Protecting our “Blue Heart”: Talking with Sylvia Earle about Whale Sharks, Sargassum, Oil and Oceans

Dr. Sylvia Earle interviewed by NWF's Bob Serata at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Prk, Key Largo, Fla. Photo: Belinda Serata/NWF

Movie and TV stars don’t do it for us. But when my wife Belinda and I met Dr. Sylvia Earle as she came ashore from a dive boat, walking the narrow deck in her wet suit, still dripping, still smiling, we both felt the power of one person’s life’s work. I think we were a bit star-struck.

Sylvia Earl, NWF Conservation Achievement Award Honoree, has been an Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society since 1998, the year Time magazine named her the first “hero for the planet.” She has spent most of her professional life under water, leading more than 70 expeditions. She was nicknamed “Her Deepness” after setting the solo diving depth record of 3,300 feet. She calls the oceans the “blue heart” of all humans.

As the first female chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Sylvia was a central figure in establishing the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument (aka Papahānaumokuākea), the largest single fully protected area in the United States and the world’s largest fully protected marine area — 140,000 square miles of protected ocean (larger than all of the nation’s national parks combined) that is home to more than 7,000 kinds of marine life. The monument was created by President George W. Bush via presidential proclamation in 2006.

Sylvia came up to us, hand outstretched in greeting, a 75-year-old version of the pioneering marine botanist who broke with tradition by studying marine plants in the plants’ environment, instead of breaking off pieces and carrying them back to the lab.

In town to give the keynote speech at the 50th anniversary celebration of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo, Fla., Sylvia took some time to talk to NWF about conservation, caring and science.

Bob Serata snorkels above a young whale shark (about 12 feet long). Photo: Belinda Serata/NWF

NWF / BS [interviewer’s initials, by the way]: You were in the Gulf of Mexico in June 2010 studying whale sharks. Tell us about that.

Dr. Earle: The expedition in June 2010 was in part a response to the oil spill. What scientists were really concerned about was what the oil spill might be doing to the whale sharks because among other things they eat right at the surface. They open their big mouths and whatever’s there comes in.

We’d spent a day looking at patches of sargassum and hoping to see whale sharks but we didn’t sign of a whale shark. We did see some big mats of floating sargassum. We stopped at an oil rig and swam with some of the great collections of fish that tend to gather around the rigs.

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.

NWF / BS: How could the Gulf oil disaster affect whale sharks?

Dr. Earle: In a single gulp, a whale shark might get a cross section of 12 to 15 different animals. From polychaete worms to jellyfish, arrow worms, flat worms, copepods, anthropods, larvae of shrimp and crabs. And whale sharks feed at the surface where there was a lot of oil.

NWF / BS: It’s also thought that a lot of sargassum was destroyed by the oil and dispersants. Why should we care about seaweed?

Dr. Earle: Sargassum is like a rain forest. It’s a little wetter than a rain forest. But it’s a golden floating forest. It floats in the ocean, it’s like a floating island of life out there; it doesn’t stay anchored.

When you see a big mat of sargassum instead of saying “oh yuk,” say “oh fantastic,” because if you get a mass and look closely at it, you’ll see little eyes looking back. Or if you gently scoop a little bit and put it in a bucket of water or a dish pan and you just watch you’ll see little filefish, you’ll see baby sargassum fish, baby flying fish all the color of the sargassum, and little snails because that’s their only home.

Baby turtles find a home there. And with the loss of sargassum it’s a loss of habitat, it’s bad news for the baby fish that seek haven there, for young turtles for a whole suite of organisms that absolutely require this as a nursery a safe haven in the open sea.

Green Sea Turtle. Photo Credit: Philippe Guillaume

NWF / BS: The ocean seems such a huge concept, what can an individual do to help conserve it as a resource?

Dr. Earle: The best answer about solutions is exactly what you’re [NWF is] doing. You’re communicating what the issues are, encouraging people to think and to understand why it matters to us, why taking care of the ocean relates to our everyday lives. With every breath we take, every drop of water we drink we’re connected to the ocean, not everybody knows that.

Everyone can consume fewer wild animals from the sea. We’re taking far too much ocean wildlife and it has an impact. It’s hard to find a shark or to find a big grouper, so let’s just stop killing them. Or if you do, make sure that you treat it with great respect and don’t do it every day or every week or every month, just make it a special treat. A special treat for me today is seeing one alive out there. I only saw one grouper in a dive of about an hour out at Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. There should be dozens of them everywhere.

Everyone can lend their support to ocean protection. Part of it means supporting those efforts to have places like Pennekamp Park or to really expand the fully protected areas as safe havens for fish.

If you really want fish to eat in the future you’ve got to save them now. Only about 10 percent of the large species we like to consume – tunas, swordfish, marlin, sharks, grouper, snapper – are still there from where they were 50 years ago.

A fraction, less than one percent, of the ocean is protected and all the rest is open for fishing and not just casual fishing, I mean large-scale fishing that is taking the heart out of the ocean. We just need to think differently. We don’t go out and make a meal out of songbirds, we don’t find them in our supermarkets. We think nothing of seeing wild fish, wild shrimp, wild lobster, wildlife from the sea in large quantities pouring into us and out of the ocean. It doesn’t mean we should stop eating wildlife from the sea, we’ve just overdone it, it’s not sustainable.

The message is the same wherever a person lives – you’re dependent on the ocean. The ocean generates 70 percent of the oxygen in the atmosphere; 97 percent of earth’s water is out there in the ocean. Yes, it’s salt water and we don’t drink salt water but where does rain come from? It comes from water that goes up in the atmosphere forming clouds and sending fresh water back to the land, restoring rivers, lakes and streams. Without the ocean, earth would be a lot like Mars.

We are all sea creatures in a way. We’re all dependent on the ocean, even if you’ve never seen the ocean or thought about the ocean, the ocean keeps you alive and the ocean needs your help at this point in history. It needs your vote. Fish don’t vote.  It needs you.

If you’re a kid if you’re grownup it doesn’t matter. You have power and part of it comes of making your voice heard. When I served as the chief scientist at NOAA, the letters that people would send really counted and it counts now on the local level and the state level and the national level, and even international. Write to the United Nations if you have an issue about the atmosphere or the high seas or about policies that affect the whole world, whatever it is. Your voice counts. It counts when you’re silent every bit as much. Lack of expressing yourself suggests that you don’t care. So inaction is a vote. Inaction is a decision just like action is a conscious decision.

I think the biggest problem today is complacency. People who just don’t do what they could do to make a difference when we really need as much help as we can get to give voice to the voiceless — all those in the future who aren’t here to express themselves or vote, and all of the wild creature who can’t vote and can’t express themselves.