The Sigh of All the Seas

Words Sarah-Lee Palmer-Hogan

Throughout my childhood, the focal point in my parents’ living room was a giant tropical fish tank, acting as a constant reminder for my father of his native country, Jamaica. Whilst other families sat around the television, we huddled in the glow of the fluorescent light as he told of tales of growing up by the sea and the fish that lived within it. Those stories deeply influenced my life, in play, my sister and I would film stories of mermaids getting washed to shore on an old Super 8, through my teen years, I passionately argued with pescatarians who avoided meat but ate fish because they did not believe they were sentient beings, and now I lose myself in underwater documentaries, or just under water whenever I am near the sea.

I first learnt of Dr Sylvia Earle from her 2009 TED talk, quoting W.H. Auden, “Thousands have lived without love, not one without water”, she was captivating and inspiring – who knew that Oceanographer or Aquanaut were real career choices? – I wasn’t the only one convinced, that year she won the TED Prize and founded Mission Blue, her organization dedicated to raising awareness about, and protecting, the ocean. After watching the same titled documentary about her work, I was bursting with questions to ask her…

Tell us about your childhood? Where does your passion for the ocean stem from?

My first encounter with the ocean was on the Jersey Shore when I was three years old and I got knocked over by a wave. The ocean certainly got my attention! It wasn’t frightening. It was more exhilarating than anything else. And since then life in the ocean has captured my imagination and held it ever since. I started out as a kid and never did grow up. The best scientists and explorers have the attributes of kids! They ask questions and have a sense of wonder. They have curiosity. I can never imagine being bored; there’s just so much to explore in the ocean and not enough time to do it.

In your documentary, Mission Blue, you spoke of how when you were a child you would take things apart to see how they worked, and your father would tell you to take care of the pieces and be sure you knew how to put them back together. At what point did you realize we were losing pieces of the ocean that would be needed to put it back together?

I have personally witnessed a time of unprecedented discovery – and unprecedented loss. Half a century ago, it seemed the ocean was too vast, too resilient to be affected by our actions. I experienced my first breath underwater as a young scientist in 1953, and I marveled at the clarity of the ocean and the wealth and diversity of life during trips to the Florida Keys. Pink conchs plowed trails though seagrass meadows, and schools of colorful fish crowded the branches of elkhorn and staghorn coral. Long, bristly antennae marked the presence of lobsters under ledges and crevices, and elegantly striped and irrepressibly curious Nassau grouper followed me on most dives and likely would have continued onto the beach but for the limitations of fins and gills.

Six decades later, I note the difference. Globally, about half of the coral reefs that existed when I was a child are gone or are in a state of serious decay. The waters of the reefs where I made some of my earliest dives are not nearly so clear as they are in my recollections. The great forests of branching corals are largely gone. The pink conchs and Nassau grouper are mostly memories — the remaining few are protected in U.S. waters because of their rarity.
Now we know: Coral reefs, kelp forests, coastal marshes, numerous kinds of fish and other ocean wildlife have declined sharply owing to pressures we have applied. Dead zones have appeared. Oxygen-producing plankton is declining. Seawater is warming and becoming more acidic from our carbon dioxide emissions. The ocean is in trouble – and that means we are in trouble, too. I am driven to do everything I can to reverse these dramatic declines. There is still time, but not a lot.

You grew up swimming in the Gulf of Mexico, how did the 2010 oil spill make you feel?

When I was 12, my family moved to Florida and the Gulf of Mexico became my backyard. I spent hours just searching through the giant piles of seaweed that washed ashore, picking up tiny crabs and releasing them back into the sea. The Gulf Coast was a vast wilderness. It once seemed that – as with the ocean as a whole – the Gulf was so big, so vast, so resilient, that nothing we could do could harm it. The benefits we believed would always be there, no matter how large the trawls, how long the nets, how numerous the hooks for catching ocean wildlife – or how many, how long or how deep the pipelines, drilling operations, seismic surveys or production rigs.

Most of the Gulf of Mexico has never been seen, let alone explored or assessed concerning marine life. Decades of pollution, coastal manipulation, overfishing and use of highly destructive gear have already significantly stressed life in the Gulf. The Gulf of Mexico is a living laboratory, America’s Mediterranean, a tri-national treasure better known for yielding hurricanes, petrochemicals, shrimp and, in recent years, notorious ‘dead zones,’ than for its vital role in generating oxygen, taking and holding carbon, distributing nutrients, stabilizing temperature, yielding freshwater to the skies that returns as rain – contributing to the ocean’s planetary role as Earth’s life support system. These are assets worth protecting as if our lives depend on them, because in no small measure, they do.

