An Underwater Archaeological Mystery
Photograph by Viktor Lyagushkin
Since 2010, the National Geographic Society and the National Academy of Sciences of the Kyrgyz Republic have collaborated on a research project to document archaeological sites in the waters of Lake Issyk Kul in the highlands of Central Asia. Co-directed by Archaeology Fellow Dr. Fredrik Hiebert and Dr. Vladimir Ploskikh, vice president of the Kyrgyz Academy of Sciences, the multinational team is currently working on a submerged medieval site allegedly associated with Timur (known in the West as Tamerlane), one of the world's most notorious conquerors. The research project has received funding from the Committee for Research and Exploration, the Seaver Foundation, and the Waitt Institute.
"Lake Issyk Kul is an archaeologist's dream location for several reasons: It's right on a heavily traveled part of the fabled Silk Road, and significant lake level changes caused by tectonic activity have submerged thousands of years of important human settlement, trade, and conflict that took place here, from the burial mounds of Bronze Age nomads to early Christian monasteries to the campaigns of Genghis Khan and his descendants.
"The site we're currently working on is a structure allegedly built by Timur, who thought of himself as Genghis's grandson. While he was a brutal conqueror (many say worse than his "grandfather"), he also happened to have excellent taste. The spectacular architectural style that Timur developed in his capital, Samarkand, directly influenced the Taj Mahal, which was built by one of his descendants. The problem is that our site is far outside Timur's empire, so if it is indeed one of his buildings, what is it doing at Issyk Kul?
"It's a tricky site because not only is it quite large, but we're also locating structures both on land and underwater. Fortunately we have a crack amphibious team that's skilled with high-tech elements like remote sensing and drone photography; time-tested archaeological techniques like visual survey and excavation; and the resourcefulness to build the equipment we need and keep it running. Good luck trying to find an anchor at Issyk Kul, but one of our guys knows a guy who sells the scrap metal we need to keep our research vessels in place.
"'Issyk Kul' means 'warm waters' in Kyrgyz, but it probably got its moniker from the fact that the lake never freezes. Actually, the water is quite cold—especially when the winds howl down from the peaks of the Tien Shan Mountains all around us. That's why we wear very thick dive suits and gloves in the water, which can make digging and documenting a little slow-going at times. But sometimes that pace is important: We can float above architectural features in our buoyant neoprene gear and zen out a bit; carefully pick up on important—yet easily overlooked—details of the site; and reflect on all that that the people who lived, worked, and traveled along this remarkable lake so long ago have left behind for us to discover."
—Kristin Romey, field operations director, Issyk Kul Expedition
Gelada Tooth Detective
Photograph by Trevor Frost
Jeff Kerby and Vivek Venkataraman (above), photographers and Expeditions Council grantees, went to a remote plateau in the Ethiopian Highlands along with explorer Trevor Frost to document the relationship between critically endangered wolves and charismatic monkeys, which coexist on an alpine moorland protected by 400 years of indigenous conservation.
"In the windswept highlands of Ethiopia, there lives one of the most enigmatic primate species, the gelada monkey. These animals live in large herds of up to 1,200 individuals and sleep on cliffs. They subsist entirely on grasses and herbs. In a sense, geladas are the horses of the primate order, except they eat with their hands. For several years I've worked on the Guassa Plateau in northern Ethiopia studying a herd of geladas on a daily basis, recording their dietary ecology and social behavior.
"My passion for geladas is driven in part by a desire to understand the deep natural history of their genus, Theropithecus. A few million years ago the African savannas teemed with monkeys that looked just like geladas, except they were the size of gorillas. By studying the diet of geladas in conjunction with their skeletal anatomy, we can improve our understanding of their extinct evolutionary cousins.
"In September 2014 I was on expedition at Guassa with fellow National Geographic explorers Jeff Kerby and Trevor Frost. For ten straight days we were stuck in our tents at camp because of interminable heavy rains and a dense blanket of fog at the 11,000-foot field site on the eastern edge of the Ethiopian Highlands. Finally, the sky cleared and we were able to get back into the field. Fortunately, that day we came across a gelada skeleton belonging to an adult female. Very few skeletons of this species exist in museums across the world. Each one is invaluable to science. After a long day of walking, I settled in at camp to take a look at the find. I especially like to take a close look at the skulls and teeth. Geladas spend almost their entire day eating. They're the only primate to subsist on grass, which is nutritionally poor and very tough. So how do they do it? Their teeth. Gelada teeth are enormous and have a complex topography that slices through sheaves of grass blades. Among primates, geladas are chewers par excellence. Once their teeth become worn, however, the animals quickly die. It's the teeth of these animals that really tell the story of their lives."
—Vivek Venkataraman, Expeditions Council grantee
Wrangling Venomous Sea Snakes
Photograph by Zoltan Takacs
Emerging Explorer Barrington Irving holds the Guinness World Record for the youngest person and first African American to fly solo around the world. He now dedicates his life to inspiring students around the world to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers through his curriculum platform, the Flying Classroom. On a recent expedition, he visited other scientists and explorers in the field in Palau and brought those experiences into the classroom for students.
"We landed late at night in pitch-black darkness, so we couldn't see what the island looked like from the air. The next morning, I met up with two of my mentors, National Geographic Explorers Zoltan Takacs and Kenny Broad. Zoltan is one of the world's bravest scientists. He specializes in chasing and researching highly venomous snakes in order to develop novel medicines. Kenny is known for diving into underwater caves around the world to learn about the past in order to predict future environmental occurrences. Both men are pilots and world travelers, and we speak the same language: exploration. I'm good at what I do in the air, but these guys were taking me into a realm I had never experienced before. This is what exploration is about and what math and science can allow you to do.
"The expedition started when we all got into a boat and started to track down sea snakes. I saw many islands that looked like green mushroom tops with caves on some of their sides. I'm not sure what the name Palau means, but to me it means 'majestic beauty.' I had never seen such clear water in the ocean before! I felt as if someone had taken filters off my eyes, and I could see through the water like a bird diving for fish. I've been to some beautiful beaches in my travels, but the water here was clearer than the most luxurious of swimming pools. Looks were deceiving, however, as the sea was filled with many types of venomous wildlife.
"When my turn came to catch one, it was in the water, which is harder than catching one on land. Zoltan saw one swimming by our boat and made me jump in the water to go after it. With my lack of experience, it seemed impossible at first. But after numerous attempts, I caught my first snake! Once I caught it, I could immediately feel the snake's muscles curling from neck to tail in order to escape. It was difficult to control, given the thick safety gloves I wore for protection. I could hear the increased rate of my breathing through my dive mask. Kenny told me to slow down and that I was doing well."
—Barrington Irving, Emerging Explorer
Related: The Flying Classroom
Photograph by Dr. James O'Hanlon, Macquarie University
Scientists James O'Hanlon and Marie Herberstein of Macquarie University in Australia and Gregory Holwell of the University of Auckland in New Zealand went to Malaysia to find out if the orchid mantis's blossom impression really lured pollinators to their deaths. Herberstein received funding from the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration.
"A few years ago I had the idea to research the orchid mantis and test why this famous insect looks like a flower. Does it, as rumored, actually lure in pollinating insects as prey? What I didn't realize at the time was how little scientists actually knew about them. When I started studying them I had to begin with the most basic questions, like where are they and how do I find them?
