Jon Bowermaster


Expeditions Council Grantee

Antarctica, man and woman kayaking beside iceberg, side view

Stewart Cohen

Photo: John Bowermaster

Photograph courtesy John Bowermaster

Birthplace: Normal, Illinois

Current City: Stone Ridge, New York

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

A sports reporter. Or political journalist. Both of which I've satisfied in a roundabout fashion.

How did you get started in your field of work?

I've been lucky; I knew at 15 what I wanted to do, which was essentially write about the remote corners of the world. My mentors were found initially in books—John Steinbeck, Jack London, Wilfred Thesiger, and many, many more. During the past 30 years I've been lucky in that I've been able to travel to many of those corners and write about some of the planet's most fascinating characters.

What inspires you to dedicate your life to the ocean?

My niche has become the planet's one ocean (since it covers nearly 72 percent of the planet, why is this known as Planet Earth anyway, rather than the more appropriate Planet Ocean?) and the more than three billion people who live on its edge. As I've traveled along the planet's coastlines, thanks in large part to a half-dozen grants from the Society's Expeditions Council, I've discovered that if you live near the ocean no matter your religion, race, income level or sophistication, you have far more in common than you have differences. It is continuing to meet those people that are my inspiration.

What's a normal day like for you?

In the field, every day is new and different. Our expeditions, many of them by sea kayak, have taken us from the ridiculously hot (the jungles of Gabon and coast of the Adriatic) to the miserable and cold (the Antarctic Peninsula and Aleutian Islands). It's that variety that keeps us going back out there. At home, sadly, I spend far too many hours chained to my desk, writing down the stories heard in the field. My goal, like everyone I imagine, is more time in the field.

Do you have a hero?

My adventuring hero is Thor Heyerdahl. On many occasions during my own travels I have crossed Thor's path—on Easter Island and in the Canary Islands, on the remote Marquesan island of Fatu Hiva, where he moved when he was just 23 (with his 20-year-old wife!) and even Raroia, the tiny atoll in the Tuamotus where his Kon-Tiki famously ended its voyage from the coast of Peru. I've had the good fortune to meet people who knew and traveled with Thor and even those who may have disagreed with his theories all said the same thing: He was a good travel companion and a good listener. I admire him simply for his insatiable curiosity. When he was in his 90s he was still exploring, trying to decipher how pyramids came to be built in the Canary Islands.

What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?

Most of my favorite experiences in the wild have been in the most isolated, most lonely places. A long sandy beach on the Aleutian Island of Chuginadak on a windy, gray day. A remote spit of sand (motu) on the far side of the Tuamotuan atoll of Fakarava watching frigate birds soar overhead. As for most challenging, different expeditions were challenging for different reasons: Gabon was physically the most difficult because of the 100-plus-degree heat day and night and lack of drinking water; paddling in the Aleutians was occasionally frightening because of the combination of fog and 70-mile-per-hour winds; our big trip kayaking the coast of Vietnam was without question the most bureaucratically difficult, because the government in Hanoi simply couldn't understand why we wanted to be there, kayaking off its coastline, unsure of our motives.

What are your other passions?

Books and films about parts of the world I've not yet seen.

What do you do in your free time?

For sport, kayaking, paddle boarding, biking. For relaxation, the New York Times and any beach, any day.

If you could have people do one thing to help save the ocean, what would it be?

During the course of my travels on the ocean it's been pretty easy to identify four main environmental ills affecting it: Climate change. Acidification. Plastic pollution. Overfishing. Each of them is fixable. The easiest to change? Plastic pollution. If the world would simply stop manufacturing and purchasing plastic, there would be far less of it in the environment, particularly in the ocean.

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In Their Words

During the course of my travels on the ocean it's been pretty easy to identify four main environmental ills affecting it: Climate change. Acidification. Plastic pollution. Overfishing.

—Jon Bowermaster


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