Dr. Sylvia Earle has been exploring life beneath the ocean’s surface since the early 1950s. A pioneer in the use of scuba equipment with over 7,000 hours logged underwater, Earle has witnessed the changing oceans for over half a century from a perspective that few others can imagine. Now a world-renowned oceanographer, explorer, and lecturer, Earle has channeled her expertise into a lifelong mission to advocate for the world’s oceans and the creatures living in them. Working with director Bob Nixon and documentarian Fisher Stevens, Earle explains the vital role of the oceans in the new documentary Mission Blue, now available on Netflix.
Food Tank had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Sylvia Earle recently about the new film, current threats to the oceans, and her hopes for the future of underwater ecosystems.
Food Tank: What inspired the creation of this documentary, and what do you hope to achieve with it?
Dr. Sylvia Earle: The film came about as a consequence of the 2009 TED Prize, which asked us to make a wish big enough to change the world. My wish was to get people motivated to understand why the oceans matter and to inspire them to develop a network of protected areas, or Hope Spots, large enough to save the blue heart of the planet—the ocean. This is my “mission blue.”
When I gave my TED talk in 2009, there was audience member, Eric Gordon, who thought maybe we could make a film to spread the message to protect our oceans and promote the idea of Hope Spots. The film took four years to create, to consider the issues, to document our expeditions, and to show viewers why they should care about marine issues.
FT: You were a pioneer of underwater exploration and still continue to dive. How have you witnessed the oceans change since you first started diving?
SE: I started diving in the 1950s and am still diving. In those short decades, more change has occurred in the ocean than during all of previous human history. Perhaps the most important discovery of the twentieth century is that the ocean is the core of what makes the planet function in our favor. The ocean provides most of the oxygen in the atmosphere, and it absorbs most of the carbon dioxide. It drives the engine that makes life on earth possible. Even if you’ve never seen or touched the ocean, the ocean has touched you, literally, with every breath you take.
Humans are now changing the ocean and with it, changing the nature of nature. The earth has evolved into a balanced planet that works in our favor. However, it has taken only a few decades for humans to alter the oceans in ways that are not in our favor through acidification, global warming, overfishing, and other ways that are cause for grave concern. The good news is that of all the creatures on earth, only have the power to do something about it. Now that we know how this great planetary puzzle functions, we need to protect the parts that work in our favor.
FT: What do you see as the biggest threat to our oceans currently?
SE: Ignorance. Complacency. People who think there’s nothing we can do to make a difference. People who don’t understand that the ocean makes the world work. People who think it’s okay to put trash in the ocean. People who think its okay to take large quantitates of fish out of it.
Making those connections is important to making people see what we’re doing to the ocean and what we can do to protect it. One important step is to take the pressure off of creatures like tuna and other fish. Some species may never recover from the large-scale extraction that has been imposed in recent decades. These days, technology lets us extract life from the oceans to an unprecedented extent. We need to understand the consequences of our actions and make choices about the responsible consumption of fish. The ocean needs its creatures more than we need them on our plate.
FT: During the green revolution, fertilizer and pesticide use in agriculture skyrocketed. How did you see these affect ocean ecosystems?
SE: Fertilizer and large-scale agriculture has been made possible by fossil fuels that we’ve been extracting at unprecedented rates since the middle of the twentieth century. We had good intentions, but now we understand that large-scale industrial agriculture requires large amounts of fertilizer that are applied to large areas of land and eventually end up flowing from the water table into the ocean. This causes problems where nitrates and phosphates are concentrated in coastal areas where they give a boost to a few kinds of planktonic organisms. These grow so fast that they take up the oxygen for other creatures and create the classic “dead zone.” These didn’t exist in 1950, and now there are hundreds of such areas that directly related to large-scale agriculture.
Think of this connection: in the ocean these is no waste. There is no excess. In a natural healthy situation over hundreds of thousands of years, things have obtained a balance. Tuna, sharks, whales, and all these creatures that travel long distances keep the cycle going by providing fertilizer for the oceans and delivering nutrients to the marine food webs. Now, we’re extracting fish on a large scale, taking entire populations of tuna along with little creatures like herring. We’re breaking links, disrupting these connections that are needed to keep the planet intact. On land, we supply fertilizer artificially because we deplete soils, but we don’t see how we’re depleting the oceans in the same way. We can’t replace these broken links.
FT: Moving forward, what can we do to protect our ocean ecosystems?
SE: I hope the film enables viewers to see what it has taken for scientists to understand the changes in the ocean. I encourage you to jump in the ocean and look at what’s happening! Dive into the databases that are out there. Look at the figures from NASA showing how ice has receded from polar caps. Look at the fisherman’s documents about how the stocks of large fish have declined. Look at the evidence in order to turn this dire scenario around into a positive mission.
Hope is there. We can turn despair into action and take this opportunity to change things. To put it simply: take care of the ocean that takes care of you. We can make personal choices to use our power to do something. No one can do everything, but everyone can do something.