Sylvia Earle has done something no one else has — walked solo on the bottom of the sea, under a quarter mile of water. Here, she speaks to Krista Tippett on the On Being radio show:
DR. EARLE: My first experiences going through the sunlit area and into what generally is known as the twilight zone, where sunlight fades and darkness begins to take over. It's like the deepest twilight or earliest dawn. You can see shapes, but not really distinct forms and this begins at about 500 feet. By the time you get down to 600 feet, 200 meters or so, it's really, really dark. It's like starlit circumstances. A thousand feet and below, it is truly dark, but still enough light penetrates clear ocean water in the middle of the day and that's when I made the dive, right about high noon in September. I could see shapes even at 400 meters, at 1,250 feet or so. That was exciting just to be able to realize that glow, that soft glow, was the sky above separated by 1,250 feet of water.
But the flash and sparkle and glow of bioluminescent creatures. There were corals that just grow in a single stretch, no branches, like giant bedsprings from the ocean floor. And when I touched them, little rings of blue fire pulsed all the way down from where I touched to the base of these spiraling creatures. They were taller than I; they're just beautiful creatures. They call them bamboo coral because they have joints that resemble the joints on a bamboo plant.
The submarine headlights were on, and I asked them to turn them off so that I could see the darkness and revel in the bioluminescence. It's that firefly kind of light, but also when the lights were on, I could see crabs that were attached to these large corals that grew on the sea floor. Some were pink, some were orange, some were yellow, some were black. They're just beautiful. It's a garden. It looks like a flower garden. And the red crabs were hanging onto these great sea fan-like structures. They looked like shirts on the line. In that little bit of current, they were just, you know, slowly moving. There were eels that were wrapped around the base of the coral. It was just beautiful, really ethereal.
On the bottom, two and a half hours, and I later spoke with an astronaut friend, Buzz Aldrin, and he said, "Well, that's about as long as we had to walk on the moon, two and a half hours." But what they did not have on the moon, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong and those who came later, they didn't have just this avalanche of life, this great diversity all around. Everywhere you looked, there were little fish with lights down the side. Of course, the corals themselves are alive. There were little burrows of creatures that were dwelling in the sediments on the sea floor. The water itself is like minestrone except all the little bits are alive.
And the capacity for variation coupled with the common ground that we share with bacteria, with jellyfish, with sponges, with groupers, with cats and dogs and horses — there's a chemistry of life that has this capacity for enormous variation, maybe infinite variation. I think it's a source of endless wonder and something that's worth using our minds, that special gift that we have.
There are other intelligent creatures out there, whales, dolphins, elephants, fish. Some of them are really smart, but they don't know what we know. They can't see the inside of a star or the inside of a starfish except some of them maybe to eat them. But we have this power not only to explore, but we can go back in time. We can anticipate far into the future. We can plot a course for ourselves based on intelligence. And the trick is OK, homo sapiens, the smart ones, the wise ones, let's take advantage of that capacity.
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