Meet The Pioneering Female Scientist And Explorer Who Is Bearing Witness To The Ocean’s Destruction

From the producer of The Cove, comes a new Netflix documentary about the life of Sylvia Earle, who at 78, is witnessing first-hand environmental change on a scale that humans never imagined.

The most moving scene in the upcoming Netflix documentary Mission Blue occurs near the end, when the film crew joins the movie’s central subject, 78-year-old scientific pioneer and ocean explorer Sylvia Earle, on a choppy water journey to a place Earle remembered as her vision of paradise.


That’s no small statement for a woman who has logged more than 7,000 hours—nearly a year of her life–underwater all over the world. In the 1970s, when Earle last dove in the Coral Sea, she fell in love with its vibrant reef, idyllic in its remote location far off the northeast Australia coast.

“The whole point of going there was to find a really healthy, beautiful system to come to the end of this film, and we can go: ‘Ta-dah, there’s reason for hope,’” Earle told Co.Exist in an interview.

Instead, when a still-spry Earle and her companions hit the water in their SCUBA gear, they encountered a wasteland. No colors. No fish. No life.

“We were shocked. We were really shocked,” says co-director and producer Fisher Stevens, who is most famous for producing The Cove, an Academy Award-winning documentary about dolphin hunting in Japan.

Mission Blue, set for exclusive worldwide streaming on Netflix on August 15, came about after Stevens and co-director Robert Nixon (of Gorillas in the Mist) agreed to film a 30-minute chronicle of Earle’s journey to the Galapagos Islands in 2010. It was a celebrity-packed voyage financed by donations that poured in after Earle’s 2009 TED Prize speech, in which she issued an urgent call to protect the planet’s oceans by creating a global network of marine protected areas she calls “Hope Spots.” For Stevens, that quick project turned into a four-year, feature film. He was captivated by Earle’s fiery charisma, personal story, and compelling advocacy for a cause he was also passionate about, he explains.

There is probably no more authentic, credible voice for the world’s oceans than Earle, a fearless oceanographer who began her career in the 1950s and rose to the very top of her field as she witnessed dramatic changes to the world’s oceans firsthand. The film alternates between telling Earle’s impressive life story and her examination of the many pressures–from overfishing and offshore oil drilling to climate change–that are threatening ecosystem collapse today. (She notes that world population, now at 7 billion, was only 2 billion when she was born.) Through this weaving, Earle and the filmmakers effectively convey more than just facts and figures, but a more emotional resonance of their message: That we are now witnessing a tragedy in progress–one that threatens our own existence, too.


The film isn’t all dire and touches on lighter moments, such as disbelieving news headlines describing Earle’s early exploits as the only woman on a 70-member ocean voyage. Or that time, while at Harvard, when she led the first team of female “aquanauts” to live under the ocean, and one report questioned what they’d do with only one hairdryer. More importantly, it focuses on Earle’s current campaign to create what would essentially be a national parks system for the seas, which would make her the John Muir of the oceans.

Mission Blue, in fact, doubles as the name of Earle’s advocacy campaign that aims to protect 20% of the world’s oceans by 2020. That’s a lofty goal, considering that when she started only 1% was protected–and now it’s at around 2%. However, she is optimistic, and global discussions at the United Nations about protecting large swaths of the open ocean are ongoing. “It’s possible, and it could happen in a stroke if we really get serious about the high seas,” she says. Countries are also getting more ambitious with their territorial waters: President Obama announced the creation of the world’s largest marine reserve in June, and little ocean-dependent nations are going even further. The tiny island country, Palau, is banning commercial fishing and turning all its waters into a park.

Earle hopes the release of the documentary gets the public more involved. Historically, that’s been a hard sell, because unlike national parks, few people have had the chance like she has to visit the vast ocean much below the surface. The technology for ocean exploration has not attracted much investment. In all of history, she says, there’ve been fewer than 100 research submarines and only 30 passenger subs. “Why don’t we have like a Hertz Rent a Sub? So that if I want to go out and explore the ocean for a weekend, why shouldn’t I be able to get the kids in the back of the sub and take off?” she asks (Note to readers: free startup idea).

Either way, her cause, she says, is not about protecting beauty anymore, it’s about staving off a larger collapse, and that’s where the parallel to the early national parks movement diverges.

Earle shows no signs of letting up anytime soon. Now approaching her 79th birthday, Earle says she’ll keep diving as long as she’s breathing, and, in fact, committed during our interview to holding her 100th birthday party underwater. “We’ll have some cake. It’ll be a sponge cake,” she says.


About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire