Sylvia Earle, Marine Biologist & Oceanographer
“It was like flying. What I love about the ocean is you never know whom you’re going to see or what you’re going to do, but it’s always going to be good. It’s always going to be a thrill.” This is how Sylvia Earle described her first scuba diving experience. Despite society’s rejection of women in STEM, Earle followed her love for science, became a marine biologist and oceanographer, led over 100 expeditions, published over 190 scientific papers, and logged over 7,000 hours underwater. Known as “Her Deepness,” Sylvia Earle is a researcher who pioneered research in the field of marine biology.
Sylvia Earle was born on August 30, 1935, in Camden, New Jersey, where she grew up on a small farm. By exploring the woods near her house and emulating her parents’ empathy towards animals, Earle gained strong respect and appreciation for nature. At age three, Sylvia developed a wonderment for the ocean when she was knocked over by a wave. Later on, her family moved to Florida, where she was able to discover the natural wonders within salt marshes and sea grass beds. While in high school, Sylvia loved science, despite it seeming to be “like a guy thing” for her. Enamored with the myriad of marine life available at her fingertips, Sylvia attempted her first dive when she was sixteen, without scuba gear, which was not accessible yet. By the end of high school, Sylvia was hooked on science, especially ecology, and ready to begin the next chapter of her life at Florida State University, where she was awarded several scholarships.
In college, Sylvia spent as much time as she could learning in both the classroom and the lab. She was the only woman in some classes, but she didn’t let that hold her back. To continue exploring the ocean, she learned how to dive with scuba gear. Knowing that it was necessary to understand vegetation in order to grasp the concept of a full ecosystem, Sylvia decided to specialize in botany, and graduated in 1955 with a bachelor’s degree in marine botany. The next year, she enrolled in a master’s degree program in botany at Duke University, where she extensively studied algae. After graduating in 1956, Sylvia got married to a zoologist named John Taylor, whom she later divorced, and had two children. In 1964, Sylvia continued to immerse herself in marine biology when she had the opportunity of conducting research during an expedition in the Indian Ocean through the National Science Foundation. And so, her career journey began.
The expedition was six weeks long, and Sylvia was the only woman on the ship out of 70 people. It was rough, but Sylvia wouldn’t let that stop that from gaining a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Her research experience led her to become the resident director of Cape Haze Marine Laboratories in Sarasota, Florida in 1965. By 1966, she completed her Ph.D. with her dissertation, Phaeophyta of the Eastern Gulf of Mexico, which was a study about algae that she collected over 20,000 samples for. Her paper was the first to include such detailed work on aquatic plant life and was a sensation among oceanographers. The year following, she became a research fellow at Harvard University, and in 1970, she saw a bulletin board posting asking for scientists interested in living underwater for two weeks to study the effects of pollution on coral reefs in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Sylvia knew that only men were expected to apply to this program called the Tektite project, but she, along with other women, applied anyway. She became the leader of the first team of female aquanauts, but wasn’t called an aquanaut like the men were. Instead, the women were labeled the “aqua-babes” or “aqua-chicks.” However, Sylvia “didn’t care what they called us, as long as we had a chance to go.” The Tektite project gained international attention, and even though the women on the team were asked questions like “Did you wear lipstick?” or “Did you use a hairdryer?” , they morphed them into ones centered around science and the importance of taking care of our oceans. This is how Sylvia dealt with every challenge she faced in a predominantly male field: she forced others to think about the science rather than question her competence as a woman.
Throughout the 1970s, Sylvia continued to lead monumental undersea expeditions and partnered with National Geographic to produce books and films about marine life. On September 19, 1979, Sylvia Earle set the world record for untethered diving when she dove 1,250 feet below the surface. In the 1980’s, Earle Deep Ocean Engineering and Deep Ocean Technology designed a submersible vehicle that could travel an astounding 3,000 feet underwater. During this time, she was also appointed a committee position on the National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmosphere. By 1990, Earle became the first female to be appointed chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Her “firsts” continued as she became the first female explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society.
Today, Earle shares her love for the ocean with others, advocating for conservation and exploration of marine life through two organizations she founded in partnership with National Geographic: Mission Blue and SEAlliance. Her resilience in a male-dominated field allowed her to break barriers for women in science. Her research findings and commitment to defending our oceans have allowed for immense progress in marine biology and marine conservation, winning her countless awards. Sylvia Earle is a leading figure in marine biology and conservation who will continue to inspire the next generation of marine conservationists and female scientists.
by Isabel Lee
“The Oceanographer: Sylvia Earle.” Time Magazine, Time USA, time.com/collection/firsts/4898567/sylvia-earle-firsts/. Accessed 22 Aug. 2020.
Rafferty, John P. “Sylvia Earle: American oceanographer and explorer.” Encyclopædia Britannic, 26 Mar. 2020, www.britannica.com/biography/Sylvia-Earle. Accessed 22 Aug. 2020.
“Sylvia Earle.” The Mariner’s Museum and Park: The Ages of Exploration, exploration.marinersmuseum.org/subject/sylvia-earle/. Accessed 22 Aug. 2020.
“Sylvia Earle: Marine Biologist.” National Geographic, National Geographic Society, www.nationalgeographic.com/expeditions/experts/sylvia-earle/. Accessed 22 Aug. 2020.
“Sylvia Earle, Ph.D.” Academy of Achievement, American Academy of Achievement, achievement.org/achiever/sylvia-earle/. Accessed 22 Aug. 2020.