I’m writing this from the airport in Belize City. I’ve just spent the past week here in Belize, scouting and having fun exploring the jungles and caves in the region for an upcoming project. (More on that later.)
Belize gained independence just 30 years ago, in 1981. Before that, the country was British Honduras. As a result of that heritage, English is the national language (the only country in Central America where this is the case) and it’s a very traveler-friendly place for those who don’t know Spanish. There’s also a fascinating mix of cultures in Belize, a real melting pot of Kriol, Mestizo, Garinagu, Chinese, Mennonite, Maya and American influences. If you’ve never been, I’d definitely recommend it.
This is my third trip to Belize and certainly the most active. I was here with Curt Bowen, Walter Pickel, Jon Bojar, and Eric Deister — divers / explorers from the ADM Exploration Team. Our goal was to informally scout the country, evaluating possible sites for future dive expeditions. Of course, those would have to be done through appropriate government agencies and, most likely, archaeologists in order to get permits. But for this week, we just hiked through the jungle a bunch, studying the terrain of the central lowland Maya and getting a feel for the topography, geography and geology of the country. Many bushwhacked miles, ticks and bug bites later, we all feel like the week was worthwhile and a lot of fun. Hopefully, we’ll return later in the year for a more thorough exploration when, ideally, we’ll dive some caves. For now, though, I’m happy to let the bug bites heal and get back to the US for a bit.
Yesterday, I flew to Fort Myers, Florida so I could deliver the final keynote address in the 2010-2011 Shell Point Speaker Series.
The title of my 50-minute talk was “World Mysteries - A Selection” and it covered my travels exploring over 50 countries and countless mysteries. In addition to showing photos from dozens and dozens of archaeological sites and world wonders, I focused on 4 specific mysteries:
I then finished with a brief discussion of where our world is today, how we can learn from the past, and what we must do to safeguard our future. During the post-talk Q & A, the audience asked some really interesting and creative questions about my travels and opinions on several topics. To finish the evening, I went to dinner with a small group of friends in The Explorers Club’s Florida Chapter. Overall, I had a fantastic time and want to thank the people at Shell Point for their hospitality!
Assuming all goes well in-studio at NBC on Thursday morning, at some point viewers will be invited to submit expedition ideas for future TODAY show segments. Given that TODAY has almost 6 million viewers, surely some of them are involved in legitimate expeditions for research and scientific discovery, right? So why not have those people submit their pertinent details via this website? My goal is to work with you to highlight exciting and adventurous stories around the globe on a regular basis.
In order for this to happen, though, there are some guidelines / criteria that will need to be honored. Here are a few of them, subject to change:
1. Any expedition I participate in must have a scientific purpose and be grounded in the quest for some type of knowledge. We’re not talking about a quest to drink margaritas and study the scientific effects of tequila (although…). I’m looking for real expeditions to study new terrain, learn about new lifeforms, explore the fringes of familiarity. Or it could be about new technology and how that’s contributing to our knowledge of the world. But active is better (see #5 below).
2. Ideally, the expedition should be affiliated with a university, institute, foundation etc. or at the very least a 501(c) not-for-profit. This helps us avoid what could be a commercial for a guide service or a fishing boat operator.
3. Given my travel schedule, it’s likely I will be in the field / on site for no more than 5 days. This may change, but it’s best for now if expeditions can accommodate my coming in late / going out early (I can help with those logistics).
4. The expedition must be able to accommodate a small camera crew. In tight spots, I can film things solo, but it’s better all-around if I can travel with at least 2 other people. Permits and lodging should take that into account.
5. Expeditions should be TV-friendly (visual in nature) and ideally adventurous. If I can rappel, climb, hike, paraglide, dive, etc. with your team, that’s much better than just walking and talking.
Those are just some of my initial thoughts. If you feel like you might have a possible segment for me, please click here and submit the information in the boxes provided. I’m not sure we’ll respond to everyone—likely just those we feel are suitable. But I encourage you to submit your details and we’ll see where it goes. Thanks!
