Sylvia Earle: the woman behind the ground-breaking ship

You may not have encountered Sylvia Earle’s name before, but she is one of our world’s leading figures on marine ecosystems. Hailed by Time magazine as a 'Hero for the planet.' there’s more than one reason why Aurora Expeditions named their ground-breaking ship after her.

In a world of ever-spinning headlines dominated by talentless influencers and humanity’s misfortunes, the lionhearts of society often go uncelebrated by contemporary mainstream media.

Marine biologist Dr Sylvia Earle is not a Tiktok star, nor is she a Youtube phenomenon, or a participant in Dancing with the Stars in the Jungle on Ice. So you won’t find her name strewn across the ‘shareable’ material that chokes social media.

Rather, Sylvia is the real-life Lara Croft.

Still going strong well into her 80s and referred to as ‘Her Deepness’, Dr Earle holds the record for the deepest walk ever partaken by a human being on the sea floor – some 1,250 feet. And this wasn’t a World Record title grab performed over a 10-minute stretch, either. Sylvia was down there, untethered, for two and a half hours.

Her special focus on underwater exploration caused a technical revolution in accessing remote submerged environments, fast-tracking conservation projects, and spearheading global restoration initiatives to protect marine biology.

Having led more than 100 expeditions, authored more than 190 technical and scientific publications, and clocked in excess of 7,000 hours underwater (the equivalent of 292 days), it’s no surprise to find that Aurora Expeditions christened their ‘floating ambassador for the planet’ after her.

The new Sylvia Earle ship was launched in November 2022. (Credit: Aurora Expeditions)

Aurora's climate-neutral masterpiece

The Sylvia Earle cruise ship has been certified 100% Climate Neutral. That’s a big deal, and an important milestone for ensuring that delicate marine life doesn’t suffer in the name of tourism.

To be recognised as ‘Carbon Neutral’ in the shipping world, the vessel must not pollute the air with carbon emissions. Simple, right? Besides being good for air quality, it helps to slow down the changing environment around us and prevents poisoning local ecosystems.

Except, it’s not that easy. Most cruise ships operate with the services of a major city, and these services don’t come without increases in power requirements. While far from the coal-fired eco-nightmares of our past, contemporary cruise ships can produce the same carbon emissions as 12,000 cars. Managing to grab ‘Carbon Neutral’ status remains a huge achievement.

As the Aurora website explains: "Aurora Expeditions calculates all GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions across its business operations annually.

Aurora then compensates for these emissions by purchasing carbon credits from climate action projects that meet the highest international standards and sets must-reach goals, targets and timelines to ensure its emission reduction and sustainability programs are best-in-class."

Naming the ship after Dr Earle is a direct tribute to Sylvia’s lifetime dedication to important conservational causes. As a former chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, not to mention also a founder of SEAlliance and partner of the celebrated National Geographic Mission Blue, Sylvia’s assiduity is certainly second to none.

The ship is fully equipped with a Citizen Science Centre, a lecture hall, and participative Citizen science programs – all of which are designed to enrich your knowledge and connect with the environment.

Designed to provide a comfortable base camp for adventure, and offering a maximum capacity of 132 passengers to ensure smaller groups of expeditions tread lightly, the ship was launched in November of 2022. You can check out the full inventory through the company’s brochure.

Dr Sylvia Earle also has a public deck dedicated to her aboard the water-going namesake, with a further five decks dedicated to pioneering female conservationists. You can find the full list of dedicated persons on the Aurora website.

Sylvia Earle in one of her trademark diving suits. (Credit:OAR/National Undersea Research Program)

Who is Sylvia Earle?

Oh, boy. How to introduce Sylvia Earle...

There are a huge number of ways to start this section. We could talk about how Dr Earle became the first woman to lead the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, or her mind-bending deep-water stroll, or those 27 honorary degrees amid hundreds of honours from around the world.

But let’s start with something we can all understand: childhood ambition.

Born on August 30, 1935, in New Jersey, Sylvia grew up on a small farm where her parents installed a love of nature from a very young age. She recalls spending hours by the pond at the back of the farm, filling jars with tadpoles and fish, before recording her observations in various notebooks.

Her interest turned towards Gulf Coast wildlife after relocating to Florida with her family as a young teenager, before earning a scholarship to Florida State University. Sylvia studied botany while on campus and graduated in 1954, while also gaining certification as a SCUBA diver.

Unlike most, this certification wasn’t pursued to enliven a gap year, but instead to study ocean life first-hand. Furthering her education, Earle earned a master’s degree in botany from Duke University, where she remained to begin her doctoral work on algae.

Algae. Wow.

No, seriously – this was sternly important work. Most of the oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere comes from algae and the process of photosynthesis. If humanity had not absorbed Earle’s work, then chances are our civilisation would look much different – as in smaller, hungrier, and more dead.

Tiktok is unlikely to showcase Dr Earle’s work in that regard, but all you need to know is this: Sylvia basically saved us from ourselves. Without her efforts, we’d most likely have starved our own oxygen supply through either the pursuit of company profit or sheer ignorance.

