Earle, Sylvia A

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EARLE, Sylvia A.

Born 30 August 1935, Gibbstown, New Jersey

Daughter of Lewis R. and Alice Earle; married Graham Hawkes (divorced)

When Sylvia Earle was a little girl, her mother would show frogs to Earle and her brothers. As Earle recounted to Scientific American, "I wasn't shown frogs with the attitude 'yuk,' but rather my mother would show my brothers and me how beautiful they are and how fascinating it was to look at their gorgeous golden eyes." The affinity for the outdoors that both parents encouraged in their daughter continued to develop when they moved the family to the west coast of Florida.

With the Gulf of Mexico as her laboratory, Earle received her B.S. degree in the spring of 1955 from Florida State University. She obtained a master's degree in botany from Duke University. Her master's thesis, a detailed study of algae in the Gulf, is a project she still follows. While her parents totally supported her interest in biology, they also wanted her to get her teaching credentials and learn to type, "just in case." As a former chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and a leading American oceanographer, Earle's abilities have moved her well beyond her parents' early trepidations.

Earle stayed at Duke University and earned her Ph.D. in 1966. She immediately accepted a position as resident director of the Cape Haze Marine Laboratories in Sarasota, Florida. The following year, she moved to Massachusetts to accept dual roles as research scholar at the Radcliffe Institute and research fellow at the Farlow Herbarium at Harvard University, where she was named researcher in 1975. Earle moved to San Francisco in 1976 and became a research biologist at and curator of the California Academy of Sciences. During that same year, she was named a fellow in botany of the Natural History Museum at the University of California at Berkeley.

Earle could have pursued a purely academic career, but her deep love of the ocean and life within it was too strong. In 1970 she and four other oceanographers lived in an underwater chamber for 14 days as part of the government-funded Tektite II project, designed to study undersea habitats. Underwater technology would play a major part in Earle's future. Thanks to underwater breathing apparatus developed in part by Jacques Cousteau and refined during the time Earle was involved in her scholarly research, she was one of the first researchers to don a mask and oxygen tank. Expanding her research from the ocean's surface to literally new depths, she was able to observe the various forms of plant and animal habitats beneath the sea. She identified many new species of each.

Earle's mission in her research and underwater explorations was to expose the necessity for living in harmony with the earth's oceans. One of her earliest books, Exploring the Deep Frontier: The Adventure of Man in the Sea (1980) chronicled the history of diving, from the most primitive forms, such as the Japanese Ama fisherwomen, to today's advanced submarines and other underwater habitats. Accompanied by compelling underwater photography, Earle argues that the habits and life forms of plants and animals beneath the ocean's surface must be understood and preserved from the destruction caused by human intrusion.

Understanding these deep-water habitats and gaining access to their complexities continued to occupy a great deal of Earle's intellectual energy. She recognized the serious depth limitations to SCUBA diving. Her goal, to study deep-sea marine life, required the assistance of a submersible craft that could dive far deeper than diving equipment allowed. Earle and her former husband, British-born engineer Graham Hawkes, founded Deep Ocean Technology, Inc. and Deep Ocean Engineering, Inc. in 1981 to design and build submersible craft. Earle and Hawkes rough-sketched the design for a submersible they called Deep Rover, which would serve as a viable tool for ocean scientists. Earle told Discover magazine; "In those days we were dreaming of going to thirty-five thousand feet. The idea has always been that scientists couldn't be trusted to drive a submersible by themselves because they'd get so involved in their work they'd run into things." Driving accidents notwithstanding, Deep Rover was built and continues to operate as a mid-water machine in underwater depths ranging to 3,000 feet.

Over the course of her career, Earle has logged more than 6,000 hours underwater. She has been an unflagging proponent of the critical importance of public education regarding the importance of the oceans as an essential environmental habitat. As the first woman to serve as chief scientist at NOAA, Earle spent 18 months leading the agency that conducts underwater research, manages fisheries, and monitors marine spills. She left the position because she felt more could be accomplished working independently of the government.

Calling for more research money to be spent on deep-sea studies, Earle wishes the U.S. government would make as substantial a commitment to ocean technology and science as the Japanese government. In 1993 she worked with a team of Japanese scientists to develop the equipment to send first a remote, then a manned submersible to 36,000 feet. Earle has plans to lead the $10,000,000 deep-ocean engineering project, Ocean Everest, to take her to a similar depth.

Earle's message to scientist and nonspecialist alike is that the biodiversity of the world's marine habitats needs greater protection. In Sea Change: A Message of the Oceans (1995), she eloquently reviews the history of ocean exploration and makes an impassioned plea for conservation of the world's marine resources. As she has done throughout her career as marine biologist, diver, high-level government scientist, political activist, and businesswoman, Earle seeks to dispel human ignorance about the oceans. The magnitude of our unawareness of marine ecosystems is the biggest obstacle to their protection.

Other Works:

Humbrella, a New Red Alga of Uncertain Taxonomic Position From the Juan Fernandez Islands (with Joyce Redemsky Young, 1969). Results of the Tektite Program, Coral Reef Invertebrates and Plants (with Al Giddings, 1975).


Reference works:

CA (1998).

Other references:

Who's Who in America (1999). Discover (1986). Scientific American (1992).


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