Dr. Nichols has helped change conversations about adoption, architecture, the arts, business, community organizing, design, education, fishing, fundraising, health care, hospice, leadership, neuroconservation, non-profits, oceans, parenting, plastic pollution, real estate, recreation, sea turtles, slow food, surfing, technology, travel, urban planning, water, and well-being for good. (Whew!)
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Date: May 1, 2017
Interviewer: W. Grayce Nichols
Interviewee: Dr. Sylvia Earle
Grayce: Hi, I’m Grayce from Santa Catalina School and I’m here with Dr. Sylvia Earle at the DOER warehouse. What do you call it?
Sylvia: Marine operations.
G: Marine operations!
S: It’s called Deep Ocean Exploration and Research. It’s initials are DOER as in “doer”.
G: Okay. So, I’m going to ask you a few questions and then just have a little conversation.
S: Okay, sounds good to me.
G: And this is for you. A marble. [Grayce hands Sylvia a blue marble]
S: Wow, look at that. It’s just the best. Yes, that’s what we are sitting on, a blue marble.
G: Yeah, that’s the Earth.
S: I have something for you. [Sylvia hands Grayce a small sea turtle carving]
G: It’s a little baby turtle, hatching.
S: It’s hatching.
G: Yes. Okay.
S: You have a thing about turtles, I think your dad does too.
G: Definitely my dad!
S: And you do too. Okay.
G: Okay. So, what do you think of everything that affected you in life growing up, motivated you the most? Made you want to work on the ocean, in that world?
S: Well, the ocean got my attention when I was about 3 years old. My family was on vacation on the New Jersey shore and I got knocked over by a wave. But what has really captured my attention starting on that first experience, I mean getting slapped by a wave was pretty…
S: Yeah! “Okay ocean, I know you’re there!” But it’s life in the ocean - that was the big horse shoe crabs that come up on the beach in the spring and summer. And the starfish and seaweeds, it was so apparent to me that the things that lived in the ocean don’t live anywhere else. You know, when my parents moved to Florida, I was 12, my backyard was the Gulf of Mexico and I think I already knew that I wanted to be whatever a scientist is called. I didn’t know what to call it but someone who works with animals and plants.
I think a lot of kids start out that way and they are curious about everything, ask questions the way scientists continue to do for their entire life. But my parents did not discourage asking questions and my mother in particular, was well known as someone who could heal injured birds and injured animals. And so, our house was always like a pet hospital, an animal hospital, you know of creatures that were in the process of becoming fixed well and returned back to the wild. So, that’s how I started.
G: Yes, okay. So, as a young girl, did you experience any struggles, like evolving that into more of a profession?
S: I think that when I began in school and chose science that there were more guys than there were girls…but that’s not all bad!
G: Yeah [laughs].
I was the only girl in most of the classes I took. And I did not see that as a particular disadvantage. But you know, later, it was pretty obvious that for positions of responsibility, typically women whether you’re young or more mature then it’s typically, well, a man who gets to be the true scientist on the ship, or the captain of the ship. My mother, who was concerned about how I might make a living as a scientist, said that women were probably best suited as teachers, as secretaries, not the boss but to be the secretary. To be the teacher not the superintendent. To be a nurse not the doctor. To be an airline stewardess not the pilot. You know, to be more taken more seriously. But as a scientist, I just wanted to be a scientist. Period.
G: So you did surpass all the struggles? Clearly!
S: [Laughing] Well, you take things stride, you know everyone has something that they might think of as problems, whether you are too short or too tall. You’re too old or you’re too young. And then your skin is the wrong color, or you come from the wrong place. You don’t speak the right language or any number of things that can cause people to resist having you do what you want to do. You don’t have enough money. You can’t possibly go to that school. You can’t possibly do this. Why do you want to do that? If that’s something that you really want to do, it’s worth continuing to try no matter how many people say you can’t do that.
G: So, in and out of that work and everything, who have you always looked up to or seen as a mentor?
S: Well, I…
G: And it doesn’t have to be like ocean related…
S: Well certainly, I have great respect and love for my parents and other members of my family. I think I was really blessed with having a happy family where people come along and they have a good time and laugh. So, the part of my expectations growing up is that people like one another and they enjoyed other people. Anyway, that was just a fortunate circumstance but as far as those who shaped my interest in science, mostly the people I met in books. I didn’t have access to scientists as a kid so much but I read Half Mile Down by William Bebee who wrote about going out in submarines and exploring – he is the first along with his engineer partner who built the submarine to go the deepest that any human had ever been up to that time – and come back up. Anybody can go in one way, but going down and coming back and making observations that he then wrote about. And with an artist friend, before it was possible to take really great underwater photographs, he described what he saw. His artist colleague made the most beautiful – and to me inspiring – paintings of fish and other creatures that Bebee and his engineer partner observed. National Geographic later published some of those images and described his on-going work. So, along the way, once I emerged from high school, that’s when I really began to encounter serious scientists. I always worked as a lab assistant and I got paid 50 cents an hour to wash glassware.