"This was one of the first orchid mantises I ever had the pleasure of seeing alive and in the flesh. Up until this trip I had only ever seen photos of them. I remember thinking that it was so bright and almost translucent up close—it was mesmerising. It's almost as if you were conditioned to looking at insects that are shades of brown and green, so that when you come across something like this you can just stare at it for hours. Which is a good thing because that is exactly what we did.
"There was so little known about this animal that we were able to learn incredible things simply by sitting and watching them behave for hours on end. The big payoff to this was watching the lightning-fast swipe of the orchid mantis as it snatched a bee out of midair. It is a brief and beautiful spectacle that very few people have ever seen—and something I don't think I will ever get sick of watching."
—James O'Hanlon, team member working with Committee for Research and Exploration Grantee Marie Herberstein
A Tale of Three Trees
Photograph by Sandesh Kadur
Emerging Explorer Sandesh Kadur creates award-winning wildlife documentary films and photography books exposing the need to conserve threatened species and habitats around the world. Sandesh was documenting the eastern Himalaya for the book Himalaya: Mountains of Life when he took this image in June 2012.
"Located on the banks of the mighty Brahmaputra River and home to the world's largest population of one-horned rhinoceroses, Kaziranga National Park in the state of Assam in northeastern India is a hot spot of biodiversity. I was here on a five-year project to document the life and landscape of this incredible region for a coffee-table book titled Himalaya: Mountains of Life.
"On my many trips to Kaziranga, I was amazed at the change of color in the scenery every year but wasn't sure how exactly to go about capturing it. There was one particular set of trees that caught my eye—a trio of giant silk cotton trees that stood tall over the grassland. It's my favorite set of trees in Kaziranga. They dominate the otherwise primarily grassland landscape. They're uniquely adapted to the yearly flooding of the Brahmaputra and thrive in the floodplain.
"I had photographed the trees a year before in the dry season and had a photo print so I could match up my shot. But what turned out to be more interesting visually was putting the two images together in the same frame, creating a multidimensional effect that tells the story of Kaziranga's landscape across different seasons."
—Sandesh Kadur, Emerging Explorer
Paddling the Elwha
Photograph by Jason Jaacks
The Elwha River on Washington State’s wild Olympic Peninsula was home to prolific numbers of Pacific salmon until two dams went up that blocked their passage.
Nearly a century later, in 2011, the largest dam removal in U.S. history began with the hope that the salmon would return. In 2012, funded by the Young Explorer grant program, Jason Jaacks led a source-to-sea expedition down the Elwha to document the dam’s removal. By looking at the transitions throughout the watershed, the expedition provides context for better understanding the implications of large-scale restoration.
“From the plane, expedition member Robert Murphy looked like an insect bobbing up and down in the current. He was paddling where the sediment-laden Elwha River converged with the Strait of Juan de Fuca. We had just finished a three-week expedition down the Elwha River in Washington State, where the largest dam removal in U.S. history was under way.
“For nearly a century, two hydroelectric dams blocked salmon from returning up the Elwha. But the dams were coming down—a rare story of environmental success. We ran the Elwha River from source to sea to experience firsthand a river coming back to life. Over the course of the expedition, we watched the Elwha grow from its glacier-fed headwaters to a surge of muddy water at the river’s mouth.
“While dam removal is exciting for salmon, it’s also an interesting story about dirt. More than 24 million cubic yards of sediment were trapped behind the dams—enough to fill CenturyLink stadium (where the Seattle Seahawks play) eight times. On August 26, 2014, almost two years to the day after our expedition concluded, the final remnants of Glines Canyon Dam were blasted out of the river. With both of the dams gone, the Elwha will carry much of that sediment downstream, leading to the creation of new beaches and vital salmon habitat.”
—Jason Jaacks, Young Explorer grantee
Monitoring Madagascar's Tenrecs
Photograph by Jon Betz
In the spring of 2014, ecologist and epidemiologist Christopher Golden led an interdisciplinary team of Malagasy research and citizen scientists on an exploration of the behavior and ecology of some of Madagascar’s least known mammals—the tenrecs. With efforts focused on the common and hedgehog tenrecs, Golden and his team set up traps throughout patches of forest in northeastern Madagascar’s Makira Natural Park. Data they collect will assist their understanding of the species’ population dynamics, ranging behavior, and disease status.
“Madagascar reports nearly one-third of bubonic plague cases worldwide each year. Why this is the case is largely unknown, but researchers have discovered that Malagasy rats appear to be more immune than rats elsewhere. The hedgehog tenrec also seems to be incredibly immune to the disease and could facilitate spillover events into local rodent populations or perhaps directly to humans via fleas.
“What’s so exciting about studying tenrecs in the wild is that so much is completely unknown. As far as I know, this is the first time that a wild density for these species will be established, and it will be the first time that anyone has trapped, tagged, and monitored their activity and ranging patterns in Malagasy rain forests. We’ll be able to collect data that could allow us to regulate the disease dynamics of the plague.
“Each morning we head into the forest before sunrise to see if any tenrecs have been captured by our traps. If they have, we’ll anesthetize them, collect all the ectoparasites from their bodies, measure body parts, and collect blood samples. Then we attach a 30-gram transmitter to the back of the animal using an incredibly sticky epoxy. After release, we can track activity and ranging patterns using radio telemetry. We do this between 6 p.m. and 3 a.m., when the nocturnal creatures are active.
“Tenrecs are not only important because they pose a disease risk to humans, but also because they compose more than 70 percent of the biomass of wildlife consumed by local people in the Makira region. They are, therefore, heavily reliant on robust populations of tenrecs for food, yet a disease transfer event could prove devastating.”
—Christopher Golden, emerging explorer
Wrestling Caimans for Conservation
Photograph by Matthieu Bacques
During the dry and wet seasons of 2013 and 2014, National Geographic Waitt grantee Stephane Caut and a scientific team were dropped via helicopter into the Kaw Marshes of French Guiana to study black caimans. Caut was interested in the resident caimans specifically because the Kaw population’s genetic isolation meant that habitat change or disturbances could be measured easily. Caut hoped to understand the role of this top predator in the swamp ecosystem and its survival rate over one year. Caimans face many threats, but human activities—such as poaching, pollution, and habitat destruction—make it one of the most threatened crocodilian species worldwide.
"What makes our research unique, but also stressful, is the isolation of our study site. The good thing is that there’s no direct human impact on this ecosystem, but the isolation also makes logistics quite complicated. We were dropped via helicopter onto a very small floating platform in the middle of marshes—and caimans—with enough supplies for five people over a week. There was no room for failure!
"Night catching of caimans over ten feet using a same-size metallic boat—propelled by one's own efforts because the dense aquatic vegetation makes the use of an engine impossible—is a real extreme sport! We wrestled eight-foot caimans into the boat, facing high risks during the sampling protocol (blood sampling, biopsies, measurements, and pit tagging). But for larger caimans, the rodeo begins, and after several minutes of an intense fight, we tie them to a tree to get the sampling protocol done.
"But after all, these harsh conditions represent for us a hope for the future. Despite increases in technology and transport methods, nature still remains impenetrable in some areas of the world. We must fight to keep it like that!"
—Stephane Caut, National Geographic Waitt grantee
Photograph by Michael Langley
Over the summer of 2014, zoologist Rowen van Eeden is observing, tagging, and releasing martial eagles (Polemaetus bellicosus) in Kruger National Park, South Africa. The eagles’ numbers have seen steady declines due to various factors, including conflict with farmers who fear livestock losses; electrocution from an ever expanding power distribution network; and, most damaging, habitat degradation, which limits nesting opportunities and food sources.
