Dr Sylvia Earle: A Woman in a Sea of Men

Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of attending one of Sir Richard Branson’s Leadership Gatherings on Necker Island. The Gatherings are incubators for brilliant ideas, as thought leaders collectively envision solutions for a better world.

The theme was ‘Leveraging your Influence for Good’. Each of the five days was colored with inspiring speakers and discussions, delectable food and cocktails, and Branson-esque adventure. One itinerary item was ‘Make your way to Moskito Island!’

Moskito Island was acquired by Sir Richard in 2007 and is almost 2 miles from Necker. He called out the women (yes, specifically the women) to swim, kayak, stand-up paddleboard or kite board to the island – essentially arrive via any other method than motorboat.

Why would he do this?

If you have been following Sir Richard’s posts on LinkedIn and Virgin Unite, you will know he is a strong advocate for closing the gender gap. But the primary inspiration for this call, on this day, was an incredibly moving presentation by Dr Sylvia Earle.

Sylvia A. Earle, aka "Her Deepness" is an oceanographer, author, lecturer and National Geographic Explorer in residence. Ask Sylvia where she is from and she will say “the ocean”. She has led more than a hundred expeditions and logged more than 7,000 hours underwater. Of her 80 years on earth, she has spent the equivalent of one under water - all while debunking traditional gender stereotypes regarding women in science.

Yes, she is one of my idols. Not only did I have the privilege of diving with her in the waters of the British Virgin Islands, but I also had a thought-provoking chat with her about what it took to conquer gender bias and become a distinguished mermaid in a sea of men.

At the same time astronauts were putting their footprints on the moon, you were leading a team of aquanauts to explore the ocean floor. This was an era when women were not particularly welcome to join expeditions. Can you describe your fight to get into the sea?

Either I work solo (often!) or when possible, join those who are willing to have me as part of the action.

My participation in the 1964 International Indian Ocean Expedition was by invitation and the fact that I was the only woman with 70 men went unnoticed until a reporter from the Mombasa Daily Times wrote the memorable headline "Sylvia Sails Away With Seventy Men… But She Expects No Problems”.

I ask men today if they would have a problems sailing away for six weeks with seventy women and most seem rather pleased with the idea.

To join the Tektite Project in 1970, I submitted a research project along with fellow scientists and did not realize that no women were expected to apply. The head of the program, Dr. James Miller reportedly said, when there was resistance about having women participate, "well, half the fish are female”. My participation was approved but only as part of an all-woman team. The idea of men and women living together for two weeks under the sea was simply not acceptable at a time when no women astronauts had been allowed to fly and US Navy ships did not have women on board.

It was a turning point for me as I became more acutely aware than ever before of the strong bias that existed (and still does) against women in male dominated roles. Men participating in the project were consistently referred to as "aquanauts" but the women made headlines as "aquabelles”, “aquachicks”, "aquababes” and even "aquanaughties”. We didn't really care what we were called as long as we could participate! I mused about what astronauts at the time would think if they were referred to as "astrohunks" or "astromancandy." 

 

The social pressures of gender bias begin very early in childhood. Today there is a heightened focus on encouraging young girls to actively pursue interests and careers in STEM fields. How does this compare to your experience growing up. And what are your thoughts on stirring a curiosity in STEM?

As a girl, I was led to believe that I might look forward to a career as a secretary (not CEO), or nurse (not doctor), teacher (not administrator) or airline stewardess (not pilot), but mostly, I was expected to get married and be the support system for my husband-to-be. But my parents encouraged me to pursue my wish to explore, go to college, to be a scientist. They would support in every way they could, even though they had to stretch to provide even modest financial help.

 Science literacy, math competence and engineering savvy are fundamental gender-blind attributes of a well-educated person, whether that person is a musician, lawyer, CEO, scientist or whatever. Teachers can create an atmosphere of STEM subjects as being cool and relevant to a kid’s future no matter they choose to do with their life!

You have been actively involved in designing submersibles to reach depths of the ocean that were previously assumed impossible. Can you talk a little more about your experience and current endeavors?

As a child I read William Beebe’s account of designing, building and using a submersible, the Bathysphere, and was entranced by his descriptions of bioluminescent creatures that live in the sea below where sunlight penetrates (half a mile down). Via scuba, I often swam to the edge of underwater cliffs and wished to be able to follow the fish down – far below where I could go using compressed air (approx. 100 feet). Since the average depth of the ocean is two and a half miles, and the maximum is seven miles, I realized I was just exploring the skin of the ocean.

My turning point came in 1979 when I used a diving suit called Jim, named for the first person willing to try it. Known as a ‘personal submersible’, the Jim is a single person atmospheric diving system (ADS) that maintains surface pressure inside while withstanding great pressure on the outside. It was glorious walking around on the ocean floor, offshore from Oahu, Hawaii. I was 1250 ft deep and witnessed a galaxy of sparkling creatures for two and a half hours before returning to the surface with no need to decompress.  

I then teamed up with an engineer who worked on the Jim project to start a company todo what Beebe had done many years prior. Since the 1980’s there has been a greater market demand for robotic systems than for submersibles. We had to focus on this to be profitable, but we did succeed in producing several functional subs. 

There was enormous satisfaction in being one of the first four people to dive solo to 1000 meters (3280 ft) in 1986 – in a submersible that I helped develop from a rough sketch to sleek operational reality. We held the record for deepest solo dives until 2012 when James Cameron dived solo to full ocean depth, 11,000 meters (6.8 miles), in a system he personally developed.

What is the future of submersibles?

I dream of a time when it will be possible for people to own or rent subs for ocean exploration just as we are able to do with cars, airplanes and boats! I have been able to dive in more than 30 different subs, lived in underwater laboratories ten times and been involved with the development and use of dozens of remotely operated systems.

 

I believe we will be able to Uber a sub in the not too distant future! And for kicks, let's assume you believe in reincarnation. If you had to come back as a human, rather than a creature of the sea, would you come back as a man or a woman?

It would be entertaining to see what it would be like to be a man.  Even in this most enlightened 21st century, society gives men an edge in everything except being a mother. I would love to see what it would be like to have people expect you to succeed instead of acting surprised when you do so.

 

 

WHAT CAN YOU DO TO PROTECT EARTH'S BLUE HEART?

The ocean is vital for humanity. Few people know this, but it provides the oxygen for every second breath we take, along with food, fresh water, energy and medicine.  It covers more than 70% of the planet’s surface, drives our weather patterns, regulates temperature and provides so much beauty, inspiration and recreation. Yet, less than 10% of the ocean has been seen with human eyes, let alone explored or mapped.

The biggest threat to the ocean—and therefore to humankind – is the lack of understanding about why the ocean matters, how human actions are causing harm and what can restore health to vital ocean systems.

I urge you to check out Mission Blue: an important initiative of the Sylvia Earle Alliance that ignites public support for the protection of Hope Spots. These are special places that are vital to the health of the ocean. Through the creation of a global network of these marine protected areas, Mission Blue aims to safeguard 20% of the ocean by 2020.

Find out more and see how you can take action at www.mission-blue.org.

With no blue, there will be no green.