Sylvia Earle

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Sylvia Earle
Sylvia Earle (2013)
Earle in 2012
Silvia Anne Reade

(1935-08-30) August 30, 1935 (age 85)
Alma mater
John Taylor
(m. 1957; div. 1963)
Giles Mead
(m. 1966; div. 1975)
(m. 1986; div. 1992)
Children3 (Elizabeth, John, and Gale)
Scientific career
InstitutionsNOAA, National Geographic

Sylvia Alice Earle (née Reade; born August 30, 1935) is an American marine biologist, explorer, author, and lecturer. She has been a National Geographic explorer-in-residence since 1998.[1][2] Earle was the first female chief scientist of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration,[2] and was named by Time Magazine as its first Hero for the Planet in 1998.[1] She is also part of the group Ocean Elders, which is dedicated to protecting the ocean and its wildlife.

Early life and education[edit]

Earle was born in 1935 in the Gibbstown section of Greenwich Township, Gloucester County, New Jersey, to Alice Freas (Richie) Earle and Lewis Reade. Both her parents were enthusiastic about the outdoors and supportive of their daughter's early interests in the natural world.[3] The family moved to Dunedin on the western coast of Florida during Earle's childhood.[4][5] Earle received an associate degree from St. Petersburg Jr. College (1952), a Bachelor of Science degree from Florida State University (1955), a Master of Science (1956) and a Doctorate of Phycology (1966) from Duke University.


Earle was the Curator of Phycology at the California Academy of Sciences (1979–1986) and a research associate at the University of California, Berkeley (1969–1981), Radcliffe Institute Scholar (1967–1969) and research fellow at Harvard University (1967–1981).

TEKTITE-II all-female team, led by Earle, in rebreather training

After receiving her Ph.D. in 1966, Earle spent a year as a research fellow at Harvard, then returned to Florida as the resident director of the Cape Haze Marine Laboratory.[6] In 1969, she applied to join the Tektite Project, an installation fifty feet below the surface of the sea off the coast of the Virgin Islands which allowed scientists to live submersed in their area of study for up to several weeks. Although she had logged more than 1,000 research hours underwater, Earle was rejected from the program. The next year, she was selected to lead the first all-female team of aquanauts in Tektite II.[7]

In 1979, she made an open-ocean JIM suit dive to the sea ocean floor near Oahu, setting a women's depth record of 381 metres (1,250 ft).[1][8] In 1979 she also began her tenure as the Curator of Phycology at the California Academy of Sciences, where she served until 1986.[6]

From 1980 to 1984, she served on the National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmosphere.

Earle displays samples to an aquanaut inside the Tektite habitat, 1970

In 1982 she and her later husband, Graham Hawkes, an engineer and submersible designer, founded Deep Ocean Engineering to design, operate, support and consult on piloted and robotic subsea systems.[9] In 1985, the Deep Ocean Engineering team designed and built the Deep Rover research submarine, which operates down to 1,000 metres (3,300 ft).[10][11] By 1986, Deep Rover had been tested and Earle joined the team conducting training off Lee Stocking Island in the Bahamas.[10]

Earle left the company in 1990 to accept an appointment as Chief Scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, where she stayed until 1992. She was the first woman to hold that position. During this post, given her expertise on the impact of oil spills, Earle was called upon to lead several research trips during the Persian Gulf War in 1991 to determine the environmental damage caused by Iraq's destruction of Kuwaiti oil wells.[3]

In 1992, Earle founded Deep Ocean Exploration and Research (DOER Marine) to further advance marine engineering. The company, now run by Earle's daughter Elizabeth, designs, builds, and operates equipment for deep-ocean environments.[12][13]

Since 1998, Earle has been a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence. She is sometimes called "Her Deepness"[1][14] or "The Sturgeon General".[2]

From 1998 to 2002, she led the Sustainable Seas Expeditions, a five-year program sponsored by the National Geographic Society and funded by the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund to study the United States National Marine Sanctuary. During this time, Earle was a leader of the Sustainable Seas Expeditions, council chair for the Harte Research Institute for the Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, and chair of the Advisory Council for the Ocean in Google Earth. She also provided the DeepWorker 2000 submersible used to quantify the species of fish as well as the space resources utilized within the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.[15]

In 2001, Earle received the National Parks Conservation Association's Robin W. Winks Award For Enhancing Public Understanding of National Parks.

Earle founded Mission Blue (also known as the Sylvia Earle Alliance, Deep Search Foundation, and Deep Search) in 2009.

Given her past experience with the Exxon Valdez and Mega Borg oil spills, Earle was called to consult during the Deepwater Horizon Disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. During this year she also gave a 14-minute speech in front of 3,500 delegates and United Nations ambassadors at The Hague International Model United Nations Conference.

