Sylvia Earle
Sylvia Earle (2013)
Sylvia Alice Reade

(1935-08-30) August 30, 1935 (age 86)
Alma mater
John Taylor
(m. 1957; div. 1963)
Giles Mead
(m. 1966; div. 1975)
(m. 1986; div. 1992)
Children3 (Elizabeth, John, and Gale)
Scientific career
InstitutionsNOAA, National Geographic
Author abbrev. (zoology)Earle

Sylvia Alice Earle (née Reade; born August 30, 1935) is an American marine biologist, oceanographer, explorer, author, and lecturer. She has been a National Geographic explorer-in-residence since 1998.[1][2] Earle was the first female chief scientist of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration,[2] and was named by Time Magazine as its first Hero for the Planet in 1998.[1]

Earle is part of the group Ocean Elders, which is dedicated to protecting the ocean and its wildlife.[3]

Earle gained a large amount of publicity when she was featured in Seaspiracy (2021), a Netflix Original documentary by British filmmaker Ali Tabrizi.[4][5]

Earle eats a vegetarian diet.[6] She describes the chemical buildup in carnivorous fish, the 90% depletion of populations of large fish, and references the health of oceans in her dietary decision. Also, she describes the seafood industry as “factory ships vacuuming up fish and everything else in their path. That’s like using bulldozers to kill songbirds…”.[7]

In a discussion at the Good Food Conference in California, Earle warns of disappearing fish stocks, and that while coastal people’s diets have included seafood for centuries, the commercial fishing industry no longer makes sense and encourages transitions to plant-based diets as a solution.[8]

Early life and education

Earle was born in 1935 in the Gibbstown section of Greenwich Township, Gloucester County, New Jersey, to Alice Freas (Richie) Earle and Lewis Reade. Both her parents were enthusiastic about the outdoors and supportive of their daughter's early interests in the natural world.[9] The family moved to Dunedin on the western coast of Florida during Earle's childhood.[10][11] Earle received an associate degree from St. Petersburg Jr. College (1952), a Bachelor of Science degree from Florida State University (1955), a Master of Science (1956) and a Doctorate of Phycology (1966) from Duke University.


Earle was the Curator of Phycology at the California Academy of Sciences (1979–1986) and a research associate at the University of California, Berkeley (1969–1981), Radcliffe Institute Scholar (1967–1969) and research fellow at Harvard University (1967–1981).

TEKTITE-II all-female team, led by Earle, in rebreather training
TEKTITE-II all-female team, led by Earle, in rebreather training

After receiving her Ph.D. in 1966, Earle spent a year as a research fellow at Harvard, then returned to Florida as the resident director of the Cape Haze Marine Laboratory.[12] In 1969, she applied to join the Tektite Project, an installation fifty feet below the surface of the sea off the coast of the Virgin Islands which allowed scientists to live submersed in their area of study for up to several weeks. Although she had logged more than 1,000 research hours underwater, Earle was rejected from the program. The next year, she was selected to lead the first all-female team of aquanauts in Tektite II.[13]

In 1979, she made an open-ocean JIM suit dive, untethered, to the sea ocean floor near Oahu. She set the women's depth record of 381 metres (1,250 ft) which still holds to date.[1][14][15] In 1979 she also began her tenure as the Curator of Phycology at the California Academy of Sciences, where she served until 1986.[12]

From 1980 to 1984, she served on the National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmosphere.

Earle displays samples to an aquanaut inside the Tektite habitat, 1970
Earle displays samples to an aquanaut inside the Tektite habitat, 1970

In 1982 she and her later husband, Graham Hawkes, an engineer and submersible designer, founded Deep Ocean Engineering to design, operate, support and consult on piloted and robotic subsea systems.[16] In 1985, the Deep Ocean Engineering team designed and built the Deep Rover research submarine, which operates down to 1,000 metres (3,300 ft).[17][18] By 1986, Deep Rover had been tested and Earle joined the team conducting training off Lee Stocking Island in the Bahamas.[17]

Earle left the company in 1990 to accept an appointment as Chief Scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, where she stayed until 1992. She was the first woman to hold that position. During this post, given her expertise on the impact of oil spills, Earle was called upon to lead several research trips during the Persian Gulf War in 1991 to determine the environmental damage caused by Iraq's destruction of Kuwaiti oil wells.[9]

In 1992, Earle founded Deep Ocean Exploration and Research (DOER Marine) to further advance marine engineering. The company, now run by Earle's daughter Elizabeth, designs, builds, and operates equipment for deep-ocean environments.[19][20]

