The Azores, a dreamy chain of nine volcanic islands in the Atlantic off the coast of Portugal, has long been a destination for nature lovers, wellness buffs, scuba divers and surfers.
Among other reasons, they journey to this picture-perfect archipelago for its insanely rich deep-sea ecosystem of more than 25 types of dolphins and whales, hundreds of species of fish and coral gardens galore.
The site was also just designated a “Hope Spot” by Mission Blue, an organization founded in 2009 by Rolex Testimonee Sylvia Earle (who is also a partner in Rolex’s Perpetual Planet initiative), which aims to create a global network of marine protected areas (MPAs) and protect 30 percent of the world’s oceans by 2030.
“The Azores archipelago is a magnet for life … a magical place,” Earle noted of the selection. “Launching the Azores as a Hope Spot is so logical — just ask the whales.”
But this ecosystem is threatened by various activities including fishing, agriculture, marine transport and coastal construction, which in turn threatens the livelihood of those in the surrounding community who rely on the sea to survive. Working with various institutes and community groups, Mission Blue aims to increase protection of this “grand oasis,” implementing MPAs and advocating for marine spatial planning policies.
Leading the charge is Earle — now 86 — one of the country’s foremost oceanographers and an explorer extraordinaire, whom director James Cameron once dubbed “the Joan of Arc of the Oceans.” At the age of 25, she led a team of aquanauts who lived underwater for two weeks studying ocean life, as well as the effects of underwater existence on the human body.
A decade later, the New Jersey native (who grew up on the west coast of Florida) set the world record for untethered diving (1,250 feet in the Pacific Ocean, near Oahu), becoming the first woman to walk the ocean floor over 1,000 feet and leading to another nickname: “Her Deepness.” She’s been a National Geographic explorer in residence for over two decades, and the first female chief scientist of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Earle founded Mission Blue in 2009, after winning a TED prize for her “vision to spark global change.” Rolex was an early partner of the group, signing on just five years later. (Today there are over 200 organizations listed on its roster.)
Despite the recognition and support, Earle still has her work cut out for her. In a 2014 Netflix documentary about Mission Blue (directed by Fisher Stevens, who is also an avid diver), she observed that many reefs once full of life have now vanished: “About half the corals are gone, globally, from where they were a few decades ago. The ocean is dying.”
But true to Mission Blue’s charter, Earle still believes there is an opportunity for recovery — one Hope Spot at a time.