Sylvia Earle: My Wish? To Protect Our Oceans Legendary oceanographer Sylvia Earle has been exploring and working to protect our oceans for more than half a century. Her message has stayed the same: we're taking our oceans for granted.

Sylvia Earle: My Wish? To Protect Our Oceans

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And we want to end our series on the ocean with a look back at how much our understanding about oceans has changed over the last century through the eyes of a legend.

SYLVIA EARLE: As a 3-year-old, I got knocked over by a wave.


EARLE: And life in the ocean has held my attention ever since.

ZOMORODI: This is oceanographer Sylvia Earle.

EARLE: I'm a National Geographic explorer and founder of Mission Blue.

ZOMORODI: Now, Dr. Earle, can I call you Sylvia? Or should I call you Your Deepness, as you have been referred to over the years?


EARLE: You can call me whatever you like. I've been called a lot of things over the years (laughter).


ZOMORODI: Sylvia is 85 years old now. And what we've learned over the past six decades or so about our oceans is in part thanks to her.


FRED ROGERS: I remember a day when I was able to go in the ocean with someone who knows as much as anybody in the world about what's underwater in our world. Her name is Sylvia Earle.

ZOMORODI: As a scholar, she went on scientific expeditions all over the globe. She was usually the only woman onboard a team documenting sea life, some of which is now extinct.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: ...The biological program began by converting the former presidential yacht Williamsburg...

ZOMORODI: In the '60s, space travel was all the rage. But Sylvia got people excited about exploring the mysteries of the deepest oceans. And in the 1970s, she lived in an underwater lab, studying coral reefs...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Now a team of divers will attempt to live for two weeks...

ZOMORODI: ...While leading an all-female team - shocking, I know.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Ironically, these aquanauts are not men but five young and attractive women, the world's first real-life mermaids.

ZOMORODI: Then, in 1979...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: There is a new tool in the sea.

ZOMORODI: ...Sylvia helped design and test a special pressurized underwater suit.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: If successful, she will be the first woman to walk the sea floor beyond 1,000 feet.

ZOMORODI: She set that record, then later led NOAA, the government agency tasked with protecting the ocean.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: In 1990, Sylvia Earle received a presidential appointment that, for her, was the culmination of a life's work.

ZOMORODI: Sylvia received numerous titles and honorary degrees, including the million-dollar TED Prize in 2009. In short, Sylvia Earle is a pioneer who has no plans to stop advocating on behalf of the ocean or stop exploring.


EARLE: I'm still breathing. I'm still diving. Come on.

ZOMORODI: Are you still going in submarines?

EARLE: Why not? I mean, it's like getting into a car, for heaven's sakes. It's just...


ZOMORODI: All right. So, Sylvia, tell me about how you first got so curious about the ocean and marine life. You grew up in Florida, right? And you spent a lot of time exploring the beach.

EARLE: For me, it was an adventure every day after school to be able to get out and wade in these seagrasses and see sea urchins, to find little seahorses about half the length of my little finger. They're - pygmy seahorses, they're known as. And I saw creatures like sea hares that used to crawl around in those meadows and scallops. You could walk out and see these blue-eyed scallops just pulsing around. I mean, they, like, are jet-propelled when they close their - the two halves of their shells.


EARLE: They would just - such an exciting adventure and, occasionally, to find a little octopus. It was such a joy.

ZOMORODI: And it sounds like you let that joy and all the questions that you had about these creatures - you let them kind of propel you academically because you knew you wanted to be a scientist.

EARLE: I just kept making choices along the way that would lead me in that direction, all the science classes I could take. But not all the classes had answers. I had to go see for myself and find books that would answer some of the questions. But the books weren't always enough. I asked questions the books couldn't answer.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter) Well, so you stuck with it, and you ended up getting your Ph.D. in botany, specifically aquatic plants and algae. And I love the story about how in 1964, you jumped at an invitation to work on a scientific expedition to the Indian Ocean. And you were the only woman on the boat.

EARLE: The headline in the Mombasa Daily Times (ph) the next day came out - "Sylvia Sails Away With 70 Men...

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

EARLE: ...But She Expects No Problems". And actually, the only problem that any of us really had was - here we are in a little boat on the surface of the ocean, and our job, our goal, was to explore the ocean. How do you do that from the top of the - and the ocean is beneath you? Well, we were lucky. We had some of the first scuba tanks and an air compressor onboard. And we were the first to actually - using scuba, to explore some of these legendary places, like Aldabra, parts of the Seychelles, little islands that - some were not populated by humans. And we were in the water, and the fish were seeing humans probably for the first time face-to-face the way fish see fish.


ZOMORODI: So you were one of the first humans to ever go scuba diving. You were also one of the first humans to live in an underwater habitat. You have spent hours at the bottom of the ocean during your lifetime. How did all that time down there change you, do you think?

EARLE: So I've had a chance to live underwater 10 times now in various underwater laboratories and to use more than 30 different kinds of submarines, thousands of hours seeing the ocean from the inside out and realizing this is not just rocks and water; this is alive. It's a soup, like minestrone, but all the little pieces are alive. And then to realize that most people haven't had the depth and breadth of experience that comes with thousands of hours. And I think it's - we're right at the time of transition now that there are millions of divers all over the world who are now being able to go repeatedly back to the same areas and to be able to document the same individuals and to see what occurred to me was just natural. It's the way it is.

ZOMORODI: But you say that you remember - when, actually, you were pretty young that you realized you saw that something bad was happening to nature, that marine life was thriving, and then it started disappearing, and you saw it happen.

