effects of oil spills, undersea exploration technologies, and much else.

Back in 1970, when some institutions of higher education were still refusing to admit women, Earle was leading female aquanauts on expeditions to the sea floor. The Tektite Program included a team of women who lived in an undersea laboratory off the Virgin Islands for two weeks, conducting research. Asked on Inquiring Minds how she was so ahead of the curve, Earle responded: “I think all of us are a little behind the curve for taking advantage of a half of the world’s population.”

Presented by

Chris Mooney is a science and political journalist, podcaster, and the host of Climate Desk Live. He is the author of four books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science

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