"Every time I have the opportunity to tag one of these beautiful martial eagles, I can't help but to be left in awe of the power, size, and speed of the bird. Their feet have incredible crushing force and deadly talons, which require extreme caution when handling.
"Studying martial eagles in the wild is an extremely time-consuming activity and no easy feat given their enormous territory sizes. We travel extensively just to find one bird perched in the perfect position to trap. It took five days and over 1,200 kilometers [745 miles] of travelling to find this small male. We placed our specialized trap alongside a tourist road, but the bird took no interest in the trap and soared away! The next day we returned and—as luck would have it—we found the bird perched just a few hundred meters from where we sighted it the previous day. We positioned the trap and he was caught. The bird was then measured, blood samples were taken, and he was ringed (banded) with colour combinations.
"When processing an eagle, my training takes over as I ensure to handle it quickly and safely with absolute professionalism. Releasing the eagle happens in an instant—the adrenalin is replaced by pure exhaustion and a huge sense of accomplishment and joy.
"Tourists are encouraged to re-sight the bird as part of a citizen scientist project. These reports then form part of an adult survival analysis and are also used to estimate home range sizes and floater population sizes to determine whether adult survival might not also be a root cause for the observed declines in Kruger."
—Rowen van Eeden, Conservation Trust grantee
Ice Cream With a Side of Climate Conversation
Photograph by Will Robins
This summer, National Geographic grantee Caleb Kruse and expedition team member Jordan Fatke are traveling across the United States in a refurbished ice cream truck giving away free ice cream and starting dialogues with children about climate change along the way. Documenting their journey, they intend to create a film presented through the eyes of a child and how children perceive climate change.
"We stood on top of our retrofitted ice cream truck in complete awe. The serene beauty of the setting sun glimmered off of the never melting snow on top of the mountains, setting the landscape of Glacier National Park on fire. Did we just drive an ice cream truck through one of America's most pristine national parks?
"It was hard to believe that a little over a week ago we were sitting on the white sand of Ocean Beach in San Diego watching the sun disappear behind the endless Pacific Ocean. The road to Glacier consisted of a strenuous 2,703-mile trek in our 1988 Chevrolet step van that on a good day can reach a comfortable cruising speed of 50 miles per hour. Our diet on the road has mainly been consisting of ice cream, tortilla chips, and coffee.
"Even though we are just in the first few weeks of our two-and-a-half-month road trip, reaching Glacier National Park felt like a milestone for us. As we stood on top of the truck, we thought of all the stories we have heard and all the incredible people we have encountered on this expedition so far. They combat any exhaustion or ill-balanced diet."
—Jordan Fatke, team member working with Young Explorer grantee Caleb Kruse
Related: Ice Cream Expedition
Following the River
Photograph courtesy Julia Harte
In 2013, Expeditions Council grantee Julia Harte and team member Anna Ozbek traveled along the Tigris River from southern Iraq to southeastern Turkey, visiting ancient sites and modern communities along the river before the completion of the Ilisu Dam, an 11-billion-cubic-meter dam that will generate approximately 2 percent of Turkey's power. Along the way, Harte and Ozbek documented the human toll of Iraq's chronic water shortage, water-worshipping Mandaeans in Kurdistan, the last cave-dweller of the soon-to-be-submerged 12,000-year-old Turkish town of Hasankeyf, and more.
"We found these Arab nomads in northwestern Kurdistan, near the Domiz camp for Syrian refugees, in early May. A group of about 25 men, women, and children lived in the camp, accompanied by a herd of several hundred sheep. A patriarch of the family named Akram Hallom Hussein told us that the clan gets most of their water from the Mosul Dam, which is fed by the Tigris River. But when the river drops, he said, the water in the dam tastes 'bitter.’
"Akram and his family used to camp outside of Kirkuk, about 100 miles southeast, but moved up to their current site in 2007, when the sectarian conflict in central Iraq became too dangerous for them to stay. Apart from their concerns about the declining level of the Tigris River, their situation seemed stable when we met them last spring. The nomads joked around with us as they sheared and milked their sheep, the children chasing each other around the colorful tankers in which they haul water.
"A year later, with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in control of the city of Mosul and the arrival of hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Iraqis in northwestern Kurdistan, it's hard to imagine where these nomads are now. As violence from central Iraq and Syria squeezes Iraqi Kurdistan from either side, forcing huge populations into the relative safe zone, the danger of water shortage looms larger than ever. Yet the Turkish government continues with megaprojects such as the Ilisu Dam, which threatens to more than halve the amount of water entering Iraq through the Tigris River."
—Julia Harte, Expeditions Council grantee
One Species at a Time
Photograph courtesy Joel Sartore
At the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo, National Geographic fellow and photojournalist Joel Sartore uses a special cloth shooting tent to photograph a black stork. Sartore is on a mission to photograph every captive species in the world for a project called the Photo Ark. The goal is simple: to get the public to look animals in the eye, and then to care, while there’s still time to save them.
“Some say that we could lose half of all species by the turn of the century. Not if I can help it.
“It’s the little things that tend to interest me most. In my opinion, a forgotten sparrow, salamander, or even a rare turtle is every bit as complex and beautiful as any larger animal, and has just as much right to exist as, say, a giant panda or a tiger. Convincing the public of that is tricky in this age of constant distraction, but it certainly can be done. They say people will only save what they love, but first they must know it exists. That’s where these photos come in.
“By documenting as many species as I possibly can as studio portraits, each is given a moment in the spotlight, and a chance to have its voice heard. That gives me tremendous satisfaction. Many of the species I see before my lens have never been photographed well before. So I consider it a real honor, and a privilege, to try and tell the story of each one as well as I can. If it’s at risk of extinction, that’s a story I especially want to get out to the whole world in order to turn things around.
“After nine years of working on the Ark, I’m at nearly 4,000 species now, and still going strong. We’re about a third of the way done.
“Let’s hope these pictures move the public to care, while there’s still time to turn the extinction crisis around.”
—Joel Sartore, National Geographic fellow
Related: The Photo Ark
Extending the Olive Branch
Photograph by Colin Angus
In 2011, Adventurer of the Year and Expeditions Council grantee Julie Angus traveled some 2,000 miles between the western Mediterranean and Phoenicia (now Syria, Lebanon, and Israel) on a self-propelled journey to follow the route of one of the greatest early seafarers, the Phoenicians. In a modified wooden boat with a Phoenician-style sailing rig, Angus and her team were able to explore and document the incredible history of the olive in the Middle East.
"We’d already been sailing for two months when we reached the rocky island of Corsica. Since leaving Spain, we followed ancient maritime trading routes used by the Phoenicians and other early mariners in search of olive trees they might have planted thousands of years ago. The boat allowed us to reach places inaccessible by land; locations where early explorers might have stopped, traded, and left living evidence of their visit—olive trees which can survive for thousands of years. These early traders dealt olive oil, worth its weight in silver, and carried olives for sustenance. They may have transported olive saplings from afar to plant in their new colonies and trading posts.
"Our goal was to find those trees and their descendents, whether grown from a sapling, or stone tenderly nurtured, or a pit cast absently onto dry soil after lunch.
