Her Blue Legacy
The Bachelor of Environmental Studies programme celebrated its 5th anniversary on the 9th of November, alongside NUS’s Master (M.Sc) of Environmental Management’s 15th anniversary and Asia Pacific Centre for Environmental Law’s 20th anniversary. As part of the 3 day long conference cum anniversary celebration, National Geographic explorer-in-residence, TIME magazine’s first Hero for the Planet and world-renowned oceanographer Dr Sylvia Earle was in town to deliver a guest lecture on the sustainability of our blue planet.
Written by: The 5th Bachelor of Environmental Studies Student Committee
Age never came across as a limiting factor to Dr Earle, who turns 81 this year. She showed no signs of slowing down on her work, having just completed a dive in the Arctic a few years back. Her passion for the oceans and environmental sustainability was evident throughout her lecture; the urgency of her life-long cause even more so. Yet, for the uncountable number of accolades she holds, including a Guinness World Record for descending to 1250 feet (381m) in a JIM suit, she was humble of her achievements, choosing to focus instead on inspiring more support to protect the oceans. Using the TED prize she received in 2009, Dr Earle founded Mission Blue, a non-profit dedicated to creating Hope Spots – special areas critical to the health of the oceans. Just recently, her efforts in working towards protecting 20% of the world’s oceans by 2020 paid off, when US President Barack Obama established the largest marine protected area in the world off the coast of Hawaii. The monumental achievement was heralded as the start of the ‘blue centennial’.
Underwater driving licenses
Dr Earle’s 2-hour lecture centred around the blue planet but drew on various aspects of sustainability and the power of different stakeholders. Infused with her wealth of knowledge encompassing marine life on the ocean floors to coral reef biodiversity, it was hard, as part of the audience, to not be inspired by her work undertaken. Having explored the oceans for more than half a century, she was privileged to have witnessed the advancement of technology in the field of oceanography. Dr Earle brought up the topic of personal submersibles more than once in her lecture, drawing parallels to the cars we drive on land. She was particularly drawn to the idea of driving licenses for submersibles to make exploring the ocean more accessible for the general population. Beyond the obvious support for technology, it was the simple hope of sharing the underwater world she had been privileged to experience with everyone regardless of age and expertise, that struck a chord with many of us.
On trash and a certain design failure
Dr Earle’s work stretches from the ‘pre-plasticzoic’ era to today, placing her in an advantageous position to observe the impact of plastics on the oceans. A video she recorded during one of her snorkelling trips showcased the horrific reality beyond our sight – endless patches of floating plastic debris in the middle of the oceans. As the audience absorbed the far-reaching impact of our actions, she took the opportunity to remind us that it was no longer about lofty notions of tree huggers doing away with plastic, but mankind’s survival.
Musings of Dr Earle: “If we were to store every piece of trash generated in a bag over our shoulders, would we still be able to carry it after a year?”
Unsung heroes of the oceans
Phycology was the topic of her doctoral dissertation, hence it was inevitable that marine botany would feature in her lecture. She chose to introduce tiny photosynthetic organisms from the genus Prochlorococcus, responsible for a disproportionately large percentage of global oxygen production. On the macroscopic level, other plants such as seaweed and kelp function very much like the terrestrial forests – green lungs supplying oxygen for humanity. The high density of kelp in certain areas of the ocean has even created entire ecosystems around the species, or what we commonly knosw as the mythical kelp forests!
Dressed in her trademark blue cardigan, Dr Earle delivered her two-hour long lecture with a finesse and demeanour often unbefitting of her age. The audience hung onto every word, anecdote and story from the field which she shared with unbridled joy. Two hours flew by and as the audience rose to clap; Dr Earle moved centre stage to thank us for the generous standing ovation. Upon settling back into our seats, a thoughtful silence fell over the auditorium once more. One could possibly feel the newfound sense of purpose uniting us all. Having witnessed the impact left on each and every audience member as well, a hint of a smile crinkled at the edges of Dr Earle’s face. Thus in her place no longer stood a living legend but the creator of legends.
Her (our) blue planet would have its guardians for many more years to come.
Bachelor of Environmental Studies
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