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Where the Sun Never Gets

The opening comment of an “On Being” podcast made me stop mid-step. I’d clicked on an episode to listen while walking on a busy city street without paying much attention to who was being interviewed. Host Krista Tippett’s introduction sent me reaching for the volume button on my phone and adjusting my earbuds so I wouldn’t miss a word.

“Oceanographer Sylvia Earle was the first person to walk solo on the bottom of the sea, under a quarter mile of water.”

sylviaearleIn 1964, while a graduate student at Duke, Earle was invited to join a team of 70 men on a six-week expedition to the Indian Ocean. Fifteen years later, she took that historic walk, the deepest dive ever done without a tether to the surface. It’s a record Earle still holds, and that feat earned her the title of “Her Deepness.”

 

In a New Yorker profile in 1989, Earle spoke about the impact of being one of the first marine scientists to use scuba equipment to explore the ocean. “It caused me to think very hard about how I could convey something about the animals and plants in the ocean—the system which actually dominates our planet. Now we have been able to see, first of all, that the ocean is alive.”

salishAs the interisland ferry cuts through the surface of the Salish Sea during my writing time, I try to remember what Earle’s experience has shown her. “It’s not just water… It’s a living system, every spoonful that you look at. We think of life in the sea in terms of fish and whales and coral reefs and the like, but most of the action is very small, microscopic and submicroscopic.”

Much of the ocean is dark, all the time, and Earle has spent thousands of hours over the past sixty years in those deep places the sun never gets. She estimates that only bout five percent of the ocean has even been seen, let alone explored. This new frontier, she says, is “in trouble, and that means we’re in trouble, and we know so little about the ocean.”

In her 2018 interview with Tippett, Earle explained that saving the ocean is her life. That’s been true for at least thirty years. Here she is again in 1989. “Increasingly, I had come to realize that I had to speak out about the irreversible damage we are doing to the world we live in. I mean, we’re ripping through our resources at an alarming rate, consuming and not giving back, chewing up forests for lumber and newsprint and not sustaining those forests, using freshwater resources without sustaining our rivers and lakes, wreaking havoc on our coastlines and the entire ocean system. And it has been estimated that we are losing ten thousand species a year—plants, insects, birds, fish, mammals, microörganisms—many of them before we even know they exist.”

Last summer’s death of an orca calf held the world’s attention for the seventeen days and 1,000 miles the calf’s mother, Tahlequah, carried her dead baby. That drama likely convinced large numbers of people that the Salish Sea is in trouble. The “ripping through our resources …consuming and not giving back” Earle describes has diminished food supplies (Chinook salmon in particular) for the orcas, shortening their lives and making reproduction and survival more tenuous. Oil tankers and other water vessels (including whale watching boats and ferries) cause noise that interferes with sounds whales need for communication and echolocation. Finally, toxins from oil spills, chemical contaminants, and plastics foul the water and food so vital to these mammals.

Earle wishes everybody could go live underwater, if only for a day. “We need this sense of the continuing interconnectedness of the system as part of the common knowledge,” she says, “so that politicians feel it and believe it, and so that voters feel it and believe it, and so that kids feel it and believe it, so that they’ll grow up with an ethic. Because what we do—or don’t do—now will be an inheritance for all time.”

I don’t expect I’ll ever live underwater, but the longer I ride and write on the Salish Sea, watch its tides ebb and flow, the more interconnected I feel with this system that dominates the world. And the more compelled I am to tell its story to help us all feel it—and take whatever actions we can to save it.

I still have much to learn about the places where the sun never gets, and I’m grateful for teachers like Sylvia Earle. You can learn from her in this TED talk.

Next on my research list is to watch “Mission Blue,” the Netflix documentary about her and her mission to teach people about the dire condition of the Earth’s oceans.

8 comments on “Where the Sun Never Gets

  1. Thanks for this post, Iris. These truths can’t be said often enough. Much like the life in our soils, the living being that is our global sea sustains us at our foundations. We can’t treasure it enough.

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    1. So true, Cheryl. I don’t understand (some) people’s willingness to squander and abuse it.​

      Like

  2. orcaswriter says:

    Iris, what a thrill to get this from you. Sylvia Earle is, has been, my mentor and Star of the Blue Water since I was knee high to a grasshopper. She inspired me to get open water scuba certified, and then spend years doing macro underwater photography. Her concerns are worth sharing. May I share this article on facebook and with my sailing and diving friends? Hope to see you on the ferry one day… Thank you, Carol Owens

    On Thu, Mar 28, 2019 at 4:30 PM Writing the Interisland wrote:

    > Iris Graville posted: “The opening comment of an “On Being” podcast made > me stop mid-step. I’d clicked on an episode to listen while walking on a > busy city street without paying much attention to who was being > interviewed. Host Krista Tippett’s introduction sent me reaching for” >

    Like

    1. Carol, so cool to learn of your connection to Sylvia Earle. I’m embarassed I’m just now learning about her, and at the same time, am so grateful for the inspiring work she’s been doing for decades. I’d love to hear your stories of open water scuba diving and photography. Please feel free to share my post. I hope to see you on the ferry some day, too, and for sure will see you next weekend at the Orcas Island Literary Festival (I understand you’re one of the intrepid volunteers). Thank you for reading and commenting.​

      Like

  3. Kathleen Grimbly says:

    this is my favorite blog yet! So much in a short space; near poetry. It was a pleasure to ride with you as you read about her.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Kathleen! Your knowledge of Sylvia Earle’s work inspired me, too. It was so nice to have your companionship on the ferry; hope we can do that again sometime.

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  4. orcaswriter says:

    “Earle wishes everybody could go live underwater, if only for a day.” This brought back a rush of memory: I was diving off Key Largo, in the ’80’s I think, and was surprised to see, at about 40 feet deep, a dome! There was a diver outside the dome, deep in his job of photographing a tiny fish buried in an anemone. I tapped on my tank, the only underwater communication devicd available back then, and she turned, gave me a high sign, and resumed her work. I was so envious ..I later discovered that it was a sort of SeaLab experiment of the Ocenaography Department of University of Miami. How amazing would it be to live underwater, even for a day!

    It later turned out that one of their professors crewed with me on a Women’s Yacht Racing Series later that summer. ( Actually. she was one of the most valued of the six woman crew. She could read the water, and always find the wind for us). As Captain, I felt she could read my mind, so observant was she…she tended the main, and would make constant adjustments, enabling us to catch every bit of wind we could. Good memories. Thanks for the article, it is inspirational. Carol

    On Thu, Mar 28, 2019 at 4:30 PM Writing the Interisland wrote:

    > Iris Graville posted: “The opening comment of an “On Being” podcast made > me stop mid-step. I’d clicked on an episode to listen while walking on a > busy city street without paying much attention to who was being > interviewed. Host Krista Tippett’s introduction sent me reaching for” >

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow! Love this story and imagining you diving off Key Largo.

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