Across various industries and worlds, there's a goal that's easily translatable: to excel. Great achievement — won through dedicated work and a determination to improve—has been associated with Rolex for generations, making the brand's collaboration with ambassadors from a range of fields feel right. In an ongoing partnership with Rolex, we explore the journeys of these exceptional women.
If there is unofficial royalty in the field of science, little doubt exists that 81-year-old oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle claims one of the highest ranks. Beyond the fitting nickname — Her Deepness — there's the air that sweeps in with her when she arrives on-set to shoot with ELLE and Rolex. She is regal, elegant, and commanding, with a rich voice that casts a spell. Her stories sound like biology class fairy tales — she's lived underwater 10 separate times, discovered hundreds of new species, and had a half-dozen or so named in her honour. Tucked into the romance of it all comes what's arguably her life's biggest mission: reminding the world that our oceans require saving.
"As a child I fell in love with the ocean, but what really has held my attention all these years is the existence of life itself," she explained, mesmerising everyone within earshot. "As terrestrial, air-breathing creatures, we have focused on the land throughout most of our existence. Now we're beginning to appreciate just how important the ocean is to every breath we take, every drop of water we drink, and to maintaining the chemistry of the planet."
On loving nature in childhood:
"My first 12 years were in New Jersey, living on a small farm with a pond and woods where we grew a lot of our own food. Being immersed in nature made it seem like a part of my world. I remember being three on the beach when a wave knocked me over and got my attention, and seeing those big horseshoe crabs that come to shore in the summer. I was entranced with birds flying in the sky and very curious about earthworms. Who lived underground? They were just amazing. Being surrounded with life in ways that kids who grew up in the cities didn't have access to was an experience I treasure even today.
"My mother was known as the bird lady in the neighborhood—she'd take in injured birds, squirrels, frogs, turtles…whatever needed help. She was there to restore them to health and return them back to the wild. We always had some type of creature recuperating in our household. There was a moment when I thought I wanted to be a veterinarian, something with plants and animals. I didn't know what to call it, but I really wanted to be a scientist. I wanted to be an ecologist before there was a word to describe it."
On the power of curiosity:
"All children are naturally curious. Not just humans, but think about puppies, kittens, young horses, birds, and fish — all fish. We aren't born armed with an education, we have to learn everything from scratch, [but] the great thing about humans is that we pass information along from one generation to the next. We know that Earth is not the centre of the universe, [but] Galileo was put in jail because he presumed to say that the Earth wasn't the centre of everything. Now we can accept not only his knowledge, but the knowledge of the smartest people that have ever lived.
That's our gift—to understand that we are a part of nature, not apart [from] it.
"We know what stars are, and even though there are a lot of smart creatures that share this space with us — elephants, dolphins, whales, cats, dogs, horses, some very smart fish I know — they cannot know what stars are. They don't know how old Earth is, but we can calculate back to how long humans have been part of the existence of life on Earth. Bacteria have been here longer than humans, but they can't know what we know — they just can't. We have this special gift that's our best triumph. I love the idea of looking through time and transporting ourselves back to the way it was long before there were dinosaurs or to imagine what the world was like when our parents were kids. To project forward what it will be like in the next 15 or 500 or 5,000 years — that's our gift — to understand that we are a part of nature, not apart of it. Our lives depend on maintaining a planet that works in our favour, which means respect for all forms of life."
On never being bored:
"I'm never bored or at a loss for what to do. You could look at a leaf or a mosquito or a beetle or fish and have that sense of wonder. 'How did these creatures come to be?' The diversity in the ocean is astonishing. You look at starfish and realize there are hundreds of kinds of starfish and each one has its place. It's a human thing: We have the power to explore places. As curious as a kitten might be, they can't go down into the ocean. Dolphins, as curious as they might be, cannot be astronauts. They can't get on an airplane.
"The diversity of life and looking at any living thing is a miracle. Life is a miracle. I am a miracle. Everyone is. Our existence is something to keep you entertained no matter what else is going on. As long as you're alive, there's reason for hope and reason for joy."
On having an adventurous spirit encouraged:
"My parents encouraged curiosity and having the freedom to explore on my own, and to be out with my brothers or other kids [was important]. It was okay to run off and play in the woods or by the river. They gave me the confidence that they were always there, that I couldn't get into trouble so terrible that they wouldn't always be there for me. There was always somebody who was like, 'It's alright, dear.' And I still feel that way. They've been gone for many years, but they're still there."
