Hometown Hero Goes National – Geographic, That Is.

Tampa Bay area photographer Carlton Ward, Jr. advocates for wild Florida. His powerful images of our own miraculous wildernesses and passionate education about saving what’s left landed him a slot as a speaker for National Geographic LIVE! He kicks off his road speaker career right here in Ferguson Hall on Tues., Feb. 26 with Wild Florida: Hidden in Plain Sight.


Carlton testing a camera at Babcock Ranch State Preserve. (Photo from Instagram: @carltonward)

As we type, Carlton is collaborating with The Nature Conservancy, setting up his signature remote camera traps for panthers somewhere in the vicinity of Labelle, FL. Last week, we caught up with Carlton on his lunch break to talk about his work and his upcoming engagement at The Straz.

Caught in the Act: We want to start with the story of how you ended up giving this talk at The Straz. Last year when National Geographic LIVE! speaker Cristina Mittermeier was here, you were in the audience. And you guys went out to dinner afterwards with Sarah Gecan, our Nat Geo marketer. She was so taken by your passion for Florida wildlife and conservation in general that when the opening came up this season, she was the one who said, “Get Carlton.”

Carlton Ward, Jr.: That’s awesome. That’s very cool. Yeah, this is my first Nat Geo Live talk on the road. I did one at National Geographic headquarters last March, which was when the people from the Nat Geo Live program saw my presentation there. That’s when we started talking about putting me on the schedule for late 2019-2020. Then this cancellation came up [on The Straz season], so I’m getting to do my first on-the-road talk at home.

Aucilla River

The Aucilla River spreads out into the Gulf in an area known as the Forgotten Coast. (Photo from Instagram: @carltonward)

CITA: And we are pumped. The show is selling like hotcakes, Carlton. You are really well-loved. You probably know that, especially from the success of the Florida Wildlife Corridor films. People have been really enthusiastic about the fact that you’re on the season this year.

CW: Oh, that’s super cool. Yeah, it’s a hometown audience and we’ve had such good media following from WUSF and other things on the topics I work on, so that helps. The reason I do what I do is to raise the awareness for the wildlife and the land conservation that we need to do to sustain it, in Florida.

CITA: Environmental issues can be thorny topics in Florida because Florida’s boom was a development boom. So, it’s ingrained in the cultural psychology that we’ve got to build, we’ve got to develop, we have to keep growing.

CW: Yes. I focus on animals like the Florida panther and the Florida black bear because they utilize large landscapes and they show us the land that we need to protect. Not just for them, but for all the other wildlife and for ourselves. We’re losing more than 100,000 acres of wildlife habitat every year to development, and we need to accelerate the pace of land conservation to balance that out if we want to have viable wildlife habitat in the future.


A young male Florida panther who triggered a camera trap. (Photo from Instagram: @carltonward)

CW: Florida cannot sustain the human population that’s projected to be here over the next 50 years unless we get smarter and do things differently. The same land that is the path of the panther is also the headwaters of the Everglades and the headwaters of the St. Johns River and the water supply for most of Florida’s population. So, steering development away from these last corridors of green land is in our self-interest, as people who are aspiring to live here and have any quality of life in this state.

We have to start building up and not out. We can continue to develop, and we can continue to accommodate the population growth, but we’re going to have to do slightly higher density development, building closer to our urban cores, and not doing the hundreds of thousands of acres of tract homes every year that will end up undoing all the conservation progress from the past 50 years.

The cool thing is we still have this opportunity in Florida where—because of our agricultural corridor and the fact that we still have millions of acres of ranches and timber lands and farms and groves—we still have a chance to sustain a connected green corridor that we wouldn’t have if it wasn’t for that agriculture.

loggerhead key

Seventy miles west of Key West, the lighthouse at Loggerhead Key marks the tip of a Marine Protected Area where the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico meet. (Photo from Instagram: @carltonward)

CITA: That’s something that you try to do, in your photojournalism and with the work you do for Florida Wildlife Corridor, is building relationships between all the different types of people who have interest in the undeveloped lands. Correct?

CW: Yes. I mean, … it’s just the conservation priorities seem to get lost. And it’s not because Floridians don’t want land protection. It’s because the specific needs for that land protection are kind of “out of sight, out of mind.” For example, we have amazing natural areas, but we don’t have something like the Rocky Mountains where you can sit in a city like Denver and know that you have an important wild space that is the source of all your water and your clean air and your food. With Florida being so flat, we don’t see it. We don’t recognize the Green Swamp north of Tampa as the headwaters of five rivers and the water supply for most of the Tampa Bay area. Because it’s only 100 feet elevation higher than Tampa. It’s hidden in plain sight.

So that is a theme. I think if people see and understand these areas, through pictures, through maps, it will lead to policies and decisions that help preserve them.


A great blue heron in Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve. (Photo from Instagram: @carltonward)

CITA: You’ve been involved in wild Florida your whole life. You’re a multi-generational Floridian. Would you consider yourself just a country boy? Would you put yourself in that category?

CW: No.

CITA: Can you talk a little bit about that?

CW: I have a pretty good set of redneck skills, but I grew up in the suburbs of Clearwater. I grew up on the coast with a family ranch and family heritage in the heartlands. So, I kind of had one foot in each world my whole life. I think that’s why I’m as motivated as I am. Because if you grow up in Tampa or Clearwater, you’ll end up caring about the water in the bay, but you don’t end up knowing about the Green Swamp or the Peace River. Or, if you grow up in Arcadia or Wauchula, you may or may not see the pace that the houses are exploding out of Orlando and Tampa and Bradenton and moving towards you and threatening the land around you. Being in both of those worlds, I think, helped me have the perspective I have now.

cattle ranch

4G Ranch, in Pasco County, is the site of an innovative partnership where wetlands are filtering reclaimed urban water and recharging the underground aquifer at a rate of 5 million gallons per day. (Photo from Instagram: @carltonward)

CITA: In all your work, what have you discovered that is the most inspiring for people who are unfamiliar with Florida’s environment? What inspires people most to get involved or get interested or learn more?

CW: I find that … with my photographs of bears and panthers, people don’t know those animals exist in Florida. And that’s a starting point, [for people to realize] that Florida still has wild enough places to support large, wide-ranging wildlife. I really get a lot of comments on my Instagram feed and other places, where people had no idea that these things exist in Florida. It’s also true when I photograph and publish pictures of Florida cattle ranches. People don’t know that we have that type of land and those type of people who are so deeply connected to the land. The Seminole tribe also. People think about the Hard Rock Café maybe, but don’t know that we have Native Americans, an unconquered tribe of Native Americans, living in The Everglades. Still.


Ten Thousand Islands in Everglades National Park, which is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States. (Photo from Instagram: @carltonward)

CITA: If we can play devil’s advocate for a second … let’s say we want to come down to Florida and retire, so we’re interested in golf and shopping and having a leisurely life. We don’t care about the panther or the black bear. How do you explain to people why a wildlife corridor would matter?

CW: On one hand, I’d say to those people we are not separate from nature. We are buffered from nature by our technologies. But, if the environment can’t support wildlife, it ultimately may be missing some things to support us. Another common element is water. The strongest argument for why we need to care about these wild places is the water and the quality of life for people. It just so happens that water is the common ground that sustains wildlife and sustains working agriculture. It also sustains rural culture and heritage. Just look to last summer to the red tides and the algae blooms. We’re seeing at a large scale exactly how our coastal way of life is negatively impacted because we’re not taking care of interior Florida the way we need to. Everything in Florida’s connected.


A Florida black bear near Big Cypress National Preserve. (Photo from Instagram: @carltonward)

CITA: We really are so excited about your talk here. We feel pretty privileged that we’ll be your kickoff venue for what’s probably going to become a very illustrious speaking career with Nat Geo.

CW: Okay. I really appreciate it. I’ll be seeing you soon.

Don’t miss Carlton Ward, Jr. for National Geographic LIVE! Tues., Feb. 26 at 7 p.m.

Some Superheroes Wear SCUBA Gear

National Geographic photographer and founder of SeaLegacy.org Cristina Mittermeier gets real about growing up as a rural Mexican woman to creating the field of “conservation photography” in the fight for sustainable life on Earth. Here, she gives an exclusive interview for Caught in the Act.

