In Review: Mission Blue

Diving into the life of renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle

For many years, I was a vegetarian. It was a gradual process. Like many people, I eliminated red meat first, then poultry, and eventually, fish. And then, as the idealistic haze of my college years wore off, I gradually started eating meat again.

Wyland/Earle First Dive Together! Midway Atollphoto by USFWS – Pacific Region, on FlickrDr. Sylvia Earle diving at the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in Hawaii, accompanied by artist and conservationist Robert Wyland.

Now, after watching Mission Blue, a documentary about oceanographer Sylvia Earle and the rapid decimation of our oceans, I am re-inspired to put my money where my mouth is. The movie, available on Netflix and directed by Academy Award winner Fisher Stevens and Academy Award nominee Bob Nixon, paints a compelling picture of the havoc we humans have wreaked on the oceans, and the lightning-like speed with which we’ve done it. And it makes me feel pretty guilty about the sushi roll I had for lunch recently.

Why the dietary turn-around? Why is the documentary so compelling? Well, to start, there’s oceanographer Sylvia Earle, the film’s inspiring real-life heroine.

Mission Blue takes us through Earle’s life, starting with her childhood in New Jersey, and her family’s move to Florida when she was 12. As she puts it, “Some kids play in the streets, some kids have a backyard. Well, my backyard was wet. It was the Gulf of Mexico. It was glorious.”

It is hard not to be charmed by Earle as she describes the pristine Florida of her youth, and her love affair with the Gulf. Her passion for the ocean seeps through the screen. So does her heartbreak as she describes how Florida transformed before her eyes, as tourists invaded, bays were dredged, and crystal clear waters became murky with soil. “That kind of experience – a witness. I saw the before, I saw the after influence of what we can do to the natural world.”

The film alternates between stories of Earle’s life and insights about the crisis facing our oceans. Given Earle’s connection to the Gulf of Mexico, it makes sense that the film delves early on into the BP oil spill. Images of the blast, and the resulting destruction, are underscored with descriptions of the incredible changes drilling and industrial agriculture have brought to the Gulf in just 40 years. One particularly impactful visual shows us the lone offshore oilrig in the Gulf in 1975. Fast-forward to 2014, and the landscape is literally covered with rigs – there are now more than 33,000.

As you watch the film, it becomes clear that Earle mesmerizes just about everyone she meets. The film itself was born from a one-week diving trip director Fisher Stevens took with Earle in the Galapagos, and as he puts it, “I really didn’t want to leave Sylvia’s world, so I didn’t.” And although Earle and Stevens provide most of the narration throughout the documentary, a bevy of admirers provide insight into Earle’s life, ranging from director James Cameron who describes her as the “Joan of Arc of Oceans,” to Jeremy Jackson of the Smithsonian Institute who explains that the thing that impresses him about Earle is that “she’s not afraid to point fingers, and say, you know what you’re doing and its wrong.”

Of course, Mission Blue also underscores the many ways in which we are harming the ocean through stunning images and videography. We learn of the vast reach of ocean dumping and pollution when Earle explains that she has “yet to take a dive… and not see tangible evidence of our presence.” (And you get the sense that Earle has been on a whole lot of dives.) Through old video footage, we learn of the 100+ nuclear test blasts that have been conducted underwater or on remote islands. Earle guides us through the shark finning industry, as we learn that tens of millions of shark fins are harvested every year, the shark bodies often tossed back in the ocean to rot.

The film also dives into overfishing. As we follow Earle through the Tokyo Fish Market, we see rows and rows of tuna, and learn that the tuna being caught and sold today are much younger and much smaller than they were just a decade ago. In another stark infographic, we are exposed to striking statistics: Compared to 1950, only five percent of Pacific Bluefin tuna remain. Same goes for Atlantic cod. And we have overfished just about every fish you might want to eat, including halibut, sardines, and anchovies.

The film spends very little time on climate change or ocean acidification. At first I was surprised by this omission, but the decision was probably wise, given that these topics warrant their own documentary. The movie does, however, touch on the global decline of corals (we have lost 50 percent over the past several decades) as Earle compares the healthy corals of her youth with the dead reefs she sees today.

Although the film is packed with terrifying facts about what we have done to our oceans, I finished the film feeling inspired rather than desperate. And that is thanks to Earle, and the fascinating picture the documentary paints not only of her work in the ocean, but also of her life on land.

She was a true visionary in the way she saw the oceans, cataloging seaweeds when the movie Jaws was vilifying sharks, exploring the depths of the oceans when much of America was focused on the moon. She was also a maverick when it came to breaking the glass ceiling.

To get a sense of what Earle faced as a female scientist in the 1960s and 70s, we are tantalized with the story of her trip in the Indian Ocean at the young age of 29, the lone women on a boat of 70 men. Through photos and video footage, as well as Earle’s own recollections, we get the sense that she was too excited about the adventure to think twice about the fact that she was the only woman on board.

Later, we learn of her 1970 trip to the Virgin Islands as part of the Tektite II Project, a trip she was nearly excluded from as a female. Ultimately, she was invited along with four other women, a fact that was played up in the media, with one newscaster describing the group as “five young and attractive women, the world’s first real-life mermaids.” (To be fair, I should mention that the same newscaster also described Earle as a “renowned scientist.”)

Following the Tektite II trip, Earle became something of a public figure, changing the way people saw women, scientists, and the ocean itself. I couldn’t help but be impressed by Earle’s balancing act as a scientist, explorer, mother, and wife, and her creative solutions to the inevitable issue of work-life balance (for example, engaging her children in seaweed cataloging at home, or taking them out of school to join her on dive trips). Of course, the balancing was no piece of cake, and we learn that ultimately two of her three husbands couldn’t keep up with her unconventional lifestyle.

Despite the daunting task ahead of her, or perhaps because of it, Earle doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. And lucky for us, she has a plan to save the oceans: Hope Spots. The name is a bit corny, but the concept is straightforward – to protect large areas of the ocean from dumping, fishing, and drilling; to create safe havens for marine life, where populations can thrive; to protect the ocean in the same way that we currently protect large swaths of land.

“The idea of protecting the ocean to bring back the fish is an idea who’s time has come, and it is beginning to work all over the world,” Earle says. “A Hope Spot is a place that gives you cause for hope.” In 2014, less than 3 percent of the ocean was protected. Mission Blue, a global initiative of the Sylvia Earle Alliance, aims to boost that number to 20 percent by 2020.

Though the goal is aspirational, and some might say unattainable, if anyone can do it, it is Earle. She oozes dedication, and is a true badass in every sense of the word. Towards the end of the film, we see her fling herself off the side of a boat, camera in hand, to the loud protest of a nearby fishing crew. The goal? To film an industrial fishing operation up close and personal, from a fish-eye’s view. At one point, I was literally wringing my hands with fear than the industrial fishing vacuum would suck her up along with the fish. What makes it all the more impressive is that, at the time, she was nearing 80.

I think we could probably all use a bit of Earle’s gumption as we tackle the ocean crisis. Not to mention a deep-water dive or two to gain new insight and perspective into ocean ecosystems. “If I seem like a radical, it may be because I see things that others do not,” Earle says. “I think if others had an opportunity to witness what I have seen in my lifetime, what I see when I go diving and the perspective I have gained from thousands of hours under water, I would not seem like a radical at all.”

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