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  1. Life & Culture

Dunedin’s Sylvia Earle is still on mission to save the oceans

The oceanographer is 85 and dives regularly — she says it’s the secret to her vitality.
Sylvia Earle, 85, of Dunedin, is leading a worldwide effort to save the oceans through the organization she founded, Mission Blue. Here she surveys plastic pollution off Cocos Island in the Pacific.
Sylvia Earle, 85, of Dunedin, is leading a worldwide effort to save the oceans through the organization she founded, Mission Blue. Here she surveys plastic pollution off Cocos Island in the Pacific. [ © Kip Evans Photography ]
Published Jan. 13

Our oceans are warming, and sea levels are rising. Their waters are polluted with microplastics and becoming more acidic. Coral reefs are dying, and many species of commercially exploited fish are in steep decline. Hundreds of coastal “dead zones” now exist.

The underwater ecosystem is faltering, and ominously, that system provides more than half the oxygen we need to breathe.

But there is reason for hope.

The world’s foremost oceanographer, Dunedin resident Sylvia Earle, has spent her entire career looking out after the oceans, and at 85, she’s not about to stop.

Instead she’s trotting the globe, igniting a worldwide effort to spare the fragile but vital ecosystems that live beneath the sea.

“The ocean is dying. Many may not realize how much trouble we’re in,” Earle said. “Now, as never before, and maybe as never again, there is a chance to protect the natural systems that keep us alive.

“If you like to breathe, you will care about the ocean.”

As she explains, more than half the oxygen in the atmosphere is generated by microscopic marine life that takes up carbon dioxide and water and creates oxygen and sugar.

“That, in turn, drives great ocean food webs and eventually the chemistry of the biosphere,” she said.

Dr. Sylvia Earle dives in plastic floating at the surface near Cocos Island, Costa Rica.
Dr. Sylvia Earle dives in plastic floating at the surface near Cocos Island, Costa Rica. [ KIPEVANS:(831)601-9042 | © Kip Evans Photography ]

In 2009, Earle founded the nonprofit organization Mission Blue to shield the ocean from further destruction by designating a global network of Hope Spots.

“Hope Spots are special places that are critical to the health of the ocean, Earth’s blue heart,” Earle said. Today there are 136 of these Hope Spots, and Earle and her organization are working urgently to add more.

In August 2019, most of Florida’s Gulf Coast — from Apalachicola Bay on the northwest coast to Ten Thousand Islands on the southwest — became a Hope Spot.

The northern boundary of the Gulf Coast Hope Spot is home to oyster habitats that require protection and restoration. The southern part has sustained significant damage from red tide and contaminated water that has flowed in the past several years from Lake Okeechobee. In this Hope Spot, dozens of organizations are working hard to preserve the ecosystem.

The Gulf Coast’s participation as a newer Hope Spot is a significant step toward Mission Blue’s goal of protecting 30 percent of our ocean water by 2030.

Hope Spots are selected based on characteristics such as diversity of species, habitats or ecosystems; populations of rare or endangered species; innate potential to have damages reversed or sites with economic importance to the community.

Earle says, “Hope Spots are about recognizing, empowering, and supporting individuals and communities around the world in their efforts to protect the ocean.”

***

An expert on ocean health, Earle is the master of her own. The octogenarian works about 300 days a year, giving talks, leading expeditions and influencing policymakers. And she still manages to fit in plenty of dive time.

Mother of three and grandmother to four grandsons, Earle reports there’s no real secret to her vitality, except as she puts it: “good genes and staying active. Dive! Dive! Dive!”

All of her family members are passionate about the ocean. Earle says their favorite kinds of fish are “live fish of all kinds.”

Raised in Dunedin from age 12, Earle became enchanted with the underwater kingdom through her passion for beachcombing and diving.

She has seen her playground transition from a place bursting with marshes, mangroves and sea life to one inhabited by marinas, industrial sites and housing developments.

When asked where is the best place to go diving, Earle responds, “Almost anywhere…50 years ago.”

Having earned a doctorate in 1966 from Duke University in the field of Phycology (the study of algae), Earle has launched a myriad of marine environmental projects. She served as the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s first female chief scientist, where she broke the story of the 90 percent extinction of bluefin tuna.

She has been a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence since 1998.

From 1998 to 2002, she led the Sustainable Seas Expeditions, a five-year program sponsored by the National Geographic Society, to study the U.S. National Marine Sanctuary — a distinctive zone where the environment enjoys special protection.

She issues a clarion call: “Ocean life drives the water cycle, climate, and weather; it stabilizes temperature, holds the planet steady. We must take care of the ocean as if our lives depend on it because they do.”

Editor’s note: This story first ran in January 2020 in “Lifestyles After 50″ magazine and received an award for Profile from NAMPA (North America Mature Publishers Association)

For more information: read Blue Hope, a book by Dr. Sylvia A. Earle; see the critically acclaimed Netflix documentary, Mission Blue; and visit mission-blue.org. Contact Jan Larraine Cox at jlarraine@gmail.com.