On April 3, Cristina Mittermeier appears at The Straz as the final speaker in our National Geographic LIVE! series. She’s tied to the Tampa Bay area because her son is an Eckerd College graduate who recently moved from St. Pete to Miami. Mittermeier, born in Mexico City and moved an hour south as a child, grew up in Cuernacava, close to Ocotepec, a town occupied by indigenous people of Nahua origin. Through an incredible journey she details in this interview, Mittermeier became a world-renowned photographer whose heart-stopping images tell the blistering story of the consequences of climate change and the ultimately hopeful tale of the fragile, unequivocal interdependence of all life on earth. We caught up with her by phone to find out more about her and her work before she meets us At the Water’s Edge for her National Geographic LIVE! presentation in Ferguson Hall.

Cristina Mittermeier

Photo: Paul Nicklen

CAUGHT IN THE ACT: Your images are so compelling, and your personal story is so compelling that we wanted to start at the beginning. Will you tell us a little bit about where you grew up in Mexico?

CRISTINA MITTERMEIER: Yeah, my parents moved us from Mexico City to a smaller town up in the mountains called Cuernavaca, about one hour south of Mexico City. At the time that I lived there in 1976 it was a very small town. There were cows in my neighborhood. I walked to school through cow fields. So I had a very nature, outdoor childhood, but I don’t know where the love of the ocean comes from. I’ve always had this enormous attraction to the ocean. In high school somebody came to my school to talk about careers in science, I had the opportunity to go to a university that had a marine degree program that was called biochemical engineering and marine sciences. I had visions of swimming with dolphins, but it was really office work in aquaculture. So, I went to school to learn how to catch fish.

CITA: Where you grew up in Mexico was a rural life, an inland life?

CM: Very much so, yeah. It was very much part of indigenous communities around where I grew up, so I grew up with a lot of indigenous people that oftentimes didn’t even speak Spanish.

CITA: For those of us who aren’t familiar with this part of Mexico, can you tell us who these indigenous people were and then what the language was that they were speaking and how this influenced you? Because, you would end up pursuing life with other indigenous cultures.

CM: Well, first of all, I was raised by an indigenous woman from the tribe known as the Otomi, which are descendants of the Aztecs.

CITA: Oh wow.

CM: She raised me from the time I was a little girl. She came to work for our family when I was less than a year old. She left after I got married. So, I grew up listening to somebody speak a different language. In the community where I grew up, there were lots of different types of indigenous people and these indigenous communities are living cultures. Anyway, the village that I grew up next to is called Ocotepec. My house that I grew up in was actually on their land, and my parents leased it from the tribal council. So that was really fun.

Vezo people

Young Vezo fisherwomen on the beaches of Madagascar. (Photo: Cristina Mittermeier)

CITA: What kind of impression did this make on you as a little girl? Was there something in you that knew there was something so special about what you were experiencing?

CM: You know, Mexico still has a very large population of indigenous people of many, many tribes. It is absolutely not unusual to live and spend time among them. I never really thought much about it, but I did learn how to feel comfortable with people that are very different from me. For me, it’s always been really easy to walk into an indigenous community and fall into the rhythms and the fabric of indigenous life, which is much more contemplative. People do a lot less talking and a lot more listening. … Mexico has 10 million indigenous people. I know, even though we’ve been colonized for 500 years so …

CITA: Our colonization story is very, very different because our indigenous people are scattered hither and yon and is such a dwindling population. Even in Florida, the study of our indigenous people is quite devastating; we only have a very small number that are left.

CM: Florida’s a special case because it was initially colonized by Spaniards like Mexico was. The difference between the colonization in the United States, like the colonies, and the rest of Latin America was the Pilgrims brought the wives with them, so they didn’t intermarry with the indigenous population. Whereas, the conquerors from Spain who came to Mexico, they were just warriors, so they quickly started procreating with the local Indian women and created a new race. So to this day indigenous populations are very much intertwined into Mexican culture.

CITA: And your family … did you have a big family where you grew up? Were they responsible for helping influence you on your very interesting life path?

CM: No. I have a very typical Mexican family; my parents are professional, middle-class. My dad is an accountant, my mom has a PhD in Psychology. I am one of five children, so my parents were not particularly outdoorsy, but they were pretty good about sending us out to summer camp. I came to Canada as a teenager to summer camp, and I believe that’s where I really learned to be outdoorsy. To enjoy swimming in cold water [laughs].


Photo from Instagram: @cristinamittermeier

CITA: So, you’re an inland person, you don’t have outdoorsy parents. Were you reading books? How did your mysticism, or your compulsion to be drawn to the sea … how was that sparked in you?

CM: Actually, my dad bought for my older brother a series of books. They were these amazing adventure books written by an Italian writer, Emilio Salgari, who never left Italy, but he wrote amazing adventures about the Wild West of the United States. He specifically wrote a series of books on the pirates of Malaysia. I devoured those books because he wrote with incredible detail about these adventures at sea and these magical, tropical islands where these pirates were having all these adventures. I think that’s a huge influence. Sadly, those books were never translated to English, such a shame.

CITA: Books shaped our entire understanding of reality, that’s why we love animals and the outdoors, because that was always what we were attracted to—far flung adventures with animals.

CM: Because my mother was an intellectual, we had a good library at home. She brought home Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb.

CITA: Really?

CM: Oh, yeah. By the time I was 14 or 16, I was reading books like that and it really—I’d say, scarred me and terrified me.

CITA: One of the things that we really like about you is that you live in a lot of different worlds simultaneously. You talk in interviews about being both a scientist and also being an artist. So, can you talk a little bit about how your training as a scientist and as an artist informs your approach to photography?

CM: Yeah. So, I went onto these universities thinking that I was gonna go swimming with dolphins and what they were teaching me, really, were the industrial practices of fishing. So it was very upsetting to me as an animal lover to go on those fishing boats and see all the bycatch: the dolphins, the turtles and all the animals that die so that we can eat fish. I always knew that, that’s not what I wanted to do, but I also knew that, that’s the thing about fishing, especially aquaculture projects—whenever they’re done properly, they are truly the answer to save humanity. And so that was inspiring. [laughs] What was the question again?

CITA [laughs]: How your training as a scientist and as an artist informs your photography.

CM: Yes. So, when I left university, my first job was actually not in fishing but coastal work in conservation. I honestly thought that if you wrote scientific papers that were going to be, just, incredible, people would go, “Of course. This is what we are going to do.” But it takes time, a year or two collaborating with other authors and writing scientific papers that nobody reads. So I was very frustrated. I stumbled upon photography by chance. I’ve always liked art. You know, I was always a doodler as a child, I was painting and doing little crafts and projects. When I found photography, it just became this great outlet to showcase what I thought was really urgent. I’d always have to be informed by science. Photography is a great combination of art, science and conservation. It has to be beautiful. If I’m able to make three or four of those pictures a year, I consider myself really lucky. The photographs have to tell stories. They have to draw people in. When you show somebody a photograph, people are much more likely to want to engage in dialogue in asking you about what they’re seeing, which doesn’t happen with science. So, that was like a big, “Aha!” moment for me.


Photo from Instagram: @cristinamittermeier

CITA: How did you find photography? Did somebody just give you a camera? Or, you saw some photographs and thought, “Wow, I’d like to do that”?

CM: My first husband is a collector, and he always has a camera with him to document the data he collects. Very, very early on in our marriage, I was 24, 25 years old. I was literally carrying his camera for him. We were visiting a small village in the Amazon so I snapped a couple of pictures. When we came home, [a museum held an exhibition] on the Amazonian arts, and they wanted images from this particular village. So he sent a box of slides. When we showed up for the opening, on the walls of the building, was my picture. And it was credited to him.

CITA: Are you kidding us?

CM: I know. It was a picture of a man wearing a headdress standing in front of a dark background. I thought, “Wow, that’s beautiful. I didn’t know that a camera could do that.” So, I went back to school, I went back to the Corcoran College for the Arts. At that time, I was already a young mother of my two children and then from my ex-husband’s first marriage we had a third one, and you know what? I wanted out of the house. [laughs] I went back to school get away from those children.

CITA: Honey, we hear you.

CM: But that was great, to be able to go back to school to learn a new way of looking at art. I was incredibly lucky, because my ex-husband was president of Conservation International and that was my first job out of university so I met him. When we married and moved to Washington, DC, I couldn’t continue working for Conservation International because there was a conflict of interest.


