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When we count America’s greatest women explorers, most people tend to look everywhere but down. Think of Sally Ride, the first woman from the United States to fly in space, or Jane Goodall, whose study of wild chimpanzees is considered some of the most important research in history. Astronautics and primatology grip us by the throat and heart. Few images capture collective “oohs” and “ahs” more than rocket flames at liftoff or the adorable faces of our chimp cousins and other apes in the forests.
“When divers and submersibles go underwater, onlookers hear a ‘plunk’ and see ripples in the water,” said 88-year-old oceanographer Sylvia Earle, the first woman to serve as chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and world record holder for the deepest untethered walk on the ocean floor. “What they’re not seeing is this vast and magical universe that human existence depends on. The ocean is 97% of the biosphere. If we don’t take care of the ocean, nothing else matters in the end,” she warned.
While not known as widely as Ride and Goodall, Earle has been recognized as a Living Legend by the Library of Congress and was anointed Time magazine’s first Hero for the Planet. She even has a nickname: Her Deepness.
Fifteen years ago, Earle founded Mission Blue, which aims to grow a network of protected marine areas, and she continues leading efforts across the globe to conserve the ocean. In October, she traveled from her home in Oakland, California, to speak and conduct research in New York, Montana, Los Angeles, Iceland, the Cayman Islands and Mozambique — the last two stops included plenty of diving. In November, she headed to Spain and Switzerland, and in February 2024, Earle is planning a return to the Galapagos Islands, a place where she has examined marine life since 1966 on more than 30 expeditions.
With that grueling schedule, she doesn’t just leave her strength and endurance to chance. CNN asked her to share her lessons for nurturing and maintaining her health, and it turns out her wisdom is applicable to any effort that requires outsize stamina — whether you’re trying to get fit, eat better or save the sea.
This conversation has been condensed for length and clarity.
CNN: You’ve logged more than 7,500 hours underwater and have at least another 100 hours planned by mid-2024. How do you prepare for the demands on your body?
Sylvia Earle: Run through airports. Lift heavy suitcases. Put them in the overhead. (Earle laughed.) I don’t have a specific routine. I’ve never seen the inside of a gym, I don’t think. The world is where I exercise.
CNN: What do you do?
Earle: I like to garden. It’s such a joy to watch zucchini squash grow from a tiny little seed to this monster green thing that is really good to eat. Just being in touch with nature.
CNN: You mentioned growing your own vegetables. What do you eat?
Earle: I’m a vegetarian. I do sometimes have dairy-based products, but in general, I try to be mindful about what I take in because it becomes a part of me. I want to be here for the long haul.