Seven years ago, I made my first journey into the cenotes of the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. It was for an episode of season one of Digging for the Truth called “Passage to the Maya Underworld.” At the beginning of that episode, I was asked by the show’s producers if I’d be comfortable SCUBA diving in a cenote, those gorgeous sinkholes of azure blue water that are promoted throughout so much of Eastern Mexico. “Of course!” I said, and after a few days of training (some on camera, some off), I was Cavern certified. A few days after that, there was discussion whether or not it was okay for me to go past the cenote’s sunlit walls and into the caves beyond—where darkness, rock, and water make for a deadly combination. There was honest debate about the needs of TV vs. the risks of diving in potentially hazardous conditions without adequate training (some of this also on camera) and, in the end, as some may recall, I didn’t go into the cave. Too dangerous. But the seed was planted, for sure, as I learned more and more about the Maya and how sacred their caves were and how the Underworld known as Xibalba was accessed through those cenotes.
Two years ago, I returned to Mexico – without a film crew – to get my cave diving certification. First, there was the Intro Cave course, then Full Cave. For those unfamiliar with the training involved for cave diving, it’s much more strict than what you get in a recreational Open Water SCUBA class. The analogy isn’t 100% accurate, but I like to say the difference in training between OW diving and Cave Diving is like the difference in training between a standard airplane pilot’s license and a jet fighter pilot’s license. Of course I’m no jet pilot, so I may be completely wrong about that, but cave diving requires a much higher level of training, competency and cool-headedness than Open Water diving. You can’t freak out on a cave dive. If you do, you’ll probably die – and many have. So there’s a certain type of person who willingly and enthusiastically goes into a dark, ever-changing, airless and potentially lethal environment, and that person is called a Cave Diver. I have to say, I’m proud to be one (although a newbie).
In February, 2010, I got an email from Walter Pickel (pronounced like pickle). Walter wrote that he was an avid cave diver who dove with a bunch of guys who lived to search for, explore and then document unknown cave systems worldwide. They were called the ADM Exploration Team (ADM stands for Advanced Diver Magazine, published by one of the team members, Curt Bowen) and they were curious if I’d like to join them in the field. For the next 7 months, Walter and I discussed a number of potential dives we could do together, but it wasn’t until we met at DEMA in November that the idea for a trip to the Yucatán Peninsula came together.
In order to do the kind of cave diving that the ADM Exploration Team members do, I needed more than just a Full Cave cert. I needed to be comfortable with side-mount diving – where you attach the SCUBA tanks at your sides, under your armpits. So I went down to Florida in December 2010 for a few days to dive with Walter and Curt in Ginnie Springs and learn how to side-mount cave dive (see my Dec 18 blog entry below for details). Then came Mexico.
The ADM Exploration Team to Mexico was comprised of eight people: Curt Bowen, Walter Pickel, Jeff Toorish, Jon Bojar, Jitka Hyniova, Brendan Nappier, Robert Atwater and me. For 10 days, the team lived in a small ranch house outside Colonia, Mexico in Yucatán. Each day, they hiked into the jungle to jump in random holes in the ground, or they drove to remote villages and asked if they could rig a rope to go down into the town well. I tagged along with them, diving when able and filming the activities for the TODAY show. I’ll leave the (exciting) results of the expedition for both the TODAY show segment and the feature article that will be published in Advanced Diver Magazine. But I will say I had a fantastic time, saw some truly spectacular Maya artifacts, and made some new friends. Oh, and I finally got to dive the caves of Mexico.
My sincerest thanks to the ADM Exploration Team members for allowing me to join them on their expedition. Also, thanks to Waterproof for their fantastic wetsuits and to Petzl for their great climbing/descending gear.
Glad to read that Dr. Zahi Hawass has been reappointed Minister of Antiquities today. Like millions of others around the world, I’ve been concerned that looting of antiquities sites was far greater than we’d been led to believe and that without any person to stand up and coordinate the protection of those sites, looting and theft would continue. We still don’t know what was taken from the storage magazines at Giza, Saqqara, Tell el Fara’in, and Qantara East, And blocks were removed from tombs in Giza, Saqqara, Abusir, and Ismailia.