Photo from Instagram: @cristinamittermeier

But, the CEO of the organization, Peter Seligmann, is a very generous and wonderful man because he allowed me to volunteer. We traveled a lot, visiting a hundred countries … I had my camera, so I could take all these pictures of places where Conservation International worked. I started donating my images to them and then writing an article for them. Over time, they hired me back, and I became the director of visual communication. I basically brought the idea that visuals are really important to conservation. At that time, most conservation organizations didn’t even have a budget for proper visuals. So, I was able to pioneer the idea that people only care if they see something that’s really compelling and beautiful.

whale tail

Photo from Instagram: @cristinamittermeier

So that was kind of the like, the journey into photography. Then as I became more and more involved in the world of nature photography, I started attending conferences. Hundreds of photographers would go to these conferences—they were interested in talking about filters and about the latest camera. I wanted to know, could we use our images to try to save the places where we were photographing? I was told, “No.” People didn’t want to get in the environmental arguments. So, you know, I said. “Okay, I’m gonna create my own organization” [The International League of Conservation Photographers].

CITA: So, help us understand. This is the 80s, early 90s. What was the driving philosophy to distance yourself as a photographer from conservation? As a photographer, you just document, you don’t get involved?

CM: Well, no … I mean, what I was witnessing was something really interesting. There were a handful of photographers that were making great contributions to conservation with their photographs, like Nick Nichols, who would walk 2000 miles from Cameroon to Gabon following elephant trails to get people to make a national park. He was a nature photographer. Then there were little old ladies at the same conference with their camera, taking pictures of flowers in their gardens. They were called nature photographers. I said, “Well, you know, there’s a huge discrepancy here. This man is actually using the camera for conservation.” So, I coined the term “conservation photography” and I wrote up a peer-reviewed paper about what it is and how it’s different from nature photography. That gave birth to a whole generation of photographers who, today, call themselves conservation photographers.

CITA: That’s extraordinary. Let’s follow up with this idea of visual storytelling: When you’re looking at your images, what makes a picture a visual story? Do you also think about things like tension? Characters? What role are light and shadow playing?

CM: I come from the school National Geographic storytelling, and I’ve had a very close relationship with the director for many years. As the photographer, you had an opportunity to have, maybe, twelve photographs. Eighteen, if your story is really good. In those twelve photographs, you had to tell the whole story. So there’s a narrative that has to be built. You have to have a sense of place; then, you have to establish who your characters are. Then you have to give them a context and some action—then you have to sew some details. So, there’s a methodology for telling stories with pictures, but every single picture has to do a lot of work to complete the story. The best pictures are the ones that can tell the whole story in just a single image.

Those are the ones that become really iconic. If I say, “Vietnam War napalm,” I know the image that’s in your head right now because that is the storytelling image that tells the entire story of how the Vietnam war came to an end. Those images are really hard to make and hard to find.

CITA: You said earlier that you probably end up with three or four pictures a year that meet these criteria. How many photographs do you think you take in a year?

CM: Oh, I take hundreds of thousands, and they say that the better the photographer, the bigger the trash bin. Last year, I probably made two or three images that I really liked. But, there’s one in particular that stood out and that was that photograph of the starving polar bear.

starving polar bear

Photo from Instagram: @cristinamittermeier

That photograph is one of those iconic images that tells the whole story in one image. Climate change is going to have an effect on wildlife and this is what it’s going to look like. What you want to achieve with a photograph like that is for people to recognize the pain and suffering of this animal, in ourselves. To know that if we don’t do something about climate change, this is gonna be the future, not just for polar bears but for us as well. An image like that, hopefully stops people in their tracks and makes them ask questions that sometimes are painful and difficult to answer, but hopefully creates debate and hopefully becomes burned into peoples consciousness so that, ten years from now when we look back at an image like that, we’re able to say, “Yeah, that photograph helped turn the conversation on climate change and move it into a different direction.” As a photographer, you cannot ask for much more.

CITA: Cristina, that photograph—we’re gonna be honest with you, because we don’t have any separation between ourselves and animals. When we saw that photograph, we were filled with the sense of internal shrieking of despair. We felt overwhelmed that– “My god, this problem is too big. What could we possibly do?” You know, it just feels so inevitable that we’re on the path that this polar bear is already experiencing. So much of your work is about helping people to act, to see these images and to act for change. But, how do you find hope? How do you keep going?

CM: Because I know that we already have a lot of the solutions in place, and the reason they’re not happening is because we don’t have the political will to make them a reality and political will is driven by public opinion. We are engaging a huge number of people in the conversation about what’s happening to our planet through photography. We’re asking people to join the tide, to join the membership [of SeaLegacy.org]. It’s a monthly membership where people donate however much they can. Some people give us three dollars, some people give us a thousand dollars a month. But, that money we’re investing into solutions. Last month we invested thirty thousand dollars in the prototype of a coral reef regeneration unit made out of a special cement that has nano-materials, super high-tech, to regrow coral. So, if it works, we’re going to be replanting a million head of coral in the Caribbean. That’s just one example.

CITA: My god.

CM: I know. We are looking at permaculture that’s revitalizing coastal ecosystems like mangroves and kelp forests, 3D ocean farming, … this is where it all comes together, you know, all those years of studying aquaculture, we now can apply that knowledge to aquaculture in modern times. All of these things already exist, they’re in a book by Paul Hawken called Drawdown which talks about all the solutions to start pulling carbon from the atmosphere. The other thing that people should be talking more about is the fact that there’s already a third industrial revolution happening. Entire economies, the European Union and China have already transitioned their economy into a fossil fuel free economy. They’re transitioning to renewables and here we are in the United States, arguing about pipelines and fossil fuels, you know? Which is the technology of the dying industrial revolution. So, we need to shift the conversation. We need to change the story, and I do that with photographs. We are going to transition.

CITA: That gives us hope, especially here in Florida, as a state surrounded by ocean. Our economy depends on the health of our water, the health of our ocean and on our aquifers and we’re still struggling, you know? In the old industrial revolution, the old political development model, trying to shift our conversation to exactly what it is that you’re talking about. So, to know that on an international level, everything is already in place, it’s like, “Okay, so we just have to get from where we are to where you are.” Which is exciting. This is very exciting.

CM: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. But, you know, there’s a lot of hope when you think that Germany already has thirty-five percent of its entire energy come from renewables. Where I live here, in British Columbia, ninety-five percent of our energy is non-fossil fuel. It comes from hydro-electrics [and other sources]. So, it’s happening. We just need for it to happen faster.

CITA: Alright, so we’ll leave this last question open to interpretation. Is there anything that you ever want to talk about that you don’t get a chance to mention in interviews like this that you would like to mention now?

CM: That’s a very interesting question. Um, you know, I think because we live in the era of the internet, people look at my career and the only thing they see is a highlight reel. They see the successful career, you know, these contributions and achievements. But, behind the scenes, of course, there’s the long journey of the struggling photographer. All the rejections, the letters that you send to editors that are sent back. [My career] hasn’t been free of bumps and I think, to be a successful photographer, I … lost my first marriage, and I feel like I hugely neglected my children.

CITA: Mm-hmm.

CM: Those things are never talked about. It’s never easy to be a woman or a Latina, a minority and forge a trail. So, it hasn’t been without its struggles. It’s wonderful to be in this place where you finally get recognition and get the microphone to share some of these idea, but I guess what I’m trying to say is, to all those new photographers out there beginning their careers and thinking that it’s never gonna happen, you just have to stick with it. Find purpose.


Photo from Instagram: @cristinamittermeier

CITA: To your point about blazing your own trail and having to make sacrifices that defy cultural expectations … What would you say to other women who are going to listen to this interview or read this interview, who are thinking to themselves, “I want to do x, y or z. But it’s not fair to my family” or “it’s not fair to my mother,” “it’s not fair to my children.” Or, “it’s not fair to my neighbors,” what would you say about sacrifice?

CM: I think especially for Latina women and for many minorities, as women, we are raised to be quiet, to be obedient, to want to be a good wife. From the time that you’re a young girl, people build this peanut gallery of insecurity in your head. So, when you think, “Oh, I want to be a photographer” your peanut gallery tells you that you shouldn’t, that it’s not for women. What you have to do is, you have to silence your peanut gallery. I imagine my peanut gallery in my head, and I walk up to a cliff—and I shove ’em over. Because if we listen to those voices in our head, we’re definitely going to stay home, afraid of going to the door of adventure and career and- you know, sometimes it’s scary, of course, but I know that when I’m a little frightened, that I’m in the right place. Because, that’s where I make the pictures that really matter to me. As women, we have to learn to silence our peanut gallery.

