Saturday, November 27, 1999

Marine researcher
to study whales with
help of Hawaii

Sylvia Earle has a $5 million
grant for oceanic research of
'unprecedented scientific rigor'

By Lori Tighe


SYLVIA Earle -- who has been called the American Jacques Cousteau -- pressed her hands against the cuttlefish tank and made the Star Trek Vulcan sign to live long and prosper.

"How can you think of eating one after seeing one?" she asked.

The creatures, in the octopus family, swam like hovercraft and blinked inquisitively at her. She hopes the public one day shares her sentiments about cuttlefish -- and extends them beyond, to the entire ocean.

Earle, the first woman to hold National Geographic's Explorer-in-Residence position, visited the Waikiki Aquarium earlier this week to finalize her research plans for Hawaii.

She is bringing the National Geographic Sustainable Seas Expeditions here to study the humpback whales' environment in January.

Earle has led more than 50 research expeditions, logged some 6,000 hours underwater and served as chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She wrote "Sea Change," among other books and articles.

"If anyone doesn't think the ocean is important, just take a look at Mars or the moon, which have no ocean. Where is there a place like this?" she asked.

One of the biggest problems humankind faces is taking wildlife out of the sea, Earle said.

"We are well past the point of sustainability. The time has come to give these creatures a break. I prefer my creatures alive; it makes life on Earth possible. It is our life support system."

The Sustainable Seas Expeditions aim to study the ocean with "unprecedented scientific rigor." The resulting data will be given to environmentalists and policy-makers to help them make decisions affecting the ocean.


The project focuses on 12 marine sanctuaries in the United States, few of which have been studied below 100 feet.

In Hawaii, Earle plans to study humpback whales in the Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary in Maui. The whales begin their annual winter migration now to mate and calve in the isles' shallow waters.

"We will take a look at characteristics of their habitat, where the whales are concentrated," she said.

Earle will dive in her one-person submersible submarine, Deep Worker. Together with former National Marine Sanctuary Director Francesca Cava, Earle will make the first exploration of the U.S. marine sanctuaries to depths of 2,000 feet.

They will photo-document the natural history of each sanctuary's plants and animals. The scientists also will establish protocols for the first permanent marine monitoring network in the sanctuaries.

Earle's five-year research project, funded by a $5 million grant, includes teaming up with Hawaii children who will learn alongside her in Atlantis Subs in Maui and Kona on Jan. 14.

She also will be doing live Web chats with schoolchildren on the Internet.

A life-size replica of the Deep Worker will be available for touring at the Waikiki Aquarium on Jan. 22.

"This is such an important time" for learning about the ocean and conserving it, Earle said.

The Caribbean monk seal became extinct during her lifetime, in 1953. She fears the worst for the Hawaiian monk seal, ranked as the second most endangered sea mammal in North America. Only about 1,200 remain.

Standing before the Hawaiian monk seals at the aquarium, Earle said: "Their biggest threat is humans, and we're also their greatest hope through habitat protection and taking steps to back off from activities that harm them.

"It's heartbreaking to find a seal with a fish net wrapped around its neck."

No matter how remote a sea she's been to, or how deep, Earle said that she has always found debris. "Plastics -- it's everywhere."

Broadcasts, interactions
to highlight trip

Here are some of the educational activities in Hawaii by Sylvia Earle and the Sustainable Seas Expeditions:

Bullet Jan. 4: "KidScience" live broadcast featuring whale behavior and research. KHET, 10:30-11:30 a.m.

Bullet Jan. 11: "KidScience" live broadcast from Maui, featuring Earle focusing on research in her submarine, with footage of the reef and ocean floor. KHET, 10:30-11:30 a.m.

Bullet Jan. 12: Teachers and Kids at Sea: Selected students and teachers will work off of whale-watch boats on the same research that Earle will be doing in her submarine.

Bullet Jan. 13: Twelve students selected statewide will spend the day working on a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ship along the researchers and NOAA crew.

Bullet Jan. 14: Students and teachers will work from Atlantis submarines, focusing on how to do research from a submarine. They will also look at the environment from a whale's perspective. Earle will interact with the students from her submarine.

Bullet Jan. 18: "KidScience" live broadcast on data and images collected by Deep Worker. KHET, 10:30-11:30 a.m.

Bullet Jan. 20: National satellite broadcast featuring Earle and students, 9-10 a.m.

Bullet Jan. 20: Student Summit with Sylvia Earle via video conference, 1-2 p.m. Video conference sites on Maui, Kauai, Oahu, American Samoa and in Kona.

Star-Bulletin staff

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