On being part of history:
"I remember being interviewed by Life magazine [for] a spread on living underwater [around the Tektite project]. They commented that there's nothing that the men's team did underwater that we couldn't except grow beards. There is the matter of muscle, that men are generally better equipped to lift things and swim faster and all that. But it's brain over brawn, and one of the great things about being human is that we can solve problems. You can use your brain muscle.
It's a special pleasure to see a young woman come along and be an engineer holding her head up and shoulders back with the guys, or to see women as captains of ships, chief scientists on expeditions, and having people not pay much attention to the fact.
"I was told years after the Tektite project by the captain, George Bond, who was one of the pioneers of saturation diving, 'You know, you did all right. You actually had more time in the water than any of the men's teams. You got along better than any of the other teams. But I just want you to know I really wasn't opposed to having women — I was opposed to having you.' And I said, 'What did I do?' and he goes, 'Well, you're a mother, and there were risks involved, and the idea that something might happen to a mother would have been a showstopper.' But I said there were fathers, and he said, yeah, but it was different. It's just the attitude. It's a special pleasure to see a young woman come along and be an engineer holding her head up and shoulders back with the guys, or to see women as captains of ships, chief scientists on expeditions and having people not pay much attention to the fact, like, 'Oh, it's a woman doing that!' It just has to be kind of a big deal. Headlines like 'Sylvia Sails Away with 70 Men.' Women we known as aqua-babes, aqua-naughties, or aqua-belles. The guys were just aquanauts. They weren't called aqua-hunks."
On missed experiences:
"Building on the success of the Tektite project, I was given the chance to at least apply to become one of those special creatures known as an astronaut. Our success as aquanauts helped pave the way for women to be accepted because there are so many parallels: the life-support system that we use underwater, and it's all about exploration. At the time I had the weight of young children and my husband — he came with three children, I came with two, and together we had a child so we had his and hers and ours. Doing what it takes to actually commit to being [an astronaut was too much]. Not saying I would have made it, but I had a chance."
On staying optimistic while fighting to protect the Earth:
"You need to know the risks. You need to know the reality, but the miracle of existence is that in all the universe, Earth is home. We can go outside the atmosphere, a number of people have done so, but not seven billion, let alone nine or ten. We have to make peace with life on Earth and the idea of protecting natural systems. Wilderness — the living old-growth forest, the natural deep-sea systems, pristine rivers that look like Earth before humans came along — these are treasured places that we need to embrace as if our lives depend on it because, really, they do. Knowing that is a breakthrough. We once thought the world was too big to fail, [that] no matter what we took out of the ocean or forests, there would be plenty. Even if we did see the loss of tress, animals, and birds, that's okay because as long as humans were all right, what difference does it make? But now we're beginning to really appreciate the connection between our existence and the natural world. Now we have evidence that our impact on the natural world really threatens our very existence. It threatens our health, economy, and security, but, mostly, if you like to breathe, if you like to have water that magically falls out of the sky, if you like to have the temperature within a range that is within what humans can stand, you'll take care of the natural world."
On forging a deep connection with other creatures:
"I've been privileged to meet creatures who arrived on Earth about the same time that I did: elephants or sea turtles. There's a bird that lives, when she's on land, on Midway Island named Wisdom. She began learning to fly at about the same time that I began learning to dive in the 1950s. As a bird, living over many decades and flying over tens of thousands of miles — thousands of miles in a single year — she has been a witness as I've been a witness to this amazing era of discovery and also an amazing era of loss. They can fly and see and be witnesses to the change. There are fewer fish, fewer squid for her to eat or bring back to her young and her lifetime mate. The plastics in the ocean did not exist when she started to fly. Airplanes in the sky did not exist. Ships that have been shipping across the surface of the ocean have scaled up enormously in 50, 60 years. She knows things have changed. It's harder to find food; [she has] no idea what these bright, shiny plastic things are that clutter the ocean and kill birds. We can see why these changes are happening, but she wouldn't know, cannot know what to do about it. We do, and that's cause for hope. We need to protect the natural world."
On how anyone can get involved:
"Support national parks. Nominate places that you love and care about, whether on land or in the ocean, for protection as a Hope Spot by going to Mission Blue. Engage your friends and demand of your leaders that actions be taken to protect wildlife, to protect birds, to protect fish for heaven's sake. We are the most domesticated creatures of all, but the wild creatures that shape the way the world works are in trouble. If they are, we are. Become as educated as you can personally — take advantage of the new means of learning and fall in love with books. Associate with people who care, whether it's in school or in your community or through the Internet. Use your talents, whether it's art or music or that you're a teacher with a way with kids or you're a kid with a way with words or with math. Everyone can do something. Not everyone can do everything, but everyone can do something to make a difference."