A heartbreaking interview with Her Deepness, Sylvia Earle
by brian lam
I recently had the opportunity to interview Sylvia Earle for a NY Times article about home made subs.
But I am not here to talk about those subs.
I am here to talk about the things Sylvia told me that did not make it into that article. We talked about the state of support for science in the sea.
Sylvia Earle is the person who I most identify with the ocean, of anyone in the world, other than Jacques Cousteau. The New Yorker has referred to her as “Her Deepness”, which makes obvious sense once you consider even just a few of her experiences. She’s been bottom of the ocean near Oahu, Hawaii, in the Jim dive suit, at 1250 feet.
And holds the depth record for a woman diving in a sub, at 3,300 feet.
She also led an all women science team to live in the Tektite undersea lab, where they conducted research 50 feet under the sea in the U.S. Virgin Islands, isolated from the surface for many days.
I included some great paintings by Mion Pierre, for National Geographic, which I found reading this article by my friend Meghan O’Hara on Tektite. (Tektite’s name originally was applied to a type of meteorite that fell to the sea, creating a shiny stone.)
She has lead over 60 expeditions and spent over 7,000 hours conducting research underwater.
Some interviewer have even suggested that her commitment to the ocean has at some times, surpassed that of her land based ones. (Although that is none of my business, she was once married to Graham Hawkes, the famous submarine designer who she has collaborated with on machines that supported her science.) Jean Michel Cousteau said recently that he wanted to dive with Sylvia Earle when she was 100.
She was gracious and eloquent, as you’d expect the ocean’s best ambassador to be, even in the face of my relative ignorance of oceans (comparative to my understanding of technology.)
When she was finished answering my questions for the other story, we got to talking about the dark fate of the life in the oceans if we keep doing what we are doing as a species. I don’t like to get into eco-science on The Scuttlefish, because my part in all of this is going to be about getting people to care about the oceans in the first place.
But to look at the picture from the highest level, as Sylvia has, as a scientist, ocean explorer and as a person who is trying to get governments to act and the world to listen, was overwhelming.
So, when she finished speaking about the big problem, I ran out of words.
I’d never been so derailed by an interviewee’s thoughts that they left me momentarily speechless, but that is what happened when she took my question, and spun the meaning of her answer into a bigger picture of what was wrong. My brain ran to find the next question, but it was also hung up on the bigger, more important picture. I thought, “We’re lost on this one. We’re gonna eat all the fish and the oceans are going to turn to acid and we won’t have air or water to breathe or drink.” And so I was left stunned, for an awkward few seconds. I might even say I was heartbroken for a few moments.
She, the diplomat, helped bridge the silence with a question: “Do you dive?” And the discussion resumed.
Here are some of her words that didn’t make it into the piece. (Which will make more sense if you read my NY Times piece first.)
Sylvia Earle: Most people are largely unaware of the importance of the role in the ocean. With every breath you take, every drop of ocean you drink, the ocean is there as a primary source. I am all for new technologies and ingenius and low cost ways to make the ocean available to everyone, not just the rarified atmosphere of scientists and especially industry.
Be mindful that when the deepwater horizon blew, the only assets available to go and take a look a mile underwater–and it’s only a mile–was industry. Except for Alvin, which was otherwise occupied, and has a pretty hefty price tag for operation because you have a big ship to operate a little submarine. Still, it’s on the order of $40k or so to operate the Alvin to a mile underwater. It can go 2.5 miles underwater, and it’s relatively small and one of a small number of vehicles that can go to that depth. And there aren’t that many that can go to even a mile. And in the US, the only other non commercial assets that can go that deep with humans on board are the two Pisces subs in Hawaii and NOAA is about to zero them out.
I mean, at this time, when you have Jim Cameron with private resources he had to earn the money to give him the latitude to design and build and operate and then pilot his own submarine, there is not a penny of taxpayer funding in that *laughs* in that beautiful machine. And this is the first time since 1960 that anyone has been back and that is only 7 miles. We go 7 miles in the sky eating lunch and watching movies. And there are only one vehicle in the world other than Cameron’s that can go 7 miles down and that’s WHOI’s Nereus and that is a pretty pricey piece of equipment to operate, too.
So why don’t people care about the ocean? I think a big piece of it is access. And so I champion these guys who are coming out with low cost solutions to at least get down to 100-meters.
That’s where divers can go under special circumstances. Divers can typical go to 50 meters, but with special tweaking you can at least spend a little bit of time at 100-meters without any special gear. With a rebreather or even air if you’re willing to have long decompression times. I’ve done it. I”ve done it any number of times. But I think all the tools in the box are really important. And if this piece of equipment can encourage people to look under the surface then woo hoo, go for it. *laughs the most charming and wonderful laugh imaginable*
I wish they were in every hardware store, and hertz rent a sub facility around the world. You ought to be able to see what’s under the ocean. But be mindful that 100 meters is only the skin. The average depth under the ocean is 2.5 miles under the where the Alvin can go and a hand full of other subs in the world.
And let me just fold in here, other nations are leaping forward like China with a 7000 meter sub that has been tested to 5000 meters and is going to go into a full range of its depth this summer.
India is building a 6000 meter sub.
Russia has three 6000 meter subs.
France has one.
And the United States has none.
Alvin is currently in pieces getting reconfigured to go back to where it has been for many years, to 4200 meters. Eventually to go to 6000 meters, but it all depends on funding and we’re talking little M millions, not big B billions.
We are fascinated with what goes up, and we’re neglecting what goes down.
I have said many times that we’ve invested in aviation and aerospace and it’s paid off handsomely. I wouldn’t take a penny away from NASA. I just want equal pennies for what goes deep in the sea. And we’ve neglected the ocean and it’s costing us dearly. We’re stripping the ocean. 90% of the big fish are gone and many of the little ones are depressed as well. Herring and and anchovies and anchovetas
In 50 years we’ve strippe the ocean and changed the ocean. Changed the chemistry, which means our life support system is at risk. Why we need to explore, the ocean is trouble which means we are in trouble. Most people don’t know that. Most people are oblivious.
*Large awkward pause because I am heartbroken*
Earle: Are you a diver?
Me: a little bit. [I continue to ramble about my own limited time in the water.]
Earle: Having technology around is one of the great reasons for hope. The access to technology and the access mostly to information that is key to our survival. You can’t care if you don’t know. And we’re the only creatures on the planet that have the capacity, first of all to change the planet, and secondly, to know what’s going on and then to do something about it. But first you have to know.
We’re right in the thick of things.
It shouldn’t be either or–NASA or NOAA. But even NOAA, has invested in a ship called Okeanos, for ocean exploration and they actually have an office of exploration. But how can you explore the ocean just from the surface? You need the ships and you need the robots, but you also need to be there.
Later, I would describe the conversation I had with Earle to a friend of hers in the ocean exploration world, and he knew exactly what I was talking about. He said she has that Cousteau-ian following of her own, and that many people had found themselves at a loss for words at the end of a Sylvia Earle speech about the plight of the oceans.
For more of Sylvia’s charming, moving ideas about the trouble the oceans are facing, you could watch her TED talk.
Her talk won a TED prize, which she used to start Mission Blue, a program to set up protected marine areas in the world. If you want to read and watch more about her life and philosophies, I also recommend the interview conducted by the Academy of Achievement. (As well as her books.)
(A children’s book)
(a gorgeous, coffee table book)