"Olive trees often grow where ancient Mediterranean civilizations lived. On Corsica, the megalithic site of Filitosa is set in an olive grove and its 3,500-year-old stone menhirs are dwarfed by the shade of an ancient olive tree. Whenever we find especially old olive trees, including this one, we measure its circumference, take photographs, and pluck off a handful of olives and leaves for DNA analysis. Each ancient tree is different; its gnarled limbs intertwined and sculpted like a living monument. Some are as wide as a car with a hollowed-out trunk, others are tall and sprawling. It’s a rewarding feeling reaching trees we have been searching for for days, chasing rumors and sailing and trekking through challenging terrain.
"Colin and I also had the challenge of traveling with our infant son, Leif, who was ten months when the journey began. Despite the difficulty of sleepless nights, wailing at inopportune moments, and additional precautions when sailing, Leif contributed to the success of our journey. His presence helped open doors and encouraged people to share stories and whereabouts of ancient olive trees. Leif forced us to slow down and to see the world through fresh eyes.
"By the time we concluded the expedition in Israel and the West Bank, we had collected dozens of olive tree samples and had a profound understanding of how the olive tree shaped this region of the world and continues to do so. The results from our DNA analysis bolstered the theory that Phoenicians helped spread the domestic olive tree throughout the Mediterranean."
—Julie Angus, Expeditions Council grantee
Photograph by Robin Brooks
In November 2013, Expeditions Council grantee George Kourounis led an expedition into the Karakum desert of Turkmenistan to study a massive sinkhole known as the Doorway to Hell. This fiery pit is a by-product of a natural gas drilling operation gone wrong. For over four decades this sinkhole has been burning continuously after it was set aflame to avoid any potential health threats.
The unique environment inside the crater serves as a reference tool for learning what life on other planets might be like, without having to leave Earth. For Kourounis, becoming the first person to set foot at the bottom and collect soil samples was his mission.
"When you stand at the edge of this crater, looking inside, feeling the waves of heat wafting over you, it becomes clear why the locals call this place the Doorway to Hell. It reminded me of some of the volcanoes I’ve been to, but instead of a boiling lake of lava, this deep pit is filled with thousands of small methane fires, all combining to light up the inside of the crater with the most surreal orange glow that completely lights up the night sky.
"My mission was to become the first person to ever set foot at the bottom, and in the process, to gather soil samples to bring back and have tested in a lab to see if there are any extremophile bacteria living in the hot, methane-rich environment down inside. If life can exist there, then it could be possible for life to flourish on other planets outside our solar system that have similar conditions. Heat and methane are two components that can help support microscopic, extremophile life-forms, so in essence, I was looking for signs of alien life right here on Earth.
"Getting to the bottom was not a simple task. It required months of planning and preparation and an expert rigging team to help lower me to the crater floor. We had to use special flame-resistant ropes and a custom-made Kevlar climbing harness, along with an aluminized heat suit with self-contained air supply. The gear was heavy, clumsy, and of course, hot. It took days to get the rope rigging to the point where we felt it was safe to attempt a descent to the bottom. We had to find a spot inside the crater that wasn’t too hot, with minimal flames, where we could stretch the ropes across. Then I traversed out to the middle and rappelled down to the drop zone inside the pit. Looking around the crater from the inside was awe-inspiring. Imagine being in the middle of a coliseum of fire."
—George Kourounis, Expeditions Council grantee
When the Going Gets Tough...
Photograph by Andy Laub
In the fall of 2013, National Geographic young explorer, international speaker, and UN moderator Chris Bashinelli traveled to Mongolia to document the transformation of one of the proudest, longest standing nomadic cultures on Earth: Mongolian nomads. To become fully immersed in nomadic culture, Bashinelli embarked on a monthlong trek spanning a thousand miles from Bayan-Olgii to Ulaanbaatar. On this journey he searched for fundamental differences between nomads of the past and nomads of today—while teaching us more about ourselves along the way.
"I’m on a mission to connect with the people and places of faraway cultures. I left my Brooklyn home behind to immerse readers in worlds we might otherwise never read about. On this expedition I headed to Mongolia, where I walked in the shoes of the oldest standing nomadic culture on Earth. I traded in my motorcycle for a horse and attempted to answer one simple question: Am I tough enough to be a nomad?
"My adventure began in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s bustling capital. Just outside the chaotic city center, I found myself skidding in a race car at 40 miles per hour in the very modern sport of drifting. Then I was off to the National Olympic Training Center, where I pumped iron to bulk up for my competition in the manly skill of Bökh wrestling. After being battered by competitors three times my size, I discovered there’s always something that binds us together. In this case, it’s a mutual love for martial arts legend Bruce Lee.
"In the countryside I was welcomed with open arms by my guide, Nara. We worked together to herd cattle, collect firewood, clean cow dung, and even slaughter a sheep. Nara entrusted me with his very own horse and challenged me to gallop across the steppe with his countrymen. This was the ultimate test of manhood.
"Despite the fact that we live thousands of miles apart, we were immediately able to make a connection. Nara’s favorite movie? The Shawshank Redemption. Although some amenities like television and cell phones are popping up, Mongolian nomads still live almost entirely off the land."
—Chris Bashinelli, Young Explorer grantee
Related Audio Interview: Wrestling Mongolians
The Gray Ghost
Photograph courtesy Justine Alexander
Biologist Justine Alexander—a Committee for Research and Exploration grantee—is on a mission to document and observe interactions between humans and big cats. On this particular expedition, Alexander traveled to the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau to observe snow leopards.
"One very cold morning while I was documenting snow leopards in the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, I woke wrapped in my sleeping bag. Sliding out from my burrow into the icy breeze, I realized I needed to change my perspective and wake up to the brilliance of this place in order to cope with the challenges of fieldwork at these high altitudes.
"We would often have to conquer precarious slopes to set up our camera traps and then quickly disperse from the site, leaving the camera trap ready to capture the elusive creature. I would leave with a tight jaw, a feeling of doubt, and copious questions flooding my mind: Was it really the best site? Would a snow leopard venture in front of the camera lens? Was it angled correctly? Did I even turn it on?
"I was beginning to understand why the snow leopard has been referred to as the ‘gray ghost.’ At first, when I began the field season, the mountains felt empty of life, with a strange, unsettling quiet. As I looked and listened more closely, it became clear that this feeling was misleading. Animals were present: circling Himalayan vultures, flocks of Chukar partridges in nearby shrubs, dark outlines of blue sheep on distant ridgelines, and red foxes peering from an above ledge. Yet I had only been able to indirectly confirm the presence of the snow leopard.
"How can the species leave so many signs but so rarely make an appearance? I left camp that day in a cloud of wonder and with an even greater itch to catch a glimpse of the ghost.
"After four months of living among them that first field season, I unfortunately did not have that privilege. The odds are very much against a sighting, given the cats’ nocturnal habits, effective camouflage, solitary behavior, and their ability to access cliffs far out of my reach. Maybe author Nigel Richardson was right when he wrote: ‘In truth, you are scarcely more likely to spot a snow leopard in the wild than you are to see a unicorn.’ But unicorns exist, right?”
—Justine Alexander, Committee for Research and Exploration grantee
500 Specimens and Counting
Photograph by Johannes Lundberg
In the spring of 2013, National Geographic grantee Arne A. Anderberg sent his team to Vietnam. Here, Karin Santos gathered flowers and fruits in Vietnam together with the Hanoi-based botanist Do Van Truong. The tropical forest of Vietnam is an excellent place for collecting fresh material for studies of evolutionary patterns and divergence time for different groups. The area also has the potential to serve as a model for disentangling diversification in the evolutionarily complex plant groups of the Indo-Malayan region.
