Explorer Moment of the Week
Steady Hands and Fins
Photograph by Jennifer Hayes, National Geographic
Exploring the world's waters, National Geographic photographer and Rolex ambassador David Doubilet has photographed in the depths of such places as the southwest Pacific, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, Tasmania, Scotland, and the northwest Atlantic. Here, he explores a shipwreck that has been turned into an artificial reef. His work has taken him to freshwater ecosystems such as Botswana's Okavango Delta and Canada's St. Lawrence River. He has photographed stingrays, sponges, and sleeping sharks in the Caribbean as well as shipwrecks in the South Pacific, the Atlantic, and at Pearl Harbor.
“What separates humans from other animals is not just an opposable thumb, not just our ability to create electric trains or build buildings; we have this extraordinary appreciation of beauty. Given the right moments, we also have an extraordinary ability to destroy things. There are a million scientific reasons why we should save a tiger, or a tiger shark, and they are real reasons. But ultimately, the bottom-line reason is because it is beautiful.
"The ocean is beautiful. A coral reef may arguably be the most beautiful environment on the face of the planet. It's a place that's flooded with light, yet has the most intense colors of any other environment on the planet. We can't destroy this; we have to hold onto this thing and pay attention. “
Related: Photos: Toxic Nudibranchs
Shadow of Everest
Photograph by Ed Viesturs
National Geographic grantee and Rolex ambassador Ed Viesturs has done what most folks would consider impossible; he has summited all 14 8,000-meter peaks without supplemental oxygen. He is one of the few elite climbers in history to accomplish this feat. In 1997, he became the first non-Sherpa to summit Everest five times and survive. He has now summited Everest seven times.
"On the morning of May 23, 1997, I was making my way up toward the summit of Everest, once again, via the Southeast Ridge. We began our ascent at 10 p.m. from our high camp at the South Col. Exactly one year earlier, I had reached the summit for a fourth time as the climbing leader of an IMAX film team. Recalling the consequences of the crowding on the final summit ridge in 1996, we decided on this expedition that an early start from camp would be a great way to get ahead of the others who were hoping for a summit ascent the same day. Leaving camp well before midnight allowed us to be very high on the mountain at dawn. At about 27,800 feet, as the sun rose, I looked to the west and witnessed this beautiful phenomenon of Everest’s shadow, a perfect penumbra, on the landscape. Thankfully, I had the strength, patience, and clarity of mind to stop and take a photo. My mittened hands and the subzero temperatures made keeping the camera steady a huge effort. At the time I was still using a film camera and it would be weeks before I could see if the photo turned out. I still consider it one of my favorite shots and it will always bring back great memories of my fifth ascent of Everest on that beautiful day."
1,000-Mile Baja Trek
Photograph by Justin DeShields
On February 2, 2013, Bryan Morales and Young Explorer Grantee Justin DeShields departed on foot to traverse one of the most arid, alluring, and misunderstood frontiers in North America—Baja California. Carrying a surfboard, survival equipment, and cameras of all types, they are documenting every step of the adventure.
“Whoever said trudging through the desert all day, every day, for two months sounds like fun? Compound that with a 50-pound pack, a surfboard lashed to your back, and a shadeless, windy coast—sounds like a punishment from the Dark Ages. In the last 60 days we've dodged hundreds of cars, fallen down crumbling coastal bluffs, been attacked by a coyote, and suffered through blisters. Only when we stopped using our car and traversed on foot were we able to access parts of Mexico's Baja Peninsula that few humans have ever laid eyes on. Our surfboard keeps the morale up when we're down!
“With 600 miles behind us, we have left the sea and are heading inland to cross the peninsula at the Sierra de San Francisco. We'll hike trailless mountains of volcanic rock, cactus, and oasis before ending up in the Gulf of California. In the town of Mulege, we'll begin a new chapter in our human-powered journey as we exchange our backpacks for stand-up paddleboards and traverse the next 600 miles of the peninsula along the Sea of Cortez.”
