Meet Sylvia Earle, the Jane Goodall of the Sea

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Sylvia Earle
Photo: Sylvia Earle 18 meters underwater in the Aquarius Habitat at the NOAA Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Courtesy Kip Evans for Mission Blue.

Through her love for the “blue heart of the planet,” Oceanographer Sylvia Earle has left a wake of opportunities for women in science. “I’ve always done what kids naturally do — stay curious, ask questions, keep exploring — and I don’t intend to stop,” says Earle, 83. Her inquisitiveness has led to a long list of achievements. She was one of the first people to use modern scuba gear, in 1953; in 1964 she was the only woman among 70 men to go on an underwater expedition; in 1979 she was the first person to walk on the ocean floor 381 meters underwater (in a “crazy gym suit — that was pretty badass”); in 1990 she became the first female chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); in 1998 the National Geographic Society chose her to be its first explorer-in-residence; and in 2009 she helped map the sea floor to “put the blue” in Google Earth’s award-winning program.

Family Affair “As a kid in New Jersey, I was enchanted by big, craggy horseshoe crabs on the shore,” she says. “I thought they were the most amazing creatures, and I still do.” Earle’s supportive parents encouraged her budding interest by giving her a microscope when she was 13. Much later she returned the favor by taking her 81-year-old mom diving for the first time. “She was cross with me, saying, ‘Why didn’t you get me in the ocean sooner?’ ” Earle recalls, laughing. “She would tell people, ‘Don’t wait until you’re 81. But if you are 81, it’s not too late.’ ” Today, Earle’s daughter, Liz Taylor, runs Deep Ocean Exploration and Research (DOER Marine), an engineering company Earle launched in 1992 to build a submarine and take it 1,000 meters underwater by herself. It was the deepest anyone had ever gone on a solo mission.

Putting In the WorkIn 1970 Earle led the first all-female team of aquanauts as part of the Tektite Project II experiment, co-funded by NASA, to study the effects of living in small spaces for weeks at a time. “They called us aqua-naughties, which was perplexing because they didn’t call men aqua-hunks,” Earle says. “We [ended up spending] more time underwater than any of the guys.” Her team’s success supplied data for NASA psychologists and even helped open doors for the first female astronauts. Earle, aka Her Deepness, who has lived underwater 10 times and has logged more than 7,500 hours exploring the seas, is as passionate as ever: “I still breathe, so I still dive.” When the scientist is on dry land, she focuses on Mission Blue, an organization she founded in 2009 to inspire the exploration and protection of endangered marine “hope spots” (ecologically rich areas that require immediate conservation) across the globe.

Get Involved“The greatest era of exploration is just beginning,” Earle insists. “When I was a kid, we didn’t have spacecrafts, submersibles, or the Internet. These superpowers enable us to do the unthinkable, and we have to do better. Humans have altered the natural world ever since we arrived, but nothing like what has happened in the past 50 or 60 years.” Earle says a worldwide shift in perspective is essential to a sustainable future. “We can’t miss the chance to take care of this miraculous place in the universe,” she says. “Treat the natural world as if your life depends on it — because it truly does.”

For more stories like this, pick up the July issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download June 14.

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