By William Plummer
March 06, 2000 12:00 PM

A one-person submarine, black and squat as a June bug, rises out of the sea off the Hawaiian coast. Deposited on the deck of a 100-ft. workboat, the sub is rinsed, then carefully unsealed to reveal a smiling 64-year-old woman. Sylvia Earle, the Jacques Cousteau of our day, can hardly wait to talk about her latest two-hour descent and the giant manta ray that guided her 953 ft. to the ocean’s bottom. “I saw the sweep of time, the ancient processes that have worked through the millenniums,” Earle exults. “I also saw cement blocks, bottles, cans, spools of cable. In some ways, I was on the far side of the universe. In other ways, it was as familiar as the city dump.”

Standing just 5’3″ in her wet suit and flippers, Earle has spent more than 6,000 hours underwater—and is regarded as the premier advocate for the world’s oceans. A former chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Oakland grandmother now heads Sustainable Seas Expeditions, the first systematic study of the nation’s 12 marine sanctuaries. (She talks about the 18,000 sq. mi. of water managed by NOAA in her new book, Wild Ocean: America’s Parks Under the Sea.) “This is the Lewis and Clark era for oceans,” says Earle, who holds the record for the deepest un-tethered solo ocean dive, a 1,250-ft. plunge off Oahu. “The oceans are in trouble, and they are largely unexplored.”

Earle, who is testing salinity levels, temperature and the chemistry of waters in sanctuaries from the Florida Keys to Washington’s Olympic Coast, also uses her Deep-water sub to catalog what she calls the “critters” she sees, as well as man’s abuses. “We don’t get it,” chides Earle. “The ocean is the cornerstone of all life. It produces most of the oxygen in the atmosphere. It shapes the way the world was, is and will be.”

She crusades against overfishing, toxic pollution and ecoterrorism of the sort waged by Saddam Hussein, who in 1991 turned the Persian Gulf into a graveyard by dumping 11 million barrels of oil into it. “Look at the death of [Florida’s] Clearwater Bay from toxic runoff,” she says. “Or how warming in the Pacific is destroying microbial life, the little guys who generate oxygen. Or the fisheries that have closed because the populations of tuna, salmon, cod, herring and shellfish have collapsed.” The underlying tragedy, she insists, is our ignorance: “We do not see ourselves as a part of nature.”

Clearly, Earle does. Born in Gibbstown, N.J., Sylvia and her two brothers grew up on a 10-acre farm, where, during “an absolutely magical childhood,” she says, “I first got acquainted with bullfrogs and various wild animals.” When she was 12, her father, Lewis, an electrician with DuPont, and her homemaker mother, Alice—both now deceased—moved the family to Dunedin, Fla., near Clearwater. “I hated to leave that farm,” says Earle. “It seemed like the end of the world.”

Instead she discovered a fascinating new one populated by the fish and crustaceans that lived in the lagoons where she played. In 1952, at 16, Earle gave in to an overpowering “urge to submerge,” making her first. dive in the nearby Weeki Wachee River with a borrowed copper helmet and air compressor. That same year she entered Florida State University, graduating at 19 in 1955 with a B.A. in botany. Her mind stirred by the famous environmental writer Rachel Carson, she got her feet wet as an activist by standing up at a town meeting to argue against the dredging of local bays. “I wasn’t taken seriously,” she says, “and was even made to feel like a fool for being concerned. But I knew I was right.”

Earle made her first media splash in 1970 when she led a NASA-sponsored team of female scientists (dubbed aqua babes) to an underwater lab in the Caribbean, where they lived for two weeks. “We were subjected to unbelievable notoriety,” says Earle, who lunched at the White House and, along with her team, was given a ticker-tape parade in Chicago for the exploit. At the time, Earle, who would marry and divorce three times, was living in L.A. with her second husband, museum curator Giles Mead, and her three children, Elizabeth, now 39, Richie, 37, and Gale, 31. “It was a pretty atypical childhood,” says Elizabeth, who, along with her husband, Ian Griffith, and two children, lives today with Sylvia (and is president of Doer Marine Operation). “We had a walking catfish in our kitchen, seaweed in the sink and an octopus.”

It was in 1979 that Earle, wearing a pressurized NASA suit, rode the front of a sub to her record-breaking Hawaiian dive. In 1985 she piloted a one-person sub to a depth of 3,300 ft. “We proved the concept of quick, maneuverable travel underwater,” says Earle, who formed the Deep Ocean Engineering company with third husband Graham Hawke. The company has since built two more subs and 400 Phantoms—sledlike underwater robots that NASA uses to peer under polar ice caps. “When we master the ocean’s depths,” says Earle, “we’ll be able to grasp how the whole ecosystem works and, hopefully, take better care of it.”

Earle’s ranch-style home in the Oakland Hills brims with pets, books, files and scores of boxes containing thousands of sea plants pressed on paper. She lectures frequently and admits to being driven. “It must have been difficult being married to me,” says Earle. “I think I’m easy to get along with, fun to be around. But I’ve known since I was a child that I had to be a scientist.”

Famous friends and dive buddies alike understand. Shuttle astronaut Kathy Sullivan and Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska both call Earle a “national treasure.” And NASA administrator Daniel Goldin says he gets “choked up” when Earle expounds on her favorite subject, as she does now standing on the deck of the ship.

“The ocean shapes climate and weather, regulates temperature,” she says. “It is 97 percent of the Earth’s water. Our dependency is complete and our understanding primitive.” She sighs. “I’m not sure some people care or they couldn’t possibly be so cavalier. I must get the word out to the inhabitants of Planet Earth.”

William Plummer

Ken Baker in Oakland, Jeannie McCabe on Oahu and bureau reports

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