—Justin DeShields, Young Explorers grantee
Seeking a Solo Ascent
Photograph by Lonnie Dupre
In January 2013, climber and Rolex Laureate Lonnie Dupre attempted to be the first to solo ascend Alaska's Mount McKinley (Denali in native Athabaskan) in the dead of winter. Dupre huddled in a snow cave for seven days, waiting for high winds to subside, but the window of stable weather he needed to continue to the summit never came. He will try again in 2014.
“For as long as I can remember, I have loved snow and ice. As a result, I have spent most of my life exploring the Arctic region. These journeys have brought such joy and beauty to my life that I have dedicated myself to helping preserve these wonderful frozen places. More than ever before, I am driven to share my passion for the Arctic, a region whose health and stability have far-reaching consequences for us all.
“I have been fortunate to have traveled and explored much of our world’s frozen places and shared those experiences with folks back home. These regions have a special place in my heart. In the Arctic, climate change has already altered the lives of the Inuit and animals dependent on sea ice, such as the polar bear and walrus, that face extinction.
"For explorers safety comes from knowledge and thorough planning. One thing explorers can’t do anymore is plan accurately for what weather they may encounter—and knowledge of climate is what keeps you alive. We no longer have stable weather on this planet, which will make it difficult for future expeditions.”
Photograph by Bryan Smith
In the summer of 2010 National Geographic grantee Bryan Smith led a team of whitewater kayakers on a monthlong expedition to Russia’s remote Kamchatka Peninsula. The team made source-to-sea descents on several previously un-run rivers, working with a diverse team of scientists, NGOs, and locals to help demonstrate the importance of Kamchatka’s river ecosystems to the long-term survival of wild salmon.
"Probably the most surreal place I have ever paddled in my life. As we entered the Karimskia River in the Kamchatka Peninsula of far eastern Russia, we were mesmerized by an active volcano that kept erupting every 30 minutes. It took us two hours just to paddle a kilometer of flat water because we were gazing at the stunning scenery. This was just the start of what would become a four-day journey through one of the last truly wild places on Earth."
—Bryan Smith, Expeditions Council grantee
Photograph by Jeff Kerby
In the thin mountain air of the Guassa plateau in the Ethiopian Highlands, ecologist and photographer Jeff Kerby joined anthropologist Vivek Venkataraman, a young explorer, on a 2011 expedition to study the interactions between gelada monkeys and Ethiopian wolves.
"The open expanses of Ethiopia’s Afro-alpine grasslands make perfect playgrounds for juvenile gelada monkeys. Their constant chattering, play fighting, and terrible coordination are enough to divert the attention of even the most hardened field observer away from more pressing project goals.
"This young male caught my attention at the end of a long day Vivek and I had spent searching for wolves. Sitting atop a giant lobelia plant he was uncharacteristically relaxed as he gnawed on an unpalatable, latex-filled leaf. We shared a brief moment, captured here, where a mature gaze eclipsed his youthful playfulness. As soon as I clicked the shutter he promptly flopped backward off the plant, rolled awkwardly after falling about a meter, and then ran off to bite his sister."
—Jeff Kerby, photographer on expedition with Young Explorers grantee Vivek Venkataraman
Canopy in the Clouds
Photograph by Drew Fulton, Canopy in the Clouds
The tropical montane cloud forests of Monteverde, Costa Rica, have over 750 species of trees, approximately the same number as occur in the entirety of the United States. In 2011, tropical ecologist Greg Goldsmith traveled to these beautiful forests looking to provide a comprehensive perspective of long-term change in tropical montane cloud forest dynamics.
"I study tropical montane cloud forests. Although they occur all over the tropics, they are one of the world's rarest ecosystems. The circumstances necessary to have a tropical mountain cloud forest don't occur very often—you need tropical mountains where there is constant cloud cover. These forests capture a lot of this cloud moisture, and the plants and animals that live in the forest depend on them for their survival. They're also a source of freshwater for many of the people living around them.
"I'm really interested in how changes in climate affect the survival of cloud forest trees. My research has shown that plants actually respond very dramatically when it starts to dry out.
"One of the major predictions is that cloud cover in many tropical montane cloud forests will decrease due to global warming. I think these forests are a really interesting test case for climate change because they seem to be so sensitive to even small changes in weather.
