The Nature Conservancy has had a strong history of successes in land protection, conservation, and restoration, since the organization’s inception in 1951. In the past 25 years, we’ve also been a major player in marine conservation, identifying the most effective approaches to strengthen and restore underwater habitats, manage fisheries and protect coastal communities around the world. At the same time, renowned oceanographer, explorer, aquanaut, and author Dr. Sylvia Earle has been trailblazing in ocean research and conservation, advocating for marine life, and working to protect and preserve the systems that support the health of our planet and our survival. As she notes, “We need to do everything in our power to protect and restore what we can as if our lives depend on it, because they do.”
Dr. Earle’s life’s work has intersected on many occasions with the Conservancy’s conservation efforts around the globe and in the waters along the Florida coast. Dr. Earle spent her formative years in Florida. “I have deep roots in the state,” she says. “We moved to Dunedin, near St. Pete on the Gulf Coast of Florida, when I was 12. Our house was right on the water and I was always off exploring the nearby salt marshes and sea-grass beds.” During a recent visit to Jupiter, Florida, Dr. Earle joined Conservancy scientists and staff in a discussion of critical ocean issues and drew attention to the need for continued action, to further research and monitoring, and to make informed decisions using the incredible wealth of information that we have available to us. She encourages everyone to support those doing work to protect our oceans, as well as do their part. Issues including overfishing, plastic pollution, and the local changes she’s seen to abundance of wildlife and the health of habitat are of grave concern to her. Of course, she’s also optimistic, and for good reason. Her organization, Mission Blue, as well as The Nature Conservancy make strides each day to protect and restore our waters, and inform the public and decision makers about ocean issues. As Dr. Earle says, “knowing leads to caring.”
The need for marine conservation is especially important here in Florida, with its 1,200 miles of coastline and some of the world’s most productive reefs, bays and estuaries that, in addition to supporting plant and animal diversity, contribute nearly $562 billion to the state’s economy each year. The Conservancy’s efforts along Florida’s coasts began in 1969 when the Blowing Rocks Preserve in Hobe Sound was donated to the Conservancy by a group of Jupiter Island residents. This prompted the organization’s work in the Indian River Lagoon, the most biodiverse lagoon ecosystem in the Northern Hemisphere, followed in 1987 by a focus on protecting biodiversity in the Florida Keys.
Earle’s interest in nature and the oceans began early, and was developed through her education. She majored in botany at Florida State University, where she was certified as a SCUBA diver, and then went on to complete masters and Ph.D. degrees at Duke University. For her dissertation, she continued her studies in the Gulf of Mexico, collecting over 20,000 samples of algae to catalog aquatic plant life. Her first job: resident director of Cape Haze Marine Laboratories in Sarasota. Today, Dr. Earle and her organization, Mission Blue, work closely with the Conservancy, swimming in the same policy waters, sharing common goals.
Much has changed over the course of Dr. Earle’s long career. “100 years ago when the U.S. Government began the National Park Service, nature was prized mostly for its recreational opportunities, because it was pretty,” she says. “But in 1951, when the Conservancy first opened its doors, there was already a growing sense of urgency. People were realizing that we had to do something or else lose, not just species, but entire ecosystems. Protecting nature is no longer viewed as an option but as a necessity. We have no other choice. We must maintain the integrity of the natural systems that hold our planet steady.”
Dr. Earle’s work has taken her around the world and a dizzying career (see bio) that is so crammed with accomplishments that any attempt to contain it in an article dissolves quickly into lists of job titles, awards, prizes, recognitions, book titles and honorary degrees (you see, it’s happening already). She holds the world record for the deepest untethered dive, has her own line of deep-sea submersibles, and has been lauded as a “Hero for the Planet” by Time magazine and Explorer in Residence at the National Geographic Society. Suffice to say, Dr. Earle is one of today’s most recognized proponents of ocean conservation.
Among all these accomplishments, perhaps Dr. Earle’s greatest one has been spreading the message about the urgent need for conservation, a message that is part warning and part promise. “In my short lifetime, I have seen the degradation of nature on an unprecedented scale,” she says. “In the 50 years since I took my first dive right here in the Keys, the world has lost half of its coral reefs. The good news is that I’m no longer hearing people say ‘woe is me, look at what we’ve lost.’ People are waking up and seeing a tremendous opportunity, not just to save what’s left, but to reverse the decline and help nature heal.”
The Conservancy sees opportunity as well. With 30 years of marine and coastal conservation work in Florida and the many accomplishments of the Conservancy’s global oceans program, the Conservancy continues to balance the urgent need for ocean conservation with the needs of people, to reduce risks along our shorelines through natural systems and habitat restoration, and to decrease threats and increase positive actions. In Florida, its significant successes can be seen everywhere from mitigating the effects of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill to restoring sections of the Gulf coastline, oyster habitats and coral reefs. “If it wasn’t for the Conservancy’s work here in Florida,” says Dr. Earle, “its coastal waters would be facing an even greater threat.”
Dr. Earle is a force for ocean conservation, an iconic, inspirational marine scientist. Her research, exploration, and passion have had impact on ocean protection efforts globally. “We’re grateful for Dr. Earle’s efforts to conserve our vast oceans and the vital systems that sustain our planet,” said Anne Birch, Marine Program Manager, The Nature Conservancy in Florida. “Interpreting science for the non-scientist is an art that Dr. Earle has mastered and championed throughout her life. She is an inspirational leader and teacher, encouraging us to always nurture our curiosity and never stop learning about the world around us, whether it’s in our backyard, our community, and beyond.”
Dr. Earle salutes The Nature Conservancy’s oceans work as well. “The Conservancy is a true guardian of the seas,” confirms Dr. Earle. Together, two powerful ocean advocates.
Sylvia Earle’s Biography
Dr. Sylvia A. Earle is Explorer in Residence at the National Geographic Society, Founder of the Sylvia Earle Alliance (S.E.A.) / Mission Blue, Founder of Deep Ocean Exploration and Research Inc. (DOER), Chair of the Advisory Council for the Harte Research Institute and former Chief Scientist of NOAA.
Author of more than 200 publications and leader of more than 100 expeditions with over 7,000 hours underwater, Dr. Earle is a graduate of Florida State University with M.A. and PhD. degrees from Duke University and 27 honorary doctorates. Her research concerns the ecology and conservation of marine ecosystems and development of technology for access to the deep sea.
She is the subject of the Emmy® Award Winning Netflix documentary, Mission Blue, and the recipient of more than 100 national and international honors and awards including being named Time Magazine’s first Hero for the Planet, a Living Legend by the Library of Congress, 2014 UNEP Champion of the Earth, Glamour Magazine’s 2014 Woman of the Year, member of the Netherlands Order of the Golden Ark, and winner of the 2009 TED Prize, the Walter Cronkite Award, the 1996 Explorers Club Medal, the Royal Geographic Society 2011 Patron’s Medal, and the National Geographic 2013 Hubbard Medal.