Mead, Sylvia Earle (1935—)

views updated

Mead, Sylvia Earle (1935—)

American marine biologist . Name variations: Sylvia Earle. Born Sylvia Alice Earle in Gibbstown, New Jersey, on August 30, 1935; only daughter and one of three children of Lewis Reade (an electrical contractor) and Alice Freas (Richie) Mead (a nurse); graduated from Clearwater High School, Clearwater, Florida, in 1952; Florida State University, B.S., 1955; Duke University, M.A., 1956, Ph.D., 1966; married Giles W. Mead (an ichthyologist and museum curator and later director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History), in 1967; children: daughter Gale Mead, two adopted children, and three stepchildren.

In the summer of 1970, Dr. Sylvia Earle Mead made history as the leader of the five-member team of women aquanauts participating in the Tektite project of underwater research in the Great Lameshur Bay of the Virgin Islands. At the time, the 35-year-old marine biologist was an associate in botany at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, and held appointments at Harvard University, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Southern Florida. She also had 20 years of diving experience behind her and had conducted systematic and ecological studies of marine plants, and the interrelationship between marine animals and plants, in the Gulf of Mexico, the northwest Indian Ocean, and the southeast Pacific. Following the Tektite project, Mead participated in numerous other undersea operations, including one under the aegis of SCORE (Scientific Cooperative Operational Research Expedition), during which she successfully completed the longest and deepest lock-out dive ever done by a woman. Later, she surpassed her own record, surveying the ocean floor untethered at 2,500 feet. Today, Mead is still involved in research diving, and is considered one of the world's most respected aquanauts and marine scientists.

Sylvia Earle Mead, one of three children, was born in 1935 and grew up on a small farm near Camden, New Jersey, where her father was an electrical contractor and her mother worked as a nurse. She spent her early years exploring the woods near her house and learning to swim in what she described as a "rinky-dink backyard pool." The family spent many vacations at Ocean City, where she first fell in love with the sea, and she credits her parents with encouraging her natural curiosity. "I was turned loose with a watchful eye, but without the 'Great No' which dulls the curiosity of so many children," she recalls. "The 'Great No': that's the 'don't pick up frogs, don't go into the water, don't do this, don't do that.'" When Sylvia was 12, the family moved to Florida, where the waters of the Gulf of Mexico offered new opportunities for exploration. After graduating from Clearwater High School in 1952, Mead attended Florida State University, receiving a B.S. degree in biology in 1955. During her sophomore year, in the summer of 1953, she took an 8-week course in marine biology, which included her first instruction in scuba diving. "They almost had to haul me back to get me out of the water," she said.

From an early obsession with crabs, Mead's interest turned to photosynthesis and then to marine algae, which eventually became her focus. She earned both her M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Duke University (in 1956 and 1966, respectively), combining her academic studies with various jobs in her field, including a stint as a fisheries biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Beaufort, North Carolina, and one as an herbarium assistant at the University of Florida, where she also served as an instructor in botany. In 1964, she joined the long-term cooperative research project known as the International Indian Ocean Expedition, serving as a marine biologist—and the only woman—aboard the National Science Foundation's research vessel Anton Bruun. She subsequently participated in four other Anton Bruun cruises.

In 1966, while working as resident director of the Cape Haze Marine Laboratory, Sylvia met Dr. Giles W. Mead, an ichthyologist and curator of fishes at the Harvard University Museum of Comparative Zoology. She later joined Giles as a research scholar at Radcliffe Institute, and the two married in 1967. Giles brought to the marriage three children from a previous marriage, so Mead now found herself with a ready-made family. (The couple later had one child of their own, and adopted two more.) Despite the additional responsibilities, Mead forged ahead with her career, diving for private research in collaboration with the New England and Steinhart Aquariums, and for the Smithsonian-Link Manin-Sea Project in the Bahamas in 1968.

When Mead joined the Tektite project (which took its name from the glassy nodules, probably originating from meteorites, found on land and on ocean floors), it was in the second phase of its twofold mission to increase our knowledge of the sea and to investigate means of space exploration by studying the behavior of crews living and working in isolated and confined quarters for prolonged periods of time. Mead was accepted for the project on merit and headed the project's only all-female team. The other members were Ann Hurley Hartline , a graduate student at Scripps Institute of Oceanography; Alina Szmant , a marine biologist; Dr. Renate Schlenz True , a teacher at Tulane University; and Margaret Ann Lucas , an electrical engineer studying at the University of Delaware. Mead and her crew, like the all-male crews of the project, were subjected to a rigorous predive training period lasting two weeks. "Although a particular effort was made to treat male and female aquanauts alike, it soon became clear that we were receiving an unusual amount of protective interest," she wrote in an article about the project for Redbook magazine (April 1971), "well-intended but sometimes harassing. Mostly we joked about it." The underwater capsule in which the women lived and worked for two weeks was a combination laboratory-dormitory which was constantly monitored by closed-circuit television cameras. The only concession to privacy was a shower curtain.

