TEKTITE-II all-female team, led by Earle, in rebreather training
After receiving her Ph.D. in 1966, Earle spent a year as a research fellow at Harvard, then returned to Florida as the resident director of the Cape Haze Marine Laboratory. In 1969, she applied to join the Tektite Project, an installation fifty feet below the surface of the sea off the coast of the Virgin Islands which allowed scientists to live submersed in their area of study for up to several weeks. Although she had logged more than 1,000 research hours underwater, Earle was rejected from the program. The next year, she was selected to lead the first all-female team of aquanauts in Tektite II.
In 1979, she made an open-ocean JIM suit dive to the sea ocean floor near Oahu, setting a women's depth record of 381 metres (1,250 ft). In 1979 she also began her tenure as the Curator of Phycology at the California Academy of Sciences, where she served until 1986.
From 1980 to 1984, she served on the National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmosphere.
In 1982 she and her later husband, Graham Hawkes, an engineer and submersible designer, founded Deep Ocean Engineering to design, operate, support and consult on piloted and robotic subsea systems. In 1985, the Deep Ocean Engineering team designed and built the Deep Rover research submarine, which operates down to 1,000 metres (3,300 ft). By 1986, Deep Rover had been tested and Earle joined the team conducting training off Lee Stocking Island in the Bahamas.
Earle left the company in 1990 to accept an appointment as Chief Scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, where she stayed until 1992. She was the first woman to hold that position. During this post, given her expertise on the impact of oil spills, Earle was called upon to lead several research trips during the Persian Gulf War in 1991 to determine the environmental damage caused by Iraq's destruction of Kuwaiti oil wells.
In 1992, Earle founded Deep Ocean Exploration and Research (DOER Marine) to further advance marine engineering. The company, now run by Earle's daughter Elizabeth; designs, builds, and operates equipment for deep-ocean environments.
Since 1998, Earle has been a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence. She is sometimes called "Her Deepness" or "The Sturgeon General."
Earle founded Mission Blue (also known as the Sylvia Earle Alliance, Deep Search Foundation, and Deep Search) in 2009.
Given her past experience with the Exxon Valdez and Mega Borg oil spills, Earle was called to consult during the Deepwater Horizon Disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. During this year she also gave a 14-minute speech in front of 3,500 delegates and United Nations ambassadors at The Hague International Model United Nations Conference.
In July 2012, Earle led an expedition to NOAA's Aquariusunderwater laboratory, located off Key Largo, Florida. The expedition, entitled "Celebrating 50 Years of Living Beneath The Sea," commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of Jacques Cousteau's Conshelf I project and investigated coral reefs and ocean health. Mark Patterson co-led the expedition with Earle. Their aquanaut team also included underwater filmmaker D.J. Roller and oceanographer M. Dale Stokes.
In January 2018, the Seattle Aquarium granted its inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award to Earle, and renamed the Seattle Aquarium Medal in her honor. The Aquarium's first Lifetime Achievement Award was awarded to Earle.
Alongside her work at Mission Blue, she also serves on several boards, including the Marine Conservation Institute.
In 2009, Earle won a TED Prize. Her TED prize winning wish urged people to help clean the oceans:
"I wish you would use all means at your disposal — films! expeditions! The web! New submarines! — to create a campaign to ignite public support for a global network of marine protected areas, Hope Spots large enough to save and restore the blue heart of the planet."
With TED's support, she launched Mission Blue, which aims to establish marine protected areas (dubbed "Hope Spots") around the globe. Mission Blue's vision is to achieve 30% protection of the ocean by 2030, and over 200 organisations have supported them in this mission to date (2019). These supporters range from large, global companies to small, bespoke research teams.
In August 2014, a Netflix exclusive documentary titled 'Mission Blue' was released. It focuses on Earle's life and career as her Mission Blue campaign to create a global network of marine protected areas.
The organization has continued to grow with Earle's work and the help of her team. As of 2018, Mission Blue has created 94 Hope Spots around the world. (2018).
Accomplishments and honors
1970: U.S. Department of Interior Conservation Service Award and Los Angeles Times Woman of the Year