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Thank the ocean with every breath you take, says Dr Sylvia Earle

Speaking at the Museum's Annual Science Lecture, the marine biologist urged the public to get into the water and learn about the Earth's life support system.

One of the world's greatest living explorers, Dr Earle has been a champion of the deep oceans for more than four decades. She is also an oceanographer, author, lecturer and researcher.

Beneath the Museum's blue whale skeleton in Hintze Hall, Dr Earle spoke of how humanity depends on healthy oceans.

She said, 'Humanity is consuming the only planet in the universe that can sustain us. But we need to think about where all these resources come from.

'Every breath you take you need to thank the ocean for generating oxygen and capturing carbon. We should respect the photosynthesis that feeds small animals, that then provide sustenance for the large animals. The nitrogen cycle, the phosphorus cycle, are in action all the time.'

Dr Sylvia Earle displays samples to an aquanaut inside TEKTITE

Dr Sylvia Earle displays samples to an aquanaut inside TEKTITE, an underwater laboratory in the U.S Virgin Islands. This photo appeared in National Geographic in August 1971. © NOAA Photo Library


The biggest land grab

Despite the oceans providing a support system for the whole planet, we know little about them.

In particular, very little of the deep sea has been explored. Dr Earle made history in 1979 when she set a dive record off the coast of Oahu, Hawaii.

She descended to 381 metres (1,250 feet) inside an armoured diving suit, strapped to a research submersible.

Once there, she left the submersible and went exploring for two hours, deeper than any human had before.

Since that dive in the 1970s, we haven't learned much more about life in the very darkest depths of the ocean. But technology is gradually allowing scientists to explore further into the deep than ever.

Dr Earle said, 'What did we know when I was a kid about the deep sea? Not much, and we still don’t know very much. Only 10% has been seen, let alone mapped or studied.

'Only twice have people been to the deepest part of the ocean, 11 kilometres down. We're just beginning to explore the depths of the ocean, where most of the life on this planet actually is.

'What is out there? What is down there? Where are we going? What are we doing to the Earth? Now we have the best chance in human history of figuring that out.'

Dr Earle also criticised deep-sea mining, calling it the 'biggest land grab in history'.

Dr Sylvia Earle speaking at the Museum's Annual Science Lecture 2017

Dr Sylvia Earle speaking at the Museum's Annual Science Lecture 2017


She said, 'There are minerals in the deep sea that might be valuable to us, so millions are being spent on mining there. It's the biggest land grab in history, and most people don't even know it's happening.

'We have the capacity to extract wildlife from the planet, for food and products and oil. There are so many ways we can justify taking wildlife out of the ocean, but we're so good at doing it that now we're facing a problem.

'Imagine our impact on creatures that have never known predators like humans. We have some real thinking to do about extracting wildlife from the sea on a large scale. And we are armed with knowledge, we should pause to think about it.'

Plastic floating in the ocean

Plastic is being dumped into the ocean at a faster rate than ever before


Time to change

In her speech, Dr Earle's message was one of hope.

She cited the story of blue whales, the largest animals on the planet, nearly driven to extinction in the twentieth century because of the global whaling industry.

Dr Earle pointed out that these mammals are a lesson to humanity that we do have it in our power to protect threatened marine life.

She said, 'We came very close to exterminating most of the big whales, including blue whales and humpback whales.

'We could've silenced their songs forever but we chose not to. We've witnessed a change of heart about marine mammals. We are blessed with the power of knowing about creatures that may be unique in the universe. Had we made a different choice we might be sitting here today thinking it is hopeless.'

She added, 'The good news is that we are beginning to look at things differently. We are experiencing a new wave of understanding about why the ocean matters. There's evidence that when you stop the killing, good things happen. But we have to hurry and give ocean creatures safe havens.'

A step forward

Before Dr Earle's lecture the Museum's Director of Science, Prof Ian Owens, announced that the institution would stop the sale of single-use plastic water bottles.

Globally, one million plastic bottles are used every minute.

Prof Owens said, 'We see oceans as a frontier for scientific exploration, a vital part of our planet's future. It's clear they are under threat, although there are glimmers of hope, including marine protected areas and direct action from politicians in the UK.'

The Annual Science Lecture was supported by the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy project.

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  • by Katie Pavid