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‘Living legend’ marine biologist Sylvia Earle delivers lecture at BIOS

Sylvia Earle

Source: The Royal Gazette

Imagine going for a Sunday drive in the family submarine.

You drop your little three-seater over the dock, and jump in with the family dog in tow.

You then spend the afternoon exploring the 200 miles of ocean that surrounds Bermuda, admiring the coral reefs, shipwrecks and sea grass beds. You’re home before dinner.

This is the dream of marine biologist Sylvia Earle.

The 77-year-old recently served as guest speaker at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences’ 110th anniversary gala dinner.

She believed that accessible submarine travel might be the only way to save the oceans from total demise at the hands of humans.

“We are destroying the ocean out of ignorance,” Dr Earle told The Royal Gazette. “Most people don’t know what is there. A fisherman drops a net over the side and pulls up fish and never really knows what is down there.

“When you trawl across the ocean it is like using a bulldozer from an aeroplane. You don’t even known what is there until it is dead on the deck of a ship. Now that we know, I think it is criminal to fish that way or to put out these long lines.”

There are estimates that 300,000 marine mammals, including birds, are killed globally each year, inadvertently by fishing with nets and hooks.

Dr Earle has a dizzying number of accolades and titles. She has been declared a living legend by the Library of Congress and was the First Hero for the Planet by Time magazine.

She was a chief scientist at the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the 1990s and since 1998 been a National Geographic explorer-in-residence.

She has a doctorate from Duke University and also 20 honorary degrees.

She has authored many publications including ‘The World Is Blue: How Our Fate and the Ocean’s Are One’ and ‘Dive: My Adventures In the Deep Frontier’.

She was born in New Jersey, but Bermuda played a role in inspiring her interest in the ocean. As a child, she read ‘Half Mile Down’ by William Beebe about his pioneering work with the bathysphere exploring the oceans of Bermuda in the 1930s.

While here, Dr Earle gave a talk to students at the Berkeley Institute, urging them to never stop asking questions.

“I am asked sometimes how did I get to be an explorer or a scientist,” she said. “I tell the truth. I started out as a little kid asking questions.

“Scientists and explorers never stop asking questions. Once you stop you start to go to sleep mentally.”

The oceanographer urged students to explore the ocean in their own backyard. She remarked on how lucky Bermuda is to have this blue aquatic paradise so close at hand.

“I think if we spent more time down there we would be less likely to abuse it,” she said. “There is more likelihood that with increased accessibility people will find new ways to exploit the ocean, but this is happening now anyway.

“On the other hand, increasingly, we are seeing the importance of the ocean as the systems that keep us alive. That is critical.

“I am encouraged to think it is all about knowing. At least [if the ocean was more accessible to the average person] destroying the ocean would be an informed decision rather than one done out of ignorance.”

She is the founder of Deep Search, a non-profit foundation for protecting and exploring our oceans.

“Earth is vulnerable to what humans do to it,” Dr Earle said. “We are seeing climate change. We are seeing the ocean become more acidic.

“Ninety percent of sharks have been extracted from the ocean. Ninety percent of many of the other big fish such as groupers and tuna are also gone.

“There were a lot more fish in the ocean when I was a child, but there are still fish. We still have ten percent of the sharks.

“We still have half the coral reefs. They are not as robust as they were when I began diving, but it is not too late to turn things around.”

Dr Earle first came to Bermuda in the 1970s to learn more about whale sounds that were being picked up by the US Navy Sound Fixing And Ranging station.

The station was created to listen for passing Soviet submarines, but was also picking up never-heard-before marine noises.

“We found out that the ocean is actually a noisy place,” said Dr Earle. “All sea creatures make noises. Whales and dolphins, but also lobsters and crabs make noises.”

She said only about five percent of the ocean has been mapped and explored with the same degree of accuracy as the moon.

The waters around Bermuda are an exception.

Dr Earle thought submarines were the best way to make the ocean accessible because deep diving using diving equipment took special training and a certain amount of physical fitness that not everyone could achieve.

“It is so easy to learn how to drive a submarine,” she said. “It is much easier and safer than driving a car because there is no traffic. Each submarine is slightly different.

“There are some you drive with your arms. There are others you drive with your feet. The neat thing is it is slow motion.

“You feel the movement with your body. The submarine is almost like a suit of clothes. If you start to move you know you are moving. You can clearly see also.”

She said she hoped the Berkeley students realised they had the power of choice and the ability to influence the direction of things.

“The moment in history to make decisions either to tear through assets or to protect them — is now,” she said. “We should protect the wildlife before it is really gone.”

Dr Earle recently spoke on National Public Radio from underwater outside the Florida Aquarius facility using a special high-tech helmet.

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