Sylvia Earle

A message from Life co-author, Helen Stephenson

I remember at school learning that about three-quarters of the Earth’s surface was covered in water, and finding this fact astonishing. It was too big an idea for me to understand. On the other hand, I grew up quite close to the sea and I was very familiar with the view of nothing except the sea stretching beyond the horizon. Later, when I grew up, I found that I couldn’t settle in places that were too far from the sea, and, in fact, I have lived my whole life (apart from a brief period) in coastal places. Even though I have, sadly, got used to seeing polluted coastlines, I still find it hard to imagine that we can really destroy the oceans. This article talks about that idea.

Sylvia Earle: National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence

Sylvia Earle was called a "Hero for the Planet" by Time magazine. She’s an oceanographer, explorer, author, and lecturer.

One of the world's best known marine scientists and a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, Sylvia Earle loves to dive deep into the ocean. She has spent much of her life in or under the waves. Earle has led more than a hundred expeditions, including the first team of women aquanauts during the Tektite Project in 1970. She has logged more than 7,000 hours underwater and set a record for solo diving in 1,000-metre depths.
Earle describes her first encounter with the ocean: ‘I was three years old and I got knocked over by a wave. The ocean certainly got my attention! It wasn’t frightening, it was more exhilarating. And since then, life in the ocean has captured my imagination and held it ever since.’
Formerly chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the USA, Earle is the founder of Deep Ocean Exploration and Research, Inc. and chair of Google Earth Ocean, among many other roles. Her special focus is on developing a global network of areas on the land and in the ocean to safeguard the living systems that provide the foundations of global processes. She explains why this is important: ‘When I first ventured into the Gulf of Mexico in the 1950s, the sea appeared to be a blue infinity too large, too wild to be harmed by anything that people could do. Then, in mere decades, not millennia, the blue wilderness of my childhood disappeared. By the end of the 20th century, up to 90 percent of the sharks, tuna, swordfish, marlins, turtles, whales, and many other large creatures that prospered in the Gulf for millions of years had been depleted by overfishing and pollution.’
For those who don’t understand why the ocean is so important to life on Earth, Earle explains that ‘the ocean is the cornerstone of our life support system and the cornerstone of the ocean’s life support system is life in the ocean. The ocean is alive. It provides us with oxygen and uses up carbon. Take away the ocean and we don’t have a planet that works.’
Despite all of the problems seen in the Gulf of Mexico, and in particular the Deepwater Horizon Oil disaster of 2010, Earle reveals that she is optimistic. ‘In 2003, I found reasons for hope in clear, deep water far offshore from the mouth of the Mississippi River. It was teeming with life. Large areas of the Gulf have escaped damage. Protecting vital sources of renewal — unscathed marshes, healthy reefs, and deep-sea gardens — will provide hope for the future of the Gulf, and for all of us.’


exhilarating (adj) making you feel very happy and excited
founder (n) the person who got an institution or organization started
infinity (n) a place that is so big that it seems to have no beginning and no end
life support system (n) something that keeps someone alive by supplying the air that they need to breathe
marsh (n) a wet, muddy area of land
overfishing (n) catching so many fish in an area that there are not enough fish left to build the population up again
renewal (n) the process of something growing again or being replaced
solo (adj) used to say that someone does something alone rather than with other people
vital (adj) necessary or extremely important
wilderness (n) a large natural area of land or sea that is not used by people

Listen to a recording of the text: 

Reading comprehension: 

Read the article and choose the correct option.

1 Sylvia Earle is a scientist who ...
has done some unconventional things in her professional life.
has followed the traditional path of women in science.
has identified many new species of marine plants and animals.

2 Which of these statements describes one of the main points of the article?
The marine environment is a key part of all life on Earth.
The oceans provide us with unlimited resources.
The sea is one of the most exciting places for science at the moment.

3 How does the article illustrate specific problems in the marine environment?
by describing the situation in the Gulf of Mexico
through a history of Earle’s work in different organisations
by giving details of what Earle plans to do

Read the article again and choose the correct option.

4 What started Earle’s interest in the ocean?
a National Geographic explorer
a childhood experience
her love of diving

5 Which statement best describes Earle’s career?
She gave up science to work for an internet company.
She has worked in a variety of places.
She spent a lot of time in the laboratory.

6 Earle’s main interest is in …
documenting wildlife.
exploring remote parts of the ocean.
marine conservation.

7 What motivates Earle in her current work?
The needs of the fishing industry.
The lack of understanding among the general public.
The changes that she has seen in her lifetime.

8 According to Earle, sixty years ago …
it was difficult to imagine the oceans were in danger.
the problems with the sea were too big to solve at that time.
the marine environment wasn’t as important as it is now.

9 According to Earle …
life began in the oceans.
the oceans can support more life than they do.
we would die without the oceans.

10 According to Earle ...
it will be too difficult to clean up the Gulf of Mexico.
it’s possible to protect marine areas.
parts of the Mississippi River are healthy.