There are butterflies in the desert. They are bright orange-brown with intricate black striping, their fluttering wings stark against the dusty green desert shrubbery. They flit among the myriad flowering shrubs that wrap the sandy landscape in a dense coat of green. Pink-flowered vines drape over towering cacti, flanked by ground-dwelling white blooms and stunted trees that look much like Mother Nature’s attempt at starting a bonsai garden. Here and there, a white-bellied bird perches on a branch, possibly waiting for its fluttering prey to pass by. Yet more birds circle, silhouetted against the cloudless blue sky. And just over the horizon, a glimmer of blue. The incongruity of being between desert and sea isn’t lost on me, despite my jet lag—if anything, the absurd beauty of the landscape is what keeps me awake.
We are guests of renowned Swiss watchmaker Rolex, who has shipped us journalists from our various shores all the way to Mexico’s Baja California peninsula. Right now, we are on our way to Cabo Pulmo, a national marine park near the tip of the peninsula. Our presence here isn’t to visit some far-flung manufacture or on-site exhibition. It is to pay a visit to a singularly extraordinary individual, who has worked with and live-tested Rolex’s watches for the better part of five decades. She is neither a watchmaker nor, I suspect, a horology enthusiast, but her connection to and preference for Rolex’s watches are undeniable.
Into the deep
Sylvia Earle, who turns 83 this year, is perhaps one of the most famous and venerated marine biologists in the world. In 1970, she led the first ever all-female expedition to live and work underwater. The project, called Tektite II, catapulted her and her fellow aquanauts into the public eye, and coincidentally kick-started her decades-long partnership with Rolex.
Today, Earle is a long-time Rolex Testimonee, a National Geographic explorer-in-residence (a great coincidence since Rolex recently forged a partnership with National Geographic), and she still focuses every ounce of her energy on exploring and conserving the blue lungs of our planet. In 2009, as part of her Ted Prize, she founded Mission Blue, an organisation that seeks to galvanise support for marine conservation. In particular, the organisation focuses on what they call Hope Spots, areas that are of vital importance to the health of the ocean. The criteria for a blue space to be designated a Hope Spot is varied; either because the area is home to a variety of endangered species, in need of particular attention to reverse damage from human activity, or even because it is of significant cultural value to the human community.
As we listen to her speak over the three days in Cabo Pulmo, it becomes clear that Earle is a singularly focused and determined individual, whose life mission has been and will be to protect and explore the world beneath the waves. Her decades of research and exploration mean that she is in a unique position to speak on the health of the ocean—not many people have lived to see the ocean in both its early majestic glory and its current age of anxiety.
She recounts her experiences, expressing grief during a recent visit to Tokyo’s famed Tsukiji fish market (“only 2.8 per cent of the bluefin tuna in the Pacific Ocean remain”), joy at the memory of swimming among sharks in the 1960s (“There were as many of them as stars in the sky—it was a galaxy of sharks”), and frustration at the human indifference to our impact on the oceans. “No species has changed the oceans more than humans,” she says. “We change the nature of nature, take fish from the oceans on an industrial scale, and leave the oceans awash with plastics.”