Mission Blue

Interview: Dr. Sylvia Earle

Doctor Sylvia Earle - Fisher Stevens - Mission Blue

Dr. Sylvia Earle might be one of the most celebrated and decorated explorers, oceanographers, environmental activists and teachers of our time. Logging more hours beneath the surface of the world’s oceans than any human being past or present, the now 78 year old researcher has been an advisor to presidents, a children’s book author, the most renowned lecturer in her field, worked alongside famous filmmakers, and now has a film made about her life and the journey to bring greater awareness to the plight of our greatest natural commodity in Mission Blue, which played in Canada earlier this year at Hot Doc and was released on Netflix this past Friday.

Tracing Earle’s journey from a young girl growing up in the booming coastal communities in and around Tampa Bay, Florida (although she’s originally from New Jersey) to her current status as a vigilant explorer that has been dubbed by some as “The Sturgeon General,” she speaks with great eloquence about how in such a relatively short period of time humans have managed to do everything in their power to destroy what was a seemingly indestructible and everlasting water supply.

When asked if she was shocked with how gentrification that she saw while growing up and the dumping that she witnessed in parts of an ecosystem where human refuse shouldn’t exist, her answer is refreshingly candid.

“They couldn’t have known,” she said during a telephone interview conducted late last week. “There’s no way that at the time humans could have known what they were doing because for the longest time there was no way to understand the consequences. Ships would go out to sea and dump, and we’d conduct nuclear tests, and companies would just release chemicals into the ocean because we thought it would be too big to fail us. The oceans were seen as indestructible and something that would always be there. So much was done so fast that we probably learned that isn’t the case sooner than if it had been done little by little over time. There was never any consideration given to conservation or preservation of things like seaweed or plankton – those things that we now know are responsible for almost eighty percent of our oxygen. We thought that fish would always be there, so we took as many as we could, as fast as we could. We now know that’s wrong, but admitting something is wrong is always the first step towards fixing it.”

And that candour also allows her to look forward to a brighter future thanks to what she sees as a potential period of enlightenment for people around the world.

“This is a great time to be living in when it comes to not only learning about our bodies of water, but also in how we can help to protect and sustain them. I always say this, but if I had to pick one time in recorded history to live in, it would be right now because through technology and better means of understanding, we’re finally becoming able to know what our ecosystems are capable of and what our impact on them is over time.”

While the film looks at a career that started as one of the first people to ever strap on a scuba tank to her time as an oceanographer-in-residence at National Geographic and an advisor to the US government (where she was seen as often doing her job a bit too well for some) to her current Mission Blue campaign – an initiative designed to elevate environmental awareness via various media platforms and means that’s comprised of individual donors and scientists all the way up to multinational corporations – it’s also not afraid to get personal in showing just how much Earle has given herself over to a job that she has loved for decades now.

The film was co-directed by actor and activist Fisher Stevens (who won an Academy Award for helping to produce the similarly minded eco-doc, The Cove) and Robert Nixon (who has produced numerous films on conservation and wildlife preservation, including the 1988 Dian Fossey bio-pic Gorillas in the Mist), but in addition to having two such high profile allies behind the camera the film also features an appearance from noted aquatic enthusiast and environmental advocate James Cameron, who collaborated with Earle on the construction of his groundbreaking Deeepsea Challenger submersible. She has nothing but the fondest things to say about her high-profile collaborators.

“Fisher has been a dear friend and ally who has cared about the world he lives in for a long time now, and he has such a wonderful eye for storytelling that you need for something like this. It’s like they say how every film needs to have a beginning middle and an end, or in this case with a documentary not necessarily an end, but a jumping off point. What he and co-director Robert Nixon, who previously followed Dian Fossey quite closely in her work with primates, have created is a great way to get people to start talking about what the next step for us will be. As for James, he’s also a very gifted storyteller and filmmaker, but he’s also a scientist, an engineer, and a researcher in his own right. His talents, skills, and desire is almost unmatched. With his help and advances in technology that he has helped to implement, we’re becoming increasingly aware of the world around us and finding new ways to share these unseen parts of the world with others.”

When asked if she wishes there was something she could share with people thanks to these technological leaps being made by filmmakers and scientists that she couldn’t share with people before, she focuses on the positive and the beautiful.

“Thanks to increases in filmmaking and photographic technology there’s so much more that we can show people that I have seen for years but had previously only been able to describe. The one thing I have always wanted to share with people is the wonder of bioluminescence and the fact that so much life underwater – basically 80% of all life on Earth at the moment – is capable of producing some sort of light. But there are also those little moments that stay with you that you can share, too. I’ll always remember being underwater and having a swordfish zoom past my face and stop to look me right in the eye as it went by. Those moments were always what I wish we could have captured when I first started and I’m excited to be living in a time where more and more we’re becoming capable of doing that.”

Mission Blue is now available to watch on Netflix. You can check out Dr. Earle’s current ongoing work with the Sylvia Earle Alliance at mission-blue.org.