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Sylvia Earle gets out of the JIM suit.
Sylvia Earle gets out of the JIM suit.
CREDIT: Flickr/kqedquest CC

This Trailblazer Shattered Barriers to Deep-Sea Exploration

Sylvia Earle, PhD, left an indelible mark on oceanography and deep-sea research by pushing the limits of possibility

Rachel Brown, MSc

“I guess we could put up with a few women”1

Portrait of Sylvia Earle
Sylvia Earle on stage at TEDxOilSpill in Washington, DC.
CREDIT: Pinar Ozger, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In 1969, Sylvia Earle, PhD, then 34-years-old, a research fellow at Harvard University and a research scholar at the Radcliffe Institute, paused at a notice board while walking the Harvard halls. A flyer had caught her attention: “How would you like, as a scientist, to spend two weeks living underwater down in the Virgin Islands?” Tektite, a project run by universities and sponsored by the US Navy, NASA, and the Department of the Interior, offered just that—an opportunity to inhabit the sea floor at 50 feet, researching marine life in situ (coincidentally as a test subject for an experiment on cohabitation in a hostile environment). 

It was an obvious fit and an enthusiastic “yes.” She’d been scuba diving since 1953, when one of her undergraduate professors scored two of the earliest-released apparatuses. 

Her application was denied. 

It wasn’t about experience: with more than 1,000 diving hours already logged, hand-collecting more than 20,000 marine specimens for her PhD thesis, Sylvia was an established oceanographer and botanist. She had been on scientific expeditions to the Indian Ocean, Galapagos Islands, Chilean coast, and the Panama Canal, published in the scientific literature, was named resident director of the Cape Haze Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, and even participated in a different experimental underwater habitat, the Man-in-Sea project run by the Smithsonian Institution. She was the most experienced of any applicant to-date. 

As Sylvia recounted the story in a lecture given at the University of Victoria in 2011, she explained that no one had bothered to exclude women in the advertisement, because what woman would apply? They could not conceive of a female scientist wanting to participate in such a project. She was not the only qualified female applicant, but the powers that be simply could not countenance men and women cohabitating in a scientific venture. Sylvia Earle is not an easy person to say no to, however, and the following year she led the first female crew of scientists to Tektite II to photograph and document surrounding sea life.

“The explorers who emerge irrespective of what society thinks”1

Like leading the first all-female team of aquanauts, Sylvia’s life is choke-full of “firsts.” One of the first scientists to use SCUBA to conduct research. First woman to visit an underwater habitat via a lockout submersible, a feat she performed while pregnant. First (and still the only) person to walk on the sea floor at 1,250 ft depth, untethered. First woman to descend solo to 3,000 ft depth, tying the overall record that her partner, Graham Hawkes, set moments before. First person to visit the floor of Crater Lake in Oregon, 1,516 ft deep. First woman appointed to the role of chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). First female explorer-in-residence for the National Geographic Society. 

Aptly named a “Living Legend” by the Library of Congress, Sylvia Earle has been a trailblazer for women in science in a world still uncomfortable with the concept, but so much more than that—a trailblazer for scientific discovery, forever pushing against the boundaries of what is possible. Having led more than 100 expeditions and spent more than 7,500 hours underwater, Sylvia is a true explorer, constantly reaching for what’s just out of view, inspired by the likes of William Beebe and Jacques Cousteau, and constantly confounded by the limited access. 

In 1964, Sylvia was invited to participate in the International Indian Ocean Expedition, a multinational effort to explore the “greatest unknown in the global ocean,” as dubbed by the Special Committee on Oceanic Research. “It was one of the best experiences for me as a scientist, seeing a different part of the planet that I had never imagined that I could explore before,” Sylvia recollected in an interview for the World Science Festival. But she soon realized the limitations of such an expedition—scooping up plants, animals, and rocks in a net can only tell scientists so much. “What would you know of New York City if you’re flying overhead, dragging a net, and bringing [up] pedestrians and dogs and bushes? You wouldn’t know anything about music, or humor, or poetry, or what people actually do.” Understanding life in the ocean required first-hand observation. So, Sylvia did just that through projects like Tektite enabling in situ marine research.

In 1979, she walked the sea floor alone at 1,250 ft below the surface for two and a half hours in a JIM suit, setting a world record uncontested to this day. At a depth far deeper than light can penetrate, Sylvia descended through the inky blackness strapped like a figurehead to the front of a support submersible. Turning off the lights, she found herself surrounded by a world of glittering bioluminescence. Entranced, she would later descend through this black, twinkling world any chance she had, describing it as “falling through the stars,” according to her future collaborator and husband. 

“I really want to know what’s out there”1

Despite the excitement and elation of the record-setting dive, she was frustrated by the limitations of the technology. She had a “lively discussion” with a consulting engineer on the project, Graham Hawkes, about the poor maneuverability and perceived lack of sophistication in the operating claws, unaware that she was speaking with the suit’s designer. Graham explained the challenges of designing for a marine environment, yet later responded with a new manipulator arm capable of elegant penmanship. So began a decades-long collaboration between the two, surviving both marriage and divorce, with Sylvia constantly pushing against the boundaries of the technology. 