G: At school or…?
S: In college yes, as an undergraduate. I think that helped put me in touch with people who were doing what I wanted to do.
G: So in college, what did you study for a bachelor’s degree and PhD? What were the research projects that you did?
S: I think I really was more inclined to be a zoologist because critters, animals, you know they’re just endlessly fascinating to me. So, I took every class in zoology and botany that I could at the time. In the class on ornithology, the professor went out with a rifle and shot the birds that we were studying and we skinned the birds and we stuffed the birds. In the class on mammology, we trapped the animals, then we killed the animals and we stuffed the animals. In the fish class we went out with a lamp, we killed the fish, then we pickled the fish and then we studied the fish. Ugh, I wanted to study life, I didn’t want to study dead animals! So, I took all those classes but I really chose to major in Botany, because you don’t have to kill the plants. And the same is true as I went off for a Masters and PhD, I never stopped loving and caring for studying animals, in fact I became more of an ecologist looking how everything works together. Before ecology was really defined as a discipline I think I defined it for myself, it’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be out looking at live fish, live whales, live turtles, live seaweeds and so, there you are. That’s how it’s evolved.
G: So, did you research projects during school? Where you had to go out and on the ocean and…
S: Get wet?
G: Yeah! And did you do expeditions or was that mostly after you graduated?
S: No, I started work that became my PhD, looking at seaweeds in the Gulf of Mexico soon after I learned to dive for the first time. I took the class as an undergraduate in Marine Biology during summer and had a chance to use one of the first scuba tanks and regulator systems that were in the United States, it was 1953. And there weren’t any rules or regulations at the time, we had two word of instructions, it was “breathe naturally”. Which translates to “don’t hold your breath when you have compressed air inside”. But most of the books about diving and what you should do or not do, had not yet been written. We were in that learning stage. The US Navy had divers, the best guidance that was available was the Navy Diving Manual. But for scientists and kids who wanted to go exploring the ocean, there were making it up alone.
G: Okay. And what do you think of all the moments underwater has been your best?
S: Oh it’s still out there somewhere. Maybe the next dive!
G: Yeah, maybe! And what do you think will be most important piece of your legacy?
S: I think when I started, I think like most people who become scientists or explorers, it just wasn’t about trying to make a difference or make a mark. You are just curious, you just wanted to know, and that’s the driver. It’s just this: I want to figure things out. I want to go see what’s over in the next place to look at, turn over the next rock. What’s there? Who’s there? And then to share the view. To share what you discover with others. But now, you know I have lots of hours underwater, and I’ve seen so much change.
I think one of the biggest discoveries that has been made in my lifetime is recognition that – it’s sort of a confirmation, maybe people knew it before – but it’s really knowing that human kind is absolutely dependent on the natural world. Everything. We can’t take nature for granted. We can’t just continue doing what we’ve done through all of our history which is, cut the trees, eat the animals, occupy our cities, and our farms and fields with our activities. We have to respect nature for what we have always taken for granted, that is what nature and the natural world provides, which is a world, a planet that works in our favor.
When you look – as I’m sure you have – at stars at night and how beautiful they are and realize that for the first time in history, now in the 21st century, it’s a possibility that people might actually get to another planet. We already made that first step to get to the moon. And that was before you were born and before a lot of people realized how special Earth actually is. We learned by going to the moon, that it is beautiful but it’s really barren. You can’t breathe the air in the atmosphere. There isn’t much that you could call an atmosphere, anyway. Mars, a first time possibility that people might actually go to a real planet in our solar system other than Earth.
But it’s also beginning to dawn on us that setting up housekeeping on Mars, it’s not that simple. You know, where is the air? Where is the water? Where is the foods? How do we take this wide ranging temperature that Mars has and survive there? I mean here on Earth, we are blessed with circumstances that we now, I think, are beginning to understand. We are changing the nature of nature through our activities because we have destroyed so much of the natural fabric of life. We are looking at a planet that not only has changed, but continues to change in ways that are not in our favor.
So, you ask, where do I fit in all this? I am witness. I am witness. I tell people I come from a different planet because the planet I came from was so different from the planet that exists today. When I think about looking at a sky that was darkened literally with migrating birds. That just doesn’t exist anymore, just does not exist. Half the coral reefs are already gone or in a state of decline. The big fish things that people think will always be there like tuna. Can you imagine not having tuna fish sandwiches or tuna salad or sushi or sashimi? Better imagine it because tunas are among the fish in the ocean that, whether we are talking a big blue fins or the smaller bonita, their numbers have steadily declined. And for some species we are down to about 5% of what they were in 1970, which to you probably seems a long time ago, but to me…you know, it’s happening very fast.
