“If I don’t get underwater at least once a month, I get dry rot,” oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle says, as she climbs a ladder and steps, dripping, into the small panga boat. For some people, that statement might be hyperbolic bluster, but for the 82-year-old National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, who’s been scuba diving, piloting submarines, and living in aquatic habitats since the 1950s, it’s entirely believable. And at an age when most people are more likely to be worried about slipping in the bath, for Dr. Earle, the expression “water is life” couldn’t be more apt.
They say to never meet your heroes. You’ll always be let down, the logic goes. I’ve had my share of crestfallen encounters with favorite authors, musicians, and adventurers. But there are always exceptions to a rule, and meeting Sylvia Earle did not disappoint. I had been invited by Rolex to remote Cabo Pulmo, on the Mexican Baja Peninsula, to meet and dive with their “testimonee” Earle over a few days. For an avid diver and student of diving history like myself, this was about as good as it could get: spending some precious time with Neptune’s daughter, in her natural habitat, as well as finding out more about Earle’s Mission Blue ocean conservation initiative.
Earle has led a remarkable life. Born in New Jersey, her family moved to the Gulf Coast of Florida when she was young and she recalls an early memory of getting knocked down by a wave, saying it was the moment when the sea took hold and ignited her life-long passion. Earle learned to dive, as many did back then, with a borrowed aqualung and the simple instruction to “not hold your breath.” By the 1960s, she was an accomplished marine biologist, and got invited on a monumental expedition across the Indian Ocean, surveying marine life along the way. She was the only woman on a ship full of male scientists. In 1970 she was named the leader of the first all-female team of aquanauts, who spent two weeks living in an underwater habitat as part of the joint NASA-US Navy Tektite Project. In 1979, she set a depth record by diving to 1,250 feet inside a one-atmosphere “JIM” suit. Oh, and she’s also headed up NOAA, won a TED Prize, and been on the cover of TIME magazine. It’s no wonder she’s earned the nickname, “Her Deepness.”
When I met her in Mexico, Sylvia Earle was wearing her gold Rolex Datejust, an unlikely watch for an intrepid ocean explorer. For the trip, I was wearing a borrowed new Sea-Dweller and when I climbed on board the dive boat with Earle, she noticed it right away. “Ah, you’re wearing the real thing,” she said, pointing at my 1,220-meter water resistant, helium-safe watch. “I’ve got a couple of those,” she said, and continued with a twinkle in her eye, “I wear mine on expeditions,” before back-rolling into the Pacific with her 50-meter dress watch hanging loosely over her dive suit.
I’m pretty jaded about watch brand ambassadors. They come and go; they often have little tangible connection to the company with whom they’re partnering; and sometimes, they don’t even wear a watch outside of a magazine ad or red carpet appearance. But Sylvia Earle is different. She first started wearing Rolex watches during the Tektite project, and has worn them ever since. For her, it’s a reliable instrument, one she can put on and forget about until she needs it. And she doesn’t so much work for Rolex, as Rolex works for Sylvia Earle. The brand’s sizable donations to Earle’s Mission Blue organization has allowed her and her team to mount expeditions to raise awareness for the ocean – the environmental perils facing it, and the “Hope Spots” where things are turning around. Rolex, of course, has a long history of underwriting scientific expeditions and exploration, with its partnerships with Mission Blue and National Geographic just two more recent examples.
These days, Mission Blue is Earle’s single-minded focus and passion. She launched it in 2009 after winning a TED Prize, and now spends 300 days a year on the road, traveling from one Hope Spot to another, with speaking engagements at trade shows and conferences, and meetings with presidents and government ministers in between. And diving, always diving, along the way. With many “celebrities,” causes can seem opportunistic. But Earle’s long history of ocean study and conservation brings with it unquestionable authority and authenticity. She’s not preachy, nor pessimistic, but almost buoyantly hopeful, even in the face of unprecedented challenges to the ocean ecology. Bluefin tuna stocks are down to 2% of their former population, sharks down to 10%, countless other species are being fished to near extinction, and the ocean is becoming dangerously acidic and full of plastic. But she refuses to be overtly political, avoiding the bait over current policies (or personalities) to focus on where things are being done right and leading by example. She is firm and resolute, but with an engaging kindness – an iron fist in a neoprene glove.
Cabo Pulmo is one of Mission Blue’s Hope Spots, and perhaps its crown jewel. It is often cited as a shining example of what can happen when a community, and a government, decide to turn things around. A small town of 200 people two hours from a bustling tourist hub to the south, the waters offshore were long prime fishing grounds until the 1990s, when fish stocks became almost entirely depleted.
The community came to the decision to halt all fishing and transform Cabo Pulmo into a destination for adventurous divers who were willing to brave miles of flooded, sandy roads, and washboard arroyos to get there. This grand experiment worked. Fish populations have rebounded in the waters here, to the tune of 400 per cent; the Mexican government has designated it a Marine Protected Area, and UNESCO’s declared it a Marine World Heritage Site. Indeed, the diving there is spectacular, whether or not you’re accompanied by an aquatic legend.