"The research that I'm doing makes me concerned about the future of this forest and whether this amazing ecosystem will survive past our lifetimes."
—Greg Goldsmith, National Geographic Society/Waitt grantee
New Orleans’ Ninth Ward
Photograph by Caroline Gerdes
In 2012, New Orleans native and storyteller Caroline Gerdes began creating an oral history of that city’s Ninth Ward. By compiling the stories of longtime residents—people who braved the devastating 1927 flood, saw jazz legend Fats Domino get his start, witnessed the struggle for civil rights, and survived Hurricane Katrina—she hopes to preserve this historical and culturally important district before it’s too late.
"My subjects have stayed in touch since the months following the interviews, as more stories come to mind and holidays pass, so I wasn’t surprised when I received a package in the mail. Oral history subject Charles Capdepon had sent me a small bag of blessed fava beans in anticipation of upcoming Saint Joseph’s Day, March 19. This is a real-life example of the customs and kindness I am trying to preserve.
"St. Joseph’s Day is a dedication to St. Joseph, who prevented famine in Sicily. The holiday was observed in the Ninth Ward with altars in churches or homes that had been blessed by a priest. Intricate breads and pastries were baked and decorated for the offerings. Of the ten or so American cities with St. Joseph’s Day observations, New Orleans boasts the largest. In the early part of the 20th century, the Ninth Ward was the epicenter for the holiday, as it was home to a large number of Sicilian immigrants."
—Caroline Gerdes,Young Explorers grantee
Ireland's Lucky Seals
Photograph by David Thompson
In 2012 on an island off southwest Ireland, Michelle Cronin set out to continue a study on grey seals on Ireland's continental shelf. By placing GPS tags on adult gray seals, Cronin hopes to understand the spatial overlap between these top marine predators and commercial fisheries.
"The relief amongst the team was palpable—only minutes earlier we were all racing toward a herd of over 1,000 adult gray seals on a remote beach on an island in the wild Atlantic, off southwest Ireland. Our mission: to capture and tag eight males, using a 'rush and grab' approach. We stormed the beach from the sea by Zodiacs, taking the seals by surprise. The chaos that ensued increased our chances of capture. We were after males this time—a daunting task considering they weigh up to 300 kilograms (over 600 pounds). Following capture, I drugged the seal and in his sleepy state seized the moment to glue a GPS tag to the fur. As the glue dried I breathed a sigh of relief, savored the privilege of being so close to a wild animal amidst the beauty of the Blasket Islands, enjoying the camaraderie of the team, and put in an order for a cup of tea.
The weeklong tagging expedition—exciting, challenging, nerve-racking, and fun—will result in months of data on the seals' movements and foraging behavior. It's the biggest colony at the edge of their range in the northeast Atlantic. The tags will contribute valuable information to assess their range and conservation status and help us understand their interactions with fisheries, a contentious issue globally."
—Michelle Cronin, Global Exploration Fund—Northern Europe grantee
Photograph by Joe Riis
Deep in the remote Wokomung Massif in the Pacaraima Mountains of Guyana, photographer Joe Riis joined herpetologist Bruce Means on a 2012 expedition to study pebble toads and look for new frog species.
"This is a female pebble toad or Oreophrynella macconnelli. It's the only arboreal toad in the world that climbs trees, with handlike front and back feet.
"The tiny pebble toad was climbing up toward me, like they often did during this expedition. However, this time was different; it stopped and turned to look back down the branch. Meanwhile I was able to make one picture, which looks likes it's waving to the viewer. I love this picture; it brings a smile to my face and my mind back to this expedition every time I see it!"
—Joe Riis, Young Explorers grantee
Photograph by Jim Hellemn
While exploring the Bloody Bay Wall off Little Cayman Island in 2012 to chronicle its biofluorescent creatures, marine biologist David Gruber felt the strange sensation of stepping into his backyard and beholding an unknown and surprising universe.
"Just a few hours after this photo was taken, darkness fell and I descended down the sheer face of the coral wall, along with teammates Jim Hellemn and John Sparks. The wall drops 1,000 feet, but we hovered at just 90, capturing the large biofluorescent mural that now appears in the traveling exhibit ‘Creatures of Light.’ On that evening, we unwittingly photographed many cryptic biofluorescent animals whose secret light had never before been glimpsed by human eyes.
