Sylvia Earle, `Aquababe` number one
Colleagues affectionately call Dr Sylvia Alice Earle `Her Deepness`. And American publications have dubbed her `Queen of the Deep`, among other highly complimentary titles.
Sylvia Earle makes light of them all, but there is absolutely no doubt that she deserves them. For this diminutive, attractive, highly articulate, and passionately committed lady from New Jersey, USA is, among her other remarkable underwater accomplishments, the world`s deepest woman diver. In 1979, for instance, she made the world`s deepest solo dive, a record of its kind that still stands. Contained in the one-atmosphere armored diving Jim Suit, she was strapped to the front of a small research submersible and taken 385 meters down off Hawaii. Un tethered, she then walked the seabed for 2½ hours- at that time, only submarines had reached that depth.
But Sylvia`s love affair with the underwater world began much earlier than that, as did the amazing record of her achievements. At the age of 16, when her family moved to the west coast of Florida, she had the Gulf of Mexico on her doorstep, and spent much of her time cataloging the plants and animals in the water.
She was 17 when she persuaded the owner of hardhat diving gear to let her try a helmet dive in Florida`s Weekiwatchee River. What she saw fascinated her. And when the sale of scuba diving equipment began in the States in the early 50s, it seemed only natural for a girl who had studied seaweeds and dived in a hardhat to become one of the first women to use the aqualung for marine biological research.
Her achievements in the following years read like a diver`s dream. She quickly became one of the leading experts on marine ecosystems and plants, and she is now one of the few women oceanographers of note.
But her really extraordinary diving experiences began in 1968 when she and several other scientists went down to more than 30m in the first modern submersible with a lockout chamber.
This allowed divers to swim out of and return to the submersible, and Sylvia was four months pregnant when she became the first woman scientist to lock out of an underwater vehicle.
Then came the Tektite Project in 1970, sponsored by the US Navy, the Department of the Interior and NASA. This involved several teams of scientists living for extended periods of time in underwater habitats on a Virgin Island coral reef.
Sylvia led the first team of five women aquanauts to undergo this experience, staying for two weeks beneath the surface, performing marine research outside the habitat, and, among other things, surviving an underwater earthquake. The media called the team "aquababes" and Dr Earle became a national heroine.
Tektite, however, changed her view of the underwater world, giving her an insight that she had never known before. It was to lead to her conviction that the sea is vital to the survival of the world as we know it, and to her passion for its conservation.
Immediately, however, it led to further deep-sea exploration, beginning with that record dive in the Jim Suit in 1979.
It was then that she met and married Graham Hawkes, a brilliant US-based British engineer who had improved and modernized the original Jim Suit that had been developed by another British, Mike Borrow.
In 1981 Sylvia Earle and Graham Hawkes started their own company, Deep Ocean Engineering Inc, to design, build, and sell underwater robots and submersibles.
Their own personal ambition, however, was to develop the means to descend to and explore the greatest known depth in the ocean, the 10,915m Challenger Deep in the Pacific`s Marianas Trench. This has been reached only once before - in the Bathyscaphe Trieste, piloted by Swiss scientist Jacques Piccard and US Navy Lt Don Walsh in 1960.
By 1984, the new company had produced a one-man submersible, Deep Rover, designed for inspecting oil rigs. It was in this that Sylvia went down alone to some 1000m.
The million-dollar company went on to build not only deep-sea manned submersibles, but also remotely-controlled robots for the offshore oil industry. To diversify, Sylvia became the founder-chairman of another company, Deep Ocean Exploration and Research Inc.
In 1990 she was the first woman to be appointed Chief Scientist of America`s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a Presidential appointment confirmed by the US Senate.
Though now divorced from Graham Hawkes, the two are still closely associated and intent on achieving their ambition to explore the ocean`s greatest depth.
Sylvia Alice (Reade) Earle was born in Gibbstown, New Jersey on August 30, 1935,
in 1966, Earle received her Ph.D. from Duke University and immediately accepted a position as resident director of the Cape Haze Marine Laboratories in Sarasota, Florida.