I: “Aren’t you a radical about protecting the oceans?”
SE: “If I seem like a radical, it may be because I see things that others do not.”
The documentary “Mission Blue” was released on Netflix on August 15th. It features the extraordinary Dr. Sylvia Earle, her life and work to protect the oceans and to spread awareness on marine conservation. I watched it a few nights ago, and felt inspired, impressed, and at the same time a bit disgusted by the human race. And also quite glad to be a vegetarian.
The film highlights Earle’s main contributions and scientific missions while taking us down memory lane to learn more about her childhood growing up in New Jersey, and then falling in love with the oceans when she moved to the Gulf coast of Florida. She talks with a lot of emotion about how the nature she would love so much as a child has changed so much, for the worse. While Sylvia grew up by the Gulf of Mexico, there was only one oil rig in the Gulf. Nowadays, there are over 33,000 of them!
Growing up and through her high school and college career, her inspirations were William Beebe and Jacques Cousteau. Luckily for her, one of her college professors managed to get some of the very first set of ‘Aqualung’ equipment available. Once she started diving, she never looked back. She felt free, at ease, at home.
Well, I clearly failed my graduation photo! She admits that back in the day, nobody even conceived we could have an impact on the oceans. "The sea at the time seemed endless in its capacity to yield whatever we wanted to take from it, and in whatever we could put in it," she explains. “We have this idea as humans that the oceans is so big and so vast and so resilient that it doesn’t matter what we do to it. Our ignorance is really the biggest problem we now face.”
But she saw her home, Florida, change before her eyes as it was being developed at an alarming pace. She gets emotional talking about Tampa Bay, about the crystal waters of her childhood turning green, about the grass dying, about the salt marshes being destroyed to build parking lots.
"That kind of experience, of witness… I saw the before, and I saw the after of what kind of influence we can do to the natural world."
To my (nerdy) delight, the documentary also prominently features Jeremy Jackson (if you are or want to get into marine biology, you will read many, many, many of his papers). Jackson explains that the Gulf of Mexico is this extraordinarily wonderful, productive, magnificent place that also had the misfortune of being on top of a ton of oil and of being the sewer for a lot of people of the U.S.A.
The film touches on many critical topics and on the many barbaric acts we can do to the oceans. Some footage is very raw and not for the weak-hearted: shark finning, the BP oil spill, industrial fishing, trash and plastic pollution, death of coral reefs worldwide, overfishing of many species, agricultural and animal farming run-off…It’s quite a slap in the face and a lot to take in. If this isn’t a wake-up call, I don’t know what is.
Earle was a pioneer for all women in the science world. She broke through all the barricades and prejudices against women. All of the sudden, in the middle of all of these burly, bearded men was a tiny, ambitious woman with a lot of big ideas.
In 1979, she made an open-ocean JIM suit dive to the sea floor near Oahu, Hawaii, setting a women’s depth record of 381 metres (1,250 ft). She admits she never was scared. She was fascinated to be able to observe all these bioluminescent creatures and a landscape that hadn’t changed in billions of years. She even asked to turn the lights off!
She has made it her life’s purpose to speak for the oceans. “In a way, we are all sea creatures," she explains on the Colbert Report. She is not scared to get in the heat of things, as we see her get in the water, camera in-hands, really close to huge industrial fishing boats.
"Seeing this… being in the water with the fish… for a moment i felt as if a piece of me was ripped out of the ocean as well," she recalls, emotionally.
As we all already knew, she is not afraid to point fingers and say what is on her mind. As she became more renowned, she was appointed Chief Scientist of NOAA in 1990. While she admits she learned a lot, she also realized that it was not the best position for her to really make an impact.
"I went to a meeting with the Fisheries Council, and I was never allowed again," she explains. "I was not permitted to speak about things I knew most about". And that says a lot. Being a government official did not allow her to fully convey her passion and to freely speak her mind. So she parted ways with NOAA.
Now, Earle is always on the road, traveling all around the world to give lectures and to inspire people to care about the oceans. Her Mission Blue is to protect the oceans the same way we now protect the land.
The documentary ends on a positive and hopeful note, and the message to take home is that we can change the way things are going. We have to rewire how human beings look at their relationship with nature: “what we have on Earth is all we will ever have."
This film serves as a career retrospect, which is fascinating, an intriguing personal story on her family life, but also as a warning call to protect our planet. It is hard-hitting, but also inspiring. Now it is up to every single one of us to make a change for the better. Will you join Mission Blue?
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