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.”
This snorkelling trip marks the first time I ever saw a sardine as something other than an ubiquitous edible waiting to be baked into puff pastry. Each one is tiny, no bigger than my pinky finger, but all are sprightly and swift, dodging the hungry groupers that want to advance them one step up the food chain
Despite this, Earle remains optimistic and calm—if vehement. “We have more knowledge about the oceans today than ever before. Nobody can do everything, but everybody can do something. Everyone makes choices in how you live life. Even doing nothing is a choice.” For Earle, the choices are clear. After all, the ocean is just as much part of our home planet as dry land. When asked whether she still dives, Earle cheekily replies, “Well, I’m still breathing!” The implication is clear. While most of us set off on a snorkelling expedition equipped with life jackets to make sure we didn’t sink beneath the waves, Earle just strapped on her scuba tank and dove straight in. She didn’t earn the moniker “Her Deepness” by snorkelling.
Watch this space
Over the three days, we also come to realise that Her Deepness doesn’t think of her Rolex like the rest of us do. Unlike the vast majority of us, whose vision of Rolex watches often has them stuck in board and ballrooms, Earle thinks of her watch—an Oyster Perpetual Datejust 31 in yellow gold with diamond indices on the dial and a President bracelet—as a true tool, an important life-preserving instrument that keeps her organised on her underwater missions. “She wears it everywhere,” says Laura Cassiani, the executive director of Mission Blue, including at the aforementioned sightseeing dive into the waters around Cabo Pulmo. When asked about what she thinks of her Rolex, Earle is succinct: “It’s a part of me, like an extension of myself.”
We are told that Earle has quite a number of Rolexes in her collection, including proper dive watches that are likelier suspects for dive companions than a solid gold Datejust. But the fact that she wears this watch to dive further drives home the fact that Earle is one of those true intrepid explorers whose accessories are present only because they are vital to the success of the expedition. That makes her unique among the host of celebrity endorsers in the watch world, whose collections generally serve an aesthetic purpose rather than a practical one.
From Rolex’s perspective, the advantages of working with Earle are clear. Working and sponsoring Mission Blue fulfils its corporate social responsibility, and Earle, in her capacity as an explorer and oceanographer, tests out its watches as tools in real life. Rolex first supplied Earle with a watch when they collaborated on the Tektite II project in 1970—the brand had a vested interest in finding out what it took (and what tools were needed) for people to be able to live underwater and explore extreme environments. That presumably has not changed—the brand has made repeated improvements to timepiece water resistance technology since it launched the first Oyster in 1926, and the latest Sea‑Dweller model in 2017 is the culmination of over 90 years of technological development. Those developments bring intellectual enjoyment to those of us who wear them for leisure, but for explorers such as Earle, they bring a practical pleasure.
We are in Cabo Pulmo to meet Earle as part of Rolex’s efforts to strengthen its association with exploration and conservation, but we also saw the real-world effects of that association. Rolex plays a large part in the existence of Mission Blue, having donated generously in the early days to fund the organisation’s conservation efforts. And thanks in part to that donation, Cabo Pulmo has become one of the world’s model Hope Spots. Since becoming a protected area, the reefs around Cabo Pulmo experienced what Rolex terms “the most extraordinary recovery ever reported by marine science”. Businesses in the area, once mainly based on fishing, now focus on ecotourism and taking divers like us on expeditions to see the gorgeous marine life.
As we frolic (or, rather, splash ungainly) among the waves, we see tiny silver sardines that skirt skittishly around the predatory groupers in their midst, shy sea turtles whose ridged shells blend near‑seamlessly into their coral habitat, and big-eyed jacks that swim more strongly against the current than our own flipper-laden legs can. We also spot colourful parrotfish that peck at the surrounding reefs, bright yellow pufferfish that dart in and out of the coral caverns, and a school of fast-moving dolphins that are sadly not in the mood to swim with their fellow mammals. It is difficult to imagine that the marine life in this area was once just struggling to stay alive.
As we look out onto the inexplicably green desert on our drive back to the hotel, our Mexican guide makes an offhand remark: “You came at a good time,” he says. “This whole area was flooded just three months ago—it rained for three days straight.” This, I realise, is the reason for the inexplicable fecundity of the desert landscape. It seems like the perfect parallel to the extraordinary recovery of the marine reefs that we had just seen, and serves to drive home Mother Nature’s remarkable capacity for recovery. If three days of rain and nourishment could fertilise an otherwise desolate vista, then imagine what months or years of care could do for a depleted landscape—above water, or below.
Rolex has accompanied explorers such as Earle on adventures to the farthest reaches of the planet, celebrating and supporting conservation efforts to preserve those reaches. However saccharine the sentiment, perhaps the greatest adventure that faces us today is that of the future—we don’t know for sure, after all, what may become of our planet. What we do know is that we all make choices that affect its health, for better or worse. Hopefully one day in the distant future, there will still be butterflies in the desert.