The good news is that many of the stolen items have been recovered and Zahi’s on it. His management style may be controversial, but his passion for antiquities and his presence for order are both palpable—assets in a country like Egypt. I’m glad he’s back at the helm. Mabrouk, Dr. Zahi!
(In other good news, the Peruvian government is expecting to receive their first shipment of Machu Picchu artifacts from Yale University.)
I’ve come to Casper College in Casper, Wyoming to deliver the opening keynote at their 2011 Green Outreach Project Conference. I love Wyoming – I learned to ride horses out here when I was a kid, and I’m always happy to come back, even if it’s to be inside and talk with people.
February 24, 2011—my 40th birthday. Have to say, I don’t feel 40. I mean, I remember that when I was in high school, I thought 40 was OLD. But I can’t say I feel that bad. And I still have hair on my head, which is something to celebrate, I suppose. But most of all, I’m excited for what this year represents. When I was studying Kabbalah in Jerusalem, I learned that mystics wouldn’t teach a man the secret, hidden traditions of Judaism until he was 1) married and 2) over 40 years old. So here I am, with BOTH happening in the same year! That’s exciting and I’m curious to see what veils are lifted in the near future.
I just saw “The Last Lions” – a film by Dereck & Beverly Joubert and National Geographic Entertainment that’s now in select theaters. Here’s the trailer:
My review? The cinematography was superb—Dereck Joubert’s camera work is artistically inspired, and I loved the way he really went in for tight shots. The full-screen images of lion faces and buffalo horns create a sense of immersion I haven’t seen or felt in other nature films. There are a few shots that actually looked painted, they were so beautiful.
The writing, however, left me wishing for a less heavy hand. Maybe it was Jeremy Irons’ narration. He has a great voice (and it’s a clever bit of casting getting The Lion King’s Scar to voice this film) but the storytelling was SO anthropomorphic that at times I felt the writing combined with his delivery was just too much. Am I glad I saw it? Absolutely. Would I recommend it? Yes, if you like lions and love nature docs. But the story and therefore the cause of this film—reversing the devastating drop of lions from 450,000 to 20,000 in just 50 years—fall a bit flat when compared to, say, Louis Psihoyos’ The Cove. Having said that, I still give tremendous credit to the Jouberts for putting their passion on film (again) and to National Geographic Entertainment for helping make it happen.
Have you seen the trailer for this film? It’s been on TV a bunch in the US recently:
I have to say, I’m excited to see a big-budget film about cave diving. Granted, I have no doubt it will be filled with many over-the-top scenarios and unlikely rescues, but I suppose that’s what Hollywood demands these days. I just hope the cave diving / exploration aspect of the film is portrayed with some credibility. Given that James Cameron’s involved (as Exec Producer, not Director), I’m hopeful he’ll keep things reasonably believable, as I know he’s passionate about exploration and diving. Movie premieres on Feb 4th.
I’m writing from High Springs, Florida, where I’ve spent the last 3 days learning a new diving skill - how to swim with my tanks “side-mounted.” Most of the time, divers mount their tanks on their backs (called backmounting). But in caves or wrecks, sometimes the passage is too small or narrow to fit a diver and their tank behind them. In these cases, one needs a slimmer profile, and side-mount diving offers that. Because the tanks are mounted along your sides (below you arms and lower than stage diving), your profile is much smaller. This means you can go almost anywhere a person can fit. And, if a restriction is too narrow for the width of you and those tanks, you can easily take one or both tanks off and push it/them in front of you, Superman style.
(I’m the one with the blue on my wetsuit.)