The two of them founded Deep Ocean Engineering in 1982 to expand what was possible together. Their company designed and built the one-person Deep Rover submersible, capable of operating to 3,300 feet. At a time when similar submersibles were two-person designs requiring a pilot, Sylvia insisted the Deep Rover be simple enough to operate that scientists could pilot them solo. They also designed the Phantom, a small, affordable remote operated vehicle widely popular across industries and applied to such disparate tasks as police searches, treasure hunts, and hull inspections in addition to scientific research. 


Photo of Sylvia Earle surfacing in the JIM suit
Sylvia Earle surfaces in the JIM suit after a dive.
CREDIT: Flickr/kqedquest CC

For Sylvia, too much of the ocean was still out of reach. She pushed for instruments that could go deeper. “Graham was the skeptical engineer,” she said in an interview with the New York Times in 1993. “I kept prodding him: ‘I want to go [to the Marianas Trench]. How can we not go?’ It was inconceivable to me not to have access to such a unique environment.” In an interview for the documentary, Mission Blue, Graham recounted that he simply didn’t believe it to be a realistic possibility. “I spent, I think, five years going from 1,500 to 2,000 feet, and here is Sylvia saying, ‘I want to go to 37,000 feet.’ I can tell you all the reasons why we can’t do it.” He was inspired, nevertheless, and over time came around to the idea. As a starting point, the Deep Flight, a plane-like submersible capable of descending to 4,000 feet, was designed in 1984 with the expectation that future iterations could reach far greater depths by using sturdier, more costly materials. Naturally buoyant for safety reasons, the wing design would drive the vehicle deeper while in motion.

Production on Deep Flight paused, restarted, and fizzled out across the late 80s and 90s due to separation and competing roles for Sylvia. She established Deep Ocean Exploration and Research (DOER Marine) in 1992, a marine engineering and consulting company, to further advance deep-sea research. DOER Marine continued to reach for access to Challenger Deep in the Marianas Trench with work on the DeepSearch submersible, expected to take a crew of two or three to Challenger Deep in 90 minutes. The company also had a hand in developing the submersible Deepsea Challenger that famously carried James Cameron to Challenger Deep in 2012, designing the manipulator arm on the submersible. 

“This is a turning point”2

The 1990s marked a predominant shift in Sylvia’s focus from driving deep-sea exploration advancements, though her story remains one of consistent dedication, passion, and innovative approaches.

Since suddenly finding herself thrust into the spotlight following the Tektite II project, complete with a ticker-tape parade, a White House reception, and seemingly endless requests for speeches, Sylvia describes a sense of responsibility, given the opportunities she had been provided, to share with the public the wonders she’d witnessed. She quickly became an outspoken advocate for marine research. Over five decades and 7,000 hours underwater, she witnessed first-hand devastating change globally and championed the need for conservation measures. Following her time as chief scientist at NOAA, she was resolved to effect meaningful change. Her advocacy increased and her platform expanded as an explorer-in-residence. 

Divers secure semi-submersible barge after releasing submersible Deep Rover.
Divers secure semi-submersible barge after releasing submersible Deep Rover.
CREDIT: OAR/National Undersea Research Program (NURP); University of Hawaii

In 2009, she won the TED prize for her new project, the Sylvia Earle Alliance (SEA) Mission Blue. It stands as a call for everyone to get involved in whatever capacity they can to “ignite public support for a global network of marine protected areas, Hope Spots,” which would help drive ocean recovery. Mission Blue brings resources and data to support applications for ecologically-relevant marine protected areas nominated by the public. The initiative involving 200 allied conservation groups and organizations has been gaining momentum. Since 2009, the protected area of the ocean has increased from a fraction of a percent to near six percent, which includes 143 Hope Spots covering 57,577,267 square kilometers, with the goal of 30 percent by 2030. 

Sylvia Earle’s innovative spirit has left an indelible mark in her field and on society at large, as evidenced by a long list of accomplishments and acknowledgments accumulated in her career. She’s written 225 publications, lectured in more than 100 countries, and received 32 honorary degrees and more than 100 awards and honors globally, including Time Magazine’s first “Hero for the Planet”, Netherlands Order of the Golden Ark, UN Global 500, and a Medal of Honor from the Dominican Republic.

Innovation requires creativity, a fresh perspective, collaboration, and a refusal to accept current limitations or societal expectations as barriers. Sylvia reflects on this in Mission Blue, “You can think of a thousand excuses why you can’t do something. The trick is to not let that get in the way of making things happen.”

References:

1.    “In Her Words: Sylvia Earle on Women in Science.” YouTube. Uploaded by National Geographic, 14 June 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kUqIrVWilmg 

2.    Conan, Neil (Host) “Seeking the Micro, Scientists Find the Big Picture.” Talk of the Nation. NPR. 25 June 2012, https://www.npr.org/2012/06/25/155717379/seeking-the-micro-scientists-find-the-big-picture