CITA: Agreed.

CM: I am a Mexican woman from a small town, you know? And I made it happen. I made it work. So, if I can, anybody can.

CITA: We are ecstatic that you’re going to be here and that we’ll get to see you in person with all of the photographs and stories that you’re bringing with Standing At The Waters Edge. We’re really anticipating the talk that you’re bringing here, Cristina. The audiences here are really friendly, they love the Nat Geo series, so it’s going be a very receptive audience. We have great kids who ask wonderful questions at the end. It’s usually a lot of fun for Nat Geo speakers to be here.

CM: Awesome. Well, I can’t wait. I’ll see you there in a few days.

sea grass

Photo from Instagram: @cristinamittermeier

Tracking the World’s Most Endearing Gobshite

Wild encounters with 24 -year-old Nat Geo speaker and photographer Bertie Gregory

For more information, visit the Exploration Portal: http://fmproddb1.ngs.org/ngs_grants/request_detail.php?&request_id=21884&c_cm=0&c_cd=5&grant_number=GEFNEY146-15

Next up in our popular National Geographic LIVE! speaker series is Nat Geo’s first-ever digital series star, Bertie Gregory. Gregory conceived of and hosts wild_life with Bertie Gregory after an assistantship to famed wild tiger documentarian and Nat Geo speaker Steve Winter (who came to The Straz in the 2014-15 season).

A native of Redding, England, a few miles outside of London, Gregory became obsessed with wildlife early, filching his father’s camera to capture the images he saw in the woods and waters around his home. By the time he was 16, Gregory’s photographs had gained national attention, and he got his first big break at 17 by winning his way into Britain’s ambitious 2020VISION nature photography project. Through luck, pluck and hard work, Gregory eventually won his way into Winter’s coveted assistantship position (we’ll let him tell you that crazy story.) The day after graduating college, Gregory was on a plane with Winter following leopards in South Africa. Since then, he’s been everywhere, eventually convincing Nat Geo Wild to let him launch his own digital series, wild_life, in August 2016.

Charismatic, quick-witted and deeply committed to wildlife, Gregory agreed to chat with us by phone for this exclusive interview about his life, his work and his upcoming visit to Tampa.

BERTIE GREGORY: Oh, I’m very excited to come. It’s gonna be fun. As part of this tour I’m visiting lots of places that I’ve never been.

CAUGHT IN THE ACT: Well, we love our National Geographic speaker series and we usually interview everybody for our blog who comes through. We actually had Steve here in the 2014 – 2015 season, Steve Winter. That was the year before the two of you guys hooked up for your epic life-changing adventure.

BG [laughs]: Yeah, something like that, yeah. So what kind of repeat business do you guys get? Do you think people in the audience, a significant proportion will have been at that talk?

CITA: You’ll be the first of the new generation of the Nat Geo speakers that’s coming. So, you’re going to be quite different from what we’re usually seeing. But our feeling is that folks who were here for Steve Winter are probably also going be here for you.

BG: Okay, cool. Well, that’s very exciting. That’ll be good. I can play with that.

CITA: If you just get a round of applause in the beginning for people who know of Steve Winter or were here for the talk, you can kind of riff. The audiences love you all. You’ll have a very friendly, very receptive audience. We usually have a lot of kids that ask excellent questions in the Q and A after.

BG: Great, great. When I did my first Nat Geo live presentation, it was at the National Geographic headquarters and half the audience or something is staff. So obviously they all know Steve. I don’t know if you remember much of Steve’s presentation, but every photo in existence of Steve in the field, he’s wearing a headband. That’s like his thing. So anyway, I came out with his headband on and half the room nearly died. But it’s the kind of thing that it’s either really funny or just what? Why are you wearing a headband? Who’s Steve?

CITA: Ha ha, right, which is a little bit of like a wah-wah kind of moment.

BG: Exactly.

Bertie & Steve

Bertie and Steve Winter photographing leopards in South Africa. (Photo from Instagram: @bertiegregory)

CITA: But this is great conversation because it segues right into the first question. We came across your interview with Outdoor Photography magazine. You told this really great anecdote about getting the job with Steve, but I think they edited out some of the good parts. Will tell the story again?

BG [laughs]: Okay.

CITA: So what happened there?

BG: It was at an event called Wild Photos, which doesn’t actually happen anymore in the UK, which is really sad. But it brought together all the best wildlife photographer speakers in the world. The speakers they had there were amazing.

My year was a bit of an anomaly because I had met the person that organizes the speaker program. Well, I’d actually given a talk that she was at in London. She asked if I would like to give a talk on what it was like getting into the industry. So I rocked up at this event to give a talk in front of 600, 700 people at this really prestigious venue, the Royal Geographic Society in London. No connection to National Geographic.

I was way out of my depth because all the other speakers were some of the best wildlife photographers in the world. Steve Winter was there headlining the event. Word got out at the event that he needed a new assistant, he was looking for a new assistant. As you can imagine, this was a Willy Wonka golden ticket moment.

CITA: Of course.

BG: Every man and his dog was basically hounding him for the job at the event. In every break between talks when there’s networking with coffee and stuff, he’d just be surrounded getting hounded.

I figured well, there’s no point trying to compete with that because I have 15 minutes on the Sunday of the weekend. I was the very last talk of the weekend. It’s when no one can interrupt me; I can basically schedule my own job interview and Steve is going to be listening.

It was this amazing opportunity. I figured I’d speak directly to Steve … just with 599 other people in the room. I figured well, go big or go home. So let’s get his attention early on. I decided that it would be for some stupid reason because I think I’m a bit of gobshite, or at least my 17-year-old self was or 18-year-old self was.

And as I said, I basically put on his American accent and retold the story of the night before. How at the speakers’ party, the speakers’ drinks, I stood there surrounded by all of my photographic heroes: Charlie Hamilton James, Andy Ralph, Steve Winter, and they’re all buying me drinks. Then Steve just comes over with a big handful of shots and just says, “Hey, Bertie, time for some shots, brother.” And I just about died and went to heaven.

Anyway, I retold this story. I knew it’s the kind of thing that, with someone like Steve, is either gonna go down really well or really badly. Luckily, before I’d even hit the punchline, I could hear Steve laughing from the top layer in the theater. I was like, “Okay, that went down well, that’s good.”

But I didn’t think it would come of anything. I was just trying to do my best. Then afterwards he came up to me with the natural history editor for National Geographic magazine, Kathy Moran, and they offered me a job on the spot. I thought about it for about point three seconds.

CITA: Right.

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Bertie and Steve Winter on assignment for National Geographic in the Yucatan Peninsula. (Photo from Instagram: @bertiegregory)

BG: And yeah, then what is it? Seven months later I graduated from college and the day after … I left graduation early to go home and pack. Because the next day I got on a plane with Steve to South Africa to start working on his leopard story for National Geographic magazine.

So yeah, it was ridiculous. And people ask, “Oh, how did you get in with National Geographic?” And you’re like, “Well, you can’t recreate that. That was just one of those things.” So yeah, that’s the story.

CITA: That is so funny. All right, so for your American audience, what is a gobshite?

BG: A gobshite, that’s probably not a very good phrase to use. It’s rude. So gobshite is probably, not literally like a big mouth that’s good at talking, ’cause that implies it’s a bit like, “Oh, look how great I am.” It’s more subtle than that I think. I don’t know. What’s a synonym for gobshite? You know, it was my cocky teenage self. Does that make sense?

CITA: Yes. In the south we say a ‘jackjaw’ or ‘jabberjaw.’ Is this your first time coming to Florida?

BG: I’ve been to Florida once when I was two. And I’ve been told by my mom that I cried the entire time.

CITA: We hope that doesn’t happen this time.

BG: I hope I won’t repeat that. Yeah, I think we went looking for alligators on those, the swamp hovercrafts and, yeah, apparently I made it a living hell for everyone involved.

CITA: We have a lot of Nat Geo people who do work in Florida because it’s so spectacular here in terms of wildlife. We were looking through your Instagram, and you and Steve went down and did the story on leopards and jaguars. We have a lot of alligators here, but many people don’t know that in the Pantanal, jaguars hunt caiman [a crocodilian similar to an alligator].

BG: Right.

CITA: Can you talk a little bit about what it’s like being out there and capturing footage like that?

