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Sylvia Reale, a profound hope

This article is published in issue 26-27 of Vanity Fair on newsstands until 2 July 2024.

It’s a sunny Sunday morning in the Hamptons when a boat leaves a dock in Shinnecock Bay and heads out into the bay. On board there are some of the researchers who have been working for since 2012 improve water qualitysome guests, including us at Vanity Fairand a petite lady who we all look at with a mixture of admiration and amazement.

Her name is Sylvia Earle, is 88 years old and in the world of oceanography, diving, exploration and commitment to protecting the oceans, she is considered a sacred monster. First female chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the United States, over 100 research expeditions around the world and 7 thousand hours underwater, a record for solo diving in a submarine at -1,000 meters in the Bahamas in 1968 and one achieved in 1979 in Hawaii when at -381 meters she walked on the seabed without being connected to the submarine that had taken her there.

Encounter with a hawksbill turtle.

A shell from Shinnecock Bay.

A shell from Shinnecock Bay.

Bart Michiels

Named “Living Legend” in 2000 by the Library of Congress in Washington (the largest library in the world) and in the same year entered into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. The passion that has driven her every day of her life is the study of the marine ecosystem through direct exploration, and precisely from those constant observations of hers arose the urgency to commit to protect the seas everywhere. In 2009 you founded Mission Bluea global organization that encourages caring for the oceans and amplifies the work of various researchers by including them in its network of Hope Spot, points of hope. And to give even more strength to the message, she involves an old “friend”, Rolexthe watchmaking brand for which she has been a testimonial since 1982 and which, starting from 2014, has helped her go from 40 to over 160 Hope Spots, while in 2019 she launched The Perpetual Planet Initiativea very concrete program to support initiatives to protect the planet.

Sylvia Earle.  In your career you have spent more than 7 thousand hours underwater.

Sylvia Earle. In her career she has spent more than 7 thousand hours underwater.

In the Hamptons, a holiday destination for New York’s elite and beyond, everything seems wonderful. Villas overlooking deserted beaches, impeccable gardens, a relaxed elegance that smacks of old money to Kennedy’s golden age. Yet in those parts, in the mid-1980s, red or brown tides appeared, a sign of a terrible state of the waters, which was continually worsening. In 2012, Dr. Ellen K. Pikitch’s team from the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University, right in Shinnecock Bay, realized that perhaps the presence of molluscs and oysters could reverse the trend, so it began to create protected sanctuaries of around 100 thousand specimens each, spread across 9 thousand acres of open water. It didn’t take long to see a significant improvement in the waters, so much so that today the dark tides have disappeared, unlike the very healthy population of molluscs, such as that of sea phanerogams, underwater plants once destroyed by pollution, capable to produce large quantities of oxygen, to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and to provide food and shelter for many species.

A school of cardinal fish tries to avoid a sea lion in the Galapagos, one of the areas of the planet with the greatest...

A school of cardinal fish tries to avoid a sea lion, in the Galapagos, one of the areas of the planet with the greatest biodiversity.

Sylvia Earle’s Mission Blue includes Shinnecock Bay among its Hope Spots in 2023, but Earle wants to do more. She involves another group of very special friends, the members of the Explorers Club of New York, to award one of their prestigious flags to the Shinnecock Bay Hope Spot Expedition scheduled for next August. Only those who have participated in significant explorations can access the club, and today it aims to raise awareness of the fragility of the Planet. After which Earle calls us together so that we can see with our own eyes the effectiveness of that work and tell it to the world.

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“It’s knowledge that drives you to care,” Earle explains in a calm, subdued tone of voice that makes it even more authoritative. After a life spent together with incredible underwater creatures she seems to have taken on their movements, their regal calm and full of energy. A whisper is enough for her to be heard. «As a child I lived with my family on a farm in New Jersey and I was fortunate to have parents who always encouraged us to establish an intimate relationship with nature. My mother would bring us insects or small animals into the house to let us admire them before setting them free again, and I was very curious about everything. When we moved to Florida at the age of 12, I started scuba diving and became a witness to everything that man has destroyed.” In the space of a short time, Earle saw the many creatures he had discovered underwater disappear, he experienced the change firsthand: «I cared personally about those forests of algae, those seahorses devastated by technology» . Yet you are not against technology tout court.

A Tour of The Explorers Club with Sir Will Roseman Executive Director of The Explorers Club.
A Tour of The Explorers Club with Sir Will Roseman, Executive Director of The Explorers Club.Bart Michiels

«It is thanks to the great progress of the 20th century that we have explored the seabed as never before and understood how much our reckless behavior can alter the state of nature. This great age of discovery coincides with the greatest age of loss in all of human history, and we have the best opportunity today to define our future within nature. I have never been more terrified of what will happen if we don’t act for the planet, but at the same time I have never been more optimistic.” In his opinion, we have all the tools to reverse the trend, keeping in mind a fundamental fact: when we hurt the oceans, we are actually hurting ourselves. «If you give up, then there is no hope. Instead, we must take what we have and leverage our skills in finding solutions, just as they did in Shinnecock Bay. We can destroy everything, or cultivate the vision of improving things and making nature perpetual.” A commitment that concerns all of us, starting with what we put on our tables. «I had to stop eating fish because I know what’s behind it. I know how delicious it is, yet I give it up because my life is more important than what I eat. There are communities that depend on fish consumption. They fish it while maintaining harmony with the ecosystem. The problem is when we don’t ask ourselves questions about what we have on our plate. Where do you come from? At what cost to the Planet did you reach me? Despite the commitment of Earle, researchers such as those at Shinnecock Bay or companies such as Rolex, there are still many who ignore or even deny the problem. «Certain leaders, as well as CEOs, look me in the eye and tell me that it will be up to young people to find a solution, they just need to enjoy the present. They are aware of where we will end up if we continue like this, they just don’t care. There must be enough people, enough companies, enough states who care. Careless people will always exist, we just can’t let them get away with it.”

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Source: Vanity Fair

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