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Dubbed a ‘Living Legend’ by the U.S. Library of Congress, ‘Her Deepness’ by the New York Times, and the first ‘Hero for the Planet’ for Time magazine, Dr Sylvia Earle is no stranger to awards, accolades and extraordinary experiences. She was one of the first explorers to use scuba gear, she has identified hundreds of new species, and has even been knighted. Over forty years ago, she led a team of aquanauts living underwater for weeks at a time, and in 1979 she wore what she describes as her favourite bathing costume as she set a human depth record to touch the ocean floor 382 m (1,250 ft) down.
When G spoke to Sylvia recently and asked her of her proudest moment, her response was self-effacing. “I haven’t thought about that,” chuckled the humble oceanographer. “Whatever it is that I do, I hope I inspire people to take care of the natural world. Some people still think of parks and reserves as a luxury, but increasingly we’re beginning to understand that nature’s not an option or a luxury; it’s what keeps us alive.”
The former chief scientist of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and current explorer-in-residence at National Geographic, recently came to Australia to show her support for marine protected areas. She’s particularly interested in the safeguarding of the Coral Sea off the east coast of Queensland, renowned for its coral formations. Currently, the government has proposed the world’s largest marine protected area in the Coral Sea, but it’s still vulnerable, as only two out of about 25 unprotected reefs in the area are given a high level of protection in the Coral Sea.
Sylvia describes the decision to help the Protect Our Coral Sea campaign as “irresistible”. She describes the first time she explored the area in the 1970s with fervour, as a true paradise. “In about 100 feet of water I was surrounded by more than 100 grey reef sharks, moving in a great slow circle; beautiful creatures that paid no attention to me. We were witnessing I suppose the way the reefs were thousands of years before.”
She says there’s “a treasure trove of species unique to Australia. We all know about the kangaroos, koalas and wombats that are so enchanting on land and distinctive to Australia, but 90 per cent of the creatures in your oceans are unique to Australia. The crabs, seaweeds, greater rays, fish, corals – it’s a cornucopia of unique creatures.”
“In my lifetime, I’ve seen a loss of about 90 per cent of the big fish,” says Earle. “The tunas, the sharks, the swordfish, the marlin, groupers, snappers – but some places still retain much of their original nature, and the Coral Sea is in that category.”
When asked what advice she’d give to Australians to help out, she suggests that, “if you have a child, take them out to the sea, take them out to any wild place, but particularly the ocean, and look at the future through their eyes… And if you don’t have a child of your own, I suggest that you borrow one.”
“Imagine if we continue business as usual, what will be left for them, when they’re in their middle-years? Think about the future, think about your own future. I have seen in my own time, the loss of so much, so fast, and the pace is picking up. Consciously, we’re now continuing to do the things that are not in our best interest.”
On 14 June this year, the Australian government listed the Coral Sea as a protected area, making one of the largest marine reserves in the world. For more info, visit www.protectourcoralsea.org.au.