Sylvia Earle, American Oceanographer and Explorer
When Sylvia Earle was in grad school in the 1950s, she was denied a teaching assistantship because, she says she was told, "you're just going to get married and have kids. We have to reserve these appointments for men who will make use of their education." Those "bearded scientists," as she calls them, could not have been more wrong: Over the past five decades, the legendary oceanographer, 79, has logged more than 7,000 hours undersea, discovering tens of thousands of species of aquatic life. Her work has earned her the nicknames Joan of Arc of the Ocean, Hero for the Planet, and best of all, Her Deepness. The Library of Congress deems her, simply, a Living Legend.
As one of the preeminent crusaders for our oceans, the mother of three has had the ear of every U.S. president since Nixon. Her outspoken views on overfishing and pollution—and how those factors are bringing species to the brink of extinction, as well as altering our climate and threatening our lives—were once considered radical but are now known to be very, very accurate. If we don't do something now to stop this destruction, she says, it won't harm just aquatic life; it will harm us. "The ocean generates most of the oxygen we breathe and 97 percent of Earth's water," Earle explains. "It is the heart of our planet that keeps us alive." And this year, the world began to catch up with Earle's early sense of urgency; hundreds of thousands of people showed up for this fall's People's Climate March. "We are right at the proverbial tipping point," former vice president Al Gore tells Glamour. "I think we're making progress, and Dr. Sylvia Earle has had everything to do with that."
Earle fell forever in love with the sea while on a vacation at age three. She didn't let a wave that knocked her down scare her back to shore—she got up and dug her toes into the ocean floor, exhilarated by the power and mystery of the water around her. At 12, when her family moved from New Jersey to Florida, and the Gulf of Mexico became her backyard, Earle began to discover all the spectacular creatures living in the sea: "It was paradise," she says. "I wanted to learn everything I could about these plants and animals."
But in the late 1940s information was limited. "I was seeing things I could not find in books," she says. So Earle set out to find answers herself. She won a scholarship to Florida State University and got her master's and Ph.D. at Duke University. (Her dissertation on algae in the Gulf of Mexico is so seminal it's housed at the Smithsonian.) In 1964 Earle embarked on her first groundbreaking expedition: a six-week Indian Ocean voyage. She was the only woman on the crew, a fact that made world news— but for her gender rather than her scientific prowess: "Sylvia Sails Away With 70 Men, But She Expects No Problems," one headline read. "You didn't ask for favors," she says now, with a shrug. "You didn't expect people to carry your tanks. You did it. Then, more often than not, I became regarded as a friend, a colleague—rather than a princess."
Earle also just flat out refused to let her gender hold her back. When a coed dive off the island of St. John proved too scandalous in 1970, for example, she led her own all-female team on the mission, Tektite II. After spending two weeks underwater, the longest uninterrupted time scientists had ever been submerged, the team resurfaced as celebrities. Earle has since led more than 100 explorations, including a world-record-setting dive in 1979, where she walked, untethered, 1,250 feet below the Pacific Ocean—the lowest depth ever to be explored by foot. Her firsts came rapid-fire: She was the first woman to be appointed chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (a job akin to being the Secretary of Defense for the sea), and in 2006 she helped persuade President George W. Bush to create what was, at the time, the world's largest marine reserve. (More recently she convinced the former director of Google Earth, which she jokingly referred to as "Google Dirt" for its focus entirely on land, to include interactive maps of our oceans.) "She is a champion to our planet," says Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group. "I'll never forget [our] dive. It felt like I was swimming with a mermaid who loved and cared for every living being."
Even as her 80th birthday approaches, Earle, who is National Geographic's explorer-in-residence, continues to spend three months a year on ocean expeditions. "You can still go 500 feet deep almost anywhere in the world," she says, "and see things no one has ever seen before." When not immersed in the ocean, she's advocating for it. In 2009 she won a TED prize, which she used to help start a foundation, Mission Blue, that aims to protect critical parts of the ocean the same way we protect land areas like national parks. Earle calls these places "hope spots"; they sparked the idea for this year's acclaimed Netflix film Mission Blue, which earned raves from eco-activist and actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who's called her "an inspiration."
Inspiring Leo is lovely, but Earle's not finished: She wants to inspire an entire generation to get behind protecting our world, as she did with her own kids. "My mom would bring home buckets of seaweed, and we'd be roped into organizing, labeling, and drying those specimens," laughs her daughter, Liz Taylor, who runs the marine technology company Earle first established in 1992, DOER Marine. Earle herself, who has authored four children's books, believes women belong in fields like hers: "Never before has there been greater opportunity, or need, for young women in science, engineering—all human endeavors," she says. "When I was a girl, you could be the stewardess, not the pilot. You could be a nurse, not a doctor. You could be the secretary, not the CEO. That was reality. Now you can."
Above all, though, Earle loves the ocean. "What we have learned in the twentieth century, and is most valuable to us going forward, is that our lives depend on taking care of the basic natural processes—the water cycle, the oxygen cycle," she says. "We could not see it before. We did not know enough. But now the knowledge is there. And there's no excuse."