The first woman to be chief scientist at NOAA has made a career of swimming against the tide

By Susan Hall Mahon
September 07, 2017
Photo: Luisa Dörr for TIME

Sylvia Earle’s interview is part of TIME Firsts, a multimedia project featuring 46 groundbreaking women. Watch the rest of the videos at Buy the book at the TIME Shop.

The first time Sylvia Earle swam in the ocean, she recognized its power. “I was 3 years old, and I was knocked over by a wave. The ocean got my attention.”

The legendary oceanographer has garnered plenty of attention of her own throughout her decades-long career, and for good reason. She is the first woman to become chief scientist at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, she has led more than 50 expeditions and clocked more than 7,000 hours underwater, and she is a National Geographic Society Explorer in Residence. She is called "Her Deepness" by The New Yorker and The New York Times, "Living Legend" by the Library of Congress, and first "Hero for the Planet" by Time magazine.

But at the beginning of her career, the attention she received often centered around the fact that she was a woman in a male-dominated field.

Watch: TIME Firsts Interview with Sylvia Earle:

In school, Earle loved science and excelled at it. “It seemed like a guy thing, but I loved it. I wanted to be an ecologist, somebody who looked at how the whole system works. When I began college, I was often the only woman in a class.”

On one of her first oceanographic expeditions in 1964, she was the only woman on a team of 71 people. She did an interview with the Mombasa Daily Times, which titled its piece, "Sylvia Sails Away With 70 Men. But She Expects No Problems."

“It was my first real interaction with the press," she says. "I don’t know what problems they thought I might have. To my mind the goals were: keep a sense of humor; don’t expect favors; do what you’re there to do as a scientist. In an atmosphere where other people may expect you to be treated differently, you try not to be treated differently. I took being a scientist very seriously. I still do.”

In 1970, while a researcher at Harvard, Earle signed on for a two-week study in which she and a team of women scientists lived underwater to study their surroundings.

“No mention was made about having to be a guy, but it was clear that no one expected women to apply.”

Earle and her team of underwater scientists again drew attention.

“The men who did this, they were called aquanauts. The women, we were aqua-babes, aqua-chicks, aqua-naughties. But we didn’t care what they called us, as long as we had a chance to go.”

Related: Clean Water Tips:

“People asked us all kinds of silly questions—Did we use a hair dryer? Did we wear lipstick?—but we used that opening to explain the nature of the ocean: how beautiful it is, how vulnerable it is. How, even back then, there was evidence that what we were doing to it was causing problems.”

Earle is president and chair of Mission Blue, an organization that advocates for legal protection and conservation of the world’s oceans.

Watch her whole interview up above and look for more stories of trailblazing women at the rest of the Time Firsts project or pick up the Firsts book here.

Photo: TIME