My thanks to Curt, Walter, and the people at Golem Gear (makers of the Armadillo sidemount). In addition to being a bunch of cool guys to hang out with, they’ve taught me so much about Florida’s caves and the technique, tips & tricks for side-mount diving. The diving here is much rougher than the caves of the Yucatan, where I was cave certified a few years ago. In Mexico, the caves often have super-delicate stalactites and stalagmites in them, so touching anything is strictly forbidden. Here, the caves don’t have those formations and in many caves, you’re supposed to pull and glide your way across with your hands – sometimes, when the restrictions are tight, you’re scraping top and bottom. It’s been fantastic fun, although my fingertips are rubbed bloody/raw from the friction.
Next month, I’m going to the Yucatan with Curt, Walter and some other explorers to document an expedition. Now that I can side-mount dive, I’m able to go where they go and hopefully see some Maya artifacts. Stay tuned.
I’m in Florida for a few days of cave diving training. It’s a thrill—will share more later.
I just got an email from Bob Poole, one of the most talented DPs working in the nature documentary space (for a list of shows he’s done, click here). I haven’t (yet) had the chance to work with Bob, but there’s always next time….
Bob was principal cinematographer on Great Migrations, the new epic nature series from National Geographic that’s launching worldwide on Nov 7th. Here’s the trailer:
My other friends in the industry who worked on it say that it kicks Planet Earth’s butt. I’m certainly tuning in on Sundays to watch what looks like a masterpiece. Bravo, Bob and Nat Geo for all your hard work making this!
This is the tale of two archaeological sites. The first I’m guessing you haven’t heard of. Roughly 11,500 years ago, a community of nomadic hunter gatherers in what is now southeastern Turkey created the oldest human-built place of worship we know of. It’s called Göbekli Tepe, and it sits on a hilltop sanctuary not too far from Turkey’s border with Syria. What’s most fascinating about Göbekli Tepe is the glimpse it gives us into the Eurasian pre-Neolithic period and what role ceremony played in pre-agricultural groups. Before there were domesticated animals or cultivated fields, the nomads around Göbekli Tepe decorated monoliths with icons of lions, gazelles, vultures and snakes (among others) and, in all likelihood, worshipped beneath them.
The other site can be found a hemisphere away, 8,000 miles to the southwest, nestled in the mountains of southcentral Peru. It’s called Machu Picchu and, of course, you’ve heard of it. Similar to Göbekli Tepe, Machu Picchu was also a ceremonial center, the royal estate of Incan Emperor Pachacuti. Although the stones of Machu Picchu don’t have any iconography carved into them, there’s no doubt their placement and shape played an important role in ceremonies and, in this regard, the sacred monoliths of both sites reveal certain aspects of their respective cultures. The stones of both sites also reveal a silent crisis that exists today. It’s called the crisis of vanishing heritage and it’s occurring all over the world.
On one end of the crisis’ spectrum sit the heritage sites you’ve never heard of, the Göbekli Tepes of the world. They’re found in developing countries like Turkey, China, India, and Guatemala. Their archaeological treasures often lie unprotected, subject to the effects of time, weather, and looting. The technology to conserve these sites exists, but obtaining proper funding, regional support, and on-site management can be challenging when public awareness and interest are lacking.
On the other end of the spectrum sit the heritage sites everyone has heard of… the Machu Picchus, Tikals, and Angkor Wats of the world. While time and weather (and some looting) affect these sites, too, the largest threats to their survival are overpopulation and unsustainable tourism – the sites are overrun with tourists who, in their eagerness to walk everywhere and touch everything, are literally destroying the places they sought to preserve. Management plans rarely include proper visitor control and even the best managers are under tremendous pressure to accept tourist dollars today despite the cost tomorrow.
So, how can we manage these sites in a sustainable fashion? How can we create a system of site selection, preservation, and conservation that helps the local economy protect a cultural treasure that ultimately belongs to the world? How can technology be leveraged to assist these efforts? These are just some of the questions being asked this Tuesday at Stanford University in California, where a group of experts in conservation, development, archaeology, philanthropy, technology, tourism and travel have gathered to attend the first Forum on Cultural Heritage in a Developing World. Our goal: to review the data on heritage conservation efforts, discuss what’s working (and what’s not), and determine what solutions make sense for the future. As someone in the media who’s been to hundreds of archaeological sites around the world, I’ve happily agreed to serve as the Master of Ceremonies for the Forum. The keynote address — “Turning Oppression into Opportunities” — will be delivered by Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times journalist and author Nicholas Kristof.
