Sylvia Earle has lived underwater for a week, walked the sea floor at a (record-breaking) depth of 381 metres and has led over 50 ocean expeditions. At 84, Time’s ‘Hero for the Planet’ isn’t slowing down.
For many marine scientists, Sylvia Earle is a childhood hero. She’s earned endless awards – including 29 honorary doctorates – and her adventures have sent her across the world. Over her long career, she has dived in the deepest parts of the ocean, lectured in 90 countries and even fought off an angry shark. As a female marine scientist in the 1960s, Sylvia’s early career was often challenging, but her pioneering spirit and endless love for the ocean has seen her become the world’s most famous oceanographer.
Sylvia was born in 1935 in New Jersey, America. Her childhood was spent by the blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico near Florida, where she learned to love the strange specimens she collected in nearby salt marshes and seagrass. Earle decided to pursue a career in botany – an industry dominated by men. Many female scientists (who were just as qualified as their male colleagues), were often relegated to assistant roles or overlooked altogether when applying for jobs.
They said, ‘It has to go to a man, because a woman will just get married and have babies. Of course I was indignant, but that attitude wasn’t considered unusual in those days. Sylvia Earle, The New Yorker, 27 July 2014
Sylvia was determined to complete her PhD in botany, and found an ally in biologist Dr Harold Humm. Humm was working closely on the ‘self-contained underwater breathing apparatus’ (SCUBA) which would give divers the power to do deeper and explore the ocean like never before. During her time with Humm, Sylvia found that she had a talent for scuba diving, a talent that would change the course of her career.
During the 1950s and 60s, majority of marine scientists were only able to study dead specimens collected from the shore or by boat. Using new scuba technology, Earle spent 10 years collecting 20,000 live specimens of algae for her ground-breaking dissertation. She also became interested in submersibles (one-person modern submarines) that are specially designed for deep-sea exploration. Earle made history in 1968, as she was the first woman to pilot and ‘lock out’ (enter and leave the chamber) in a submersible – all while she was four months pregnant with her third child! This was only the start of Sylvia Earle’s journey into the history books.
Exterior of Tektite I [Image courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, USA]
The year was 1969. Sylvia Earle applied for a project unlike anything that had been done before. The Tektite missions asked for trained scientists to live inside a specially engineered laboratory for two weeks – a laboratory that was completely underwater, beneath the waves of the United States Virgin Islands. Earle’s application for Tektite I was met with surprise, as the project had never mentioned any women participating – but as an extremely capable applicant with over 1000 hours of diving experience, she was hard to ignore.
The result was Tektite II, the first all-female underwater diving team who spent 14 days underwater in 1970. Earle spent 12 hours each day in long diving sessions, returning ‘home’ to a tiny, isolated habitat 50 metres beneath the surface. For dinner, Earle and her team tested out new foods designed for astronauts, including powdered eggs and freeze-dried spaghetti – but most team members preferred to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The record-breaking team caused a worldwide sensation, with the Tektite II mission showing that female scientists were just as tough as their male counterparts. When they returned to the surface, the Tektite II heroes were greeted with a ticker-tape parade and met President Nixon at a White House reception.
Sylvia Earle’s daring dives and scientific breakthroughs were earning her a big reputation – yet she always yearned to see more of the world’s oceans. After Tektite II, she spent a few years diving with migrating Pacific whales, documenting her adventures in the film Gentle Giants of the Pacific (1980). The lure of the deeper water was still strong for Earle, however, and she began to research ways to explore the extreme depths of the ocean. In 1979, Earle prepared to make her descent via submarine Star II into the depths of the Pacific Ocean, just off the coast of Oahu. Secure in a JIM suit – an atmospheric diving apparatus that allowed individuals to descend to depths of up to 452 metres and maintain normal atmospheric pressure – she untethered herself and walked freely on the ocean floor for two and a half hours. At a record-breaking 381 metres below the surface, Earle told The New Yorker: 
As I stepped from the platform, I was aware that I was venturing onto terrain in some ways comparable to the surface of the moon. In the extreme darkness of the deep sea, a small circle of light from Star II illuminated for the first time a dozen or so long-legged, bright-red Galatheid crabs swaying on the branches of a pink sea fan; a small, sleek, dark brown lantern fish darting by with lights glistening along its sides; an orange fish and several plume-like sea pens clinging to the rocky bottom near the edge of visibility. And when I turned away from the sub’s lights, I could see sparks of living light, blue-green flashes of small, transparent creatures brushing against my faceplate.
She still holds the world record for the deepest untethered sea walk by a woman.
Sylvia Earle poses with a cocktail in the Arctic. [Image courtesy Michael Aw]
Dr Earle’s adventure in the JIM suit solidified her as one of the oceans foremost experts and explorers. Alongside Graham Hawkes, she founded two companies to engineer new submersible models including the Deep Rover, which reached a depth of 914 metres. Alongside her love of ocean exploration, Earle became more passionate about conservation. She accepted the position of Chief Scientist of the United States National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration in the 1990s, and was honoured as the first female National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence in 1998. In 2009, Sylvia used her TED Prize sponsorship to found Mission Blue, an organisation dedicated to promoting and inspiring people worldwide to saving the ocean.
Mission Blue centres on the idea of Hope Spots – small pockets in the ocean with marine diversity or important habitats that are in need of protection. Once a Hope Spot is nominated, the community works with Mission Blue and other conservation experts to ensure that it remains sustainable and safe for the future. Sylvia’s grassroots movement has grown impressively since 2009, with 99 Hope Spots established all over the world’s oceans.
In 2015, Sylvia joined acclaimed international wildlife photographer Michael Aw on a conservation campaign to the Arctic regions. Calling themselves Elysium Arctic, the 60-strong team of explorers, scientists and artists produced a large body of work documenting the effects of climate change on the unique Arctic environment. While on board the expedition vessel, Academik Schuleykin, Sylvia celebrated her 80th birthday with cake and singing. Afterwards, she led the team on an adventure typical of ‘Her Deepness’, snorkelling around Arctic sea ice at the top of the world.
Explore the icy realms of the Arctic at your own leisure in our free photo exhibition, Elysium Arctic. Held outside the museum's Wharf 7 Heritage Centre, enjoy a visual journey through the Arctic wilderness and be mesmerised by the various creatures that inhabit it.