When the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded five years ago and began spewing crude oil into the Gulf, I was saddened and disgusted. Dr. Larry McKinney, who has conducted research in the Gulf of Mexico for decades, remarked during the disaster that the Gulf of Mexico – the ninth largest body of water in the world, 615,000 square miles of blue – seemed to be shrinking before our eyes.

The sudden release of five million barrels of oil, enormous quantities of methane and two million gallons of toxic dispersants into an already greatly stressed Gulf of Mexico has permanently altered the nature of the area. Certain microbes flourish in the presence of oil and methane. This is good news for them, but bad news for the diverse, complex microbial systems that are killed by these toxic elements in both shallow and deep waters. Places change over time with or without oil spills, but humans are responsible for the Deepwater Horizon gusher – and humans as well as the corals, fish and other creatures are still suffering the consequences.

There is no way to “adequately clean up” the consequences of the blowout any more than you can uncook an egg. Most of the efforts succeeded in magnifying, not diminishing the impacts. In some ways, we are all responsible for this catastrophe. Our insatiable appetite for fossil fuels and the corporate mandate to maximize shareholder value encourages drilling without taking into account the costs to the ocean, even without major spills. The greatest tragedy will be if we fail to learn from this disaster and to take seriously the need to find alternatives for fossil fuels. The greatest threats past, present and future to the Gulf, to the ocean, and to the future of humankind are ignorance, and its terrible twin, complacency. People need to know. You can’t care if you don’t know and most people simply don’t know.

My self-appointed job is to inspire people to explore the ocean for themselves and to use their talents, whatever they are, to make a difference for the natural world. We have the power to do things better – the will to go beyond just surviving and find solutions when motivated to do so. Certainly the resilience of nature is a major reason for being optimistic. The Gulf will never again be the way it was before the spill, but life will prosper, with ecosystems and human societies morphing into another kind of Gulf of Mexico.

It would be easy for us to forget that in the 1960’s it was most common for married women to have children and devote their lives to the home. However, that seems to have been the point when your career began to blossom – how did you manage ocean expeditions with a husband and young children?

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, administrator not teacher 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, to be a scientist, to go to college and make choices that they would support in every way they could, even though they had to stretch to provide even modest financial help.

In the summer of 1964, I received an invitation to go on an expedition, and it turned out to be one of those things that changed my life forever. I was asked to join a scientific team aboard the National Science Foundation’s research vessel, Anton Bruun, for a six-week voyage to the Indian Ocean and other places. It was not the usual thing for women to go off on expeditions like that in those days – a few other women had done what I was about to do, and had had a terrible time, because they were either harassed or kidded to death. I think the reason that I was able to handle it was that it wasn’t the first time I’d been alone, working in a group of men. All through college, I had frequently been the only girl in a science class, which wasn’t such a bad deal. But, you see, I really was serious about what I was doing. And this expedition was not a lark. I worked very hard, and I never looked for favors. In fact, I’ve found throughout my life that there are just about as many advantages as disadvantages in being a woman. Naturally, there have been obstacles. And later in life I learned that the business world can be especially difficult for a woman. 

But in science, at least, I’ve often found that the door is open because you’re a woman, and they want to give you a special opportunity. Then, of course, it’s up to you. You can fall flat on your nose unless you can carry your weight.

After that, there were more invitations. During that whole era, from 1964 to ’66, I really was out there doing things that, in my mind, were real. But I was also working on my dissertation and trying to finish up a lot of classwork. I went on an expedition to the Galápagos Islands, and another one to the Juan Fernández Islands off the coast of Chile, and another one to the Panama Canal Zone. I really spent a lot of time at sea. And going on those expeditions I began to develop a network of colleagues and friends and associates, and to gain a professional acceptance that was above and beyond anything I’d ever had before. In the meantime, my then-husband Jack was working on his Ph.D. at Gainesville. And, well, I guess it really is not a wonder that my marriage eventually came apart. There was a lot of compatibility, but also a lot of differences. Jack is a fine naturalist, and he was quite happy to take on a little green patch in Florida and settle down in the pine trees, and I didn’t want to settle down at all. I just wanted to take on the world.

Tell us about the 1970 Tektite II project, your experience living under the sea and how it changed your life.

When I led the Tektite II Project in 1970 and lived in an underwater laboratory 50 feet below the surface for two weeks, I had a rare chance to “get to know” the fish swimming around the capsule. What I like best about living underwater is that you have the ability to stay in the sea for days or weeks and get to know individual fish and other creatures in ways that are not possible when you only have a few minutes to observe the action. Living among the reef in that way makes you relate to other species and appreciate how much we humans have left to learn.

