Sylvia Earle is petite. And
engaging — but this 66-year-old grandmother is most comfortable
decked out in SCUBA equipment or a deep sea diving suit.
Early in her career she was dubbed an "aquabelle,"
the female version of "aquanaut."
As one of the world's pre-eminent contemporary explorers,
Earle has led more than 50 marine expeditions and has logged 6,000
hours underwater. She still holds the world's record for the deepest
solo dive — in 1979 she descended to 1,250 feet, offshore Hawaii,
strapped to the outside of a submersible.
Yes, literally and figuratively, Earle brings a whole
new meaning to the term "working under pressure."
Last year Earle shared her vision of ocean exploration
with the Canadian Society of Petroleum Geologists in Calgary, at
its Diamond Jubilee convention, where AAPG formally honored the
society on 75 years of oil and gas exploration and discovery.
Earle, no stranger to the oil industry and the technological
advances that it has inspired, has dedicated her life to studying
the world's oceans — the geology, ecology and the creatures that
inhabit the largest ecosystem on the planet. In 1998, she was named
Time magazine's first "hero for the planet" and, as a National Geographic
Explorer-In-Residence, she continues to "push onward and downward."
Earle, too, saluted CSPG's 75 years of exploration,
even as she challenged members to reach for greater heights.
To put these 75 years into perspective, Earle cited
historic advancements in science and technology that occurred during
- 75 years ago Charles Lindbergh made his
first flight across the Atlantic Ocean in the Spirit of St. Louis.
- Less than 50 years ago, geologists advanced
the concept of plate tectonics, sea floor spreading, continental
drift and the existence of deep sea vents.
- And 42 years ago, the U.S. Navy made a
35,800-foot dive in the Trieste, reaching the deepest part of
the ocean in the Mariana Trench.
"These things have unfolded in our lifetime," Earle
mused, "and I have had a great front row seat."
Earle delivered a message of environmental stewardship
"While 75 years is not a long time, geologically-speaking,
the changes that humans have made to the planet and the earth's
climate are of a geological magnitude," she said.
"I see this as a pivotal time in history. There are
options that are open to us that are quickly closing; we can't go
Earle presented an "astronaut's view" of Earth, and
reminded geologists that "this is an ocean planet, and all of us
are utterly dependent upon the oceans."
She spoke of the audience's exploration spirit and
skills, encouraging geologists to learn more about our planet, and
to become environmental stewards.
"I have a sense of urgency to communicate and inspire
others to make a difference," she said.
Oil and Water: They Mix!
Earle is a past member of the board of directors
of Oryx Energy and Dresser Industries; she currently sits on the
board of directors of Kerr-McGee Corp.
"As a scientist," Earle said, "I've been the beneficiary
of much of the technology developed by industry."
For example, Earle outlined Kerr-McGee's innovative
use of the next generation of deepwater technology for its production
facilities in the Gulf of Mexico. Last year the company installed
at the Nansen Field the world's first truss spar (March
2002 EXPLORER) — a long, cylindrical production platform with
topsides that's flooded with seawater, causing it to flip into a
vertical position in the water column where, ballasted by sea water,
it becomes incredibly stable.
The oil and gas industry, she continued, is a leader
in ocean technology.
She described the technology employed in offshore
platforms as "equivalent in terms of its challenge and sophistication
to that used in the space station." And, she credited the oil and
gas industry on leading technological developments in:
- Saturation diving.
- Underwater robots.
- Acoustics and marine navigation using global
To her, ocean exploration, technology and scientific
discovery are intimately linked.
"The oil and gas industry's spirit of exploration,"
she said, "is based upon having the mandate to gamble."
During the past 40 years, Earle has documented significant
changes in the ecology or health of the GOM.
"Human impacts on the GOM have been profound," she
said. "The dead zone in the mouth of the GOM can be traced back
She suggested that transportation of oil — as opposed
to production — poses a greater threat to the oceans.
And, what's going on right underneath the platforms
in the GOM? A lot, according to Earle, who focused on the Flower
Garden Banks — named after their rich assemblage of coral reefs
— which are situated in 60 feet of water, 100 miles offshore in
Pushed upwards by an underlying salt structure, the
sea floor provides a perfect substrate with sufficient light for
coral reef growth. According to her, the coral reefs flourish beside
drilling and production platforms.
Earle cautioned, however, that an integrated approach
between industry and scientists is essential to the future viability
of these corals.
Hope for the Future
Speaking of the earth's environmental challenges,
Earle remains optimistic — she doesn't believe that the task is
insurmountable. Further, she believes that we can harness new and
emerging technologies to help solve man-made problems.
"The greatest hope for the future is knowledge,"
she said. "The greatest threat is ignorance."
From an explorer's perspective, Earle said, "we're
in a new century and a new millennium, and most of the planet has
yet to be seen."
Less than 1 percent of the deep ocean has been observed
by humans, let alone studied. She cited the existence of mountain
chains in the oceans, and a new kingdom of life that has been discovered
in deep waters associated with hydrothermal vents.
"If you had to choose a time to be alive, this would
be it," she said. "The greatest era of exploration has just begun."
Yet Earle is humbled by what she doesn't know.
"We're just beginning to understand the magnitude
of our ignorance," she said. "We've just begun to frame the questions."
And what is it that drives explorers to push themselves
to their human limits, and to develop the technologies to get them
to the outer reaches of space or to the deepest and darkest abysses
of the oceans?
"The same thing that drives little kids," she replied,
"curiosity and a sense of wonder about the world around them."
Still Going, and Going ...
At an age when most people are easing into retirement,
Earle is picking up the pace. As project director for the Sustainable
Seas Expeditions, she is overseeing a five-year project of the National
Geographic Society and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
(NOAA), the federal agency that administers America's 13 marine
Earle is a former NOAA chief scientist.
Sustainable Seas includes some 50 cooperating institutions,
with significant support from NASA and the U.S. Navy. Its mandate
is to explore the 13 marine sanctuaries, photo-documenting the geology
and the flora and fauna that live in the deep waters of the North
American continental shelves.
On a separate project, Earle hopes to team up with
Canadian scientists to explore the deepwater coral forests and sponge
gardens of Canada's continental shelves.
Earle also is busy fundraising. She needs $10 million
to mount "Ocean Everest," a "thoughtful" expedition to explore —
and document — what lives hidden in the abysses of the deep ocean.
She's leading the charge to engineer technology that can transport
her and fellow scientists to the deepest oceans.
During the 1960 Trieste dive, two aquanauts touched
down in the Challenger Deep, the deepest part of the Mariana Trench;
they remained on bottom for 30 minutes before returning to surface.
Since then, no human has returned to the Mariana Trench. In 1996,
the Japanese sent an unmanned robotic vehicle seven miles down into
the Mariana Trench.
The history of deep ocean exploration contrasts starkly
with the technological advancements made in space — Earle's vision,
however, is certain to shape the history of deep ocean exploration
"True exploration is the elucidation of the unknown,"
Earle said. "The greatest breakthroughs are on the horizon."