Science history: The extraordinary scientist known as ‘Her Deepness’
Sylvia Earle is an accomplished scientist, record-breaking deep sea diver and environmental campaigner. Jeff Glorfeld reports.
Sylvia Earle is deep. She’s so deep that The New Yorker magazine gave her the nickname “Her Deepness” in a 1989 profile.
She was born on 30 August1935, in the US state of New Jersey, her family living on a small farm. When she was 13, they moved to Clearwater, Florida, where her fascination with the sea really began. She attempted her first dive at 16, using a diving helmet because scuba was not yet available.
She studied oceanography and biology at Florida State University, and earned a PhD in phycology – the study of algae – from Duke University in 1966.
In February 1968, Earle joined a team of scientists in the Bahamas and descended in a submersible vehicle called Deep Diver, which had a then unique lock-out chamber through which divers could leave and return to the craft underwater.
At 30 metres down, Earle left the sub and entered the sea through the chamber. It was the first time a woman had accomplished the task.
Also, she was four months pregnant at the time. She’d received the all-clear from doctors, and, indeed, her daughter Gale was born the following July.
In late 1969 Earle became involved with a project called Tektite, which had NASA as one of its principal sponsors. It involved successive teams of scientists living in an underwater habitat anchored on the seafloor, about 15 metres down, off the coast of St John in the US Virgin Islands, for periods of 10 to 20 days at a time.
Earle believed she was an ideal candidate for the second stage, Tektite II; she had more than 1000 hours of diving experience and had designed a program to study the sea life of the area.
However, the US government committee in charge of the operation balked at the idea of women and men taking part in the project together, so another mission was organised with an all-female team, with Earle as its leader.
Tektite II Mission 6 took place in mid-1970, when Earle and four other women swam down to enter the habitat resting on the seafloor near a coral reef. They lived there for two weeks, studying the surrounding waters. When they returned to dry land, they were dubbed “aqua-babes” in media reports.
In 1979, she again made history, this time off the coast of Oahu, Hawaii. Contained in a Jim atmospheric diving suit (named for another deep diver, Jim Jarrett), she descended 381 metres while strapped to the front of a small research submersible.
Once on the seafloor, she untethered herself from the vehicle and went exploring at a depth no human had reached before, for more than two hours.
Today Earle is known as a prolific campaigner for protecting the marine environment from threats such as climate change, pollution, habitat destruction and invasive species. She is the founder of Mission Blue: the Sylvia Earle Alliance.
Earle has led more than 100 expeditions and logged more than 7000 hours underwater. She still dives.