On their second night in the capsule, shortly after midnight, the aquanauts were jarred awake by an earthquake. Although The New York Times reported that the women were "probably the human beings closest to the center of the quake," they treated the unexpected event routinely. After checking to see that the capsule was still intact, the women simply went back the sleep.

During the mission, the team spent as much time out of the habitat as possible, as much as six to ten hours a day. Their dives, confined to four hours in length, provided them a range of 1,500 feet from which to view the marine life. Mead informally reported some of her findings in National Geographic (August 1971). "My own studies had turned up 153 different species of marine plants, including 26 never before recorded in the Virgin Islands," she wrote. "In addition, I was able to make new observations on the day-night behavior of garden eels and basket stars. The study also added new details on the habits of 35 different species of plant eating fish and the breeding behavior of deepwater damselfish." Mead concluded that one of the greatest advantages of the habitat was "gaining the perspective of a resident." A more formal account of the mission, "Scientific Results of the Tektite Project," was published in 1972.

The Tektite project brought nationwide attention to Mead and her team, in the form of a ticker-tape parade, press conferences, awards ceremonies, and television appearances. "We were hailed as 'aquanettes,' 'aquabelles,' 'aquachicks,' 'aquababes,' 'aquanaughties,' and even 'aquanuts,'" said Mead. "I wonder what the reactions would have been if newspapers had hailed the men who landed on the moon as astronuts." In a more sedate acknowledgment of their accomplishment, the team was invited to a White House luncheon where Mead received a Conservation Service Award from the secretary of the interior. She also received the County of Los Angeles Commendation and the Los Angeles Times Woman of the Year Award.

In 1975, during the SCORE undersea operation in the Bahamas, Mead stayed for a week in Hydro-Lab, an undersea habitat at 60 feet, from which divers were shuttled in the submersible Johnson-Sea-Link to the face of a vertical coral wall at 250 feet. Here, in water that dropped off to 3,000 feet, the divers were able to examine the reef environment. "I felt like a hawk as I left the submarine and swam out freely along the face of this submerged cliff," she recalled, "knowing that more than 3,000 feet below was just empty, blue, deep, open water. It was like swimming into the sky on the side of a mountain. I wanted to spread my arms and take off." On this particular project, Mead discovered several new species and genera of algae, which would be named for her. Later explorations deeper and deeper into the ocean resulted in the discovery that photosynthesis can occur where light intensity is extremely low, destroying the theory that plants could not survive below 300 feet.

In addition to several additional missions during the 1970s, Mead also began a collaboration with undersea photographer Al Giddings, with whom she investigated the battleship graveyard in the Caroline Islands of the South Pacific. In 1977, they began a series of expeditions tracking the great sperm whales from Hawaii to New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Bermuda and Alaska, journeys that were recorded in a documentary film, Gentle Giants of the Pacific (1980).

In 1979, Mead had the ocean walk of her life when she explored the sea floor untethered at a depth lower than anyone before or since. Wearing a state-of-the-art pressurized one-atmosphere garment called a Jim suit, she was transported to a depth of 1,250 feet below the ocean's surface off the Hawaiian island of Oahu. Reaching the bottom, she detached from the vessel and investigated on her own for two hours. She described the extraordinary adventure in the book Exploring the Deep Frontier (1980).

During the 1980s, with engineer Graham Hawkes, Mead formed Deep Ocean Engineering and Deep Ocean Technologies, companies which design and build undersea vehicles that allow scientists to maneuver at much lower depths than ever thought possible. During the early 1990s, she took time away from her business ventures to serve as chief scientist of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a post from which she monitored the health of the nation's waters.

Since 1998, Mead has been involved with the Sustainable Seas Expedition, a five-year project of underwater exploration focusing on the national marine sanctuaries of the United States. Conceived and led by Mead, the expeditions are a project of the National Geographic Society (of which she is explorer-in-residence), in cooperation with NOAA, as well as other government agencies, industries, and private institutions. The expeditions are chronicled daily on the Web by Mead's daughter Gale Mead , who is working on the mission and also serves as Expedition Log editor. Sylvia Earle Mead was inducted into the Women's Hall of Fame at Seneca Falls, New York, in the fall of 2000.


Hauser, Hillary. Women in Sports: Scuba Diving. NY: Harvey House, 1976.

Moritz, Charles, ed. Current Biography 1972. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1972.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts