Out Front, Fall 1998
More men have walked on the moon than where ocean explorer Sylvia Earle has walked. In 1979, Earle set a world record by spending two and a half dark hours 1,250 feet below the ocean's surface, a high-tech dive suit the only thing keeping her from being crushed by the deep-sea pressure.
Almost 20 years later, Earle, 62, wears a black T-shirt, jeans, and New Balance sneakers as she hurries down the dock toward a boat called the Conception. She has come to the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, just off the California coast, to kick off this year's Great American Fish Count, a little-known program to collect data on fish populations and to raise awareness among sport divers and snorkelers about marine habitat conservation.
"The whole point is to get people who love the ocean to view fish as wild animals instead of filets," says Earle. She is personable, and it is this quality, along with her ability to communicate the complex science of oceanography in a way that makes sense to the beachgoing public, that accounts for the playful media nickname, Her Deepness, and her pop appeal. If anyone can make counting fish interesting, it's this former chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and 1998 National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence.
There are 30 or so of us on board the Conception, mostly managers from 11 other national marine sanctuaries, and we are all here to count fish. We are briefed on deck by a scientist from the Reef Environmental Education Foundation ("Se˜orita fish look like floating cigars," he says) and told that, in general, the more species we see in a given area on a single dive, the better the overall health of the habitat.
The dive itself is short, cold, and frustrating. I lose sight of Earle instantly in the low-visibility waters. Still, after we're back on board and we fill in our report forms, we learn that all the usual suspects — the kelp bass and garibaldis, the rock wrasses and black perch, and a half-dozen others — are present and accounted for.
When I ask Earle what she thinks is the sea's biggest threat, she immediately answers, "Ignorance. We don't know what lives in the ocean depths, so we assume that we cannot irreparably harm it. Our attitude toward the ocean is outrageous."
Earlier, when we were suiting up for the dive, a fellow fish-counter, watching Earle vamp for a picture while wriggling into a royal-blue fleece union suit, had blurted admiringly, "Isn't she a little sweetheart?"
Would you call Neil Armstrong a little sweetheart? When you've logged 6,000 hours hundreds of feet under the sea, I guess you're impermeable to whatever they call you — all you care about is that they listen.