Sylvia Earl: Ocean Explorer

While it was the landmark findings of a Census of Marine Life in 2010 that gave the world it’s first inkling into the largely unexplored depths of our oceans, legendary oceanographer, marine biologist, and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, Sylvia Earle has long championed the exploration of the world’s oceans. An indomitable conservationist who did her first dive off the coast of Florida at the age of 16, Sylvia is a living legend with many accomplishments to her name, not least leading the first all-women Tektike 2 project off the Virgin Islands in 1970. Nine years later Sylvia made her famous record-breaking walk without a tether in a pressurized metal JIM suit, in which she roamed the ocean floor for more than 2 hours at a depth of 380m.

But then Sylvia sees diving into the ocean much like diving into the history of life on Earth. ‘Nearly all major divisions of plants, animals and other life forms that have ever existed have some representation in the ocean, whereas only about half occur on land,’ says Sylvia. To this end, Sylvia’s non-profit organization, Mission Blue aims to explore and protect the ocean by creating protected marine areas or Hope Spots in the high seas. ‘As much as 64% of the world’s oceans are beyond the jurisdiction of a single nation,’ she explains. ‘Our belief is that those areas of the ocean with protection are much more resilient to nearly all threats than those left undefended.’

As of Dec 2016, just over 5% of the globe’s oceans were covered by marine protected areas. Mission Blue’s vision is to bring that to at least 30% by the year 2030. ‘The results of the Census of Marine Life in 2010 was an astonishing body of work, and yet 95% of the ocean depths remain unexplored,’ says Sylvia. Taking more than ten years to execute and with more than 538 expeditions and 30 million records catalogued by 2 700 scientists from more than 80 nations, it revealed the discovery of 6 000 new species, including a Jurassic shrimp thought to have been extinct 50 million years ago, and the existence of the deepest, hottest and most northerly and southerly hydrothermal vents (fissures in the seafloor that expel geologically heated water) known to science. To name but a few.

And Sylvia’s gaze is very much on Africa too. In 2014, aged 79, she visited South Africa to launch six new Hope Spots from Saldanha to Sodwana Bay and with the help of  The Sea-Change Trust participated in dives in each of the marine reserves. For someone who has been at the forefront of ocean conservation for nearly 50 years, it’s no wonder she is affectionately referred to as ‘Her Deepness’ or ‘The Sturgeon General.’