The Forum and the accompanying 68-page report titled Saving Our Vanishing Heritage are the product of the Global Heritage Fund (GHF), a California-based international conservancy whose mission is “to protect, preserve, and sustain the most significant and endangered cultural heritage sites in the developing world.” (Full disclosure: I’m on GHF’s board.) GHF isn’t afraid to tackle heritage problems head on, to find solutions that help turn the tide, create public interest and ultimately protect these cultural treasures from their greatest threat – us.
The hard truth is that our planet is facing a number of population-driven crises right now, including environmental destruction, the loss of biodiversity and the collapse of ocean life. But whereas the rainforests and the oceans have their champions, little has been said on behalf of cultural heritage sites. Perhaps it’s because the stones and bones of archaeological sites hold less appeal than the fur of pandas and fins of sharks. Perhaps it’s because civilizations have always devalued and destroyed the accomplishments of those they’ve conquered – the churches of the Spanish, for example, where built on top of the temples of the Inca.
I sincerely hope that GHF and the Forum can help create a new vision for sustainable tourism and conservation, a model in which heritage sites generate revenue without sacrificing long-term preservation. Without a proper plan, sites will continue to disappear and, unlike a rainforest, once a heritage site is gone, it’s gone forever. What managed to survive for 10,000 years may disappear — silently, suddenly — within just a few decades.
The cultural tapestry that depicts the story of our collective heritage benefits from diversity; it celebrates the richness of language, the expressiveness of religion, the beauty of art. In a world too often focused on short-term issues and Western ideologies, we must make the effort to protect cultural heritage sites. Whether it’s Göbekli Tepe or Machu Picchu, the stories of our ancestors matter. Heritage matters. Our challenge is to recognize this before it’s too late.
Last week, I had the privilege of seeing the film Jane’s Journey about Dr. Jane Goodall. Here’s the trailer:
For me, the most fascinating part of the film was watching the footage of a young Jane Goodall in Gombe with the chimps. Such a pioneer. I love how she did things simply because she wanted to—no formal training, no college degree—just passion and curiosity (and the support of Dr. Louis Leakey). I love how she became one of only a handful of people to gain admission to Cambridge’s Ph.D. program without having first had a Bachelor’s degree (again, thanks to Dr. Leakey). Such an inspiration. Where are the pioneers today? What areas of science and exploration will change our understanding of the world over the next 50 years?
After the film ended, Dr. Goodall answered a number of questions from the audience. I have to say, at 76 she is still sharp as a tack and tireless as an ambassador for her causes: chimps, the environment, education, world peace.
I was really hoping to speak with her afterward but the crowd was 5-deep after she finished and everyone had something to say, so I left to get a hot chocolate across the street from the theater. Imagine my surprise when, 20 minutes later, she comes walking past me on the street with the film’s producers! I immediately jumped in front to express my profound gratitude to her for all she’s done and everything she stands for. I thanked the producers of the film, too (since they were right there) for capturing so much of her spirit for others to enjoy. I thought the film was good, a bit long in places, but the highlight for me was shaking her hand and seeing that sparkle in her eye. I didn’t say a word about what I did for a living—I didn’t even tell her my name. I was just happy to be an anonymous fan, grateful for all she’s done and still does.
There have been an overwhelming number of survival shows on TV in recent years. First, there was Survivorman with Les Stroud on Science Channel (and then Discovery). Les would drop himself off in some hypothetical survival scenario (plane crash, snowmobile wreck, etc) and do what he could to survive seven days alone while filming the entire process. What impressed me even more than Les’ ability to stay calm and committed to success was his ability to document the experience with several cameras. Close to 65% of his energy went into production, not survival, as he managed the wide-shots, the POVs, the close-ups and all the other angles an editor would later need (not to mention the camera tapes and the batteries). This was done without much food, if any, and sometimes in truly brutal conditions.
