Into the Wild Blue Under

Below is the uncut version of the Standout interview with oceanographer Sylvia Earle published in the Fall 2010 issue of Momentum.

Sylvia Earle


Water covers nearly 71 percent of Earth, yet we know more about deep space than the deep ocean. SYLVIA EARLE aims to change that. An oceanographer, explorer, author and lecturer, she has spent most of her life studying what lies below the surface. Momentum sat down with this legend of the sea for an eye-opening discussion of why the oceans truly matter to the health of the planet, and us.

What is the biggest misconception people have about the oceans?

We are still under the impression, that the ocean is so big, so vast and so resilient, that humans do not have the capacity to harm the ocean, and if we do, that it doesn’t matter. What has become increasingly clear, though, is our ability to really undermine the way the ocean works by what we take out and by what we put in. Millions of tons of ocean wildlife are extracted while tons of noxious things are deliberately or inadvertently allowed to flow into the sea. Coupled with what we put into the atmosphere, especially carbon dioxide in excess amounts, is driving a trend toward ocean acidification.

All of these things, are in fact coming back to haunt us, because at the same time that we’ve learned of our power to modify the ocean, we’ve also learned how vital the ocean is to everything we care about. The obvious things: economy, health, security but most fundamentally the existence of life itself.

What’s the biggest threat to the oceans?

Far and away the biggest threat to the ocean is ignorance. It’s a lack of understanding that what we put in, what we take out matters – not just to the ocean, but matters to us. The ocean cannot be regarded as the planet’s ultimate dumpster or the ultimate place to get free food. It is our life support system, and not being aware of the importance of the ocean to every breath we take, every drop of water we drink, to a benign envelope of conditions that make the planet work – that’s the biggest threat. Not knowing that it matters.

How have the oceans changed throughout your career?

Starting in 2003, the news began to come in waves about the decline of coral reefs. About half are either gone or in a serious state of decline, as compared to where they were in the middle of the 20th century. Ninety percent of many of the big fish that we consume are gone – tunas, swordfish, sharks, halibut, groupers, snappers, down to about ten percent of what they were when I was a child.

Sylvia Earle


We’ve seen a decrease since 1950 of forty percent of plankton in the ocean. Why should we worry that fish don’t have enough to eat, especially when there are fewer fish to eat what’s out there? Because plankton also drives the oxygen cycle, and we are the beneficiaries of what those little green and blue-green creatures in the ocean do. About 70 percent of the oxygen in the atmosphere comes from these photosynthetic organisms in the sea.

At the same time we’ve seen the decrease of many of these systems – it isn’t just coral reefs, it’s also mangroves, sea crest, meadows, kelp forests, they’re all being depleted at a shocking rate. Also the increase of dead zones in coastal waters.

 The other more positive kind of change is that, going back to the middle of the 20th century, none of the ocean – none – had any form of protection because people had the attitude that nobody has to protect the ocean, it takes care of itself, it’s too big to be harmed by what we do. And if it gets harmed, so what? But because of the gradual awakening to our power to destroy and our power to protect, starting in the 70s during the same era that legislation came into place that was largely directed to land, we began to tiptoe in to ocean issues.

In the U.S., owing to decisions made just in the last few years, we have some of the largest marine protected areas on the planet. A total of about 350,000 square miles of ocean is protected. Some lies in managed areas where fishing continues, but the majority is a safe haven for wildlife. This equals more square miles of protection than all of the national parks put together in this country. But worldwide, it’s still 1.1 percent of the ocean that has any protection, and only 0.8 percent has full protection.

Why explore the deep ocean?

Sylvia Earle


We understand why it’s important to reach for the stars, to look at ourselves in perspective of the universe, ask big questions such as where did we come from, how is it that we’re here in this blue speck in space, and where are we going? And we’ve devoted a great amount of time and resources to moving forward, but meanwhile we’ve neglected understanding how this part of the solar system – our home – our life support system - how this really functions.  

It’s like trying to understand your own body – is it good enough to only look at the skin? We don’t have to delve in and understand how the heart works or the lungs or circulatory system, well just take that for granted?

Now we understand that it does matter, it really does, the heart is in trouble. The blue heart of the planet is in danger of malfunctioning because of actions we’ve taken in recent years. It’s partly because there’s now 7billion of us now. We are impacting every part of the planet, from both polar areas to the deep sea, and we’re exploiting the deep sea even before we have explored it.  We don’t even know the names of the creatures that are now being dragged from the ocean to provide animal food and food for us, too.

Orange roughy, for example, is a deep sea fish that is taken from 2000 feet and more beneath the surface. Most people don’t have any idea what an orange roughy looks like because by the time it gets to the market, all you see is a little filet.  That little filet may be 2 centuries old. It may have accumulated in it a large number of things you don’t want in you. The older the fish, the higher in the food chain and greater likelihood that the carnivorous animals we’re eating from the sea have acquired mercury, fire retardants, pesticides and herbicides that you don’t want in you, and oh, by the way you’ve taken a  bite out of systems  that aren’t easily replaced.  It’s like stripping the land of all the lions and tigers and leopard and bears and wolves and eagles and owls. Because most of what we take from the sea are from the top of the food chain. Not the grazers and not the producers or the plants.

