Sylvia Earle
Dr. Silvia Earle Portrait of the pioneering oceanographer © Mission Blue

Stories in Florida

TNC and Dr. Sylvia Earle: Like-Minded Ocean Advocates

The pioneering oceanographer shares her passion for conservation.

It’s fitting that the trailblazing oceanographer, explorer, aquanaut and author Dr. Sylvia Earle would feel a kinship with the ocean research and advocacy of The Nature Conservancy. Her lifelong commitment to marine life and habitats echoes our own.

“We need to do everything in our power to protect and restore what we can—as if our lives depend on it,” she said. “Because they do.”

Sylvia Earle on the Value of Nature Dr. Earle shares her perspective on the value of nature and the role that TNC has played in protecting our ocean resources and coral reefs in Florida.

Dr. Earle’s life’s work has intersected on many occasions with our conservation efforts around the globe and in the waters along the Florida coast. Like TNC, her organization, Mission Blue, informs the public and decision-makers about ocean issues such as overfishing, plastic pollution and habitat protection. Dr. Earle and Mission Blue work closely with us, swimming in the same policy waters, sharing common goals.

“TNC,” she said, “is a true guardian of the seas.”

Dr. Earle spent her formative years in Dunedin, near St. Petersburg on the Gulf Coast of Florida.

“I have deep roots in the state,” she said. “Our house was right on the water and I was always off exploring the nearby salt marshes and sea-grass beds.”

Sylvia Earle
Sylvia Earle Scuba diving © Mission Blue

Earle majored in botany at Florida State University, where she was certified as a SCUBA diver, and then went on to complete master’s and doctorate degrees at Duke University. For her dissertation, she continued her studies in the Gulf of Mexico, collecting more than 20,000 samples of algae to catalog aquatic plant life. Her first job: resident director of Cape Haze Marine Laboratories in Sarasota.

Schooling jacks at Cabo Pulmo
Schooling Jacks Cabo Pulmo reef © Kip Evans (Mission Blue)

Earle said the need for more marine conservation is especially important here in Florida, with its 1,200 miles of coastline and some of the world’s most productive reefs, bays and estuaries that, in addition to supporting plant and animal diversity, contribute nearly $562 billion to the state’s economy each year. Our efforts along Florida’s coasts began in 1969 when the Blowing Rocks Preserve in Hobe Sound was donated to TNC by a group of Jupiter Island residents. This prompted the organization’s work in the Indian River Lagoon, the most biodiverse lagoon ecosystem in the Northern Hemisphere, followed in 1987 by a focus on protecting biodiversity in the Florida Keys.

Sea Lion
Sea Lion Frolicking in the ocean. © Kip Evans (Mission Blue)

Dr. Earle said the sense of urgency for conservation is growing, although it was palpable even back in 1951, when TNC first opened its doors.

“People were realizing that we had to do something or else lose, not just species, but entire ecosystems,” she said. “Protecting nature is no longer viewed as an option but as a necessity. We have no other choice. We must maintain the integrity of the natural systems that hold our planet steady.”

One of the world’s most recognized proponents of ocean conservation, Dr. Earle’s work has taken her around the world with a dizzying career (see bio, below) so crammed with accomplishments that any attempt to contain it dissolves quickly into a list of awards, prizes, recognitions, book titles and honorary degrees. Highlights include holding the world record for the deepest untethered dive and having her own line of deep-sea submersibles. She has been lauded as a "Hero for the Planet" by Time magazine and Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society.

Sylvia Earle explores a sea cave.
Aquatic Explorer Sylvia Earle explores a sea cave. © Kip Evans (Mission Blue)

Perhaps Dr. Earle’s greatest accomplishment has been spreading the urgent message for conservation, a message that is part warning and part promise.

“In my short lifetime, I have seen the degradation of nature on an unprecedented scale,” she said. “In the 50 years since I took my first dive in the Keys, the world has lost half of its coral reefs. The good news is that I’m no longer hearing people say, ‘Woe is me; look at what we’ve lost.’ People are waking up and seeing a tremendous opportunity, not just to save what’s left, but to reverse the decline and help nature heal.”

We see opportunity as well. With 30 years of marine and coastal conservation work in Florida and the many accomplishments of the TNC’s global oceans program, we continue to balance the urgent need for ocean conservation with the needs of people. We are focused on reducing risks along our shorelines through natural systems and habitat restoration. In Florida, our accomplishments include mitigating the effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and restoring sections of the Gulf coastline, oyster habitats and coral reefs.

“If it wasn’t for TNC’s work here in Florida,” Dr. Earle said, “its coastal waters would be facing an even greater threat.”

Likewise, we are indebted to Dr. Earle for her work in ocean conservation, research and exploration.

“We’re grateful for Dr. Earle’s efforts to conserve our vast oceans and the vital systems that sustain our planet,” said Anne Birch, marine program manager for TNC in Florida. “Interpreting science for the non-scientist is an art that Dr. Earle has mastered and championed throughout her life. She is an inspirational leader and teacher, encouraging us to always nurture our curiosity and never stop learning about the world around us, whether it’s in our backyard, our community or beyond.”

Loggerhead Key
Loggerhead Key Lighthouse View from Little Africa reef in Dry Tortugas National Park. © Carlton Ward, Jr.

Dr. Sylvia A. Earle is Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society, founder of the Sylvia Earle Alliance (S.E.A.)/Mission Blue, founder of Deep Ocean Exploration and Research Inc. (DOER), chair of the advisory council for the Harte Research Institute and former chief scientist of NOAA. 

Author of more than 200 publications and leader of more than 100 expeditions with well over 7,000 hours under water, Dr. Earle is a graduate of Florida State University, with master’s and doctorate degrees from Duke University, plus 27 honorary doctorates. Her research concerns the ecology and conservation of marine ecosystems and the development of technology for access to the deep sea. 

She is the subject of the Emmy Award-winning Netflix documentary, Mission Blue, and is the recipient of more than 100 national and international honors and awards including: Time magazine’s first Hero for the Planet, Living Legend by the Library of Congress, 2014 UNEP Champion of the Earth, Glamour magazine’s 2014 Woman of the Year, member of the Netherlands Order of the Golden Ark, winner of the 2009 TED Prize, the Walter Cronkite Award, the 1996 Explorers Club Medal, the Royal Geographic Society 2011 Patron’s Medal, and the National Geographic 2013 Hubbard Medal.