This was my second trip to Cabo Pulmo, and I was reminded why it’s one of my favorite dive spots in the world. Besides the laid-back sleepy vibe of the town, just a short boat ride offshore are rock pinnacles that rise to the surface, surrounded by massive schools of fish – jacks, snapper, and sardines – in huge numbers. The entire food chain is represented here, from tiny baitfish up to the bull sharks and sea lions that hunt them. On our first dive (I was the only diving journalist in the group), Earle and I dropped down to a mere 25 feet and hovered in the middle of tens of thousands of sardines swimming in a frenzied cloud that moved in unison like a murmuration of swallows. The reason for this nervous activity was the presence of a couple dozen large groupers that were in their midst, occasionally snapping a snack.
On our second dive, the folowing morning, we went in search of a resident school of big-eyed jacks. After 15 minutes of slow motoring, our boat captain spotted the underwater disturbance and we splashed in and descended. The swirling vortex of silver fish circled above me, drifting away on a stiff current. Kicking to keep up was futile so after a while, Earle and I dropped to the bottom and watched a pufferfish bob below some rocks. There’s always something to see underwater if you are patient, and know where to look.
At 82, Sylvia Earle could be excused for just paddling around shallow reefs for a few minutes, tended by a divemaster. But watching her chatting comfortably during a rough boat ride and then kicking around in a swirling current, it becomes apparent that she’s most at home in this environment. Underwater, she swims with grace and efficiency, even while toting not one, but two cameras, one in a bulky housing with two high-powered lights. In the silent world, I watched her and wondered how many times she’s done this, and what adventures she’s seen in over six decades of diving.
Amidst all this natural splendor, the unprecedented threats to it, and Sylvia Earle’s arguments for taking action, it was almost easy to forget I was on a press junket with a watch company. I left Cabo Pulmo with incredible respect for Sylvia Earle, and an unforgettable experience diving with this ocean pioneer, but also a nagging sense that I should do more for the sea, which has done so much for me. It seems almost trivial to talk about the Rolex I was wearing. But, in the end, I am a watch writer, and this is how I can make a difference, even if it’s a modest one.
Ten years ago, it was the purchase of a dive watch that spurred me to try diving and I haven’t looked back. Watches have been on my wrist in three oceans, the Great Lakes, and dozens of countries. If a watch can inspire me, maybe in some small way writing about my experiences diving with watches – like the Sea-Dweller I wore in Cabo Pulmo – will inspire others to slip beneath the waves (hopefully wearing a watch) and embrace the beauty and the adventure of diving. And inspiring people to dive in turn can increase awareness of, and an appreciation for, the ocean. It’s been said that we protect what we care about, so the more divers in the water the better, no matter what gets them there.
For the record, I’ve had a reversal of opinion about the new Sea-Dweller after spending a week (and two days diving) with it. My initial reservations about it at Baselworld centered around the increased size and the addition of the “cyclops” date magnifier. But 43 millimeters is a pretty perfect diameter for a dive watch, slotting squarely between Omega’s two Planet Ocean sizes, while doubling the competitor’s water resistance. Despite its increased girth, the dimensions of the Sea-Dweller are spot-on, thanks to the tapered lugs that narrow down to 22 millimeters. The cyclops will always be a divisive issue among Rolex devotees. While it veers from the watch’s historical roots, we know that Rolex tends to look ahead, not back, and the ability to add a date magnifier is a functional advantage without any perceived drawback. I prefer a no-date Rolex anyway, so if they’re going to have a date, it might as well be big enough for me to see.
The addition of the red line of “Sea-Dweller” text was a simple stroke of genius, the closest Rolex will come to nostalgia, and something we’d all hoped for. The presence of a helium release valve is usually a pet peeve of mine, but Rolex gets a pass since it is the watch’s calling card, and raison d’etre of the Sea-Dweller from the beginning. Functionally, the watch does what it needs to very well, nothing more and nothing less. The superlative chronometer rating Rolex gives it means no gain or loss of more than two seconds per day, and the ceramic timing bezel ratchets with such satisfying “bank safe” precision, I had to keep from absent-mindedly spinning it constantly. The GlideLock clasp is one of the best in the business, easily adjusting for a heat-swollen wrist and closing down for the cool depths of the Gulf of California.
Of course, the watch had a less tangible appeal as well. Wearing it while diving with a legendary aquanaut who likely wore its forebear in the Tektite habitat the year I was born, made it so much more than a simple bottom timer on a couple of shallow dives. To me, this is the power of a dive watch – the experiences had while wearing one. I had to send the watch back to Rolex after returning to the U.S., but I’ll always treasure the photo of me and “Her Deepness” in the middle of a school of sardines, Rolexes on our wrists.
Before piling into a van for the drive to the airport, I bade farewell to Sylvia Earle, who stood in the hot sun outside our hotel. The next day, she was scheduled to fly to a dive trade show in Orlando, then back to Mexico to meet with the country’s president as he signed into law a newly expanded marine protected area, no doubt sneaking in some diving along the way. When I approached her to say goodbye, she handed me a USB memory stick. Between all the interviews and photo shoots on our own busy weekend in Cabo Pulmo, she had somehow found the time to edit the photos she took of me underwater on our dives together. I was incredibly touched and told her so. She simply smiled, gave me a double fist bump, and said, “thanks for being my dive buddy.”
Sometimes heroes don’t disappoint.