In July 2012, Earle led an expedition to NOAA's Aquarius underwater laboratory, located off Key Largo, Florida. The expedition, entitled "Celebrating 50 Years of Living Beneath The Sea", commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of Jacques Cousteau's Conshelf I project and investigated coral reefs and ocean health. Mark Patterson co-led the expedition with Earle. Their aquanaut team also included underwater filmmaker D.J. Roller and oceanographer M. Dale Stokes.[16][17]

Earle made a cameo appearance in the daily cartoon strip Sherman's Lagoon in the week starting September 17, 2012, to discuss the closing of the Aquarius Underwater Laboratory.[18]

In May 2013, the Science Laureates of the United States Act of 2013 (H.R. 1891; 113th Congress) was introduced into Congress. Earle was listed by one commentator as a possible nominee for the position of Science Laureate, if the act were to pass.[19]

In January 2018, the Seattle Aquarium granted its inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award to Earle and renamed the Seattle Aquarium Medal in her honor.[20] The Aquarium's first Lifetime Achievement Award was awarded to Earle.[21]

Alongside her work at Mission Blue, she also serves on several boards, including the Marine Conservation Institute.[22]

With TED's support, she launched Mission Blue, which aims to establish marine protected areas (dubbed "Hope Spots") around the globe.[23] Mission Blue's vision is to achieve 30% protection of the ocean by 2030, and more than two hundred organisations have supported them in this mission to date (2019).[24] These supporters range from large, global companies to small, bespoke research teams.

With Mission Blue and its partners, Earle leads expeditions to Hope Spots around the globe.[25] Past expeditions include Cuba in 2009,[26] Belize in January 2010,[27] the Galápagos Islands in April 2010,[28] Costa Rica and the Central American Dome in early 2014[29] and the South African Coast in late 2014.[30]

In August 2014, a Netflix exclusive documentary titled 'Mission Blue' was released.[31] It focuses on Earle's life and career as her Mission Blue campaign to create a global network of marine protected areas.[32]

The organization has continued to grow with Earle's work and the help of her team. As of 2020, Mission Blue has created 122 Hope Spots around the world. (2020).[33]

In January 2020, Aurora Expeditions announced their second ship would be named The Sylvia Earle after the marine biologist. In her partnership with Aurora Expeditions, Dr. Sylvia Earle said “Ninety-seven percent of Earth’s water is the ocean, it is our life support system and we need to learn everything we can about it. I see great synergy in working closely with a company that shares my vision for the future and which is, from the top down, passionate about the marine environment. Through traveling with Aurora Expeditions on the Sylvia Earle, I feel it is an incredible opportunity for people to learn about these marine habitats in situ, and as a result, become ambassadors for protecting them.” [34]

Accomplishments and honors[edit]


Earle has authored more than 150 publications.[6]

  • Earle, Sylvia & Al Giddings (1980). Exploring the Deep Frontier: The Adventure of Man in the Sea. National Geographic Society. ISBN 0-87044-343-7.
  • Earle, Sylvia (1996). Sea Change: A Message of the Oceans. Ballantine Books. ISBN 0-449-91065-2.
  • Earle, Sylvia (1999). Dive!: My Adventure in the Deep Frontier. National Geographic Children's Books. ISBN 0-7922-7144-0.
  • Earle, Sylvia (1999). Wild Ocean: America's Parks Under the Sea. National Geographic Society. ISBN 0-7922-7471-7.
  • Earle, Sylvia (2000). Sea Critters. National Geographic Children's Books. ISBN 0-439-28575-5.
  • Ellen, Prager & Earle, Sylvia (2000). The Oceans. McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0-07-138177-5.
  • Earle, Sylvia (2001). Hello, Fish!: Visiting the Coral Reef. National Geographic Children's Books. ISBN 0-7922-6697-8.
  • Earle, Sylvia (2001). National Geographic Atlas of the Ocean: The Deep Frontier. National Geographic. ISBN 0-7922-6426-6.
  • Earle, Sylvia (2003). Jump into Science: Coral Reefs. National Geographic Children's Books. ISBN 0-7922-6953-5.
  • Earle, Sylvia & Linda K. Glover (2008). Ocean: An Illustrated Atlas (National Geographic Atlas). National Geographic. ISBN 978-1-4262-0319-0.
  • Earle, Sylvia (2009). The World Is Blue: How Our Fate and the Ocean's Are One. National Geographic Books. ISBN 978-1-4262-0541-5.
  • Co-author (2011). The Protection and Management of the Sargasso Sea: The golden floating rainforest of the Atlantic Ocean. Summary Science and Supporting Evidence Case. Sargasso Sea Alliance.
  • Earle, Sylvia (2012). The Sweet Spot in Time. Why the Ocean Matters to Everyone, Everywhere. Virginia Quarterly Review, Fall.
  • Earle, Sylvia (2014). Blue Hope: Exploring and Caring for Earth's Magnificent Ocean. National Geographic. ISBN 9781426213953.


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