Female Firsts: Meet Dr. Sylvia Earle

As International Women's Day approaches on March 8, we're celebrating Women's Month and the achievements of women throughout history and across the globe. From the pages of The Explorers Journal, we're spotlighting four women who broke boundaries in exploration, research, and science. First up, let's dive in with Dr. Sylvia Earle.

March 03, 2021

Dr. Sylvia Earle is a marine biologist, author, lecturer, and Time Magazine's first "Hero of the Planet." Her open-ocean JIM suit dive to 1250 feet in 1969 set a women's depth record that still stands today, earning her the nickname "Her Deepness." She is the founder of several companies that have designed and built deep ocean submersibles and was the first female chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). After winning a TED prize for her "bold vision to spark global change," she established Mission Blue, a non-profit that creates "Hope Spots" (marine protected areas) around the world -- there are currently 132. Check out these excerpted reflections from the legendary oceanographer herself on breaking the bounds and often being the only woman in a sea of men, literally.

A transport launches Jim and Star II sixty feet below the surface.

"The adults on the beach warned me, 'You're going to get hurt, little girl. Stop! That tail is poisonous.' But I knew they were wrong. I always knew the horseshoe crabs on the shoreline weren't dangerous; I thought they were the coolest creatures ever. They were my first 'messengers', revealing the ocean's cornucopia of diversity---with its jellyfish and starfish and so much more. Its sheer abundance is extraordinary.

Photo by: KipEvans


"From my early childhood days on a ten-acre farm in New Jersey, where I explored the nearby woods, to my teenaged years in Florida, where I roamed the beaches and befriended horseshoe crabs, my parents encouraged me to be curious, to venture out on my own, and to treat others with dignity and respect. When I told them I wanted to be a biologist, they warned me that most girls did not do that, and that it might be tough to make a living, but they told me to follow my heart. They said, 'whatever it is, we are behind you.'

"When I was part of a six-week expedition in the Indian Ocean in 1964---the only woman with 70 men---it never occurred to me that it was unusual; but my male colleagues thought it was. In the field, men often expressed discomfort about having women along because they took showers outside with no clothes on; and it was an inconvenience for them to wear a speedo. I am not making this up! When you think about it in perspective, if men were showering in the nude, we women could always look the other way. And even if we looked, we are all scientists after all!"

"The Explorers Club welcomed me in 1981 and it has played an important role in my entire family's life for decades. My four grandchildren were most certainly the youngest guests at numerous Annual Dinners. They were in the Waldorf Astoria ballroom before they could walk, and I still have the little tuxedos they wore, in an evolution of sizes. One grandson was 18 months old when he wore his first tux, with socks. He did not have shoes."

In celebration of the Club's 40th anniversary year of female membership, this article is part of a series of short stories from four of the "first women of The Explorers Club," offering rare behind-the-scenes glimpses of their can-do spirit. The series is comprised of extracted interviews conducted in late 2020 for the film, Pathfinders, which premieres Tuesday March 30th at 7pm through The Explorers Club. In the meantime, be sure to check out The Explorers Club's upcoming lecture, "Women in Antarctic Polar Panel," on Monday, March 8th at 7pm.

The Explorers Club

The Explorers Club, a non-profit world leader in exploration. Since its inception in 1904, members of the Club have traversed the earth, the seas, the skies, and even the moon, on expeditions of exploration.

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