You have to love it before you are moved to save it," says Sylvia Earle, the marine biologist known as "Her Deepness" since the time in 1979, off the coast of Oahu, when she was cut loose from a submarine and walked freely on the ocean floor, 1,250 ft. beneath the water's surface. The object of her affection requires love of a special magnitude and magnanimity. One has to concede at the outset that the ocean is too vast, deep and secretive to be completely known. It is capable of casual murder and filled with structures that make Picasso's dreams seem ordinary. More demanding still, it does not need you. Nothing on land can live without the ocean, yet the sea can do fine on its own.
At the same time, it defines and characterizes the earth--one flowing body of water, with different names and climates, and covering almost 75% of the planet. The oceans encompass 97% by volume of all the earth's living space. Nearly half the world's population lives within 60 miles of the sea. The thing is in our forgotten history and our chromosomes, which may explain why people stare at the ocean with such sweet, vacant yearnings. Stare long enough, and you can embrace the whole world with your eyes. Even then, you are taking in only the surface.
Led by Her Deepness, I traipse along the western edge of central California, in the region called Big Sur, which begins in the south with William Randolph Hearst's monument to the search for happiness, at San Simeon, and extends 90 miles north to Carmel. Earle has enlarged our purview to include the Monterey Bay area 12 miles farther northwest, so that we are able to look at Elkhorn Slough off Moss Landing and Monterey Canyon. This underwater chasm, as huge as the Grand Canyon, reaches out 45 nautical miles to the foot of the continental slope, and down 9,600 ft. At the top it ripples black, like a tarpaulin on a baseball field in the rain. Below, it contains life-forms that range from the silver machinery of sharks to jellies in fringes like Victorian lampshades, the color of fire.
Big Sur is the place that brought John Steinbeck, Henry Miller, Ansel Adams and Robinson Jeffers to their knees. Any one of the elements is overwhelmingly impressive on its own: the killer cliffs pitched to the Pacific; the creased hills; the redwoods; the thick, gray knots of the cypresses; the rocky balconies from which one may look down on eagles; the naked, stranded rocks; the steep and carpeted Santa Lucia Mountains; the tide pools; the life in the tide pools.
"It was here at Big Sur that I first learned to say Amen!" wrote Henry Miller. From the Point Sur Lighthouse, Earle looks out at a long breath of fog over the water and says, "I love life."
She is a small-boned, fearless woman with a kid's keen face, deep brown eyes set far apart, and a jaw of character, like the young Katharine Hepburn's. Sometimes the alertness in her eyes and the quick, broad smile are disconnected. At the age of 63, she is at the bottom of her field--scientist, explorer, advocate. This year she is explorer-in-residence for the National Geographic Society, which has a $5 million grant from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund to launch the five-year Sustainable Seas Expeditions project. As its leader, Earle will use a new, highly maneuverable submarine to study the waters of the 12 national marine sanctuaries.