Farm-raised versus wild caught: where do you stand?

Would you eat songbirds? Would you consume eagles, owls, snow leopards, elephants, tigers, lions? That’s the equivalent of what we find in our supermarkets and on our menus. It’s wildlife. And for the most part, they’re not grazers; they’re high on the food chain. They’re carnivores. What we raise on farms, on the land, they’re all grazers. They’re all plant eaters. And the conversion of sunlight through plants to protein is a very short route. And they’re young – we take everything to market as quickly as possible, within a year. We don’t raise ten year old cows or 30 year old chicken or 100 year old sheep. And yet, we’ll eat 100 year old deep sea fish without blinking an eye, mostly because we don’t know they’re 100 years old.

Raising carnivores, such as salmon, doesn’t make sense. It takes a lot of wild fish to feed salmon. And in the process, all the things that the small fish have been eating get concentrated up the food chain when they’re fed to salmon. So again you get high concentrations of the things you don’t want in you, along with the desirable things that you are trying to acquire – meat, good protein, and some say omega 3. My doctor says eat fish, but think about it. We should be eating plankton – that’s the source of the omega 3’s from the fish. Fish don’t manufacture omega 3’s, they acquire it from the plankton. We can readily get mercury-free, fire retardant, pesticide, herbicide-free, non-lethal forms of omega 3s by searching out omega 3 capsules in any drugstore.

What national or international policies would best serve the oceans?

The changing chemistry of the ocean through acidification is a profoundly important topic. It’s not that difficult to see the connection between what we put into the atmosphere – which is carbon dioxide – and how it’s influencing the ocean and how that comes back to influence us. So that is number one.

Number two are policies that relate to protection for ocean wildlife. We need to reduce the impact of what we take out of the sea. So anything that will really reduce the pressure of fishing. Right now on a global scale we’re subsidizing the extraction of ocean wildlife through commercial fishing. Huge nets and log lines troll the ocean and take not just the targeted species, which is bad enough, but also many untargeted fish, birds, mammals and turtles. They are the unfortunate victims of our taste for things like swordfish and tuna. In much of the world, whales and other marine mammals are safe.  It isn’t true everywhere, but it is true in the United States and many other countries. So, policies directed at greater sensitivity of care for ocean wildlife across the board – from lobsters and clams to oysters to whales.  And third, we need to think about the impact of discharge of waste in coastal waters and the open sea. Also, a lot of the things we didn’t think about in the 20th century – such as noise being allowed to pervade the ocean system. 

I think overall, it is simply becoming aware that the ocean matters. And right now, when you think about the sensitivity people have about the natural world, the environment, the desire to protect wildlife – for every dollar that goes to land conservation, birds, freshwater, whatever it is, the terrestrial parts of the planet, a penny goes for ocean protection. And that’s a reflection of the attitudes people have. They understand that the forests and the rivers and the lakes are in trouble – and they are – I wouldn’t take a penny away from protecting the land. We need much more devotion to both land and sea. We need to realize this is not a luxury. This is not an option. This is critical to our health and to our survival. We need to take seriously the importance of protecting the natural systems that take care of us.

Reflecting on your career, what accomplishments are you most proud of?

I’m driven presently on two fronts – one, to continue to promote the technology and application of technologies for exploring the least known part of the solar system – and that would be our own planet. We know more about what makes Mars function than about what makes the earth function. That’s unacceptable. You can’t take care of a place – or anything – if you don’t understand it. So, that’s one.

The other is flat out trying to do everything I can as a precautionary principle. My dad used to say, looking at how I used to take things apart to figure out how they worked, “Don’t lose any of the pieces. If you take it apart, know how to put it back together again.” 

When you think about other creatures who live during the same era – whales can live as long as we can, obviously orange roughy can, the deep sea fish, they may know that the world has changed since the time they first appeared. But they don’t know why, and they don’t know what to do about it. We’re the only creatures who have the understanding to act.

What’s next for you? What secrets of the ocean do you still hope to explore?

Sylvia Earle


Onward and downward. I do really long to be able to go deeper, stay longer, explore more of the ocean. Not just me, I want to see the world sensitized to the need to explore and go do it. Now we understand that life exists from the surface to the greatest depths.

And now we know that our lives depend on the ocean, and the creatures that live there. It’s not just rocks and water. It’s the life in the sea that keeps not just us alive, but all of the rest of the life on earth. It is our life support system.

One of the things that I’ve been working on in recent times is what I call “hope spots.” I’m directing attention to places around the world that have an enhanced capacity to protect the way the systems work. Breeding areas for fish, for example.  In the Gulf of Mexico there’s a place where bluefin tuna gathered to spawn. Unfortunately, it happened to be right in the pathway of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Nonetheless, it’s a hope spot because it’s where over the ages bluefin tuna have returned. They go back to the same areas because their lives somehow are linked to the special conditions that occur in that part of the ocean. But all things considered – for me, there’s just one big, blue hope spot – it’s called the ocean.

Join us in Minneapolis on May 12, 2011, as Sylvia Earle helps inaugurate IonE’s new Momentum event series.