Saving the World's Oceans Is This Marine Biologist's Life Pursuit

Sylvia Earle, an unstoppable force at 81, wants 20% of Earth's oceans declared protected marine areas by 2020.

If there’s ever a Mount Rushmore for conservationists, Sylvia Earle’s likeness would surely be among those carved in granite.

Or perhaps coral might be more a more fitting sculpture material for Earle, one of the world’s most relentless ocean conservationists, who's been at the frontier of ocean exploration for more than 60 years.

The marine biologist has spent more than 7,000 hours underwater, led over a hundred expeditions, and served as chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with a drive and tenacity that’s earned her sobriquets such as “Her Royal Deepness’’ by colleagues, "Hero for the Planet" by Time magazine, and "Living Legend" by the Library of Congress.

President Barack Obama, who shared beach time with Earle at Midway Island in August, less than a week before her 81st birthday, had his own praise for the National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence. “I’m in awe of anybody who has done so much for ocean conservation—you’ve done amazing work,’’ he said. Earle, in turn, applauded Obama’s decision to dramatically expand the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument—an area that would stretch from Texas to California—into the world’s largest marine protected area.

Calling it a turning point in time, Earle hopes Obama’s declaration will catalyze her efforts under her Mission Blue initiative to expand the world’s marine protected areas from less than 4 percent now to 20 percent by 2020.

As a Rolex Awards for Enterprise Juror, Earle has helped support other explorers, scientists, and adventurers seeking to make the world a better place. But protecting marine habitat remains her most driving passion.


Earle, who has spent more than 7,000 hours under water, outside an underwater habitat in Great Lameshur Bay, Virgin Islands, in 1971. PHOTOGRAPH BY BATES LITTLEHAUS

Taking a cue from the National Park Service, which is celebrating its hundredth anniversary, Earle hopes the next hundred years will be remembered as the “blue centennial ... the time when the national park idea was brought to the ocean.”

Speaking earlier this month at the IUCN’s global conference in Honolulu, Earle said, “We are at a crossroads. What we do right now or fail to do will determine the future, not just for us, but for all life on Earth.”

National Geographic produced this content as part of a partnership with the Rolex Awards for Enterprise.

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