Sylvia Earle 2013


Sylvia Earle was born on 30 August 1935 in Gibbstown, New Jersey in the United States of America. Her parents lived on a small farm near Camden where she, as a child, began her life of exploration: first, in the woods near her home, then the fascinating world of science at school.

Her parents planted the seed of respect for nature in the young girl, encouraging her to tackle challenges without fear. In her early teens, they moved to Clearwater, Florida, where the ocean stirrings delivered an immediate appeal. Academic achievement matched her interest and she won sufficient scholarships to allow her to attend Florida State University. Fascinated by the ocean, nature and technology, she also supported herself by doing extra work in science laboratories. While at Florida State, the call of the ocean appealed to her exploratory nature and she took up SCUBA diving. This proved to be the key that opened the treasure trove that lies beneath the waves.

After graduating with a BSc in 1955, she moved to Duke University where, as an academic, she soon realised that the basis of understanding ecosystems lies in understanding the plants and algae that fuel the food webs, and so she specialised in Botany. She completed her MSc in 1956 after which she married Graham Hawkes, an engineer and the couple had three children.

Despite the challenges of raising small children, she found time for ocean exploration and in 1964, she joined the National Science Foundation expedition in the Indian Ocean. By 1966, she had completed her PhD at Duke University with a thesis entitled: Phaeophyta of the Eastern Gulf of Mexico. This thesis delivered an exceptionally detailed and meticulously examined account of the brown seaweeds of the Gulf coast. She still maintains her interest in cataloguing the marine flora of the area.

Earle has led over 70 oceanic expeditions, the most famous of these, the Tektite Project (Mission 6 of 1970) in which she led the first team of female aquanauts in an underwater expedition that lasted for two weeks. During this time, the team collected data on marine organisms and provided information on the effects of prolonged periods underwater on the human body. Highlights from her 7 000 hours of diving include her setting the women’s depth dive record of 381m for an open-ocean JIM suit dive (a pressurised wetsuit) and being the first diver to travel to 300m in a submersible while pregnant.

During the JIM suit dive, she walked, untethered on the ocean floor for over two hours, connected only to the submersible by a communication cable. In 1982, she and her husband Graham (a submersible designer) founded the Deep Ocean Engineering Company that designs, operates and advises on piloted and robotic submersibles. By 1987 their team had designed and built the Deep Rover research submersible that operates to depths in excess of 1 000m. Sylvia set the women’s record for a 1km deep solo dive in this submersible.

She is well-known as an explorer, oceanographer, author, lecturer, and environmental advocate of exceptional standing leading to her being awarded the Order of the Golden Ark TED Prize in 2009. She is also a Knight in the Netherlands’ Order of the Golden Ark. She has been dubbed “Her Deepness” or “The Sturgeon General”.

In recognition of her oceanic exploration, her advocacy of the importance of the ocean for human survival and the need for its conservation, as well as for inspiring many young people and, particularly, women to study the depths of the ocean and foster a love for its inhabitants, it is an honour for NMMU to confer the degree Doctor Scientiae (honoris causa) on Sylvia Alice Earle.