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Get to Know a Frog, or a Worm, or a Fish Says Sylvia Earle

by Sandi Smith

SeniorWomenWeb begins an series of interviews with interesting women of our age. You may recognize their names, know their reputations but, then again, you might not. They are women who, quite literally, have made a difference, whether to the larger world or to just one other person. We hope the interviews provoke your comments and we welcome your suggestions for other women we might interview.

Speak to Sylvia Earle for any length of time and you soon realize that no matter what questions you ask, the talk always returns to ecology and conservation of our oceans. No surprise there--she's spent her life increasing our knowledge about life under the sea. She doesn't preach, but simply and logically presents the facts. "We're not apart from nature, we're a part of it. And to the extent that we continue to damage the natural systems, we are jeopardizing our own future."

At 65 Earle has no intention of retiring. "I'm just beginning as far as I'm concerned. Right now Im in the process of writing an ocean atlas for National Geographic. No one has ever done an atlas for the ocean before. It will sum up what we know. But there is so much that we don't know."

Leading the way and setting records comes naturally to her. "When you really want to do something, you find a way to make it happen. I remember wanting to go to sea and being told that women were bad luck as recently as the sixties." She often was the only woman aboard during early expeditions. She led the first team of women aquanauts who lived underwater for two weeks in 1970. Earle was the first solo diver to descend to 1250 feet without a tether. In 1985 she piloted a remotely operated submersible to 328' feet. Between 1990 and 1992, she served as chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration--the first woman to ever hold the position.

The head of more than 50 worldwide expeditions and author of more 100 books and articles about marine science and technology, Earle says, "The more you discover about our oceans, the more you find there is to discover, so you just keep going." I caught up with Dr. Earle at her Oakland, California home between explorations for the National Geographic Society. She serves as explorer-in-residence and was heading out to sea again the next day.

Earle grew up on a small New Jersey farm with her two brothers. "My mother advised me that I'd have to get used to the idea that there were things my brothers could do that I couldn't. I thought that was absurd." The family moved to Florida for a better climate when she was 12. The Gulf of Mexico became her back yard, which increased her fascination with biology and the oceans. "I had the Gulf as my personal laboratory. I observed and explored and took careful notes."

Was it difficult for a woman to get started in ocean sciences during the sixties? Earle said that when she decided to become a botanist, she met considerable resistance to the idea of a woman being involved in any science. "Women were discouraged. But I didn't listen to the people who said science wasn't appropriate for women. I just knew I wanted to work with plants and animals, and the oceans have the greatest diversity in life on the planet."

Her lifelong love of the sea began on a family vacation to the Jersey shore when she was three. I asked what the attraction was and she said, "Critters. Horseshoe crabs on the New Jersey beaches were irresistible and I still find them irresistible. Since then I've learned about the existence of so many other creatures and it just gets better. I always preferred frogs to dolls. And I watched people bring sick animals and birds with broken wings to my mother to take care of."

"I used to eat all kinds of seafood, but I know too much now. Both about how I value them alive and as individual components of what makes the world work. I'd much rather see grouper swimming in the ocean than swimming in butter with lemon slices."

She added, "We think fish have no sense at all. And yet when you think about it, they have eyes, we have eyes. And they have a heart. We have a heart. They have a brain, and some of us have brains, too; but sometimes I wonder.

"Fish don't seem to be greatly regarded. But if we knew them like we know birds, we would be similarly in awe of them and appreciate them for the beautiful, wondrous, important, creatures they are and the vital role that they play in keeping the planet just the way we like it."

Earle knows that all life is connected. "How could it be otherwise? We must be a part of the natural systems that support us. The genome of microbes, elephants, petunias, pine trees, squid, earthworms and humans is amazingly similar. The chemistry of life operates along certain familiar basic patterns. In spite of that, and it might seem contrary, but all life has its own individuality. You look at a school of fish and think they're all alike. But they're just as much alike as every kid in a classroom. That is, they aren't alike at all. The patterns persist, but individual expression is infinite.

"Really get to know a worm, or a frog, or a fish. Once you do, you'll see that they are part of life. They have personality. Most creatures do. You can scare a spider, you can hurt almost any living thing and most of them feel pain. They know pleasure, or at least absence of pain."

When asked what she hopes to accomplish next, Earle said "I think the most important thing I can do in my lifetime with whatever time that I have is to protect the wild system--the natural systems that remain on the land and in the sea. I want to encourage an ethic in people--an attitude of respect for nature. I can only encourage them to understand that we are inextricably tied to the natural systems that support us and it's in our best interests to do everything we can to take of them. It's not us versus nature."

Earle calls for reason. "In the rush to build houses for people or new shopping centers, or cultivate new farmlands, or our search for lumber, we destroy ancient systems that we don't know how to recreate. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't use wood, but we should cultivate the wood that we need and not make further inroads in these places that represent thousands, sometimes millions, of years of growth."

What can individuals do to ease the damage we are doing to our planet? Earle had a few suggestions:

  • Be aware of global warming. Things can be done on an individual basis such as planting one tree and thinking about what we put in the air. And be sure to plant a native tree, one that doesn't require excess water to keep it alive in a place that's not natural.
  • Change the way we think of our yards. So much is done to maintain a lawn including fertilizing. Fertilizers put nitrates and phosphates into ground water and from there directly into lakes, rivers and streams--and ultimately back to the ocean. Sylvia Earle doesn't have a lawn. She plants trees and shrubs that maximize carbon dioxide reduction and that create habitat for wild creatures.
  • Get to know creatures. Go to the world's aquariums and become acquainted with the way nature relates to humankind.
  • As a parent or grandparent, make sure your children get connected to nature. Read to them. Teach them about nature and wild things.
  • Everybody has a vote. Use it to help sustain the environment.
Volunteer to help with your local parks or marine sanctuaries. There are many ways that individuals can make a difference.

Earle is passionate and convincing about the damage we are doing to our oceans and the life within them. "We're altering the ocean with results that aren't likely to be favorable to us. Already there are signs that this is happening. The chemistry of the sea is changing because of what we're putting into the ocean--hundreds of new chemicals that did not even exist a few years ago. We synthesize them and then introduce them into the air, water, land, and into living systems that we depend upon and our own bodies. And this is not without consequence, it's just that we haven't fully appreciated what the consequences are yet."

Sylvia Earle clearly wants her legacy to be that she made a difference. She continues to work nonstop to reach that goal. In addition to being Explorer in Residence for National Geographic, adjunct scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, leader of the Sustainable Seas Expeditions, and Chairman of DOER Marine Operations, she serves on various boards, foundations and committees relating to marine research, policy and conservation.

Add mother of three and grandmother of four to the list. "I think about what the world is going to be like in 25 years. I imagine my grandchildren as young adults and wonder what kind of world it will be if we don't get this right."

Modern mythologist Joseph Campbell advised, "Follow your bliss." Talking with Sylvia Earle offers a glimpse of what that must be like.



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