Like Joan of Arc, with a Submarine

A Netflix documentary details the career of oceanographer Sylvia Earle and her lifelong mission to protect the sea.

February 24, 2015

Legendary oceanographer Sylvia Earle—or “Her Deepness,” if you prefer—gave a TED Talk a few years ago. She told the audience that when she first began exploring the deep in the middle of the last century, no one “imagined we could do anything to harm the ocean by what we put into it or what we took out of it.” Today, thanks to scientists like Earle, who turned 80 this year, we know humans can profoundly alter the sea—and for the worse.

After her talk, Earle went on to win a $100,000 TED Prize, with which she started Mission Blue, a nonprofit with a goal to create marine “hope spots” across the globe that would be sanctuaries from threats like overfishing and oil drilling. According to Mission Blue, about 12 percent of the land on our blue planet is under some form of protection (which is nice), but less than 3 percent of the ocean is defended in a similar fashion.

So far, the group has set it sights on 50 of these beacons of hope, from the deep canyons of the Bering Sea to the Outer Seychelles to Antarctica’s Ross Sea.

“We have the power to destroy, but we also have the power to restore,” Earle told Earthwire last summer when Netflix released the Mission Blue documentary. The film details Earle’s extraordinary life, from her days as a young scientist to her controversial stint as the chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to her current position as a National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence.

The feature-length filmdirected by Fisher Stevens, the Academy Award–winning producer of The Cove, and Academy Award nominee Bob Nixon features a cameo by filmmaker and explorer James Cameron, who affectionately refers to Earle as “the Joan of Arc of the Oceans.” As the fifth anniversary of the BP oil spill approaches and the government continues to propose opening more areas to offshore drilling in the Atlantic and the Arctic, the ocean is in need of a crusader more than ever.

“Think of the world without an ocean,” Earle asks us. “And you’ve got a planet a lot like Mars. No ocean, no life. No ocean, no us.”


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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