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A Deep Conversation: Two Rolex Ambassadors On Marine Conservation

As seas hit record temperatures, the need to protect it grows increasingly urgent. We speak to marine biologist/ pioneer ocean explorer Sylvia Earle and underwater photographer David Doubilet – both Rolex's testimonees – about marine conservation today.

The topic of conservation only started gaining traction in the past one or two decades. Do you think it is too late?

Sylvia Earle (SE): “Climate scientists say the next 10 years will make or break the future of humanity. I’ve been saying that for 30 years. Every 10 years, I say it’s just getting harder. It’s true that the next 10 years will shape the next 10,000 years, but we’re losing. However, there’s still time and we still have half the coral reefs. We still have maybe 10 per cent of the sharks, tuna and swordfish and we can see that protection works. There are more turtles and whales in the ocean today than when I was a child because we acted and stopped killing them for the most part… So it’s like a race: Can we learn fast enough to keep track and keep pace with the destructive trend? We’re at this pivotal point and I’m not alone in saying this… This is the moment and we can be pivotal in history. We couldn’t know before what we now know and will never again have a chance as good as the present to move in the right direction, towards making peace with nature and finding a place for ourselves within the natural world that keeps us alive.”

marine conservation

Around 25 per cent of marine species depend on coral reefs. Photo: Sylvia Earle

What is your biggest fear for our oceans today?

David Doubilet (DD): “I fear for their future. For instance, seal pups are born on the open sea ice. They live on ice and must without a doubt have ice around them all the time because that’s where they were born. Yet with sea ice depleting, these pups face a very uncertain future. Much of the ice in the Gulf of St Lawrence is beginning to disappear in the middle of winter as the climate changes and it gets warmer and warmer. We once took a photograph of seal pups over a couple of days. When we left the ice pack, the ice was weak and soft. What used to be a field of ice that maybe was 100km wide has now been reduced to a little piece that’s maybe 1-5km wide. When the storms come, they turn the ice over and another batch of these pups drown and die. The slow disappearance of these beautiful little pups is one of the outcomes of climate change.”

marine conservation

Penguins in Antarctica in 2011. Photo: David Doubilet

David, if nothing is done to stop climate change and sea pollution, will your pictures be the last images we will ever see?

DD: “That’s a tough question to answer. Whether we’re going to be around to even see that is another question too. My wife Jennifer Hayes and I are working towards a National Geographic grant named Coral Status, The Science And The Future. We’re looking at coral worldwide and we want to see how it’s changed. Right now, we’re geotagging everything and everywhere we go so that people can refer to them as we refer to the library, to unfold the history. For example, what did Singapore look like in 1962? There is a big difference. Similarly, questions like how a coral reef looked like in 2019 will arise when we look at the same coral in 2029. This way, we can find out if it has succeeded, grown, died or changed. Coral is an indicator. A lot of climatologists are thinking it may be one of the greatest indicators; the thermometer of the health of this planet. We’re looking at reefs that are thousands of years old yet, in the last four or five years, have completely died. That’s what happens when you have a warming ocean. Following this, there’s the idea of ocean acidification which will destroy coral. What will we do about this? Coral reefs are incredibly beautiful. Besides being the crown jewels of our planet, they are also the generator of massive amounts of plankton and are cities for massive amounts of fish.”

With access to nature becoming increasingly limited, Why is it still important to include nature as part of our routine?

SE: “The ocean should be a part of everyone’s life. Whatever it is you do, make the natural world a part of your world, because we are a part of nature. We become increasingly distanced from the very systems that keep us alive and that’s a big problem. We don’t appreciate where the air comes from or that the ocean governs climate and weather. We even learnt that scientists are finally getting around to acknowledging that it’s the ocean that maintains earth as a habitable place – not just for us, but all of life. The ocean is where more than half of the world’s oxygen is generated. For over hundreds of millions of years that preceded our present time, oxygen has largely come from the ocean. Now it’s complemented by that produced by trees and grass.”

marine conservation

A Hawksbill Sea turtle in Kimbe Bay, Papua New Guinea. Photo: David Doubilet

What’s your greatest hope?

SE: “That mankind will make peace with nature and find peace among ourselves. It anchors back to the basic human concept of seeing the world through the eyes of somebody else. Get out of your own place; get out of your own way. Do unto fishes, do unto birds, but certainly do unto humans what you would have them do unto you. Realise that we’re part of a long history of humankind. We are the beneficiaries of those who have lived before us and we have the opportunity – as never before and maybe as never again – to set us on a course with an enduring future. That’s why I love Rolex’s Perpetual Planet initiative (launched last year, it supports explorers of today in their quests to chart changes in the Earth’s ecosystem and find solutions to environmental challenges). We are the most privileged human beings ever to be around because we have gained knowledge that we could never have dreamt of achieving. This is the last chance we have to get it right.”

This interview has been condensed and edited for brevity.

This article first appeared in the April 2020 Reality Edition of FEMALE.