“It was one of the last days of our expedition to Vietnam. We had already collected 500 specimens, so every new species added to our collection would be a bonus. Climbing the slopes of the cloudy forest in Tam Dao National Park was intriguing, exciting, and tricky at the same time.
“The lush tropical forest covering those mountains stimulated the eyes of us botanists. The biodiversity was there in every sense: species, individuals, colors, shapes, forms, and in this case, variation along an altitudinal gradient. Climbing the mountain, the slippery slopes proved challenging. The under-canopy bamboos gave some support. Grabbing the stem of a bamboo became one way to avoid sliding down the mountain. But we had to beware: Only the older bamboo would help us without fighting back. The young ones had an almost invisible coat of tiny little spines to protect themselves against herbivores and botanists!
“Despite our hands being full of minute spines, the forest challenged us to proceed toward the top of the mountain. The vegetation changed gradually from a high and dense tropical rain forest at lower altitudes to a cloud forest in which we could no longer see the tree crowns but which offered the richest understory vegetation we have seen. Still higher, vegetation turned into a lower, two-layered forest, becoming shrubby and eventually forming a high-altitude grassland at the very summit. It was an amazing day, and we found lots of new specimens, so it was really worth the effort!”
—Karin Santos, team member with Arne Anderberg, Global Exploration Fund, Northern Europe grantee
Lethal Waters—Snakes in the Indo-Pacific
Photograph by Zoltan Takacs
In 2011 and 2012, toxinologist and Emerging Explorer Zoltan Takacs and Emerging Explorer and anthropologist Kenny Broad explored the scientific and cultural roles that some of the world's most lethal animals—such as sea snakes and kraits—play in the daily lives of people in remote spots of the Indo-Pacific.
“Nature's toxins are the only molecules in the universe that were crafted to take a life in less than a minute, and sea snake venom ranks among the most toxic in the animal kingdom. The potency of many species is much higher than necessary to kill the fish they normally feed on. This could be the result of an evolutionary arms race between snake and fish: Prey fish become resistant to the sea snake venom, and in response, the potency of the venom shoots up.
“Actually, the venom of the sea snake and other marine creatures contains millions of individual toxins. Animal venoms are already the successful source of a number of medications, such as those for heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Yet the vast majority of venom toxins, including those in sea snakes and other marine creatures, have never been studied.
“That is the exact reason why I grabbed this sea snake off the waters of Fiji. Taking a small tissue sample from the sea snake back to the lab, I will extract the DNA blueprint of its toxins. From that DNA, I can rebuild the toxins in bacteria and enter it for drug discovery research.
"Sadly, sea snakes are threatened by habitat loss and, despite their venom, are also subject to large-scale harvesting by fishermen. We should be taking much better care of an untapped gold mine for medicine.
“However deadly this snake may be, displaying the National Geographic flag was more challenging than grabbing the snake for this photo. Thankfully, I was protected by thick dive gloves and my wet suit.”
—Zoltan Takacs, Emerging Explorer
Related: Venom: The Bite That Heals
Editor Knows Best
Photograph by Dave Yoder
Dave Yoder is a National Geographic magazine photographer and explorer based in Milan and Rome. Here he shares the challenges that a photographer is faced with when assigned a story for the magazine.
"If you ask me, one test to detect whether a photographer is a professional or a hobbyist is to serve up an assignment on a beautiful, grandiose, world-famous monument. A hobbyist will react wholly in delight, as probably will the professional. But if you watch the professional closely, you’ll notice subtle signs of trepidation as they contemplate the task of shooting something new and fresh on an icon already photographed hundreds of millions of times.
"When I received the assignment to photograph the Brunelleschi dome in Florence, I felt that fear of face-planting on the assignment, of producing photos that looked like those easily found on a Google image search.
"My normal reaction is to overthink everything. While researching the subject, my ideas became infected with the mystery of how Brunelleschi constructed the marvellous dome, inarguably one of history’s magnificent technical feats. My ambitions became grandiose, if on a vastly smaller scale.
"I drew up several plans for the photography, which I submitted to my editor, Susan Welchman. I was going to hang a camera dozens of feet into the Vasari-frescoed dome from the lantern at the top and shoot a 360-degree mosaic for the iPad. I wanted to light-paint the dome from a distant tower with the largest movie light I could rent. I would send a camera straight up on a drone and stitch the resulting images into a strong vertical for the eight-page gatefold. I recall these dubious schemes as confessions, not as boasts.
"'No,' Susan said. ‘Shoot it from the street. Street photography. I don’t want any of that complicated stuff.'
"Gutted, and already working on the assignment, I had to start from scratch. Long story short, darn it if she wasn't right. I don’t know about new and fresh, but I’m really glad I didn’t try to hang that camera down from the inside of the cupola."
—Dave Yoder, Expeditions Council grantee
Related Article: Il Duomo
The Little Foxes
Photograph by Tomas Meijer
In the winters of 2012 and 2013, National Geographic grantee Anders Angerbjörn and his Ph.D. student, Rasmus Erlandsson, studied an extremely threatened species, the Scandinavian arctic fox. The current population numbers fewer than 150 individuals in mainland Europe so many of the young foxes are having difficulty finding a non-related partner. Other threats to the species include competition from the red fox for the scarce small rodents they both depend upon for food. Angerbjörn and Erlandsson monitored the arctic fox population in Västerbotten and Norrbotten, Sweden, to identify the best territories for further conservation actions. This included tagging the baby foxes, which proved to be a challenge.
"When catching arctic foxes it is easy to believe that the smaller ones are the easiest to handle. In some aspects it is true. Their teeth are smaller and the jaws less powerful. Combined with a naïve lack of aggressive attitude it seems to make up for an easy piece of work to ear-tag a 700-gram cub. Well, sometimes it is, but just as human children have a hard time keeping still, the really small cubs do too.
"We handle the foxes in a bag while tagging, and the trick is to keep the animal still between your thighs while kneeling. And here comes the tricky part. How do you keep a small, wild fox still? You cannot apply too much force—it is barely a kilo of an endangered carnivore you are dealing with. You really do not want to hurt it. Just as with small children the best tool is patience, but at the same time you want the handling to be as short as possible.
"One particular cub had a technique I had never experienced before as it insistently tried to turn [onto] its back, for no obvious reason. I had to reach the ears, so I quickly turned the cub upright. The cub stayed still for a few seconds, and then began to roll onto its back again. The same maneuver, once again! And again! Finally, I got the tags in place, and after making measurements and taking some samples, I finally released the little fellow and it disappeared like lightning into the den."
—Ph.D. student Rasmus Erlandsson, team member with Anders Angerbjörn, Global Exploration fund grantee
Related: Arctic Fox
Photograph by Paul Salopek
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Salopek is retracing on foot our ancestors’ migration out of Africa and across the globe. His 21,000-mile odyssey begins in Ethiopia and ends seven years later at the tip of South America.
Paul Salopek’s Out of Eden world walk is an exercise in slow journalism. Moving at the slow beat of his footsteps, Paul is engaging with the major stories of our time—from climate change to technological innovation, from mass migration to cultural survival—by walking alongside the people who inhabit them every day. As he traverses the globe from Africa to South America, he is revealing the texture of the lives of people he encounters: the nomads, villagers, traders, farmers, and fishermen who never make the news.