Science is not traditionally a career one enters when seeking fame, yet after Tektite II, you were famous. How did you cope suddenly becoming a public figure?

I was forced out of my lofty academic ivory tower as a consequence of the Tektite Program in 1970, when as leader of the women’s team of scientist-aquanauts, was confronted with an irrepressible avalanche of media attention. I even refused the National Geographic society when asked to write about the experience but changed my mind when, by chance, I read comments published in 1857 by a distinguished scientific colleague of Charles Darwin about how scientists have a responsibility to communicate to the public, despite scorn from their learned colleagues. Concern about the consequences of misinformation and the importance of honest and effective communication of science to policymakers and the general public has begun to cause a shift in this stuffier-than-thou attitude. “Science literacy” has become a priority, and that means communicating beyond the traditional scientist-to-scientist avenues. What is more exciting than discovering new insights about the world and our place in the universe? Truth trumps fantasy every time!

You have been a very successful in a male dominated industry – do you consider yourself a feminist?

When I was a girl, many opportunities didn’t exist for women to be in positions of leadership. You could be a nurse, not a doctor. You could be a secretary, not the CEO. That was reality. But now you can. Never before has there been greater opportunity, or need, for women in science, technology, engineering, math and art (STEAM) fields – and all human endeavors.

Social traditions and biological realities have cast men as the “bread-winners” and women as the “home-bodies.” There are notable examples of women with small children keeping pace with rough-tough explorers. Remember the Native American woman, Sacagawea, who guided the Lewis and Clark Expedition through perilous situations while carrying and tending to her infant son? But generally, there is a tendency for men to be the hunter-gatherers, workers, leaders, bosses, kings, presidents, CEOs, head-of-households, explorers, voters, fighters – the ones who are large and in charge. Competence, intelligence and physical strength are not the issues; traditions born of women with responsibilities as mothers and homemakers have created social pressures that often overcome common sense.

When, as a scientist, I submitted a research project to the Tektite Project in 1970 along with fellow scientists who were men, I 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” and approved my participation, 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.

That project 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 traditionally male 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.”

Whilst fighting these gender bias’ you have also had more personal attacks like being labeled the Sturgeon General and a radical. Now, however, Governments and organizations are acknowledging your truth about human impact on the ocean. Do you feel like they have been too slow to listen?

People don’t tend to think about the ocean when they think of what we need to do to take care of the planet – as if the ocean somehow doesn’t matter or is so big, so vast, that it can take care of itself, or that there is nothing that we could possibly do to harm the ocean. But that’s not true. With new technology and new research findings, now we know that the ocean has limits; there is only so much that we can take out before it will be empty of fish and other sea life, and there is also a limit to how much of our greenhouse gas emissions, excess toxic chemicals and trash we can throw into the ocean before this vital living system will no longer be able to function. Getting beyond that idea that the ocean is too vast to impact is very challenging. With knowing comes caring, and with caring comes the hope that an ocean ethic will arise that will secure a sustainable future for ourselves, our children, and for the seas.

Slowly but surely, several nations have shown leadership in increasing ocean care. The tone was set in 2006 by two presidents: George W. Bush, who designated major areas in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands and the western Pacific, and Anote Tong, leader of the Pacific island Republic of Kiribati, who declared protection that year and in 2008 for 158,000 square miles of ocean surrounding the nation’s 33 atolls and islands.

Another island nation, the United Kingdom, followed in 2010 with what at the time was the world’s largest fully protected marine reserve: 225,810 square miles around the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean. In November 2012 Australia created a network of marine reserves covering 888,035 square miles of sea and bringing the total area of Australia’s protected ocean to 1.2 million square miles. Just last year, President Obama expanded the areas established by Bush to create one of the largest protected areas on Earth, and this year the UK Government announced that it would create the world’s largest marine reserve around the Pitcairn Islands, a UK Overseas Territory in the South Pacific.

The establishment of “marine protected areas” (MPAs) – designated zones of ecological importance in which activities such as fishing and mining are strictly prohibited much like national parks on land – is becoming a very popular conservation method that has power to protect the health of the ocean. We are in a sweet spot in time with exceptional technology that enables us to both explore and communicate about the ocean, and if we act quickly and effectively we can still turn this situation around.

It amazes me that as a society, we are so intrigued by space – in 1969 media attention was focused on our first landing on the moon rather than the Tektite Program, and now, there are commercial flights to space when less than 5% of the ocean has been explored. Why do you think this is?


