Sylvia Earle’s ocean experiences span seven decades and have taken her to every corner of the ocean planet. She is the first to remind us that we know very little about ninety-five percent of the ocean and its undersea world. When she talks, all of the world’s ocean lovers listen.
A National Geographic Explorer in Residence, founder of the Deep Search Foundation, and former chief scientist of NOAA she was dubbed “Her Deepness” by the New Yorker, a living legend by the Library of Congress, and Time magazine’s first Hero for the Planet, Sylvia has led more than 100 expeditions and been awarded more than 100 national and international honors, including the 2009 TED Prize for her wish “to explore and protect the ocean, blue heart of the planet.”
This month she led Mission Blue, a TED-sponsored gathering of ocean experts in the Galapagos. In an excerpt from my new book, OCEANS, The Threats to the Seas and What You Can Do To Turn the Tide, Sylvia discusses her love:
Diving into the ocean is rather like diving into the history of life on Earth. Nearly all of the major divisions of plants, animals, protists and other forms that have ever existed have at least some representation there, while only about half occur on the land. In a single gulp of plankton-filled water, a whale shark may swallow fifteen or so of the great wedges of animal life — fish, copepods, arrow worms, flatworms, jellyfish, comb jellies, salps, the larval stages of starfish, sponges, polychaete worms, peanut worms, ribbon worms, mollusks, brachiopods — and more.
Some think of the ocean as a great basin of sand, rocks and water, but it is really more like an enormous bowl of blue minestrone where all of the bits and pieces are alive. During thousands of hours suspended in the ocean’s embrace, I have been wreathed with jewel-like chains of luminous jellies, glided side by side with dozens of dolphins, been nose to nose with humpback whales, had close encounters with curious squids, and been followed around coral reefs by large, inquisitive groupers.
I have come to understand that every drop of ocean has carbon-based life in abundance, although most are too small to be seen without powerful magnification. Thousands of new kinds of microbes recently have been discovered thriving in each spoonful sample of what appears to be clear, lifeless seawater. Some miniscule blue-green bacteria are so abundant and productive that they generate the oxygen in one of every five breaths we take, but their existence was not detected until the 1990s.
More has been learned about the nature of the ocean – and its importance to all that we care about – in the past half century than during all preceding human history. A turning point came with the view — first seen by astronauts — of Earth as a blue sphere gleaming against the vastness of space. With increasing urgency, people wondered, “Are we alone? Is there life elsewhere in the universe?”
The quest begins by asking, “Where is the water?”
That’s the first question astrobiologist Chris McKay poses in his on-going search for life on Mars, the moons of Jupiter, and beyond. “Water,” he says, ” . . .is the single non-negotiable thing life requires. There is plenty of water without life . . .but nowhere is there life without water.”
No water, no life; no blue, no green or, as poet W. H. Auden points out, ” Thousands have lived without love – not one without water.”