Since 1998, Earle has been a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence. She is sometimes called "Her Deepness"[1][21] or "The Sturgeon General".[2]

From 1998 to 2002, she led the Sustainable Seas Expeditions, a five-year program sponsored by the National Geographic Society and funded by the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund to study the United States National Marine Sanctuary. During this time, Earle was a leader of the Sustainable Seas Expeditions, council chair for the Harte Research Institute for the Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, and chair of the Advisory Council for the Ocean in Google Earth. She also provided the DeepWorker 2000 submersible used to quantify the species of fish as well as the space resources utilized within the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.[22]

In 2001, Earle received the National Parks Conservation Association's Robin W. Winks Award For Enhancing Public Understanding of National Parks.[23]

Earle founded Mission Blue (also known as the Sylvia Earle Alliance, Deep Search Foundation, and Deep Search) in 2009.

In 2009, she also received the million dollar TED prize which allowed her to continue her ocean advocacy work.[15]

Given her past experience with the Exxon Valdez and Mega Borg oil spills, Earle was called to consult during the Deepwater Horizon Disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. During this year she also gave a 14-minute speech in front of 3,500 delegates and United Nations ambassadors at The Hague International Model United Nations Conference.

In July 2012, Earle led an expedition to NOAA's Aquarius underwater laboratory, located off Key Largo, Florida. The expedition, entitled "Celebrating 50 Years of Living Beneath The Sea", commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of Jacques Cousteau's Conshelf I project and investigated coral reefs and ocean health. Mark Patterson co-led the expedition with Earle. Their aquanaut team also included underwater filmmaker D.J. Roller and oceanographer M. Dale Suckers.[24][25]

Earle made a cameo appearance in the daily cartoon strip Sherman's Lagoon in the week starting September 17, 2012, to discuss the closing of the Aquarius Underwater Laboratory.[26]

In May 2013, the Science Laureates of the United States Act of 2013 (H.R. 1891; 113th Congress) was introduced into Congress. Earle was listed by one commentator as a possible nominee for the position of Science Laureate, if the act were to pass.[27]

In January 2018, the Seattle Aquarium granted its inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award to Earle and renamed the Seattle Aquarium Medal in her honor.[28] The Aquarium's first Lifetime Achievement Award was awarded to Earle.[29]

Alongside her work at Mission Blue, she also serves on several boards, including the Marine Conservation Institute.[30]

With TED's support, she launched Mission Blue, which aims to establish marine protected areas (dubbed "Hope Spots") around the globe.[31] Mission Blue's vision is to achieve 30% protection of the ocean by 2030, and more than two hundred organisations have supported them in this mission to date (2019).[32] These supporters range from large, global companies to small, bespoke research teams.

With Mission Blue and its partners, Earle leads expeditions to Hope Spots around the globe.[33] The organization has continued to grow with Earle's work and the help of her team. As of 2020, Mission Blue has created 122 Hope Spots around the world.[34] Past expeditions include Cuba in 2009,[35] Belize in January 2010,[36] the Galápagos Islands in April 2010,[37] Costa Rica and the Central American Dome in early 2014[38] and the South African Coast in late 2014.[39] A series of geographic information StoryMaps are available through ESRI’s ArcGIS which illustrate examples of Mission Blue hope spots around the world in great detail including: 1 Tribugá Gulf Hope Spot, 2 Little Cayman Hope Spot, and 3 Galápagos National Park Expedition.[40] In August 2014, a Netflix exclusive documentary titled 'Mission Blue' was released.[41] It focuses on Earle's life and career as her Mission Blue campaign to create a global network of marine protected areas.[42]

In 2016, Earle appeared in the featurette Plankton Rules the World!, which coincided with The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water. The featurette was shown at the Arlington Theater in Santa Barbara.[43]

In the 2019 article California Seamounts Are Sylvia Earle’s Newest “Hope Spots” featured in Hakai Magazine, Hope Spots are described as “areas critical to the health of the ocean for any number of reasons: an abundance or diversity of species, a unique habitat or ecosystem, or significant cultural or economic value to a community.” Seamounts are also described as destinations for mining companies in search of undersea precious metals.[44]

In January 2020, Aurora Expeditions announced their second ship would be named The Sylvia Earle after the marine biologist.[45]

Earle is one of the supporters of the 30X30 movement; one which aims to protect 30% of seawaters by 2030, which would be a significant increase from only 6% (as of 2021).[46]

Accomplishments and honors


Earle has authored more than 150 publications.[12]


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  11. ^ Legendary ocean scientist to speak at Gulf Coast Community Foundation luncheon, Gulf Coast Community Foundation, December 9, 2019
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