Despite the years of research by hundreds of scientists and institutions, knowledge about the nature of our ocean is still primitive, partly because the methods used for exploring the ocean are still primitive. During the Gulf Oil disaster Larry McKinney observed that we know more about the face of the moon than the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, and are better equipped to live and work in space than we are to explore the ocean on this planet. Only about ten percent of the ocean has been mapped with the same degree of resolution that we have for the land, or the moon, or Mars, or Jupiter. And much of the ocean still really is not well mapped at all, as evidenced by the inability to determine what the seafloor configuration is like where that aircraft went down in the Indian Ocean.

We should be looking for the possibility of life in what is believed to be an ocean on one of Jupiter’s moons, but why are we not at least as concerned about life in the ocean in this part of the solar system – the ocean that keeps us alive? Life in the sea, after all, supports the basic processes that we all take for granted: the water cycle, the oxygen cycle, the carbon cycle, and much more. With every breath we take, every drop of water we drink, we are dependent on the existence of Earth’s living ocean.

And if anybody thinks that we can escape to another planet, you should really get serious about looking at what it takes to send people to the Moon or Mars, and imagine relocating seven billion people anywhere else other than here on Earth. We have a planet – truly it is a miracle. You look at all the unfriendly options out there in the sky, galaxies of other places, but none with a built-in life support system that is exactly right for humankind. 

So first priority should be to keep the world safe for our children. This is not just about guns and wars and things, this is about making it possible to continue breathing. Do you like to breath? Listen up if you’d like to have water that magically falls from the sky. Listen up if you want to have a planet that works in your favor. Take care of the ocean. Get smart. Get educated. Get knowledgeable. Use your power, whoever you are.

I have always loved sharks (despite growing up in the 1980’s with the Jaws franchise!) – I watched a documentary recently about the solitary Greenland Shark and the parasite that lives on their eye rendering them blind, it was so fascinating and beautiful! In your opinion, why are sharks portrayed as the ultimate predator?

Sharks are certainly not enemies. They are elements of the natural system. Occasionally a shark will take a bite. They are not out to get us and actually the number of attacks has not increased. There are just many more of us. Some attacks in recent times may be related to sharks having fewer opportunities to find food. We’re consuming not just sharks, but what sharks eat. We are not on their menu – they are on ours. We kill them for sport, kill them for their fins, their liver, their meat. But they ignore us for the most part. We shouldn’t really have trouble in their presence. In truth, we are the ultimate predator.

A successful dive is usually a dive where you are fortunate to see sharks of any sort. Their numbers have dropped precipitously since when I first began diving in the 1950s – 90% of them are gone, most of them in the last 30 years. We’ve become extremely good at killing them. If they take a bite from us, it should be no surprise.

Sea life seems to be decreasing now at such a rapid rate, what parts of the ocean need protecting most, and how can we help?

The impact that humans have had on our planet since I was a child is greater than during all preceding human history put together. For one thing, there are more of us. When I arrived, there were two billion people and now there are over seven billion; and the planet has not gotten any larger. The pressure that we are putting on the land, the air, the water, and the wildlife that keep us alive has been stressed significantly. And as a witness to the changes, I feel compelled to share the view – especially what’s happened to the sea. We’ve got to somehow stabilize our connection to nature so that 50 years from now, 500 years, 5,000 years from now there will still be a wild system to sustain us.

When I was awarded the TED Prize in 2009, I was given a special opportunity to make one of my biggest wishes come true – a wish that could “change the world.” I suggested the following: “I wish you would use all means at your disposal – Films! Expeditions! The web! New submarines! – to create a campaign to ignite public support for a global network of marine protected areas – “Hope Spots” – large enough to save and restore the ocean, the blue heart of the planet.” That’s how I founded Mission Blue. By designating Hope Spots around the world, Mission Blue is highlighting places in the ocean in need of special protection with the goal of safeguarding at least 20% of the ocean by 2020.

Currently less than three percent of the ocean is protected in any way, and 99% is open to commercial fishing. Mission Blue collaborates with nearly 150 international partners from big multinationals like National Geographic and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to barebones scientific teams to grow the Hope Spots movement and protect large portions of the ocean – our life support system.

It is interesting to me that you have established your own organization, especially as you resigned from your position as Chief Scientist for NOAA when you felt that that the administration prevented you from voicing your true opinions. Where does the power to save the ocean lie – with individual actions or organizational policies?