And it’s important to me to share the view of not just what I read about in books, but what I have personally seen – places that I knew as a kid that no longer exist. Places where I met fish for the first time in Florida, that are now parking lots and condominiums because the bay around Tampa Bay, about a third of the bay has been filled, paved over, where sea grass meadows and fish and other creatures once prospered [Inaudible 0:18:40.0]
Does anyone remember when you used to be able to go there and find clams? That for him, that was home and had never been disturbed, at least not in recent history. Maybe people who lived in Florida a thousand years ago, who primarily made their living from taking wildlife before farming became such a vital part of producing food. But to take that rich productive part of the planet and just lose it, for short term gain. I want people to know what was - what the real cause is. And so, that’s increasingly taking time although I am and always will be and I can’t change the fact that I’m straight up and down as a scientist. It’s in my core, it’s who I am.
[Sound of crew teams rowing outside]
But I also have come to spend a fair amount of my time trying to show others, tell others, encourage others to look for themselves. To go see what is out there. Everyone has the capacity to do what scientists do. To observe carefully and report honestly what they see. And it doesn’t matter who you are or what you think of yourself, whether you think of yourself as a musician or a teacher, or say I’m just kid but you can do what scientists do. Everybody can and everybody should do that.
G: Okay, thank you. Oh there was one more question. What do you think is the most important question left to answer? If you could fulfill one more question and answer it to the most possible, what would you want that to be?
S: I’ll tell you a question I get maybe the most, aside from have you ever seen sharks underwater? That may be number one.
S: And the answer to that is yes, lots! They have been wonderful and we should do everything we can to take care of them.
But the second most often asked question is: what can I do to make a difference?
If you understand that the world is in trouble and that everybody is affected, and that we have a window in time right now that gives us a chance because now we know what we could not know when I was a kid. And if we wait another 10 years or 20 years or 50 years, we are going to lose the opportunities that we now have, we still have. Sea turtles, in fact, there are more sea turtles today because people a few years ago people realized that we could lose turtles entirely. We have awakened to the fact that we can do things that will make a difference. There are more whales today than there were 30 years ago, because we’ve stopped killing them. Now, we haven’t totally stopped killing turtles and we haven’t totally stopped killing whales. But the world generally, has become more sensitive to the fact that, whether they exist or not, is a choice that is not their choice, it’s our choice. We have the power to eliminate them or just secure an enduring place for them on the planet along with us.
We’ve also learned that our existence is tied up with turtles, whales, and coral reefs. And then if there’s hope for them, there’s hope for us. That if we see the end of many creatures that we now take for granted, then we should be concerned about what our future will be. But the fact is people are protecting areas as parks. They are protecting areas in the ocean, where even the fish are safe, where even the lobsters have a chance, where nesting areas for turtles are protected. Not everywhere, but at least we are beginning to move in that direction. So, people ask “what can I do”? I say, well look in the mirror. Look in the mirror, and find out what you love and what you are good at. If you are good at writing, if you are good at taking pictures, if you have a way with music or with people, do something. Everyone has a potential for literally changing everything. If you look at the past, both good changes and bad changes happen because somebody makes them happen. So, why not you?
G: Okay. So, that’s it for my questions. If there’s anything you want to add, go ahead and…
S: Yeah, when do we go diving?
G: We should go…
S: So when?
G: Now? Do you ever go diving out there (pointing to San Francsico Bay), is it deep or shallow?
S: I’ve been diving in San Francisco Bay only for one reason, to rescue an outboard motor that fell in. and I had to do it by touch because the water in the Bay is so murky. The thing is, if we went back, maybe only a couple of hundred years when the bay was much clearer than it is today because…
G: …of pollution or?
S: It’s because of a lot of things. It’s run off from the land, it’s because a third of San Francisco Bay has been made into land. So, those sea grass beds that once held mud in place and provided home for little shrimp and fish and many things, those were the areas that were first taken, because they were in shallow water and they were easier to turn into land. They use these big machines that pump the soft sediment up on the land where dries out and then put up a sea wall to hold in place. A big chunk of San Francisco is built on what they call land fill. But it’s taken from the bay. But imagine what the bay would have been like, I think these places always would have been a little murky because the action of the tide coming in and the rivers that flow into the bay but – I can only imagine what it was like five hundred to thousand years ago.
G: Carmel Bay is pretty clean, right?
S: It’s clearer, yeah. That’s partly because those kelp forests along the bay, along the coast are intact. Areas have been protected. But there are also places where you can go that aren’t so beautiful and there are times after storms when run off from the land makes it very murky. But it’s one of the best places along the coastline. You are really fortunate to have a chance to get to know it.
G: Thank you.
S: Thank you, Grayce. I look forward to making that dive happen.
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