Sylvia Earle

Sylvia Earle holds a diving helmet similar to the one she used for her first deep water dive when she was eighteen. The submarine she uses on current missions is behind her. And a prototype for a submarine of the future is further back. Photo: ©2012 Isaac Hernández/

When Sylvia Earle started scuba diving in 1953, nobody thought people could damage the ocean. “It was a sea of Eden,” the National Geographic oceanographer says. “Since then, we’ve eaten more than 90 percent of big fish, and more than half of the coral reefs have disappeared.”

Earle wants you to know why this matters to you.

The ocean is more important than it's been given credit for. Seventy percent of the Earth’s oxygen is generated by the creatures in the ocean. Ninety-seven percent of all water on Earth is the ocean. “With every drop of water you drink, every breath you take, you’re connected to the sea, no matter where you live,” she says, speaking about the ocean she fell in love with when she was three. She quotes the late British poet W.H. Auden, “Thousands have lived without love, none without water.”

We are upsetting the balance of our oceans and we still don’t know what the full consequences might be, especially if we continue damaging it at the current rate. One thing you can do to protect the oceans is to not eat big fish, those who have a long tail invested in them. “It takes thousands of other creatures to make a tuna fish,” Sylvia says passionately. “I stopped killing wildlife to eat. If everyone would just give wildlife a break for a while… it doesn’t mean that you have to stop eating fish forever.”


As a Spaniard, I grew up on tuna and swordfish, but these fish are no longer in my diet, not just because of their high-mercury content, but because of what I learned from Dr. Earle. “When we eat a tuna fish dish, or casserole, or sandwich, or sushi or sashimi, think about the mass of wildlife that has gone into making one tuna. For a pound of tuna, it’s on the order of a hundred thousand pounds of plants that have been consumed through these food chains. For a pound of chicken, catfish, tilapia or carp, it’s only two pounds of plants.”

Sylvia’s love for the ocean is present in every breath. Whatever you bring to your mouth, whether it’s a fish or a plant, “Eat it with respect,” she says. “Never ever, ever, take a bite of any other creature without being mindful of the investment, and what it takes to keep you alive.”

She worked with Google, so that the oceans would be mapped in Google Earth. Now she’s working to create “Hope Spots”, protected areas in the ocean, through the Sylvia Earle Alliance. Right now, a fraction of 1 percent of our oceans is protected by governments. She thinks that’s not enough. “We’re putting hundreds of millions of tons of plastic and other trash,” she said when she won the 2009 TED Prize. “We’re clogging the ocean, poisoning the planet’s respiratory system, and we’re taking hundreds of millions of tons of wildlife, barbarically.”

There’s no winning with wild fish. Swordfish and tuna are also high in mercury. The way we capture shrimp is like running bulldozers across the bottom of the ocean, destroying everything. Fish supplies are dwindling, so we’re exploring deeper waters and eating the reserves of 200-year-old fish, orange roughy, which takes hundreds of years to regenerate. “We don’t eat 200-year-old cows,” Sylvia adds.

“We still have choices,” Earle says. “We can choose to cut way back or even eliminate tuna from your diet; to give their future a break, to give even your future a break; because, tuna, in 10 years… there won’t be any if we continue doing what we’re now doing.”

But Earle is an optimist. “We have a chance,” she says. “The good news is that this is the best chance we’ve ever had. Never before did we know, never again will we have such a good opportunity to act on what remains of the natural world, to protect it and come out with technology solutions to help us. But first and foremost we have to protect the natural world and not continue consuming it, eroding it, degrading it, dismembering it. Our lives depend on it.”