Everybody needs a hero. It could be a family member, a friend, or a person whom we have never met, but we all need a hero in our lives. We use the word 'hero' quite loosely, often to describe people for their accomplishments as we observe with admiration from afar. They are probably idols, not heroes. I never knew I would meet someone whom I would call my hero, not until about two months ago when I embarked on an expedition to Cuba. On that trip, I met Dr. Sylvia Earle.
As I write this entry, I'm reading an interview with Sylvia, published in the latest Elysium edition of Ocean Geographic. Her extensive accomplishments are well-documented in the article and there is plenty written about her; from Time Magazine to National Geographic. There is little I need to add to introduce Sylvia.
I would, however, like to share with you about this lady I got to know, where behind the celebrity persona, lies an unassuming human being, filled with passion, kindness and love.
"Your hair is great every time you get out of the water," Sylvia remarked when I climbed into the dive boat. "It looks like a sea urchin," she smiled mischievously.
Little moments like this over the 10 days I spent with Sylvia made me forget that she is a rock star in the world of marine conservation and oceanography. The lady I got to know is a witty grandmother, at times quietly observant and would pounce to steal the conversation with a brilliant punch line. She was the person I most looked forward to greet in the morning, because behind that enduring smile was someone who would offer free hugs, if I cared to stretch out my arms.
As a scuba diver, she is defiant to any misgivings that her age of 82 might suggest. She carried her own scuba tank and rinsed her own camera, never once asked for help but would accept with delight when offered.
"Oooo, muscles," she quipped, when I carried her massive camera to her room.
When Sylvia talked about the important matters, about climate change and about the urgency to save the ocean, I listened. It is never easy facing the fact that our planet is transforming into a less hospitable place. I am defensive over associating my immediate life comforts to the many losses the planet is going through. I do not really want to talk about science, if the findings dictate a series of bad news. But it was easy listening to Sylvia.
"There is hope," Sylvia would reiterate.
For someone who has such affection for the ocean, it must be difficult for Sylvia to talk about the degradation of what she calls, "our planet's blue heart". But she talked about it anyway, without resentment, without blame, but with optimism that we are capable of change. Her faith in humanity is what sets her apart from many environmentalists. Sylvia's message is not one of fear, but a message of love - 'Love the ocean. Inspire others to love the ocean.'
I like taking underwater photographs and I call myself a photography enthusiast. Sylvia calls me an artist. She tells me that whereas science can educate and inform, the arts; photographs, videos, music, will move people. I feel a new purpose for taking good pictures and I sense a conviction I didn't have before. I hope that my photographs will share my affinity for the ocean with the people who like my work. I hope that my photographs will make a difference.
Whereas an idol is one whom we celebrate from a distance, a hero is one whom we hold dear to our hearts. A hero is one whom we can look to for inspiration, and can move us to believing in what we did not think was at first possible.
Sylvia Earle is my hero.