Why This Female Oceanographer Is a Living Legend
Sylvia Earle is a living legend, according to the Library of Congress.
Earle — who now serves as the president and chair of Mission Blue, an organization that works for the legal protection and conservation of the world’s oceans — became the first female chief scientist of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 1990.
But she was breaking barriers long before that.
Earle earned her Bachelor of Science from Florida State University in 1954, although she was often the only woman in her classes. That pattern continued for most of her professional life.
“I was the only woman with 70 men for six weeks at sea in the Indian Ocean,” she told TIME. When giving an interview about her work on the 1964 expedition, the newspaper ran the story with the headline, “Sylvia Sails Away With 70 Men. But She Expects No Problems.”
In 1970, Earle was selected to lead the first all-female team of scientists to the underwater Tektile habitat, located off the coast of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“We attracted attention from all around the world,” Earle said. “The men who did this, they were called aquanauts. The women, we were aqua-babes, aqua-chicks, aqua-naughties. But we didn’t care what they called us, as long as we had a chance to go.”
For two weeks straight, Earle and her all-female team worked in a lab underwater to conduct some of the world’s first underwater in-depth ecological studies. That year, the Los Angeles Times named Earle “Woman of the Year.”
In the years since, Earle has become a well-respected name in oceanography. She’s been referred to as “Her Deepness” and “The Surgeon General.” In 1986, she set the women’s world record for solo dive depth and tied for the overall record with her then-husband, Graham Hawkes.
She’s gone on to win multiple awards and continues her work for ocean preservation, conservation, and research today at the age of 82.