Fluorescent proteins from marine species have already provided science with one of its most valuable tools for illuminating processes in living cells and neurons. So when it was announced that President Obama’s administration is planning to launch a decade-long initiative to map the human brain, I was inspired by new possibilities. Just as biofluorescence plays many roles for corals and fishes in their dim, blue-lit world, it may also come to play a greater role in understanding how our own brain cells communicate.
For example, as a thought pops into my head, my neurons fire (a process illuminated to science by biofluorescent tags decoded from the DNA of marine organisms). I imagine a role reversal: a pair of Warteye stargazers (Gillellus uranidea) exploring Greenwich Village with special lights and cameras, trying to discover how we communicate so as to better understand themselves. This planet is full of unsuspected biological connections and we are just beginning to explore the bioluminescent and biofluorescent universe under the sea.”
—David Gruber, National Geographic Society/Waitt grantee
Going Back in Time
Photograph by Cheryl Zook
In the vast Colorado River Delta, National Geographic fellow and freshwater conservationist Sandra Postel had the opportunity to survey its current state while keeping a picture of its former glory in mind. Despite the cracked earth and desiccated landscape, the Delta still survives and Postel has hope that if we give it more water, life will return.
"Occasionally, a moment in the field takes you wondrously back in time.
That happened to me last week, as I traveled across the vast delta of the Colorado River in northwestern Mexico. Our team traversed miles and miles of desiccated landscape. The sun beat down on cracked earth. No vegetation—or water—was visible as far as my eyes could see. I took in what the once lush and vibrant delta had become in the era of big dams and massive water diversions.
But then, heading east, we suddenly come upon an aquatic Eden. Cattails reach for the sky along the banks of a labyrinth of lagoons. American coots glide along the surface. On the sandbars, black-neck stilts do their circus walks and long-billed dowitchers poke into the mud for snacks. Off in the distance a clapp-clapp-clapp signals the presence of the elusive and now highly endangered Yuma clapper rail.
Suddenly, I am transported back to 1922, when the great conservationist Aldo Leopold canoed through the delta’s marshes. I savor a tiny taste of the “milk and honey wilderness” and “land of a hundred green lagoons” that he described. The river that for Leopold was “nowhere and everywhere” as it meandered its way toward the sea was long gone. But here in La Ciénega de Santa Clara’s 14,000 acres of marshes—amazingly sustained by spent farm water—was a precious reminder of the delta’s former glory. La Ciénega speaks of resilience. The Colorado Delta, once presumed dead, still lives. And the more water we give it, the more life will return."
—Sandra Postel, fellow
The Rim of Africa Mountain Passage
Photograph by Jay Simpson
Storms, the sweltering African sun, river crossings, and limited access to water were all challenges that Jay Simpson overcame to be the first person to walk the entire 400 miles on the Rim of Africa Mountain Passage in 2012. Halfway through his trek, he snapped this picture of Henry Fletcher, who hiked part of the passage with him, and recorded the moment below.
"I awoke at first light feeling the sun on my face and sleeping bag. There was something out of place— a sound like a vacuum cleaner— that drowned the typical wild melody of birds. I spot a pesticide tractor weaving a cloud of grey mist in the rows of grape vines, its mechanical whine echoing over the valley. I hate the sound and its control and dominance over a landscape I had come to see as free and wild. The group of hikers I joined agree that it is time to leave the valley. We walk through apple orchards with the trees transplanted in lines, their bodies restrained against posts and guide wire, their limbs trimmed, their buds sterile.
oil masked as vine
constrict, choke, and cleave the wild,
how sweet is our loss?
We leave the farm roads, dig our boots into the soil and quickly find ourselves walking through the bush again. Our erratic, spontaneous path takes us higher and higher until we are back walking the spine of the ridge line. We never meant to walk this high. The noise of the pesticide tractors is lost in the wind and the ground underfoot is now free from manicured perfection. Up here we find the scent of the clouds and the untamed inside us."
—Jay Simpson, Young Explorers grantee
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