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Heroes for the Planet: Her Deepness

Marine biologist Sylvia Earle   
September 28, 1998
Webposted at 3:00 PM EDT

By Time Magazine's Roger Rosenblatt

(CNN) -- One has to concede at the outset that the ocean is too vast, deep and secretive to be completely known. It is at turns delightful and dangerous. It's capable of casual murder and filled with structures that would make Picasso's dreams seem ordinary.

Nothing on Earth can live without the ocean, but the ocean can do just fine without the creatures of dry Earth. It covers more than 75 percent of the planet and over half the world's population live within 50 miles of it. The sea is in our forgotten history and in our very cells. If you stare at the ocean long enough you can embrace the whole world with your eyes. Even then, you are taking in only the surface.

"You have to love it before you are moved to save it," says marine biologist Sylvia Earle.

 
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Known as "Her Deepness" since a 1,250-foot descent to the ocean floor, the object of her affection requires love of a special magnitude and magnanimity.

At the age of 63, Sylvia Earle is at the bottom of her field. She is scientist, explorer, environmental advocate and was captain of the first team of women aquanauts on the two-week tektite diving expedition off the U.S. Virgin Islands in 1970. She has been part of more than 50 expeditions and has spent more than 6,000 hours under the ocean.

Led by Earle, I traipse about the western edge of the continent in northern California. We visit the Big Sur region and Monterey Bay. The area contains Elkhorn Slough, a swampy inlet that is home to thousands of fish, birds and ridiculously content otters and Monterey Canyon, an underwater chasm as big as the Grand Canyon.
Earle was captain of the first team of women aquanauts in 1970.   

I ask Her Deepness what she loves so much about the ocean.

"What's not to love? I think what I love the most is that it's filled with life, from the top to the bottom. I mean water is the key to life. Ninety-seven percent of the planet's water is in the ocean and from the beginnings of life right through to the most recent arrivals, including ourselves, you can find these. It's like diving into the history of life, to dive into the ocean."

We take a boat out to Monterey Canyon, where blue and humpback whales are sometimes spotted along with dolphins in motorcycle gang-like formations.

Deep in the canyon's open waters are the comb jellies. Their gelatinous and transparent bodies in states of permanent suspension, they drift along in undreamed-of forms. They are a bracelet of liquid diamonds, then a neon trapeze and sometimes a Bishop's hat that can collapse itself when it needs to kill.

There are also the suckers, called cephalopods -- chambered nautilus, cuttlefish, octopus, and squid. But most beautiful and mysterious to me is the Vampyroteuthis Infernalis, the "Vampire Squid from Hell." Its body is salmon-colored and its eyes are blue. No ordinary blue, but a blue that defines the color. The first blue; the blue of the open eyes of the sea.
Earle has been part of more than 50 expeditions, spending more than 6,000 hours under the ocean.   

Once thought to be extinct, it can turn inside out and hide in the cloud of itself.

Earle wants me to meet a fish, so we take the easy way and visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium. There, she admires the diversity of sea life. We find bioluminescent clouds of silver anchovies making their own light. There is also room for the synchronized swimming of the gleaming sardines and the pensive patrol of a leopard shark. She considers the bluefin tuna the epitome of creation, perfectly adapted to its environment. Atlantic bluefin can travel 1,000 miles at speeds of 60 mph. She calls them the "Lions of the Deep."

Visit a Tokyo fish market and you can pay as much a $75,000 for a single bluefin. The Atlantic supply of the tuna is down disastrously since the 1970s.

I ask Her Deepness, what threatens the ocean?

"Threats to the ocean come in many forms, I mean, you could hold up a mirror and say, 'There's the threat!' I suppose, but beyond that it's what we're putting into the ocean. Some say that we treat the ocean as the ultimate sewer, and we do."

She says we're beginning to recognize that Earth is finite, including the ocean; it's like a big lake.

"Whole societies, cultures that have been dependent on the ocean ... suddenly have to face up to the fact that the sea, while the ocean is resilient and the life that is there has tremendous capacity for recovery, it's not infinite; we've really pushed the edge."

I then ask whether there are any cures for what ails the ocean.
Vampyroteuthis Infernalis: The mysterious "Vampire Squid from Hell."   

"If you really want to make a difference -- are you a poet? Are you a writer? An accountant? Are you a musician? Are you a scientist? Are you a kid who cares? Whatever it is you are, you have some power to use that capability. The other thing to recognize is that everything is connected -- that what we put onto our lawns, what we put in our atmosphere, all of that ultimately winds up in the oceans, and it winds up back to us."

When Her Deepness looks out at the sea, what does she see? What does anybody see who gazes longingly, wordlessly, devotedly on that great wet wilderness?

Herman Melville said that people find their soul in the ocean. That may have been his way of paying tribute to our microbial past. Out there, does some poor fish imagine its evolutionary future? If people work to preserve the sea, will we also save our souls?

I doubt if Her Deepness is thinking about any of that. You have to love it before you are moved to save it. She stares out at her world where tuna roar and the Vampyroteuthis Infernalis stares back with its God's blue eye, and winks.

Heroes for the Planet is a series of profiles that air on CNN and appear as a supplement in TIME Magazine. It recognizes scientists, educators and political activists who have made a difference in protecting the Earth's environment.


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