“I feel like an octopus with all arms fully engaged,” says Earle, who still works ambitiously at age 88. Credit: Taylor Griffith / Mission Blue

World - The Legendary Ocean Explorer Protecting ‘Hope Spots’ Around the World

Sylvia Earle, a pioneer of both deep sea diving and ocean conservation, has made it her mission to protect the ocean’s biodiversity, one spot at a time.

Despite celebrating her 88th birthday last August, Sylvia Earle seems to whirl around the globe faster than a hurricane gathering strength. She still travels about 300 days of the year and just returned from the Cayman Islands, Brazil, Mozambique, Mexico, Antarctica and Europe. “I feel like an octopus with all arms fully engaged,” she says about her workload. “If a child is about to fall off a 10-story building and you are in a position to catch it, you’ll do everything in your power to be positioned just so you can save it. You don’t look away and have a cup of tea in the meantime.”

Earle’s sense of urgency is due to her unique position in history. The first woman to dive with scuba gear in the early 1950s, the first person to walk on the ocean floor 1250 feet under the surface in 1979, the first female chief scientist of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 1990, she has explored the oceans deeper and longer than any other woman on the planet. This gave her a front-row seat to the changes occurring below the surface, long before women were welcomed in marine sciences.

Now, when she returns to spots that once brimmed with fish and vibrant corals, she often only finds a gray underwater desert. While about 12 percent of the land around the world is under some form of protection, less than three percent of the ocean is protected.

Sylvia Earle diving in the Galapagos.
Earle diving in the Galapagos. Credit: Carl Lundin / Mission Blue

“Which means 97 percent are open for exploitation,” she says. “We have lost about 90 percent of sharks, tuna, and other fish, and 50 percent of coral.” “Her Deepness,” as the world’s most renowned marine scientist is lovingly called by friends and fans, has been working to change that. In 2009, she started the nonprofit Mission Blue with 19 Hope Spots, defined as “areas critical to ocean health in that they have a significant amount of biodiversity.”

There are now 158 Hope Spots, “and counting,” Shannon Rake, Mission Blue’s Hope Spot Manager, emphasizes. Hope Spots can be as large as the coral triangle in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Sea and as well-known as the Galapagos Islands, or small and quite unknown, like a dozen seamounts off California’s coast. No matter how tiny, Earle is convinced every Spot counts. “Every place, even the small places, makes a difference,“ she insists. “But we need to scale up. We need to get big. Take care of the ocean as if your life depends on it because it does.”

The Harvard-trained marine scientist with a PhD from Duke University has made it her mission to advocate for the ocean. Earle compares the ocean to our heart. “You wouldn’t say you need to protect just three percent or even 30 percent of your heart,” she says. “The oceans are the heart of the planet. Without it, life is not possible.”

Initially, Hope Spots were identified by renowned scientists. But after the 2014 Netflix documentary Mission Blue made her idea popular and people started reaching out to the nonprofit, Earle opened the process up to the public. “We’re overwhelmed by nominations from the public,” Rake admits before she adds, “in a good way!” She receives up to 100 nomination requests per year that are reviewed by a committee.

While Earle is petite in stature, she maintains a vigorous and outsized optimism. “I think you could get really depressed looking at headlines if you wished to focus on the bad news; there’s plenty of it,” she admits. “If we wait much longer to act on those opportunities we will lose the chance. So this is literally the best time that I can think of in all of history to be alive because just in my lifetime, I’ve witnessed greater insight, greater knowledge, about the fabric of life.”

One Hope Spot is literally just outside the windows of her Alameda, CA, office — the San Francisco Bay. “Admittedly, it’s not exactly pristine,” Earle comments, “but better than it has been in the past because people are coming together to take action and restore its health.”

When she started exploring the seas decades ago, humankind thought the oceans were so vast they could handle any amount of trash, toxic pollutants and fishing boats. Earle was among the first to sound the alarm.

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