"Winter in the desert of Djibouti. The sun does not shine equally for all.
"By 9 a.m., the thermometer pegs 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius). I begin to stew in my sweat. The Afar guides, meanwhile, shiver under shirts, sweaters, scarves. Mohamed Youssef, a cameleer, zips himself inside a Tom Tailor brand parka from China. The only uncomplaining one is Madoita, the lead camel. He is both warmed and shaded by a $600 blanket of photovoltaic silicon cells. He is a belching, furry, ambulatory wall plug for my satellite phone. We take turns cleaning the dust from these cells with a cloth. A new chore on an ancient caravan trail: Wiping down your solar camel."
—Paul Salopek, National Geographic Fellow
Related: Water Torture: Giving a Camel a Bath
Magic at Malinowsky
Photograph by Rick Stanley
Gabby Salazar is a 26-year-old photographer from Greensboro, North Carolina. She has traveled throughout North America and to over 15 countries to take photographs. Her work as a Young Explorers grantee with a focus on tropical conservation led her to Peru to work with the Amazon Conservation Association to document the creation of the Manu-Tambopata Conservation Corridor. Salazar worked at over 15 sites along the corridor to document community-based, government-based, and foreign conservation efforts.
“We arrived at Malinowsky Guard Station, a checkpoint for entry into the Tambopata National Reserve, in the afternoon. After settling in for ten minutes, we grabbed our camera gear and headed right out on the trail.
“It turns out there’s only one trail here and it’s about two miles long. Otherwise, we’re blocked in by a river on one side and dense forest everywhere else. We started out on the trail and had a magical experience within the first 500 meters. As I was photographing a patch of mushrooms, Rick noticed that a blue morpho butterfly was hanging around. It’s pretty common to see a morpho in the forest—a flash of iridescent blue gliding down the trail and disappearing into the landscape just after you score a fleeting glimpse. However, this morpho was circling us and coming closer and closer. After a few minutes, Rick called out to me when he found the morpho on his shirt and then on his cheek. Our clothes were soaked with sweat from a boat ride in the hot sun, and the butterfly was clearly attracted to the salt covering our skin.
“We took a few fun photos of the butterfly on our clothes and then Rick got creative—he placed it on my nose. The image above is our favorite from the series because it shows just how big the morpho was. We tried to let the butterfly go after that, but he just kept following us. It was a really magical hour in the jungle with a beautiful creature, and one of my favorite memories from Peru.”
—Gabby Salazar, Young Explorer grantee
Photograph by Chris Rainier
K. David Harrison is a linguist and leading specialist in the study of endangered languages. He is an associate professor at Swarthmore College. Dr. Gregory D. S. Anderson is a linguist who is director of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the documentation, revitalization, and maintenance of endangered languages. Together they lead Enduring Voices, a project dedicated to documenting endangered languages and preventing language extinction by identifying the most crucial areas where languages are threatened and embarking on expeditions to assist indigenous communities in their efforts to revitalize and maintain their languages. Chris Rainier, a renowned documentary photographer, joins them in communicating stories of the remaining natural wilderness and indigenous cultures around the globe.
"The island nation of Papua New Guinea represents the greatest single concentration of linguistic diversity on Earth, with 830 listed languages identified thus far and an unknown number remaining to be scientifically documented. Part of Papua New Guinea also falls within a language hot spot. Without it, no survey of the world’s languages or understanding of the current global process of language extinction would be complete.
"During a three-week trip, the Enduring Voices team recorded interviews with speakers of 11 indigenous languages of Papua New Guinea. These languages embody the various forces that drive language threat and endangerment, and language shift.
"Our expedition took us to East Sepik Province, where we encountered several small endangered-language communities. These local Karawari region languages lack [a presence in] teaching materials and books, and many people blame this for the rising dominance of pidgin. In many villages, there is only passive knowledge of the ancestral Pondo-family languages Yokoim and Karim, while in others, not even passive knowledge of the heritage tongue among schoolchildren is found. It may be too late for the Karim language to rebound (Christina Yimasinant, pictured here, is a speaker), but the Yokoim language can still be maintained in some of the communities with adequate revitalization efforts.
"People would be outraged if we tore down the Pyramids of Giza or the Notre Dame Cathedral, but languages are much more ancient and complex and even more impressive as monuments to human genius.”
—K. David Harrison, National Geographic Fellow
Related Book Excerpt: The Last Speakers
The Beauty of Beekeeping
Photograph by Catherine de Medici Jaffee
Catherine de Medici Jaffee has spent the past three years living in eastern Turkey, where she works to bridge regional traditions with the growing demand for ethically produced honey. Joined by videographer Claire Bangser and funded by National Geographic, Jaffee started the world’s first honey-tasting, trekking, and artisanal honey products company. Led and inspired by village-based rural women, the effort supports local communities and revives struggling bee populations.
“With beekeeping, everything happens in seasons and cycles. Fall is the time for honey and harvests and either moving the bees to lower ground or indoors from the harsh impending winter. The summer days are long. We wake up with the bees and sleep with them all night to protect them from bears and thieves. The fall is the time to restrengthen the hives, restore the lost queens and the weak swarms, and prepare for the revitalizing rest that is winter. Every natural close on the Anatolian steppes is actually just the preparation for a new beginning to come.
“One day, I saw an enormous swarm of bees exit the hive, as they generally do in early summer. This swarm was huge. They landed on the side of one of the village homes, and our program beekeeping ladies (Birsen Baki, pictured above) all emerged with pots and pans and spoons and followed them around the home, clacking and rattling their plates. The bees circled the house three times and then reentered the hive as if nothing had ever happened. It was a dance of bees and women unlike anything I had ever seen. Once the bees settled back into their hive, the women responded to my shocked expression: ‘See, we told you the pots and pans would work.’
“What I have learned from many long hours working with beekeepers is that we should be trying to build better businesses and change the way that our human societies operate. We measure the health of a society by how many people own cars and how many new malls have been built. We build, we grow, and we destroy. Bees aren’t that way. The world is more beautiful—plants are pollenized, local ecosystems thrive—because a bee was there. If we could just shape the way we build businesses, the way we travel, and the way we interact with each other to be a fraction as poignant, we will all have a much stronger chance at survival.”
—Cat Jaffee, Young Explorers grantee
Photograph by Gemina Garland-Lewis
In the summer of 2012, National Geographic Grantee Gemina Garland-Lewis documented how whalers in the Azore Islands used 18th-century techniques to hunt sperm whales well into the 20th century.
“I’d been out in Azorean whaleboats before, though mostly for sailing. Today was rowing, a whole new beast. A couple of hours before sunset, I met the women’s rowing team in the Horta marina and smiled as they started to prepare the boat Senhora da Guia, which was my favorite. The boat’s namesake is the patron saint of whalers on the island of Faial, and to this day they honor her during an annual mass and procession for the blessing of the whaleboats.
"I took a seat (as out of the way as I could be in a canoe built for seven) to watch and photograph the incredible synchrony and hard work of these women as they rowed. Their official, Ana, shouted out “Força! Força! Força!” which means strength, force, power. After the practice had finished the women offered me a chance to row. Each oar is about ten feet long and made of solid, dense wood. I was warned that if I couldn’t lift it right and it hit the water too soon, the oar would smash into my chest and knock me over backward into the boat—and sure enough, it did. Four times. Every so often I’d get into the rhythm of it but then inevitably I’d falter. The oar hit with a slow force of something that simply couldn’t be stopped with human strength. It was nothing personal, just physics. There was nothing to do but fall back with as much grace as possible and get back up again … and again, and again.
