Sylvia Earle, affectionately known as "Her Deepness," enriched Alumni Arena's stage for UB's second Distinguished Speaker Series event of the school year on Wednesday night.
Hailed as one of the greatest American oceanographers, Earle was the first woman to be named the chief scientist of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 1990, and in 1998, she was named Time Magazine's first ever "Hero for the Planet."
Earle is an accomplished aquanaut, who holds the record for the deepest women's solo dive. She also co-founded Deep Ocean Engineering Inc. and was recently instrumental in adding a new ocean display feature in Google Earth 5.0.
Currently logging over 6,000 hours in the underwater world and more than 400 expeditions worldwide, Earle continues to explore the unknown 95 percent of the ocean. While 250,000 species of ocean life have been named and researched to date, Earle estimates that there are likely over 10 million living together in the deep blue sea.
Today, Earle serves as an Explorer in Residence at the National Geographic Society and serves on the board of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute.
Senior Life Editor Katie Allen was granted an exclusive interview with Earle.
KA: What sparked your interest in the ocean that generated all your lifetime successes and accomplishments?
SE: I found my love for the ocean when I was just a little kid on the beaches of Southern New Jersey. It was life in the ocean that really excited me. I love the sensation and power of the waves; one knocked me over when I was just three years old. It was frightening at first, but then when I realized that I could get to my feet and step out of it, I thought it was really fun. I think throughout my entire life, the fact that my parents allowed me the freedom to wander and explore, what kids should be allowed to do, played a big impact on my life. We are so structured in so many ways in so many places; youngsters need to get the chance to encounter things like caterpillars on their own and touch them, seeing they are really cool creatures.
KA: What are your views on the worst oil spill in history this summer in the Gulf of Mexico? Where do we go from here?
SE: Well, we never forget this tragedy, but the oil spill serves as a wake up call to never let anything like that happen again... It will forever change the Gulf, no question; [the Gulf] will respond and recover, but it's devastation. It is much easier to measure human effects in terms of the economy and lifestyle. There will never be a straight answer on how much damage was actually done, especially in the deep. Our government refused aid from other countries. Certain submarine technology could have given us a broader look at the effects, but now we will never know. It will take many, many years to realize the lasting devastation. Don't waste a good disaster.
KA: What advice can you offer for students living in Buffalo who are interested in the ocean and possibly breaking into this field?
SE: Go get wet... It really starts [with] knowing that people can't care if they don't know. Some people don't care even if they do know, but it starts with realizing that we are dependent on nature. More importantly, we are all sea creatures… Without the ocean there is nothing we care about that could exist. Water is the key. That is where it starts. The ocean has never seen such a predator as we [humans]. Many think Great Whites are the deadliest animals; think again, we are the greatest terror and threat to the world.
Ask questions, use whatever you do well, use your talents whether it is with words, children, the law, whatever it is and get other people motivated to act. Consider what you eat; you can make a big footprint with choices in food and energy. Help locally, not broadly. Don't be quiet. It's a gift to have the power to encourage others [and] empower others – everyone has power. Use your talent with great energy. There is time, but we need to hurry.
KA: Where was your most memorable dive – the most exotic place you have scuba dove? Do you have any dive that stands out in your mind?
SE: I think they are out there, the next ones to come in my future. I'm always excited to go to some place I've never been before and that is pretty easy because 95 percent of the ocean has never been seen at all by anybody, let alone by me. So there is a lot of ocean yet to be explored and I really look forward to filling in some blanks for myself and for the world. But I do like going back to places like the Gulf of Mexico, Dominica, Bermuda and the Galapagos, to name a few. Diving in a place repeatedly gives perspective compared to just diving it once.
Currently only five percent of the ocean has been seen and explored; we haven't even begun to dive into the mud or the water column itself, where most of the life actually is. It is a drastic understatement to say that only one million species inhabit the water of our world. I estimate that there are closer to ten million species out in our planet's waters. I have a friend that dives in the circle twilight zone at about 300-500 feet down, and he finds, on the average, fifteen new species of fish per hour. On one hand it is amazing. On the other, it represents a world undiscovered, an area too shallow for submarines to go but too deep for divers to consistently dive. The result has basically been ignored and unexplored territory.
KA: What would you like your legacy to be in the world of ocean science? Have you reached all your goals? What are you currently striving to achieve?
SE: Heavens no, I haven't reached all my goals. Every so often, 10 or 15 more always pop up in my mind... I want to try and encourage... to treat the natural world with respect and dignity, because if people can do that, then they will start to treat one another with respect and dignity. I, of course, want what everybody else wants: world peace. We can't do that unless we make peace with the natural world. We haven't made peace with the natural world. Water is in short supply, food is coming in short supply and food is gone. People are desperate, they are hungry, and that is where conflicts occur. Think about where wars do occur and what they occur about. It's about things you need to survive.
One of the great miracles I became aware [of is] that every fish is different. No fish is the same, every freckle is different, every shape and size. I challenge one to see a Parrot fish and find a same in the same species. You won't [think] the diversity of life is unreal. All the fish are behaviorally different as well. If you think about it, [humans] are a lot like fish. We are all one species, but not one of us is the same. I do have hope for world peace, but we must start by knowing that natural systems keep us alive. We are losing species before we can identify and explore them. We must remember that our mind and spirit gives us an edge, not just intellectual ability – it's our will.