A short while later, Man vs. Wild appeared with Bear Grylls as the host. Unlike Les, Bear’s series had the support of a full film crew. This meant routes could be scouted, shots could be prepared, rappels could be rigged. The entire production component was amplified, resulting in a show that was more adrenaline-rush than survival training. Bear jumped out of helicopters, over cliffs, and into glacial waters. He ate animal parts of questionable cleanliness, more for effect than any nutritional value. Kids loved it and the show has since found a huge audience worldwide (I suppose crazy adventure translates well into many languages).
With the success of Survivorman and Man vs. Wild, Discovery launched two more survival-related shows this year: Dual Survival with primitive technologist Cody Lundin and military-survival expert Dave Canterbury and Man, Woman, Wild with former Special Forces survival expert Mykel Hawke and his journalist wife, Ruth England. Both Dual Survival and Man, Woman, Wild were renewed for second seasons this week, indicating that Discovery is continuing to fund this genre, which they further support with programs like “Discovery Saved My Life”—a show that celebrates people who survive life-threatening situations by doing what they saw Les, Bear or others do on TV.
Now, I appreciate that television is a medium of entertainment first and education second (or not at all, in many cases). And I appreciate that Les, Bear, Cody, Dave, Mykel and Ruth are hired to attract, maintain and build an audience—that’s how successful TV works. But as a survival instructor and someone who has been in the outdoor industry for several decades, I take issue with the illusion of success and safety that these shows continue to project. And when it comes to statistics involving people who are saved, I suspect that for every 1 person who survives in the wilderness because he did something he saw on TV, there are another 2 or 3 who died because they were unsuccessful doing the exact same thing.
Last March, I came across this posting—Les Stroud Fan Dies Trying “Survivorman” Techniques In Wild. As the article points out, one can’t really say whether a person who freezes in the woods was trying to do what he saw Les do. Without a hand-written note or a posted pre-trip plan that clearly states a person’s intention to replicate a challenge or journey, we simply can’t know what led to his death, which is my point. How many people have injured themselves by jumping off ledges into rivers without knowing the water’s depth? How many have tried to hunt animals and, in the process, been bitten or attacked? How many have gone into the winter wilderness to do what they saw their favorite TV host do, only to freeze to death and never tell a soul? These kinds of statistics aren’t easy to collect but I know that backcountry injuries have risen dramatically in recent years thanks to increased technology (lighter gear, better food) and the false sense of security cell phones and GPS units provide. People who have less training and fewer outdoor skills are now going deeper into the woods, then getting lost. Add to that the foolish ignorance of someone trying to replicate what they think they saw on TV and you have yourself a recipe for disaster.
Take it from me, someone who has (so far) hosted over 50 hrs of TV for two major networks: spontaneous challenges are rarely spontaneous. The amount of time that goes into “health & safety” discussions for a segment are considerable—first, there are the insurance people (for the network and the production company), and then there are the producers, who must make sure everything will go according to plan. On location, you have the specialists who must triple-check everything before, finally, the host will “spontaneously” decide to jump off that cliff or wrestle that crocodile. On some shows, I think it’s fine—good TV often needs a jolt of energy. But in certain genres, the illusion of authenticity that is created is a discredit to the audience. When you can, read filmmaker Chris Palmer’s article in today’s Washington Post. It’s disheartening to realize that many of the most touching “wild moments” we watch in nature documentaries are anything but wild. Many of the scenes that masquerade as “authentic” are, in fact, staged. When it’s done with animals, it’s a disservice to the audience and our understanding of nature. When it’s done with survival scenarios, though, it’s downright dangerous. I look forward to the day when authenticity and transparency are as important as ratings. It’s not an easy battle to fight, but there are some of us who believe it’s worth fighting.