Dr Sylvia Earle. (Credit: Bonnie L. Campbell/USFWS)

Sylvia Earle: a lifetime of achievements and records

Back in 1964, Earle focused her efforts on a six-week voyage to the Indian Ocean aboard a National Science Foundation research ship. A demanding job seldom offered to women during that time, Sylvia never hesitated for a moment. She was used to being the sole woman in a scientific environment.

The voyage was a resounding success, and the next two years found Earle assisting expeditions to the Galápagos Islands, the Chilean coast, and the Panama Canal. This led to a position as Resident Director of the Cape Haze Marine Laboratory in Florida, all alongside her dissertation; for which she earned a Ph.D in botany.

Her dissertation involved the collection and cataloguing of more than 20,000 algae samples, and resulted in an extra title: one of the first scientists to use SCUBA as a first-hand exercise in documenting marine life. It was a landmark study that is still used as a benchmark to this day.

Sylvia Earle and Crew leading a discussion regarding TEKTITE II. (Credit:OAR/National Undersea Research Program)

In February 1968, Dr Earle took part in the Smithsonian Institution’s Man-in-Sea project; an experimental underwater habitat. It was here that Earle punched through the glass ceiling and became the first female scientist to descend 100 feet below the surface in a submersible vehicle.

The following year found a new project – the TEKTITE II, an initiative sponsored by the U.S Navy and NASA – where scientists were to live and work in a habitat 50 feet under the waves.

However, while Earle applied alongside several other women, Government officials did not like the concept of men and women living together within the project. Lord knows what could have happened below the unmonitored surface. Swoon.

So, Earle instead led an all-female team to the habitat in 1970 where observations were made and marine life was photographed. It was groundbreaking work, and by the time her team returned to dry land, the press had whipped up a media frenzy.

They had earned celebrity status and the White House beckoned for recognition before the nation, but not before a parade in their honour took place in Chicago.

Sylvia Earle (black and white swimsuit) and her all-female team during TEKTITTE II. (Credit: Wikicommons)

A record-breaking underwater stroll

With her life now followed by the media, Earle ramped up efforts to broaden our knowledge and help educate the public on the beauty and importance of ocean life.

She would spend years travelling the world as National Geographic’s chief scientist, exploring the South Pacific’s battleship graveyard and subsequently featured throughout the celebrated 1980 documentary film Gentle Giants of the Pacific.

Dr Earle released a book – Exploring the Deep Frontier – during the same year, which she used to outline her experience walking untethered upon the sea floor at a depth of 1250 feet; lower than any human before or since.

It was no namby-pamby venture onto the sediment, either. The depths required a pressurised suit, and Sylvia was carried down into the water until she detached from the submersible to explore the seabed.

She was at this depth for over 150 minutes. You wouldn’t see many influencers attempting that in the name of progression, rather than self-promotion.

Throughout the 1980s, Earle teamed up with her third husband – Graham Hawkes – to start and run two companies dedicated to building underwater transport and assisting scientists in their work at extraordinary depths.

By the time 1991 rolled around, Earle was also appointed as the first woman to claim Chief Scientist of NOAA (Chief Scientist of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration).

Now, that might sound outlandish and corporate, but her role not only required the indefatigable ethics of a Martha-Stewart-Terminator hybrid, but also compassionate knowledge to prevent humanity from destroying the very basics of our ecosystem.

As NOAA’s head scientist, Earle became the ambassador of our oceans and was responsible for safeguarding the health of the national waterways. By 1995, she had published Sea Change: A Message of the Oceans. Now, anyone can write a book, but this was more than a tell-all expose on family matters. This was a call to action to preserve the Earth’s water supplies.

And it worked. Earle’s publication struck a chord. Her body of work ensured that Time magazine recognised her as the first Hero for the Planet (1998), and the accolades kept on coming. The United Nations proclaimed that Earle was the Champion of Earth (1994), before she then claimed the 2009 TED Prize; in recognition of visionaries with big ideas.

Using the US$100,000 gained from TED, Earle founded Mission Blue, an advocacy group for oceanography. She may be beyond the official retirement age, but Sylvia still heads up the organisation as President and Chairman, using her connections and knowledge to now develop a global network of 'Hope Spots' – dedicated to protecting the biodiversity of earth’s interconnected ecosystems.

As the accelerated threat of climate change hangs over us, Sylvia, and the people that she inspired, are more than just plain heroes. They are the saviour of future generations.

"It’s the ignorance that most people have about why the ocean matters to them. Who cares if the ocean dries up tomorrow? The ocean should and does matter to everyone. Even the people who have never seen the ocean are touched by the ocean with every breath you take, every drop of water you drink."
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About Calum Brown

Calum holds a deep interest in all things heritage and remains one of Britain’s most enthusiastic historians.

As a seasoned journalist, he has spent considerable time abroad and relishes all forms of transport. Shipping is in the blood, with a family connection to Stena Line embedded in his DNA. He also refuses to admit that 21st Century music exists.

Calum has developed a skill for bringing history alive, and always insists on making heritage accessible for everyone.