Sylvia A. Earle is an American marine biologist, explorer, and activist for protecting our world’s ocean and its inhabitants
Sylvia Earle is an American oceanographer, aquanaut, former chief scientist of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and author of over 180 publications about marine science and technology. She has led over 100 expeditions, logging more than 7,000 hours underwater. She has received more than 100 national and international honors. Sylvia Earle is often affectionately referred to as “Her Deepness.”
Sylvia A. Earle was born on August 30, 1935 in Gibbstown, New Jersey, and raised on a small farm near Camden. She was the second of three children to Lewis and Alice Earle. Lewis was struggling with his job as an electrician. He decided to move closer to his brother to start a new business. When she was about twelve years old, Sylvia’s family moved to Clearwater, Florida. She was not happy about it because she loved their farm and did not want to leave.1 But she soon found herself loving the waters of the Florida Gulf coast, where she became interested in the wildlife that lived there. She attempted her first dive at age 16 using a diving helmet, since SCUBA gear was not yet available.2 After high school, Earle earned a scholarship to Florida State University. She was enthusiastic and dedicated to learning as much as she could, often spending much of her time in the laboratories. She wanted a career where she could work in the ocean and study that world’s waters. In 1955, Earle graduated college with a bachelor’s degree in marine botany. But there were many challenges she would face to becoming a respected scientist.
Sylvia Earle lived during a time where a career in science was nearly impossible for women. But she didn’t let that stop her. Wanting to learn as much about the ocean’s as she could, she then pursued a master’s degree at Duke University in North Carolina. She earned her Master’s Degree in marine botany in 1956. Her focus: algae. Over the next several years, Earle focused her dives, drawings, and recordings on the algae specimen she collected. She studied the waters they lived in and the creatures and plants that survived off of them. These samples and records would become a large contribution to the study of marine science. She married Jack Taylor in 1957, and they went on to have two children. In 1964, Sylvia got an exciting research opportunity. She became part of a team that would travel to the Indian Ocean to study and learn about life within them.3 It would not be easy though. It was a six week expedition and she would be the only female on a ship of seventy crew members.4 But for a once in a lifetime chance such as this, Sylvia Earle would let nothing stop her.
In 1964, Sylvia Earle joined the National Science Foundation sponsored International Indian Ocean Expedition on board the research vessel Anton Bruun.5 At this time, it was still frowned upon for a woman to be onboard a ship, especially one filled with men. But Earle ignored what others thought, and wanted to be a part of this expedition. SCUBA gear allowed her, and the other divers to fully immerse themselves with sea life. Earle did regular dives throughout the Indian Ocean, going deeper than she had previously. Her time aboard Anton Bruun took her to several places throughout the Indian Ocean region near East Africa including: the Comoros, Aldabra, the Seychelles, the Farquhar Islands, Nairobi, Mombasa, Cairo. It also brought her to Athens, Greece; and Rome, Italy in Europe.6
At Comoro Islands, off the southeast coast of Africa, she encountered sea turtles, parrotfish, sponges, and different types of coral. During one dive, she discovered a new bright pink plant they had never seen. Since Earle was the first to discover it, she got to name it. She named this new plant Humbrella after her mentor and teacher, Dr. Harold Humm.7 Over the next two years, Earle would go on four more research expeditions on the Anton Brunn. In 1966, Earle got her PhD. from Duke University and then became a Research Fellow at Harvard University in Boston, Massachusetts. It was also the same year she and Jack Taylor divorced. She married for a second time in 1967. Her husband, Giles Mead, was the curator of fish Harvard University. It was not long after that Sylvia learned about a new opportunity that would change her life, and bring her closer to the under sea world than ever before.
In 1969, the US government was working on a project called Tektite. It was named for the pieces of green glass from space that are found in the sea. The Tektite project would allow scientists to live and work under the sea. The Tektite I housed a group of four male scientists called aquanauts. They were underwater for 60 days, beating the previous 30 day world record for time spent underwater. When a Tektite II project was planned, Earle was asked to lead an all-female team. In 1970, Tektite II was launched with an all-female crew, lead by Sylvia Earle, known as “Mission 6.” The Tektite II laboratory was located near the US Virgin Islands. Sylvia Earle and her team lived here for two weeks. They also had SCUBA gear which they used to explore the ocean around them. They made several discoveries, and studied the sea life and creatures around them. Overall, they documented 154 species of marine plants, including 26 species not yet discovered in the Virgin Islands.8 On September 19, 1979, Sylvia Earle set a world untethered diving record. Wearing an atmospheric suit called a JIM suit, she descended to a depth of 1,250 feet beneath the surface of the Pacific off the coast of the island of Oahu. This earned her the title of “Her Deepness.”9
Later Years and Legacy
Sylvia Earle continues to advance research in marine biology still today. Her contributions to learning more about the oceans, and our need to protect them are countless. Earle broke down barriers during a time when women did not usually work in science. In 1990, she became the first female chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). She served in this position until 1992. She is founder of Mission Blue and the SEAlliance, Chair of Deep Ocean Exploration and Research (DOER). She has also been an Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society since 1998. Her honors and awards number in the hundreds. She remains a champion and defender of the ocean, writing books on what we can do to continue preserving the life within them. Sylvia Earle remains a renowned scientist and explorer still today, and is a living legend.
- Beth Baker, Sylvia Earle (Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Company, 2006), 13.
- Baker, Sylvia Earle, 18-19.
- Sylvia A. Earle, Blue Hope: Exploring and Caring for Earth’s Magnificent Ocean (Washington DC: National Geographic Books, 2014), 103.
- Dennis Fertig, Sylvia Earle: Ocean Explorer (Chicago: Heinemann Library, 2015), 13.
- Earle, Blue Hope, 103.
- Wallace White, “Her Deepness,” The New Yorker, July 3, 1989, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1989/07/03/her-deepness-wallace-white.
- Susan E. Reichard, Who on Earth is Sylvia Earle?: Undersea Explorer of the Ocean (New Jersey: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 2009), 29.
- Beth Baker, Sylvia Earle: Guardian of the Sea, (Minneapolis: Lerner Publication, 2001), 52.
Baker, Beth. Sylvia Earle. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Company, 2006.
Baker, Beth. Sylvia Earle: Guardian of the Sea. Minneapolis: Lerner Publication, 2001.
Earle, Sylvia A. Blue Hope: Exploring and Caring for Earth’s Magnificent Ocean. Washington DC: National Geographic Books, 2014.
Fertig, Dennis. Sylvia Earle: Ocean Explorer. Chicago: Heinemann Library, 2015.
Reichard, Susan E. Who on Earth is Sylvia Earle?: Undersea Explorer of the Ocean. New Jersey: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 2009.
White, Wallace. “Her Deepness.” The New Yorker. July 3, 1989. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1989/07/03/her-deepness-wallace-white.