BG: I mean it’s … I think people have a very romantic idea of wildlife film making. In that we … and this is not a rant. In that we just gallivant around the world having a wonderful time and we just go from amazing place to the next and the animals are just dancing in front of the camera the entire time. [laughs]

Of course, the reality isn’t like that at all. You spend most of your time swearing at baggage trollies in airports. Yes, we’re incredibly lucky we get to go to some amazing places. But most of the time, pretty much nothing is happening. But all of the getting bitten by mosquitoes, being sunburned, freezing cold, all of that stuff, all that waiting and boredom is all totally forgotten—the mind has a great way of forgetting pain—in just a few moments that happen per year.

I’d say I probably get, I don’t know, three or four moments a year when … 10 seconds, 15 second moments when I go, “Yeah, this is amazing. This is so lucky. Yeah, I’m very, very fortunate to do what I do.” One of those was seeing the jaguars down in the Pantanal hunting the caiman. I mean we waited, we spent 45 days on the river down there. It was all summarized in one shot really, which was 30 seconds of absolute carnage.

That’s one of the only times I’ve been looking down the viewfinder and gone, “Oh, my god, I’m actually in a wildlife documentary right now.” That sounds really stupid, but it’s true.

CITA: Well, it’s super humanizing to know that you, in the middle of your wildlife documentary, are like, “Oh, my god, I’m in a wildlife documentary.”

BG: Yeah, totally. It’s funny, when you do get those spectacular moments, I think you’d think it’s a really enjoyable thing. But actually, the more crazy the piece of behavior, the rarer the piece of behavior that you’re looking at, the more stressful and scary it is. ‘Cause the only thing going through my head is, “Don’t fuck this up.”

Then afterwards, once you’ve seen that the shot’s in focus and not wobbly and you were hitting the record button, then it’s the enjoyment of, “Okay, yeah, that was really special.” But in the moment, I don’t find it enjoyable at all. It’s horrible.

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Bertie encountered this baby ocelot that was part of the illegal wildlife trade and is now in a rescue center. She ran over when he leaned down to photograph her. (Photo from Instagram: @bertiegregory)

CITA: Man, so that is super cool. Not that it’s horrible for you, but to know that’s the reality of what you experience. Let us follow that up with a question which is really about the ethics of wildlife photography. Back to what you said about you’re there for 45 days and it’s summed up in 30 seconds: but, consumers of your work see the 30 seconds. So it looks instantaneous, the animal encounter. Then you have people who want to jump in their johnboats and go play with wild animals. What are your thoughts about the ethics of animal encounters?

BG: The mystique, I mean jokes aside, yeah, bad things happen when you do things that you don’t have the experience for. I’ve had experience with a bunch of animals and you apply what works with particular species to different ones. The ones that are potentially dangerous, of course you work with experts who teach you exactly how to do it. Because it’s just selfish and irresponsible to be near or trying to get near to an animal that you don’t know how to interact with.

Because if that animal, what if that animal harms you? That is so unacceptable because who gives a shit about your own personal safety and that you were harmed? The fact is, that animal, unfortunately in the world that we live in, the moment an animal lays a finger on a human, that animal has a death sentence. Particularly in North America.

You talk about any bear, any wolf, any predator, if it ever—in the extremely unlikely event that it were to attack you or have an aggressive encounter in any way—that animal has a death sentence now. That to me is so, so unacceptable to do.

The term ‘the subject comes first’ is 100% true. If the subject doesn’t come first, then if you’re just looking out for the product you’re trying to produce, then I think you’re in the wrong industry.

CITA: Right.

BG: Unfortunately, not everyone in the industry shares that opinion and those people give wildlife film making a bad name.

I think the moment you’re on camera, you have a massive responsibility. You really have to ask yourself why is it you that is on camera? If the reason that you’re on camera is for the sake of being on camera and you want to be famous and on TV, then there’s plenty of industries that that’s great for. Wildlife film making is not one of those.

All of the people that I want to work with in the industry and all the people that I’ve encountered that I’ve learned the most from and are the best at what they do, are the ones that are in it because they’re obsessed with wildlife first. And filming it is merely a great excuse for spending time outside with animals. It’s just a portal to focus your obsession.

CITA: You’ve been obsessed for a really long time. You said elsewhere that something like everybody you went to school with thought that you were an ‘absolute freak.’ This was just because you were different?

BG [laughs]: Oh, come on, you know sneaking off and skipping football practice to go jump in a river and film some swans is not a normal thing that a 14-year-old, 15-year-old should be doing. Yeah, of course at school ‘different’ is always weird.

But, the older I’ve got and the different people that I’m around, I wish I could’ve told my 15-, 16-year-old self, “Look, people will think you’re a freak now, but in a few years’ time, you’ll very quickly realize that normal is really boring.” And mad crazy obsessions with things are amazing and that’s what can lead you onto [your life] … [that’s] why I get to go all over the world and film animals. And get other people excited about what I’m excited about. I’m very fortunate.

So yeah, whenever I’ve given talks to schools, you often see the cool kids that aren’t really paying attention in the corner. I love calling them out ’cause it just makes them squirm. ‘Cause you’re not so much of a cool kid when 500 people are looking at you.

CITA: Right.

BG: Or they’ve made fun of some kid in the front for asking a geeky question. The great thing is I can connect with geeky kids in a way that perhaps some of my older peers can’t—in that I wasn’t at high school that long ago. I remember it like it was yesterday. So, I know how it works.

Saying to the nerdy kid in the front, “Just ’cause people might think that what you’re into is weird, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it and run with it. Because in five years’ time, yeah, you could be getting on a plane to go and film for National Geographic.” Rather than just worrying about who’s into the latest trend or the latest music or whatever. So yeah. I guess that’s what I’d say to that.

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While filming on the west coast of Vancouver Island, Bertie encountered this 40-ton, 50-foot long humpback whale. (Photo from Instagram: @bertiegregory)

CITA: That’s super cool. Like we said, we’re really excited to see the next generation arrive in this series to educate us and show us all the stuff that you’ve been doing. Our audience is just going to go bananas over you. So outside of the well-known coastal wolf experience that you had, what are your top three coolest moments in the field?

BG: Oh, man, that’s a hard question.

CITA: Yeah, the top three, top three. And this is going in print, so these better be good.

BG: Oh, Christ. Right, okay. Well, coastal wolf for sure.

CITA: Wait, you can’t use that one.

BG: I can’t? Why not?

CITA: Because we said outside of the coastal wolf what are your top three?

BG: What? Okay. So, it’s four really, you’ve lied. Okay. So I would go with seeing a peregrine falcon fly in front of the houses of Parliament in London. That was when I was 17, 16. That was when I was like, “Yeah, this is cool. This is really cool.” You can find wildlife in a city that’s just as exciting as anywhere else.

CITA: All right, cool. Number two?

BG: The jaguar and the caiman, I guess.

CITA: Are you just saying that because we brought it up?

BG: No, no, no, that honestly was. But I don’t know. So … this is going out before my talk? I don’t know if we want to say ‘spoiler alert.’


A male jaguar hunting caiman in Brazil’s northern Pantanal. (Photo from Instagram: @bertiegregory)

CITA: Okay, okay, okay. We’ll rephrase the question then. Are there any encounters that had to go on the cutting room floor of your talk that you wish you could talk about if you had more time?

BG: Oh, I see. Hmm. This wasn’t necessarily like the highlight of … it wasn’t necessarily an amusing wildlife experience.

CITA: That’s fine.

BG: But it was just funny the places that wildlife film making can take you and the ridiculous situations it can get you in. I was in Amsterdam filming for a Dutch cinema film about the wildlife of Amsterdam. It’s called Wild City (De Wilde Stad). It actually premiers quite soon.

I was on the roof of a bank, like mini skyscraper. Like a bank tower block. I was filming peregrine falcons, and I had a Dutch camera assistant. We sat on this roof for probably a week, basically all day, every day, sat on the roof waiting for the adult peregrines. They were nesting on a building that was right next to us. We were at eye level to the birds as they flew in and out and we filmed them hunting over the city.

We had a helicopter come quite close to us and really low. We were like, “Oh, that looks like a police helicopter, that’s weird.” It circled us a few times and then flew off. Then my camera assistant, who was Dutch said, “Bertie, you’re probably gonna want to read this.”

And he was looking at the 85, which is by the main Amsterdam news channel. There was a news article on the front page of that online newspaper that said, it translated literally to say, “Panic over sniper on bank roof.”

CITA: Oh, no.

