Thursday, July 09, 2009

Sylvia Earle: Marine Biologist and Aquanaut

A few days ago the KQED public television program QUEST profiled pioneering marine biologist and explorer Sylvia Earle, which has given me the kick in the rear I needed to finish this post that's been sitting as a draft for several months.

In 1970 Sylvia Earle lead an all-female team of "Aquanauts" that lived for two weeks in an underwater habitat - Tektite II - off the Virgin Islands. The project was partially funded by NASA, which was interested in how teams would work in an isolated closed environment. Others on her team were Renata True of Tulane (now at College of the Mainland in Texas), Scripps graduate students Ann Hartline and Alina Szmant (now at University of North Carolina, Wilmington), and engineer Margaret Ann Lucas.

Their mission wasn't just focused on learning to work together as a team and studying the local flora and fauna. They were also testing newly developed diving equipment. Astronaut Scott Carpenter noted that when he visited Tektite II and wrote about it for Popular Science:

Their professional skill impressed me, and so did their self-reliance. With no male help wanted, they toted their own tanks and other heavy gear. [...] On a swim the day before, I saw the team prepare equipment for another ecology study by Ann Hartline and Alina Szmant. Peggy Lucas, the team's engineer, went along on another occasion, when all five girls were in the water at once.

That was a rare and somewhat eerie sight. Five girls clad in bright-orange wetsuits, with stark white backpacks, working on their projects in brilliant blue-green water, [...] a splash of color I'll remember [...]. An unusual part of the spectacle was the absence of bubbles.

The team was building up experience with closed-circuit, mixed-scuba - an innovation that their Tektite II mission would be the first to put to use. Instead of exhausting a diver's exhaled breath to the sea, as an open-circuit scuba does, it absorbs carbon dioxide and recovers unused oxygen, to supplement the mixture entering the inhalation bag from the tanks.
If you can overlook the patronizing tone (I hate when adult women are called "girls"), it's an interesting look at the development of new technology.

When they emerged from their habitat they were instant celebrities, and were treated to a ticker-tape parade in Chicago and invited to lunch at the Whitehouse. Not surprisingly the press focused on the novelty of women scientists. For example this Associated Press article published in the Spokane Daily Chronicle gives us the important details about the Aquanauts' average height, weight and preferred hair styles (petite with pony tails, if you must know). However, it also included this great quote:
"Sometimes people find it hard to take us seriously," says Dr. Sylvia Early[sic] Mead, 34, of Los Angeles, the team leader. But she adds, "Most of the problems are in the minds of the men."
Since 1970 Earle has never let up on her exploration of the oceans - she set several diving records, walked on the ocean floor 1250 feet below the surface, and became the first female chief scientist at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. She has also lead the Sustainable Sea Expeditions, a project to research and promote the US National Marine Sanctuaries, and her work as an advocate for oceans and its denizens Time magazine named her a "hero for the planet".

She acknowledges that her devotion to her work may have strained her first marriage. However, she was able to figure out how to combine career and family, despite her frequent field trips:
It is a problem trying to combine having family and being as enthusiastic about a specialty as I have always been. I have managed it in part through ingenious rearranging of a life, I suppose. Having a laboratory set up at home. I always had a microscope -- not a big, fancy, sophisticated microscope, but something that would make it possible for me to work at home. And I have a professional library that I have accumulated all my life. The big professional libraries do provide the necessary access to a world of information, but I have managed to gather a nucleus of books at home that are like an extension of my mind. My favorite wall paper is books. I can't possibly keep everything in my brain, but if I have access to it, and know where to get it off the shelf, that's like having an extension -- a bigger brain. That's certainly true with computers now.
Earle's husband and parents helped take care of the kids while she was traveling, and her they were also occasionally taken out of school to "dive with the whales in Hawaii" or travel "to the Bahamas and dive with a friendly dolphin" (how cool is that?). Earle's children learned to love the oceans too:
Ms. Earle said her son works for California Fish and Game, catching the “bad guys who take more abalone than they should.” Her older daughter, whom she described as hating math since the 6th grade because of a discouraging teacher, now runs the company Ms. Earle started, Deep Ocean Engineering. And her younger daughter now does deep sea diving in submarines.
Watch the QUEST segment on Sylvia Earle either below or at

QUEST on KQED Public Media.

More about Sylvia Earle:
Image: "During the National Geographic/Sea Stories filming, Dr. Earle explains to Emma, the uses and benefits of deploying the DeepWorkers in the Sanctuary system." (from
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