"Until this moment, I hadn’t fully appreciated how much rowing a whaleboat was about finesse as well as strength. I thought about all the men I had been interviewing, ex-whalers who actually had to do this day in and day out. They had to be good enough at it to pursue and capture a sperm whale. I thought about their tales of bleeding hands from grabbing the oars and bleeding legs from rubbing against the boat. I understood those stories better now since I’d tried my hand at rowing. I was thankful for the experience but grateful that I didn’t have to make my living at it!"
—Gemina Garland-Lewis, Young Explorers grantee
America by Night
Photograph by Annie Agnone
Annie Agnone's America by Night project, funded by National Geographic, explores the complex relationship between Americans and nighttime. It is an account—told through writing, photographs, and audio—of the people and places encountered on a driving tour of the United States, set entirely at night.
“Just after midnight, the pilgrims rise and dress. They walk across the monastery's lighted courtyard, toward the main chapel and the sounds of bells and chanting voices.
“Inside the chapel it is dark. The congregation stands and sits and bows. Friends whisper to one another in English and Greek. A man named Christos lights prayer candles, a gentle breeze ruffling their flames.
"The monks who live here have long beards and sit in high-backed chairs surrounding the altar. They move often, to visit the icons hung around the nave, crossing themselves and leaning forward to kiss the images. Services begin at 1 a.m., but the monks, I learn, have already been awake for hours.
“Saint Anthony's Greek Orthodox Monastery was founded in Florence, Arizona, in 1995. Of the 21 monastic communities under the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, Saint Anthony's is the largest. It’s an oasis of fat palms and tall pines—fountains and grass and terracotta roofs among miles of sand, saguaro, and mesquite. Parakeets chirp in their cages and cats stroll the winding walkways lined with snapdragons, roses, and sunflowers.
“The afternoon before the service I met with Father Paisios, the monastery's abbot. He has dark brown eyes and a long gray beard. Night, he explained, is the highlight of a monastic's 24-hour day. It is a time of solitude and few distractions, an eight-hour span when monks are not expected to work. And so they rise, three hours after going to bed, to seize that moment of uninterrupted prayer before services begin. They remain in their cells. They find a quiet bench in a stand of cypress. They walk away from the monastery's lights and perfumed air, out into the star-crusted desert night, out into a different kind of oasis.”
—Annie Agnone, Young Explorers grantee
Related: Inside a Vegas Wedding Chapel
Photograph by Al Giddings, National Geographic
The ocean first grabbed National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and Rolex laureate Sylvia Earle's attention at an early age—when a wave knocked her over on the New Jersey shore. After moving to Florida, she had the Gulf of Mexico for a backyard. Now the oceanographer known as "Her Deepness" reflects on the Gulf of her youth and its current threatened state.
"When I first ventured into the Gulf of Mexico in the 1950s, the sea appeared to be a blue infinity too large, too wild to be harmed by anything that people could do. I explored powdery white beaches, dense marshes, mangrove forests, and miles of sea grass meadows alive with pink sea urchins, tiny shrimps, and seahorses half the size of my little finger. I learned to dive in unexplored areas offshore from the many rivers that flow into the Gulf, where jungles of crimson, green, and brown seaweed sprouted from rocky limestone reefs.
"Then, in mere decades, the blue wilderness of my childhood disappeared: It was biologic change in the space of a lifetime.
"By the mid-1950s manatees were already scarce, and monk seals—once common as far north as Galveston—were gone. By the end of the 20th century, up to 90 percent of the sharks, tuna, swordfish, marlins, groupers, turtles, whales, and other creatures that prospered in the Gulf for millions of years had been depleted, many by overfishing. Rivers that once nourished the Gulf with vital nutrients now carried toxic loads of pollutants, forming massive dead zones.
"As a child, I did not know that people could consciously protect something as vast as the ocean, nor that they could cause it harm. But now we know: The ocean is in trouble, and therefore so are we. As biologist Edward O. Wilson has observed, 'We are letting nature slip through our fingers, and taking ourselves along.' Smothered in an avalanche of oil and poisoned by toxic dispersants, the Gulf has become a sea of despair. Protecting vital sources of renewal—unscathed marshes, healthy reefs, and deep-sea gardens—will provide hope for the future of the Gulf, and for all of us."
Ancestral Andes Mystery Solved
Photograph by Eduardo Rubiano Moncada
New genetic research led by the Genographic Project team, including Fabricio R. Santos, Genographic project scientist, and Spencer Wells, explorer-in-residence and Genographic director, shows a distinctive ancestry for the Uros populations of Peru and Bolivia that predates the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores and may date back to the earliest settlement of the Altiplano of the central Andes some 3,700 years ago. Here, Wells surveys the landscape from aboard a boat on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca.
"The timing of human settlement in the Andean Altiplano is one of the great mysteries of our species' worldwide odyssey. A vast, high-altitude plain, the Altiplano seems utterly inhospitable, yet it has apparently nurtured a complex culture for millennia.
"This significant new study reflects the importance of the Genographic team's careful, patient work with the members of the indigenous communities living in this remote corner of the mountainous South American terrain, and sheds light on how our species has adapted to disparate ecosystems since its relatively recent exodus from an African homeland less than 70,000 years ago."
—Spencer Wells, explorer-in-residence and Genographic director
Inca Mummies: Frozen in Time
Photograph by Stephen Alvarez, National Geographic
Anthropologist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Johan Reinhard's research in the Andes and his expertise in mountain people's sacred landscape beliefs draw him to high altitudes every year. He has investigated Inca ceremonial sites including Peru's Ampato volcano (above, in 1995), the Nasca Lines, and the ancient ceremonial centers of Machu Picchu, Chavin, and Tiahuanaco.
"I was approaching Ampato's 20,700-foot summit for the first time since we had discovered a frozen Inca mummy, the Ice Maiden, the month before. We had found her by chance during a normal ascent, and we had no time to make a closer search of the summit area. We were rushing to get the mummy to a city and into a freezer before she unfroze. We had found the mummy lying on the surface, because its burial site had been destroyed when Ampato's summit ridge collapsed. It and other Inca objects had been strewn down a gully into the summit crater 200 feet below. I returned with an archaeology team, and we had recovered two more Inca mummies at a 19,000-foot site only days earlier. Unfortunately, both had been badly damaged by lightning, but we felt certain that we would find more well-preserved Inca artifacts—and possibly another mummy—near the summit. Although some people believe the erupting volcano visible in the photo (above) must have posed a threat, we gave it no thought, as it had been active for the past few years and become a part of daily routine. Our main concern was of snow. Any that might have fallen on the summit in the past weeks would make a search difficult, if not impossible. Fortunately, we were able to recover rare Inca artifacts, although no more mummies.
"The Ice Maiden was an important discovery because she was one of only a few frozen Inca mummies found and the first one in Peru, the homeland of the Inca. It was also the first female frozen mummy. She provided unique insights into the dress of an Inca noblewoman. Also scientific studies to be carried out would increase our understanding of the Inca culture of 500 years ago.