BG: People thought I was a shooter and they’d rung the police and sent the police over to check out what I was doing. Meanwhile, what I was actually doing was just minding my own business filming birds. So yeah, it’s amazing the kind of sticky situations that film making can put you in.

CITA: Wow. Yeah, man, you really lucked out there. What is next for you? You have a super amazing wild life, do you have something like a bucket list?

BG: Well, at my NG Live, I’m gonna tease what’s coming next. Over Christmas and New Year, I was down in the sub-Antarctic filming something very, very, very cool. And it’s one of the holy grails of wildlife film making. I expected it to be phenomenal, but it blew my expectations out of the water.

CITA: And you’re not going to tell us what it is.

BG: I’m not. But it’s gonna be coming out in the summer, and it’s really, really exciting.

CITA: Well, we can’t wait to see you next week.

BG: Thanks. I’m looking forward to it.


A photo from Bertie’s trip to the sub-Antarctic, approaching the Neumayer Glacier. (Photo from Instagram: @bertiegregory)

Get your tickets to A Wild Life with Bertie Gregory  for his appearance in Ferguson Hall March 8.

Would You Look at that View?

Astronaut Terry Virts and the Sunrise Over Earth from Space


Photo: Terry Virts

Enya’s lilting, lovely Gaelic song “Storms in Africa” drifts in a slow, spiraling melody—perfect for floating in a clear bubble in space while watching the sun spill molten light across the Earth’s bold blue horizon and into the infinite blackness of space. From this bubble, it’s easy to see Earth’s distinct atmosphere and climate converge into swirling, sparking storms curling along the landscape.

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Sunrises and sunsets show details in the atmosphere. (Photo from Instagram: @astro_terry)

So did astronaut Terry Virts enjoy this view with Enya’s soundtrack playing aboard the International Space Station. Inside the Cupola, a seven-windowed compartment he designed and installed, akin to a ball turret on a fighter plane, Virts took more than 300,000 photographs. Many are sunrise and sunset photos, he will no doubt confess, when he comes here Jan. 16 for his lecture about this experience, A View from Above.

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Oh, hey Florida! (Photo from Instagram: @astro_terry)


Photo: Terry Virts

Imagine being able to see the watery green glow of the aurora borealis swimming below you but above the Earth, the overhead view of the perplexingly precise Egyptian pyramids, city lights of Calcutta exploding against the darkened backdrop of night. Virts experienced these awe-inspiring sights daily, taking more photographs in space than any other astronaut.

From the Cupola, Virts held “a front row seat to creation,” as he tells it. He took this once-in-a-lifetime role very seriously, capturing footage for A Beautiful Planet, the IMAX film narrated by Jennifer Lawrence, his lecture, social media and his book, also titled A View from Above.


Virts inside the Cupola. (Photo: National Geographic Live)

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Virts looking up at Earth with all seven Cupola window shutters open. Despite the orientation of this photo, the Cupola is actually on the bottom. (Photo: NASA/National Geographic)

With as humbling and miraculous as his day-to-day job was during his mission on the International Space Station (ISS), the constant reminder of his separation from home, in time, wore on Virts and the crew. All the astronauts on this ISS expedition, though of differing countries, were Earthlings trapped in a capsule within sight of their home planet and no way to connect to it. “About halfway through my mission,” Virts wrote on his blog entry “Relaxing in Space” (12/2/17), “the Russian psychologists sent my Cosmonaut crewmates some ‘sounds from Earth,’ like waves, rain, birds chirping, a busy café at lunchtime, etc. Those sounds quickly became a favorite way for my whole crew to reconnect with Earth; everyone loved them, Americans, Italians, and Russians. I fell asleep to the sound of rain for about a month.”

Virts retired from NASA in August 2016, launching a new career as a lecturer and educator. He appears at The Straz as part of the National Geographic Live series, the first speaker of our season. To get more familiar with Virts before you come to his talk, follow him on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

For tix to his lecture, get ‘em here.


We wanted to personally interview Terry for this blog, but he was indisposed doing adventurous stuff in Antarctica and couldn’t talk with us by our deadline. And we thought it was cold last week in Florida. (Photo from Instagram: @astro_terry)


The Courage to Challenge the Story

An intimate chat with National Geographic photojournalist Ami Vitale

Ami with rhino

Ami taking a nap with Ringo, an orphaned southern white rhino at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. (Photo: Corey Rich Productions, from Ami’s Instagram)

Photojournalist Ami Vitale, who appears at The Straz March 28 for the final talk in our National Geographic LIVE! season, had a revelation standing in the middle of the Second Intifada. She’ll tell you all about it—and how it led to her quiet revolution in storytelling. Vitale’s images challenge people to start pondering the whole picture outside of the snapshots from the terror-scape of how we talk about world events. Vitale means to make us see what we share as humans connected to an entire planet, a rather radical move in the age of bubble bias and other troubling trends in the information age.

In her talk here, Ami will take the audience on a breathtaking, heartwarming and ultimately thought-provoking journey traversing her years as a war correspondent, her immersion studies in Guinea Bissau and Kashmir and eventually to her coolest-job-ever assignment of documenting pandas (and so many baby pandas) in China’s rescue and re-wilding program. You will see Ami in a panda suit and learn many interesting things through the stories she tells in her photographs.

Last week, we caught up with Ami by phone from her Montana home, where she was recovering from jetlag after a two-day delay in returning from her latest assignment in Kenya. We learned more about her, and share our conversation with you in this exclusive interview.

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Baby panda at Chengu Panda Base in China. (Photo from Ami’s Instagram)

CITA: You graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill around 1993 with a degree in International Studies. Was that because you already had a global plan for yourself and photography was a part of that?

Ami Vitale: Photography was not something I dreamed of. I just didn’t think that kind of life was possible for someone like me. But once I started to latch onto the idea of photography, I saw it as my passport to the world.

CITA: But you had an internship with the Smithsonian print room at 16 years old, which is really cool. You didn’t know you were going to be a photographer then?

AV: Yeah, my job was to print pictures from the Smithsonian archives. You know how you can order prints from them, so I was down in the archives making prints for all the people who ordered them. I was among all of these historical images, and I think it was at that time that I realized the power of photography. When I was 16, I understood the power of photography, but I didn’t understand it could be a career path for someone like me.

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At Standing Rock in North Dakota. (Photos from Ami’s Instagram)

CITA: We love that twice you’ve said that the life you have now wasn’t for “someone like me.” What does that mean? What were you like?

AV: I was introverted, gawky. I was intimidated by a lot of things. I was just afraid. I wasn’t the kind of person who had big dreams for myself, or any dreams at all. So, I didn’t have that dream [of being a travel photographer] in my mind. I just didn’t have that kind of confidence. I see these young girls today, they’re so confident, they want to go out and conquer the world . . . [laughs] I wasn’t like that.

CITA: But something changed. Do you remember a specific point when you got a camera or took a particular photo and suddenly you became Ami Vitale?

AV: You know, the second I had a camera in my hand—and I still get emotional when I think about it—a camera empowered me. It gave me a reason to be somewhere, to be with people, to have a purpose and a story to tell. I didn’t understand, really, how important this medium is in that way, that a shy, introverted person could become an empowered person who could say important things. But, as time went on, the more important lesson was that these images could be empowering to people I was photographing. Their stories are very valuable.

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Ramla Sharif roasting coffee in her home in Ethiopia. (Photo from Ami’s Instagram)

CITA:  What strikes us about you when reading other interviews or watching your TED or Nat Geo talks is that you don’t have a stage persona. You seem to come out on the stage as yourself, still as someone who is also amazed that you get to work you do and share stories about what you discover and photograph. You’re so relatable as a regular kind of person.

AV [laughs]: There’s still the little girl in me who can’t believe all of this life is possible. [laughs] Thinking, ‘I’m not worthy’ and being in amazement about it. But, the mission took over. It’s not about me. I’m driven by something else bigger than me. That’s what photography did for me—it’s a vehicle to take me places among people to show how connected we are, that we have so much in common, that there’s more to the story than what we typically see.

CITA: Your point of view about our similarities, about our shared values and shared planet is so important right now. You seem to have a necessary voice pointing out that humanity is part of a bigger picture of a common place.

AV: I definitely think we all play some small role in a bigger story of being connected. Every single person’s voice is valuable and important. Part of what happened to me was learning to believe in the importance of my own voice. Everyone has to listen to their own voice, trust it, and use it—now more than ever.

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Photos from Ami’s Instagram.

