By Jan Larraine Cox, photographs by Kip Evans/Mission Blue
Our oceans are warming, and sea levels are rising. Their waters are polluted with microplastics and becoming more acidic due to increasing CO2 levels. Coral reefs are dying, and many species of commercially exploited fish are in steep decline. Hundreds of coastal “dead zones” now exist.
The underwater ecosystem is faltering, and ominously, that system provides more than half the oxygen we need to breathe.
But there is reason for hope. The world’s foremost oceanographer, Dunedin resident Dr. Sylvia Earle, has spent her entire career looking out after the oceans, and at 84, she’s not about to stop.
Instead she’s trotting the globe, igniting a worldwide effort to spare the fragile but vital ecosystems that live beneath the sea.
“The ocean is dying. Many may not realize how much trouble we’re in,” she says. “Now, as never before, and maybe as never again, there is a chance to protect the natural systems that keep us alive.
“If you like to breathe, you will care about the ocean.”Dr. Sylvia Earle
As she explains, more than half the oxygen in the atmosphere is generated by microscopic marine life that takes up carbon dioxide and water and creates oxygen and sugar.
“That, in turn, drives great ocean food webs and eventually the chemistry of the biosphere,” she says.
In 2009, Earle founded the nonprofit organization Mission Blue to shield the ocean from further destruction by designating a global network of Hope Spots.
“Hope Spots are special places that are critical to the health of the ocean, Earth’s blue heart,” says Earle. Today there are 130 of these Hope Spots, and Earle and her organization are working urgently to add more.
In August, most of Florida’s Gulf Coast—from Apalachicola Bay on Florida’s northwest coast to Ten Thousand Islands in southwest Florida—was the most recent region to be designated a Hope Spot by Mission Blue.
The northern boundary of the Gulf Coast Hope Spot is home to oyster habitats that require protection and restoration. The southern part recently sustained significant damage from red tide and contaminated water that flowed from Lake Okeechobee. In this Hope Spot, dozens of organizations are working hard to preserve the ecosystem.
The Gulf Coast’s participation as a new Hope Spot is a significant step toward Mission Blue’s goal of protecting 30% of our ocean water by 2030.
Hope Spots are selected based on characteristics such as diversity of species, habitats, or ecosystems; populations of rare or endangered species; innate potential to have damages reversed or sites with economic importance to the community.
“Hope Spots are about recognizing, empowering, and supporting individuals and communities around the world in their efforts to protect the ocean,” Earle says.
An expert on ocean health, Earle is the master of her own. The octogenarian works about 300 days a year, giving talks, leading expeditions, and influencing policymakers. All the while, strapping on a wet suit for some dive time.
Mother of three and grandmother to four grandsons, Earle reports there’s no real secret to her vitality, except as she puts it: “good genes and staying active. Dive! Dive! Dive!”
All of her family members are passionate about the ocean. Earle says their favorite kinds of fish are “live fish of all kinds.”
Raised in the central Gulf Coast town of Dunedin from age 12, Earle became enchanted with the underwater kingdom through her passion for beachcombing and diving.
She has seen her playground transition from a place bursting with marshes, mangroves and sea life to one inhabited by marinas, industrial sites and housing developments.
Having earned a Ph.D. in 1966 from Duke University in the field of Phycology (the study of algae), Earle has launched a myriad of marine environmental projects. She has served as the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) first female Chief Scientist, where she broke the story of the 90% extinction of bluefin tuna.
Since 1998, she has been a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence. From 1998-2002, she led the Sustainable Seas Expeditions, a five-year program sponsored by the National Geographic Society, to study the U.S. National Marine Sanctuary, a special zone where the environment enjoys special protection.
Earle has authored over 150 publications.
She concludes with a clarion call: “Ocean life drives the water cycle, climate, and weather; it stabilizes temperature, holds the planet steady. We must take care of the ocean as if our lives depend on it because they do.”
For more information: read Blue Hope, a book by Dr. Sylvia A. Earle; see the critically acclaimed Netflix documentary, Mission Blue; or visit mission-blue.org.
Contact Jan Larraine Cox at firstname.lastname@example.org.