Story | 06 Jun, 2024

IUCN equals hope

Marine protector and IUCN Patron of Nature Dr Sylvia Earle on how she still spends every waking hour trying to make a difference.

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Dr Sylvia Earle is a marine scientist, protector and a legendary ocean explorer.

Alongside her research and conservation work, she is a pioneer in the development of technology to help access the deep sea, leading over 100 expeditions and achieving numerous firsts and records as a diver and submersible operator.

She is the recipient of over 100 national and international honours and awards, including being named an IUCN ‘Patron of Nature’, a ‘Living Legend’ by the Library of Congress, a UN Environment Programme Champion of the Earth, and Time magazine’s first Hero for the Planet.

Through Mission Blue, the global ocean conservation alliance she founded in 2009, Earle continues to explore the ocean to inspire public support for a network of marine protected areas around the world, known as ‘Hope Spots’.

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Big ideas

Implementing the ideas big enough to change the world occupies me 24/7. It is about trying to do everything possible to change the way people think about the ocean, and then to act on protecting the ocean as if our lives depend on it – because of course they do.

For me, that means expeditions, it means fostering new technologies.

One of the exciting things I’m doing

now is helping to develop new submersibles that will be launched about this time next year in French Polynesia. The aim is to take more people into the depths to explore with us. It’s a continuation of what I have been involved with for much of my life, to encourage people to go see for themselves, as snorkelers, divers, whatever it takes. But we need to go deep – most of life on Earth is below where sunlight shines.

The best chance we have to achieve planetary security is to protect those systems that remain in good condition, that are largely intact. That means most of the deep sea that has been largely inaccessible until right about now.

Decline to recovery

About half of the large forms of life that existed in the sea when I was a child, when I began exploring the ocean, are now gone. Up to 90% of the sharks and tunas are gone, along with about half of the coral reefs, seagrass meadows and kelp forests. The good news is that they are not all gone. There is still a chance to turn from decline to recovery.

We’ve never had a better chance to understand the danger we’re in and secure and enduring future

“As we’re moving into the 21st century, we’re beginning to make that shift to caring, and turning the wholesale extraction of wildlife from the ocean into a recognition that there are limits and there are values beyond the marketplace. As never before, there is a need to protect ocean wildlife and recognise their vital role in maintaining planetary security. There are more whales and sea turtles today than when I was a child, because we’ve stopped using them as commodities. We need to do the same for squid, octopus, krill, shrimp, sharks, tunas, herring and other ocean wildlife.”

Hope spots

We now have 160 Hope Spots and champions. Of course I always wish for more, but our databases are growing, and we’re working with Esri, a geographic information system software company, to develop story maps and data that can be shared across the network. We’re beginning to connect the dots, if you will, between the Hope Spots. We hope to use the cumulative knowledge and power of the champions and associated organisations to help support more fully protected areas.

“It’s not just about protecting 30% of the ocean by 2030 – even 50% is not enough if we lay waste to all of the rest. There must be an ethic of caring for all of the ocean, for all of nature, land, air and sea. But we really have to hurry.”

Knowing and caring

“When children ask me what the future is going to be like, I say: if you could be born in any time, choose now. We know things in the 21st century that no one could know when I was a child. No one had been high in the sky to look back on Earth, or deep in the sea to understand the nature of ocean below the surface. We now know the ocean is alive from the surface to the greatest depths, and even beneath the seabed. We’ve never had a better chance to understand the danger we’re in, and secure an enduring future for ourselves and the rest of life on Earth. What are you waiting for?


“IUCN equals hope. It’s a voice for us, a voice for nature, for the natural systems that make our existence possible. We focus on how to govern ourselves with laws and rules and regulations, but first, we must respect the laws of nature. IUCN gives nature a voice. It should give all of us hope. “People will say to you that you can’t, you shouldn’t, you’re too tall, too short, too young, too old, your skin is the  wrong colour for this or that. Well, I say, no matter how old or young you are, whatever gender or race, don’t let anyone steal your dream. Hold on to that which you care about the most. Keep that vision intact. I couldn’t imagine not somehow managing to become a scientist, no matter what. There had to be a way.

Look at yourself in the mirror and ask, who are you? What’s special about you? Because no two humans are the same. All of us can do something to change the trajectory of decline to recovery. Use your superpower of knowing and caring. That’s what will take us to a better place.”

As spoken to IUCN’s Giuditta Andreaus

Mission Blue has been an IUCN Member since 2016. See