CITA: Something else striking, especially scrolling through your Instagram account, is the ongoing archetypes of girlhood you present, a version of girlhood that is for women who are smart, love animals, expected adventure in life, and held a sort of ride-or-die vision of friendship and family. The pictures of the horses’ manes from the Montana photos drove home this notion, for us at least, that here was a photographer who captured what adult life looks like for those girlhood archetypes. Do you think about that when you’re photographing or is that just something we read into your images as the viewer?

AV: I had not and haven’t ever thought about the images in that way, that’s so interesting. I’ll have to do some soul searching on that question about girlhood archetypes. But, I can tell you what I am aware of. I am aware of my feminine point of view. Most of my career, I was trying to do what my male colleagues were doing, but I got old enough to understand that what I have, my feminine point of view, is especially important. People will say to me, “you’re too Pollyanna for the world,” but I say no. I’m not. I just see it differently, and I have an important point of view. I’m latching on to my inner voice that says ‘you can be strong and have an optimistic view of the world.’

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Monks practicing a mask dance for the annual festival in Eastern Bhutan. (Photo from Ami’s Instagram)

CITA: Most of us are trained to believe that news has to be bad or drastic or war-torn to be taken seriously, this more masculine worldview of war, fear and dominance themes as the “real” story, all else is fluff or not serious. We get stuck in narrative ruts and don’t question what more is there to the story, or is this an accurate depiction. By default, that view is often the unquestioned version of events, so we see the same types of images “from the field.” We’re glad you don’t take that route.

AV: Even today, I have to fight to get my stories, which are just as valid and necessary, published. I’m someone who looks for solutions, not just documenting the problems. But, solutions are hard to get published. Why? Why aren’t we telling the whole story instead of half truths? I see in wholes. We are so used to these kinds of horror-narratives that we’re brainwashed to think the same way. It’s wonderful to have a platform [like National Geographic LIVE!] to be able to tell another story, to find a way forward. We have to keep moving forward.


This giraffe checks out Ami’s camera in Northern Kenya. (Photo from Ami’s Instagram)

CITA: It’s hard to have the courage to say hey, there’s a different way to look at what’s going on. What is it that compels you to tales of the human heart?

AV: Well . . . what’s the point of living otherwise? When I come home from a trip, I don’t even want to turn on the news, there’s so much fear everywhere. I mean, there is fear every place I look. Continuing to spread fear doesn’t make a better world. When I’m out there, in the world, I don’t see things the way they appear in television coverage of the same event. I’m in the war zones. I’m there. And I see a much wider view of what humanity looks like, of life unfolding. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy. We’re creating the things we’re afraid of. I see so much beauty in humanity everywhere, and why are we not shining a light on that? I want those stories told. About how connected we are. Look anywhere and you’ll see it. But, right now, we’re being hijacked by extreme ideas.

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A child on his way home from school in Sri Lanka. (Photo from Ami’s Instagram)

CITA: You do seem to be a much needed voice.

AV: Well, the truth is, ultimately I want to give people the ability to dream, to find a path, to make a difference. I want people to know that you don’t have to travel the world, you can do that in your own backyard. I didn’t have the ability to dream when I was younger, so I want to give that to others.

CITA: Part of helping others dream is teaching and workshops. You have an upcoming photography workshop to Prague with high school students through a program with Nat Geo. What’s that all about?

AV: Teaching is a way to pass the torch, so I do quite a bit of speaking and teaching. This workshop is a little bit of what it’s like to be a travel correspondent, how do you tell stories, how do you listen to people. It’s teaching them that the life isn’t about snapping pretty pictures, it’s more than that. It should be about 18-20 students, so very intimate because I do like to get to know everyone individually and help them in their work.

CITA: We can’t wait to see you in a few weeks.

AV:  Thanks so much. I’m really looking forward to it.


An elephant at Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya. (Photo from Ami’s Instagram)

Come see Ami on March 28 at 7pm in Ferguson Hall. Follow her on Instagram @amivitale and on Facebook.

Have favorite Ami photos? Let us know in the comments below.

Indiana Jones and the Lost Dinosaur

Dr. Nizar Ibrahim’s fabled adventure to find Spinosaurus is a grand tale—which he reveals at The Straz for his talk on Feb. 21. Here, we get behind-the-scenes info in an exclusive interview.


Dr. Nizar Ibrahim, a young paleontologist who lives in Chicago, joined the ranks of the National Geographic Society as an Emerging Explorer after his decade-plus journey to rediscover Spinosaurus, the largest predatory dinosaur, made international headlines. Originally discovered by scientist Ernst Stromer, Spinosaurus was destroyed one night in World War II when Allied bombs hit the Munich Museum. In elementary school, Nizar determined he would become the scientist who found the lost dinosaur. In a wild series of events almost too unbelievable for Hollywood, Dr. Ibrahim achieved his dream. He’ll tell you all about it right here in a few weeks, and we were fortunate enough to catch up with him by phone to talk about his miraculous life, the importance of science and why all little kids go bananas over dinosaurs.

CITA: Let’s talk about this incredible story you have about finding Spinosaurus. It’s an Indiana Jones plot, complete with Nazis, chance encounters, everything. This was a long journey. What kept you searching, why didn’t you quit?

DR. NIZAR IBRAHIM: That’s a good question. It is a pretty incredible story, and it does have all of these elements. That’s really what makes this not your standard dinosaur discovery story—you go somewhere, you find a few bones, you put them together and that’s it. This story has so many layers and angles. There’s World War II, the discovery and destruction of ancient treasures from the age of dinosaurs, the fossil hunter who had a few bones who I was trying to find . . . and there’s the other aspects like the use of this modern, cutting-edge technology. There’s something for everyone in this presentation. It has history, science, adventure. So, I think that’s what makes it such a compelling story.

Why did I not quit? That’s also a good question. Because in many ways, this story unfolded a little bit like a . . . yes, like a Hollywood adventure movie. You think that certain things only happen in the movies like the chance encounter with the fossil hunter. You think . . . if you saw that in a movie you’d be like ‘yeah, right. Hollywood.’

But I think that … I am at the core very optimistic. Overly so. But you need this optimism and enthusiasm to keep you going. The discovery kind of absorbs you and becomes an obsession, I’d say, so the thought of giving up never crosses your mind. There was one moment I thought it wasn’t going to work out right before the big chance encounter, and I thought I was going to throw in the towel. I’d tried everything to find this mystery man. There were many difficult moments, but you have to persevere.  And, you know, these things require a lot of hard work. You put in so much hard work you say, I can’t quit. I’ve put in so much time and work and sweat and blood. I can’t quit. I have to see this through to the end. And that’s what happened. When it all comes together at the end it’s a real magical feeling. The disparate moments are part of the process.


Spinosaurus (meaning “spine lizard”) lived in what now is North Africa about 112 to 97 million years ago. (Tyler Keillor and Lauren Conroy, University of Chicago.)

CITA: Can you give us a snapshot of what really blew your mind in the adaptations of Spinosaurus?

NI: I’ll try not to give too much away, but the arms and the legs of Spinosaurus blew my mind.

CITA: Because they didn’t match up?

NI: Not so much about them in relation to each other, but those two parts of the body have very unusual adaptations and unique adaptations not seen in any other dinosaur. The bone structure. Combine all these factors and you get a water-loving dinosaur.

CITA: We were transfixed by the similarities in skull structure and pressure sensors in Spinosaurus that are similar to alligators, which we have a lot of in Florida. Is it a stretch or accurate to say that our alligators are related to Spinosaurus?

NI: Well, yes and no. They are related, but the closest relative to dinosaurs is birds.  Birds are direct descendants of predatory dinosaurs, but we did look a lot at alligators when we were studying Spinosaurus because we do a lot of comparative anatomy. Alligators are really key to studying certain aspects of Spinosaurus anatomy, but just because animals look similar doesn’t mean they are closely related. We see similar kinds of adaptations over and over again in different groups of animals not closely related: torpedo shapes, for example. Snout shapes. Conical teeth for catching fish.

CITA: But Spinosaurus doesn’t shed teeth like an alligator or crocodile?

NI: No, dinosaurs shed their teeth all the time. That’s why we find so many dinosaur teeth. Sometimes in fossils we find the tooth underneath about to push the other tooth out. So, no need for dentists.

CITA: So, you’re not finding any dentists in the fossil record in the Northern Sahara?

NI [laughs]: That’s right.


