In 1966 Sylvia Earle received her Ph.D. from Duke. Her dissertation “Phaeophyta of the Eastern Gulf of Mexico” created a sensation in the oceanographic community. Never before had a marine scientist made such an extensively detailed study of aquatic plant life. Since then she has made a lifelong project of cataloging every species of plant that can be found in the Gulf of Mexico, Dr. Earle then went on to Harvard as a research fellow and then to the resident directorship of the Cape Haze Marine Laboratory, in Florida .In 1968, even though she was four months pregnant, Dr. Earle traveled to a hundred feet below the waters of the Bahamas in the submersible Deep Diver.
In 1969 she applied to participate in the Tektite project. This venture, sponsored jointly by the U.S. Navy, the Department of the Interior and NASA allowed teams of scientist to live for weeks at a time in an enclosed habitat on the ocean floor fifty feet below the surface, off the Virgin Islands. By this time, Sylvia had spent more than a thousand research hours underwater, more than any other scientists who applied to the program, but, as she says, “the people in charge just couldn’t cope with the idea of men and women living together underwater.”
The result was Tektite II, Mission 6, an all-female research expedition led by Dr. Earle herself. In 1970, Sylvia Earle and four other women dove 50 feet below the surface to the small structure they would call home for the next two weeks. In the 1970s, scientific missions took Sylvia Earle to the Galapagos, to the water off Panama, to China and the Bahamas and, again, to the Indian Ocean. During this period she began a productive collaboration with undersea photographer Al Giddings. Together, they investigated the battleship graveyard in the Caroline Islands of the South Pacific.
In the 1980s, along with engineer Graham Hawkes, she started the companies Deep Ocean Engineering and Deep Ocean Technologies. These ventures design and build undersea vehicles like Deep Rover and Deep Flight which are making it possible for scientists to maneuver at depths that defied all previously existing technology. In the middle of this life of adventure, Sylvia Earle has been married and raised three children, some of whom have worked side by side with her at Deep Ocean Engineering.
In the early 1990s, Dr. Earle took a leave of absence from her companies to serve as Chief Scientist of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. There, among other duties, Sylvia Earle was responsible for monitoring the health of the nation’s waters. In this capacity she also reported on the environmental damage wrought by Iraq’s burning of the Kuwaiti oil fields.
Among the more than 100 national and international honors she has received is the 2009 TED Prize for her proposal to establish a global network of marine protected areas. She calls these marine preserves “hope spots, to save and restore the blue heart of the planet.”
Today, Dr. Earle is Explorer in Residence at the National Geographic Society. She recently led the Google Ocean Advisory Council, a team of 30 marine scientists providing innovative content and scientific oversight for the “Ocean in Google Earth.” A lover and protector of our oceans, she has led over 70 expeditions, logging more than 6500 hours underwater.