EARLE: Being a child in Florida when my parents moved there in 1948 and witnessing the changes in the coastline, the marshes that I first discovered - finding horseshoe crab eggs, these tiny little creatures prospering in really clear water and going out on a dock at night and seeing these bioluminescent creatures just flashing and glowing - and witnessing the change, that the waters became not beautiful, clear and blue but muddy - that was powerful incentive to say, why are we doing this? Well, it's progress. People need a place to live, and people love the waterfront. And there's not enough waterfront. So building these finger-fill areas to magnify the amount of land along the coast, building causeways out to the islands, blocking the flow of water, disturbing the seagrass beds, digging them up. And then they were gone. They're gone.

So it was, I think, my experience as a witness, not reading about it, not looking at images but watching it happen, feeling empathy for the creatures in the sea as I got to know them. And I watched them disappear.


ZOMORODI: I can only imagine that you had that memory in mind when you decided to transition from doing research to policy. So in 1990, you were asked to become the chief scientist at a U.S. agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Like, why go work for the government? What was your thinking? What did you want to accomplish?

EARLE: What really convinced me that, yes, I should be the chief scientist of NOAA was - within NOAA is a small but promising agency called the National Marine Sanctuary program, the counterpart of national parks that are actually housed in the Department of Interior. There are some marine-protected areas in the national park system, but most of the idea of ocean protection was embodied within this small but growing organization. So I thought, this is an opportunity to begin to develop the ethic of caring for the ocean in the same way that a hundred years ago, you know, we began looking at the land and the need for protection.

ZOMORODI: You ended up being kind of a controversial figure there. You got oceans probably in the headlines...


ZOMORODI: ...More than any other government official. I believe it was you who called attention to the fact that - what was it? - that the bluefin tuna was nearly extinct. Why were you so - like, why did people take issue with you? All the things you're saying seem hardly controversial. What was the tension that was going on in the '90s then?

EARLE: Wasn't just the '90s; it's still there - the habit of thinking that the ocean is too big to fail. And we're still taking life in the ocean for granted. We still think that we have the capacity to take fish on a scale that we currently are and continue to do it forever. Sustainable extraction of ocean wildlife - tuna, swordfish, cod, shrimp, what we collectively regard as seafood. And if we just think of it as sea life that keeps us alive, we might make a transition from just looking at what lives in the ocean as something to eat or something to grind up for oil or products, to think of them as individuals, as part of the social structure of the ocean. We have made a transition with birds. We have made a transition with whales. There isn't such a large constituency of people who care about tuna and grouper for their own sake.

And you're right. I got into trouble when I was at NOAA because I attended a Fisheries Council meeting, and I heard that in the Atlantic, the bluefin tuna populations were down by 90%. And I had the audacity to stand up and ask the question. So we only have 10% left from their numbers in the 1970s, a decline of 90% in 20 years from 1970 to 1990. I said, what are we trying to do, exterminate them? Because if we are, we're doing a great job. We only have 10% left to go. What are we waiting for? Let's go get them. I mean, that's when they started calling me the sturgeon general.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter) OK, so fast-forward another decade. And in 2009, you won the TED Prize, and you founded an organization called Mission Blue.


EARLE: My wish is a big wish. But if we can make it happen, it can truly change the world and help insure...

ZOMORODI: And you said in your TED Talk at the time - like, you laid out a lot of what we've been discussing. But you said at the end of it that there is good news because 10% of the big fish remain, that there's time but not a lot of time to turn things around. So it's been, you know, about a dozen years since you gave your talk, since you founded Mission Blue. Tell me about how things have gone in those last 12 years. What have you been able to achieve with your organization and what haven't you?

EARLE: I think one of the most important trends is the awareness and willingness to embrace places and to recognize that protecting nature, the natural systems, have benefits back to us in terms not just of better health, not just because they're beautiful - it's not even a choice anymore; it's necessary for our existence. We have to realize we're a part of nature. We can see the connection between trees and climate. We can see connection between the forests and the ocean, the phytoplankton capturing carbon, generating oxygen, maintaining a planet that works in our favor.

This is common sense. You take care of your personal health because you want to live a long time, and you want to be happy. You want to be healthy. But we can't be happy or healthy if we don't take care of our life support system, the planet. So Mission Blue really has, as its core, to protect the ocean with a network of Hope Spots, protected areas large enough to save and restore the health of the planet. We now have 140 places around the world with champions for Hope Spots and communities gathering information about places that are not always in great condition. Some of them are. They start out either with some form of protection, or they're in beautiful, healthy condition. And the idea is to keep them that way and tell stories about what a good healthy system looks like. But there are also places like San Francisco Bay, not particularly in great shape as compared to what it was 500 years ago. But with care, it can improve.

The 21st century humans are poised to be the heroes for all time because we're armed with a superpower of knowing that we have to change our attitude about the world that keeps us alive, that we can't just continue mining and, you know, taking and taking. We have to be aware of the consequences.


ZOMORODI: That's legendary oceanographer Sylvia Earle. You can see her full talk at

Thank you so much for listening to our show today. To learn more about the people who were on this episode, go to And to see hundreds more TED Talks, check out or the TED app. And if you have been enjoying the show, we'd be so grateful if you left a review on Apple Podcasts. It is the best way for us to reach new listeners, which we really want to do.

This episode was produced by Katie Monteleone, Fiona Geiran, Matthew Cloutier and Christina Cala. It was edited by Sanaz Meshkinpour. Our production staff at NPR also includes Jeff Rogers, Rachel Faulkner, Diba Mohtasham, James Delahoussaye, J.C. Howard and Janet Woojeong Lee. Our audio engineer is Daniel Shuhkin. Our intern is Harrison Vijay Tsui. Our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan, Michelle Quint and Micah Eames.

I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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