"True time capsules, these frozen bodies allow a view into the past that cannot be obtained through any other means, including that of the best-preserved mummies found in other climates, such as in the deserts of Egypt. Due to their excellent preservation, finds made at high altitudes enable unique opportunities for studies ranging from the biological (perfect DNA, ancient diseases, nutrition, etc.) to the archaeological. Because of the Inca practice of making human sacrifices at sites on high mountains, the Andes region is the only one in the world with a good chance of finding frozen mummies—assuming systematic work is conducted before they are destroyed by looters and lost to mankind forever."
—Johan Reinhard, National Geographic explorer-in-residence and Rolex laureate
Photos: Adventures in Nepal
Photograph by Tim Hussin
In the spring of 2011, National Geographic Grantee Tim Hussin and his brother Noah set off on a nearly 5,000-mile trek across the United States, riding bicycles built from recycled parts. As they biked west, the filmmaking duo encountered rich diversity in the rural communities that took them in—and from those experiences they created their documentary film, America reCycled. Between adventures, the brothers occasionally took a break from biking; here, Tim (left) and Noah relax in desert hot springs after a strenuous week.
"After cycling for ten days across the Chihuahuan Desert, we rejuvenate in the Langford Hot Springs. J. O. Langford was one of the first homesteaders in the area and developed the springs into a commercial bathhouse. The structural remains now lie in Big Bend National Park on the Rio Grande.
"A year and a half into the journey, our bodies and relationship had been heavily strained by the road, and tensions were running high. The healing waters and loving people of Texas' Big Bend fully embraced us, recharging us for the final leg of the adventure."
—Noah Hussin, brother of Tim Hussin, Expeditions Council grantee
Related: America reCycled
Photograph by Paul Colangelo
Paul Colangelo had a business degree under his belt and an insurance job on the line. Then, driven by an impulse to capture the stories of wildlife and their habitats before they disappear, he dropped everything to pursue his passion for wildlife photography. Since then the National Geographic grantee’s repertoire has grown and flourished, and his various projects have sent him to some of the most remote areas of the world. Colangelo shot this photo of two rams competing for female attention during a 2012 trip to the Togadin Plateau in British Columbia.
"The Todagin Plateau bursts to life each fall with the frenzied activity of Stone’s sheep battling for the chance to mate. Overcome by hormones, the usually sedate sheep battle and vie to win the attention of desirable partners. The rams, with their large, curled horns, compete in fierce head-butting contests to establish the hierarchy within the male ranks. Fights continue to erupt when insubordinate juveniles are caught trying to mate behind the backs of their superiors. The females alternate from playing hard-to-get, fleeing from the less impressive rams, and fawning over the impressive full-curls. The yearlings seem to watch in amazement as the usually calm and steady adults lose all control.
"I am camping on Todagin Mountain throughout November and December to photograph this high-energy season. The high winds on Todagin, which destroyed camp in the summer, only get worse during the winter, so I have to base camp halfway down the mountain, protected among the trees. I start each day with a two-hour hike in the dark up the snow-covered mountain to reach the rutting grounds by sunrise and then spend the day on the exposed plateau with the sheep before hiking back in the dark after sunset. I wake up in my tent at 4 a.m. in minus 12˚F temperatures and have some instant oatmeal and strong coffee before heading out. I return to camp by 7 p.m., eat a freeze-dried dinner in a bag and am asleep by 8 p.m. To make this schedule seem normal, I set my watch two hours ahead, creating my own Todagin time zone.”
—Paul Colangelo, Expeditions Council grantee
Related Photo of the Day: Moose, British Columbia
A Free-Hanging Photo Shoot
Photograph by Mikey Schaefer
For National Geographic photographer and filmmaker Jimmy Chin, a typical photo shoot involves a rope, a cliff, and a several-thousand-foot climb. In his images, Chin attempts to convey the beauty of the natural world from its highest peaks, which have included Yosemite’s Half Dome (from which he dangles in the photo above) and Everest. As Chin notes, photographing from a swinging rope can sometimes be a shot in the dark.
"Dangling like a spider more than 2,000 feet off the ground never gets old, especially when you're watching the rope seesaw back and forth over the edge of the cliff while you're ascending your fixed lines.
"In the photo, I'm headed back to the top of Half Dome after shooting Alex Honnold climbing on the sheer northwest face of the iconic granite monolith in Yosemite National Park. Shooting from a free-hanging rope, where you're not touching the wall, is especially difficult since you’re slowly spinning in space without any control which way you're facing. Most of the time, as Murphy's photo law would have it, you end up looking out in space with your body facing away from the subject.
"As you can see, I'm hauling out another 60 meters of rope on my harness since I had to rappel close to 400 feet down the rock face to shoot Alex. Ascending ropes with a ton of gear is a great way to get in shape! My favorite part about this image is that I had no idea I'd just shot my first cover image for National Geographic magazine.”
—Jimmy Chin, National Geographic emerging explorer
On Thin Ice
Photograph by Borge Ousland, National Geographic
Subzero temperatures and encounters with Arctic predators are everyday hazards to National Geographic grantee and polar explorer Børge Ousland. In 1997, he made history as the first person to cross the Arctic unassisted. Since then, Ousland has journeyed to both of Earth’s Poles and successfully circumnavigated the North Pole.
Here, Ousland and a polar bear lock eyes through a tent opening during an expedition to Franz Josef Land in Russia.
“We wanted to do the entire Nansen and Johansen journey, so we started at the North Pole on the first of May, 2007 and skied south. That meant that we had to cross more than 1,000 kilometers of drifting ice just before we reached land. This was a huge undertaking. After about one and a half months, we finally saw land. When you’ve been away for a long time on the packed ice, that’s a great moment—a really magical moment with lots of feelings. When finally we came to the ice edge, the ice stopped and was just water. We skied and also paddled from one island to the other.
“We were in the middle of June now, so everything was melting around us. But there was also much more wildlife than we have in the winter. The sky was just filled with birds like mosquitoes, breeding on every cliff we went by. And also, of course, lots of polar bears. We met about 40 of them on this expedition, and when you meet a polar bear out skiing that’s fine. You see them at a distance normally, and you have time to sort out who is the boss. But when you’re in your tiny little tent trying to sleep, with this thin fabric between yourself and those padded footsteps outside, that’s not always so easy. And [team member] Thomas, he’s a snorer—he snores quite a lot. But that is not enough to scare away a polar bear. It happened sometimes when we opened the zipper in the morning, there was just this big wide piece of fur standing outside.”
Photograph by Michael Christopher Brown, National Geographic
When he isn’t traversing the Alaskan wilderness, competing in a 100-mile ultrarun, or delivering a powerful presentation about his many hikes, adventurer and National Geographic grantee Andrew Skurka is planning his next great trip. His expeditions have taken him as far as 7,775 miles at a time—on foot. Hikes like this require foresight, and Skurka always travels prepared. Here, he stops to try on a new pair of shoes at a post office in Cordova, Alaska.
"After my parents, the United States Postal Service played the most important role in my trip logistics. Food, supplies, maps, and fresh gear were all sent in Priority Mail flat-rate boxes, addressed to General Delivery. I'm still not sure how a 12-pound box of food can be shipped from Massachusetts to bush-village Alaska for just $15, but I don't want to question it. Receiving new shoes, a stack of crisp maps, pounds of chocolate, and (if I was lucky) some homemade cookies from Mom was one of the most cherished experiences of the trip."
—Andrew Skurka, National Geographic Expeditions Council grantee
Related: Circling Alaska in 176 Days
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
Related: Tiny Toad to Tell Secrets?
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