You have to love something before you are moved to save it. We need people from all backgrounds and professions to raise awareness and inspire empathy about issues affecting the ocean like climate change, ocean acidification, overfishing and pollution among their communities and constituents. Researchers need to speak out about their findings; activists need to spread the word about them; policy makers need to hear from voters and corporations that saving the ocean is a priority, and they need to work with scientists to act on those demands in effective ways. The only difference that has been made ever in the world, for good or for not so good, always starts with just one person. But it will take a coalition of researchers, indigenous communities, students, engineers, explorers, artists, teachers, policy makers and advocates to use their unique capabilities and new technologies to appeal to our global society and change our relationship to the ocean for good.

In addition to supporting the “Hope Spots” initiative, what other ways can individuals initiate change? Watching Mission Blue opened my eyes to fishmeal and oils – do you think avoiding these products and making a conscious decision not to eat seafood will make a significant enough impact?

Whatever else we achieve, the ultimate success will be to dispel ignorance about the sea. Of all the ocean’s problems, what we don’t know poses the greatest threat. My goal is to push that frontier of ignorance further and deeper – and to return to the surface brimming with knowledge.

People are waking up to the reality that NOW is the time to act. The ocean is not too big to fail. Deciding not to purchase or consume marine wildlife is a good start, but if you can inspire everyone around you to do the same that will be even better. The same goes for supporting renewable energy and halting climate change. Fifty years ago, we could not see limits to what we could put into the ocean, or what we could take out. Fifty years into the future, it will be too late to do what is possible right now. We are in a “sweet spot” in time. We need to convey a sense of urgency because the world is changing quickly. Never again will there be a better time to take actions that can insure an enduring place for ourselves within the living systems that sustain us.

We are at an unprecedented, pivotal point in history when the decisions we make in the next ten years will determine the direction of the next 10,000.
Look in the mirror, consider your talents, and think about how you might use them to make a difference. Some have artistic skills; others are good with numbers or have a way with words. Everyone has power to make a difference as an individual – or by joining the company of others who share a common goal. The key is in knowing that what you do matters, including doing nothing!

The Great Barrier Reef has been protected since 1975 and the Government is now proposing a larger extension of the Coral Sea Hope Spot. It seems that the country has cultural affinity to the sea, which translates into increased education and awareness. Do you think this is key for the success of Hope Spot initiatives?

Australia is a country I have admired and loved, from afar and up close in person for years since I first started visiting in the 1970s. The Australian government established plans in 2012 for an exclusion zone – a great move that has inspired other countries to deal with reef erosion too. However, the present government has put a hold on that and has moved to authorize dredging and mining near the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Site, threatening a treasured ecosystem already stressed by warming and acidifying seawater from our carbon dioxide emissions. These activities have led the UNESCO 

World Heritage Committee to put the Australian Government on “probation” until they can prove that they are taking sufficient measures to protect the reef. People in Australia and around the world are holding their breath, hoping the expanded protected area will still be put into action.
Personal and cultural affinities to the sea undoubtedly lead to greater motivation to explore and protect it. But we need to get together to ignite a sea change in public support to influence decision makers to make the right choices.

You have dived over 7,000 hours. Tell us about your favorite dive?

Oh, there are so many. My next one is out there, waiting to happen… Maybe on the next dive, or the one after that. One dive that comes to mind is when I was at a place called Marion Reef in the Coral Sea, diving in 70 feet of water, and these grey reef sharks circled us. I could not count them, there were so many – at least 100. They were forming a great wheel around us but were quietly curious, not aggressive. It was a little hair-raising – had they chosen to gang up on us, they could have easily consumed us. But they were just looking. I remember it so well in my mind’s eye.

And finally, I’m sure this will be difficult to answer but what is your favorite sea creature, and why?

There are too many to choose just one! Bluefin tuna, bioluminescent plankton, albatross – they all have so many amazing characteristics and have so much to teach us. Whale sharks are one of my favorites. They’re the world’s biggest fish yet they eat tiny plankton – they open their big mouths at the water’s surface and whatever’s there comes in. In June 2010 I visited the Gulf of Mexico to study how the oil spill was affecting whale sharks. We’d spent a day looking at patches of sargassum (floating algae) hoping to see whale sharks but we didn’t see a sign of one. We went to sleep that night 70 or 100 miles offshore and when we woke up in the morning, the crew of the ship we were on was yelling, “You gotta get up, whale sharks, whale sharks!” So we all tumbled out of our bunks and we were surrounded by whale sharks. An airplane that Dr. Eric Hoffmayer had engaged counted 91 whale sharks in just one frame. We went in the water and there weren’t just whale sharks up at the surface, there were layers of whale sharks.