Environmentalist Hero: Marine biologist Dr. Sylvia Earle

At her 2009 TED Talk, legendary marine biologist Sylvia Earle made this wish: "I wish you would use all means at your disposal — films! expeditions! the web! new submarines! — to create a campaign to ignite public support for a global network of marine protected areas, Hope Spots large enough to save and restore the blue heart of the planet." Her wish launched Mission Blue, Earle's initiative to create public awareness, access, and support for marine protected areas worldwide. 

Last week, three members of the Ethical Writers Coalition and I watched Mission Blue from our respective homes in two different time zones while chatting on Slack. It was a true introvert experience and may turn into a recurring film club. Below are our reactions to the documentary, starting with mine.

Sylvia Earle, a woman I previously knew nothing about, has become one of my heros. Throughout Mission Blue, she exemplifies grace as she passionately advocates for marine life and conservation. Sylvia discusses the demise of our oceans with the tolerance of a kindergarten teacher, patiently explaining to interviewers, the UN, and conference goers the disastrous effects of pollution, oil drilling, and overfishing. One of the most memorable scenes for me was her visit to Tokyo’s fish market. I tried to imagine her thoughts as she wandered the rows of dead tuna and tanks of live octopuses, aghast at the volume and casual treatment of the fish. Read an insightful interview with Sylvia, including her thoughts on eating seafood, here.

Sometimes called "Her Deepness," Sylvia earned her Ph.D. in 1966 and was doing exceptional work in marine biology at a time when women were not always welcomed or respected in the field. Sexism is constant throughout the documentary, from demeaning headlines and remarks about her work, to partners intimidated by her intelligence and success. Sylvia seems to take it all in stride, however, never making apologies for her passionate pursuits.

Despite all the bad news oceanic life — dwindling fish populations, acidification, dead spots, oil spills — Sylvia remains optimistic. Her blend of education, hope, and passion seem to strike the right balance for action and her optimism is contagious. Tireless advocacy has led to the development of what she calls Hope Spots, which are like underwater wildlife sanctuaries. This network of preservation is slowly growing and Hope Spots are flourishing.

Towards the end of the film, when she’s walking alone along the beach taking photos, I reflected on my own love of the ocean, swimming, and environmentalism. I took marine biology courses in high school and went to the Florida Keys on an expedition, but ultimately went another way in my studies. I wonder if, perhaps, I missed my opportunity to become another Sylvia.

Catherine Harper, Walking with Cake

I found Mission Blue incredibly insightful and inspiring. As one of the first women in the field of marine biology during the 1950s and 60s, Dr. Earle struggled to establish her place among a world dominated by men. Her determination paid off, and Dr. Earle has become a respected teacher and author on the subject of the world’s diminishing oceans. Her first love is the ocean, and this is literally reflected in everything she does. Today, at 80 years old, Dr. Earle continues to travel and raise awareness for Mission Blue, her foundation that actively works to create marine protected areas, called “Hope Spots,” across the world.

Dr. Earle is an avid scuba diver and her film takes us deep into the oceans, allowing viewers to see the death and desolation she witnesses every time she dives. It’s disheartening, and I was especially disturbed by her characterization of the Gulf Coast as the “sewer” of the United States. This is the body of water closest to my home, where my family vacations each summer, and massive amounts of pollution flow south to the Gulf of Mexico, essentially killing it slowly over time.

The world’s oceans sustain life, not just for their creatures and plants, but for us as well. If we ignore this fact and let our oceans die, Dr. Earle explains, our planet will eventually look very much like Mars. That’s a sobering thought, and one that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Mission Blue has helped to create 50 Hope Spots across the world, and as more are created, they will eventually link together, restoring the oceans to their former glory. It’s an enormous job that can’t be accomplished by one single person, and Dr. Earle is calling upon everyone to find a way to contribute. To learn more, visit her site, Mission Blue.


I first went vegan because I wanted to live a life dictated by both compassion and environmentalism. I stopped eating fish as a result, but didn't exactly find myself becoming a voice for them, either.

Mission Blue is a great first step for anyone seeking to broaden their current impact, vegan or not.

The documentary subject, Sylvia, dedicates her life to being an advocate for oceans, not just the fish that we habitually eat as a society. I was excited to learn, through her, that marine life conservation has a curious advantage. Sharks, menhaden, octopi - none of these creatures roam the private farms or acres of homestead that cows and pigs often do. They exist, free, in the no man's land that is open sea. By creating Hope Spots — protected areas barred from detrimental human activity — Earle ensures guardianship to a wide array of life, including our own. It’s a brilliant plan, unique to the ocean. And it’s especially profound when Earle reiterates in the film that "no ocean, [means] no us."

Her optimism is weighted by a sense of urgency (see climate change) and it's hard, as a viewer, not to be enchanted by her tenacity. The whole film is a rich meditation on speciesism and conservation, and I feel far better equipped to advocate for oceans and marine life having seen it.

Annie Zhu

At 80 years old, Sylvia Earle looks like an awestruck kid when she’s underwater. The ocean is her one true love, and her love is infectious. The filmmakers were smart. Instead of making a depressing film about how messed up our oceans have become, they made us empathize with Sylvia by focusing on her life story. When she’s at the Japanese fish market looking at all the dead fish, I feel her sadness. When she swimming among the dead coral reefs, I also mourn for what the ocean used to be.

I’m not a good swimmer, but I came away wanting to do some deep-sea diving myself. I’m not a vegan, but now I’m definitely going to limit my consumption of seafood and fish products. Overfishing is unnecessary, especially when a lot of the fish are going to waste. The shark fin industry is deplorable. They catch the sharks, cut off their fins and throw them back into the water. As Sylvia says, if you eat fish you should really do so with great respect.

Yes, some of the facts about our dying oceans will definitely depress you. Instead of reacting with outrage, Sylvia campaigns with great calm. She’s not didactic and never positions herself as a victim. She can point fingers, but in a graceful, straightforward manner. A great example is her Ted Talk. She just makes us want to be on her side.

The ending touched on Hope Spots, places where oceans are being protected. Less than 3% of the ocean is now protected, and they strive to get to 20% by 2020. That’s fantastic. We can support the mission in 3 ways.


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