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Marine Biologist Reflects On A Lifetime Of Ocean Advocacy

Woman in deep sea diving gear floating beneath ocean surface
Mission Blue
Dr. Sylvia Earle is founder and president of the oceans advocacy group Mission Blue and a National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence since 1999.

Sylvia Earle has lived underwater as an aquanaut, walked the sea floor at a depth of over 1,200 feet and has led more than 100 ocean expeditions. The first female chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration grew up in Dunedin and says her decades of diving have offered her an up-close view of the degradation of the world’s oceans.

To combat that deterioration and to protect marine ecosystems, the oceanographer and marine biologist founded Mission Blue, an initiative intended to galvanize support for marine protected areas around the world.

“Unfortunately I've been a witness to how my species has displaced many others in the course of what we think of as our prosperity,” she said recently in Sarasota. “But we've gone a bit too far not respecting the natural systems that are the basis of everything that we care about, fundamentally, our survival. The ocean is what keeps us alive."

In early March, Sylvia Earle was scheduled to speak about her mission at an event sponsored by the Gulf Coast Community Foundation. Less than 24 hours before her talk, the event became one of the first in a wave of postponed and cancelled events in the wake of the spreading coronavirus pandemic. But Earle had already flown in from California and was willing and eager to share her story, including facets of her childhood in Dunedin.

“Florida is a magical place,” she said. “The Gulf of Mexico on one side, the Atlantic on the other, the Caribbean to the south. It's just a place that is blessed by nature. But as a child, I--just like about everybody else-- thought the ocean was basically infinite in its capacity to recover no matter what we put into it or what we took out of it.”

Earle attended St. Petersburg College before earning her bachelor’s degree from Florida State University and her master’s and Ph.D. from Duke University. Her storied scientific career included a stint as interim director of Cape Haze Marine Laboratory, now Mote Marine Laboratory, in the mid-1960s.

In 1979, she walked on the ocean floor 1,250 feet below sea level dressed in a Jim suit—a type of pressurized oceanic armor—completely untethered to anything on the surface. It was in the 1990s when she joined NOAA, where she was responsible for monitoring the health of the ocean. 

Woman in deep sea diving gear looking at a floating sea turtle.
Credit Mission Blue
The Mission Blue alliance includes more than 200 ocean conservation groups and like-minded organizations, from large companies to individual scientific teams.

The explorer then began making documentaries about all things ocean-related, including whale migration and sea turtles. Her own story and career is outlined in the 2014 documentary “Mission Blue,” which is available on Netflix.

Today, Earle, now 84, continues her ocean advocacy as a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence andwith Mission Blue, which seeks to create a worldwide network of marine protected areas called Hope Spots.

Earle introduced the concept in a 2009 TED talk.  At the time, the oceanographer stressed how 12% of the land around the world is under some form of protection but less than 6% of the ocean was protected in any way.

Man and woman smiling and posing for camera
Credit Cathy Carter
Mark Pritchett, president and CEO of Gulf Coast Community Foundation with Dr. Sylvia Earle in Sarasota in March.

“The whole idea behind Mission Blue is getting community supported areas with champions who step up and say, we're going to commit to taking this part of the ocean, this part of the planet and do what was done early in the 20th century for the land in terms of national parks,” she said.

In August of 2019, Mission Blue announced the Florida Gulf Coast Hope Spot which spans from Apalachicola Bay in the north to Ten Thousand Islands in the south. 

Like many areas around the globe, the local Hope Spot faces threats from manmade interference including plastic pollution and the negative effects of a warming climate, including sea level rise.

“If we don't consciously embrace the natural systems and protect them, we'll lose them,” said Earle. "We should protect those areas, so let's get people who know their backyards, who understand the importance, and who are really inspired to work with their communities and with local and state leaders to use whatever means are available.  The end result of all this, is to embrace the ocean with care for the planet and for us all." 

As a reporter, my goal is to tell a story that moves you in some way. To me, the best way to do that begins with listening. Talking to people about their lives and the issues they care about is my favorite part of the job.
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