Educational deep dive: Eminent oceanographer puts the ‘sea’ in Seacrest Country Day School
Students at Seacrest Country Day School took a deep dive into the ocean on Nov. 14, metaphorically. The school was visited by renowned oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle, who delivered an address to all the students from second through 12th grade, telling them some of the highlights – or depths – of her career, and challenging them to take up the stewardship of our ocean resources.
Earle has a stellar résumé and a long list of honors, but she proved she also has the gift of gab, having no trouble keeping an audience of hundreds of kids ages seven to 18 hanging on her words. It didn’t hurt that her story includes diving thousands of feet beneath the ocean in a bathysphere, swimming with humpback whales and, as she put it, “dancing with giant octopi,” as she accumulated many firsts and accomplishments, as well as being Time Magazine’s first Hero for the Planet in 1998 and serving as chief scientist for NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“I’m not an engineer, but working with engineers, we built a little submarine so simple that even a scientist could run it,” she said – and that scientist was her, the chief engineer was her husband, and they owned the company that built the sub.
Along with tales of her exploits, Earle’s message to the students was strong on conservation, and the urgent need to protect the planet’s oceans.
“In the ’50s, we thought the ocean was so big, so vast, so resilient, that we could just use it to dump things, throw things away,” she said. “We thought we could take the whales, the fish, the lobsters, the clams and oysters, and they would never run out. We still grind up fish from the ocean to spread as fertilizer.” Now, she said, only 10 percent of the sharks – “we’re not on their menu” – and just three percent of the tuna are left in the ocean, compared to the populations in the 1970s.
Earle founded a project called Mission Blue (also known as the Sylvia Earle Foundation, or Deep Search), dedicated to exploring and protecting swathes of ocean, and was the subject of the Emmy-winning Netflix documentary “Mission Blue.” As Carley Lovorn of the National Geographic Foundation, who introduced Earle, told the students, the marine biologist has a few additional names herself.
“We call Dr. Earle ‘Her Deepness,’ or ‘the marine queen,’” said Lovorn, and according to Wikipedia, she is also known as the “sturgeon general.” Earle has been a National Geographic Explorer in Residence since 1998.
After her talk, Earle took questions from the students, the best of those submitted beforehand. In response to “what will the ocean look like in 100 years?” she said it would depend on the efforts of those in the generation that was listening to her – the students.
The entire school has been studying oceans and water resources, said Dr. Caron Staples, chair of the science department at Seacrest, each grade at the appropriate level. After her talk, Earle heard from some of the students, touring an exhibit of some of their oceanography projects.
“We learned the same water the dinosaurs drank, we drink today,” second grader Priscilla Class told Dr. Earle, which is mind-blowing when you think about it. On a higher level, upper school students including senior Reilly Peel demonstrated a water filtration experiment they are conducting, to see if salt water cleansing systems can work successfully in freshwater retention ponds, using the pond behind the school as a test site – research that is not merely a student project, but could have real world ecological and commercial impact.
“We are so thrilled to have Dr. Earle here, and getting so involved with the students,” said Seacrest’s head of school Erin Duffy. “Her fearless pursuit of knowledge is just what we want all our kids to do. She is the embodiment of that and has been for decades.”
After earning her master’s and doctorate from Duke, and her Bachelor of Science from Florida State, Earle, who grew up on the west coast of Florida, worked as a Radcliffe Institute Scholar and a research fellow at Harvard.
“All year our entire school has been engaged in a water quality inquiry project. We are eager to share our discoveries and seek her guidance on the important challenges of water quality in Southwest Florida,” said Duffy. “This is a terrific opportunity for our Seacrest students to meet a real-life hero of the earth.”
Open since 1986, Seacrest Country Day School is a mission-driven independent school, offering classes from pre-K through 12th grade at their campus off Davis Blvd. For more information, go online to www.seacrest.org.