Rendering of Alanqa saharica. (Davide Bonadonna)

CITA: We kind of want your job except we’re worried we couldn’t handle the detail work in the lab after the field. We have one other question about relations, though—you discovered a flying reptile called Alanqa saharica. Is this guy related to pelicans?

NI: Not closely related, no. This is a completely different group of flying creatures. A Saharan pterosaur. Pterosaurs are kind of related to dinosaurs, but they’re not dinosaurs themselves. They evolved before bats did. There are only four groups who developed flight: insects, birds, pterosaurs and bats. They all evolved flight in different ways. If you compare bat wings to bird wings they look quite different. Pterosaurs are incredible creatures, the largest flying animals of all time. They pushed the boundaries of biomechanics. The Saharan pterosaur is the largest flying creature known from the African continent. We are working on new fossils right now that suggest that it grew to an even larger size than we had estimated.

CITA: The first wingspan was 20 feet. What are you looking at now?

NI: Now we’re looking at something closer to between 26-30 feet.

CITA: What! So, it’s like a small airplane.

NI[laughs]: Yes, it’s pretty impressive. It would have cast a rather terrifying shadow soaring above you. These animals are like studying aliens. It raises interesting questions.  How would this creature take flight? To give you an idea of size, when it was walking around on land with its wings folded, it would walk around on all fours with this long neck. It would be as tall as a giraffe.

CITA: How is that even possible? You’re blowing our minds.

NI: These things had large, very large muscles. We’re trying to figure out how they grew, how they flew. We have some fossils of hatchlings, so it’s an ongoing project. We’ve found new snake fossils of early snakes and understanding snake evolution. We described trace fossils like dinosaur tracks and burrows, so it’s an incredibly diverse ecosystem. Spinosaurus is the most famous of this system, but there are many others. We’re trying to describe an entire lost world, an entire ancient ecosystem. This is a great opportunity to see how ecosystems change over time—over millions of years. We can look at the Sahara and see how things changed. We can see what happened when continents moved around, when the climate was going crazy, when the land was covered in giant predators.

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Nizar Ibrahim and team members in Morocco. (Photo: Kat Keene Hogue)

CITA: As you’re discovering, are you coming across information about the ecosystem that you can teach us like is the rain more acidic or is the composition of the atmosphere such that it creates better buoyancy for a bird this size?

NI: There are many questions we’re trying to answer. We are really just beginning to understand the Sahara, starting to shed light on this massive land mass. It’s important to understanding the history of life on earth. We’re understanding now how these animals are carving out ecological niches, the “arms race” as it were, for one of the most bizarre ecosystems of this planet’s history.

CITA: You work in the Kam Kam region between Morocco and Algiers in Northern Africa. Can you describe these conditions for us? Also, you’ve mentioned elsewhere you have to be aware of dangers from bandits and smugglers—what’s that all about?

NI: Yeah, one of the reasons we know so little about the dinosaurs of the Sahara versus all the information we have from Wyoming or Colorado is because it’s such a challenging area. You have to bring supplies for an entire team, there are no roads. It’s not easy. You do face the desert challenges like sandstorms and snakes, but the Sahara is also, to a certain extent, a lawless place. There’s no police station around the corner. It’s a vast ocean of sand and rocks. You read in the news that there are groups looting in the Sahara, and there are armed groups. So, you need a military escort in some areas. They will keep an eye on you from a distance or they have to stay with you at all times. It’s the kind of place where every now and then a foreigner is kidnapped.  Items get smuggled across borders. It’s challenging, but it’s the ultimate frontier for paleontology. Things that we uncover there . . . there is always the chance that we’ll find something that may revolutionize our field or at the very least shake up things precisely because we know so very little. In Montana, you might find another T. rex, but in Africa, it’s huge areas of land that have never been explored before. To give you an idea of scale, the whole desert is about the same size of the United States.

CITA: So, you’d be working in, say, the New Jersey part.

NI[laughs]: Yeah, you could say that.


Illustrations of the vertebrate “sail” bones of Spinosaurus that appeared in one of Ernst Stromer’s monographs, 1915.

CITA: During your adventure to find Spinosaurus, you located Ernst Stromer’s granddaughter, who still lives in the family castle. How did it feel when you met her? And, later, how did you feel when you finally saw the life-sized rendering of Spinosaurus from the bones you found?

NI: Well, meeting Stromer’s granddaughter was really something. When you’re working as a scientist you work from the people who came before you, but they tend to be just names. You don’t really find out much about them. With Stromer, it was different because I really entered his world. I was trying to find out more about his expeditions, then before I knew it I was visiting places he went and trying to track down his family castle. That’s when I learned his granddaughter was alive and looking after the castle in Bavaria. Restoring Stromer’s legacy became part of the story. It wasn’t about just finding the dinosaur anymore. He was a very inspiring human being. You know, it was a strange feeling first going to the castle. There were black and white pictures of the expedition that uncovered Spinosaurus and his handwritten notes and journal. Incredible things. Handwritten letters, letters about the finds and one to his sons in the war. He lost two of his three sons in the war. So much drama. His science career was going so well for him, he’d made all these incredible discoveries, yet in a few years he lost everything. To walk around the family castle in Bavaria was special. It was very emotional. So, restoring Stromer’s work became a part of what I was doing.

Seeing the skeleton for the first time . . . was love at first sight. Experts assembled the skeleton in a computer. But seeing it life size . . . You can read the numbers on the computer, so you know this creature is about 60 feet in length, but it’s only when you see it mounted in front of you that you appreciate the actual size of this river monster. Standing next to its giant head, I remember one of the first things I thought was what if I was swimming next to this in that ancient river system? How would I feel as this thing was sort of peering at me. Giant jaws. A water-living dinosaur trying to catch you in the water. Incredible, formidable predator. That’s the first time I was able to appreciate the creature’s sheer size. Spinosaurus for me is fascinating because of all the weird adaptations it has, but most people will remember it’s even longer than T. rex. The first time I saw it mounted I appreciated it for the size.

CITA: So, could you contextualize that size for us? Is it like the length of two city buses?

NI: I don’t know about two city buses, but it’s much longer than one city bus. One of the crocs we have from this period is the length of a city bus, and this croc is quite a bit shorter than Spinosaurus. Actually, I do remember trying to find a good example for size that would explain 60 feet in length, but I couldn’t find anything common enough to make the comparison. When you see it on the big screen and the images I show, will help you get a picture of it life-sized.

CITA: You’ve said in other interviews you were about 6 or 7 years old when you decided to find Spinosaurus. You were a dinosaur kid. What was the first dinosaur you fell in love with?

NI: I don’t know a straightforward answer. I don’t know when it started with dinosaurs. I know I was drawing dinosaurs at 5 years old. I wrote my name and age next to a picture I made, so it provided a date stamp of when it sort of started. Around that time, I went to the natural history museum and saw these towering skeletons. So many dinosaurs were incredible, these mythological dragons, but yet they were real animals in real ecosystems. They weren’t imaginary. They existed at some point. I loved all the famous dinosaurs, all the North American dinosaurs like T. rex.  The thing about Spinosaurus that got me interested was that it wasn’t one of the famous dinosaurs, like T. rex or stegosaurus. It was more interesting—giant spines on his back and was enormous, but that’s all we knew. Spinosaurus hadn’t captured the imagination yet, like the others, it was so mysterious. We didn’t know what it looked like, it was the yeti or Loch Ness Monster—that elusive dinosaur, except it was real. I think that’s what got me interested, and the entire ecosystem Spinosaurus lived in. We know virtually nothing of the north Sahara like we do parts of North America.

CITA: You’re in this north Sahara frontier exploring. It’s gotta be exciting to come across the possibilities of what could have existed in this ecosystem. This was a lush, tropical wetlands brimming with predators and nobody really knew what they were eating.  You realized you’d discovered with Spinosaurus a semi-aquatic, fish-eating predator. They ate sawfish. We still have sawfish in Florida waters today.

NI: They’re not the same kind of sawfish, but they are similar. The sawfish that we have in our [Cretaceous North African] river system is freshwater, about 25 feet in length, and sawfish today get big but not that big. And there were other fish, the giant car-sized coelacanth. Let me tell you about the ecosystem with Spinosaurus. When you’re out there in the desert you really appreciate what we call deep time, that’s what we call geologic time. You appreciate that while you’re in the desert. It’s a big, hot place. The last thing you’re thinking about are fish and rivers. But the fossils you’re picking up are the backbones of giant fish or scales of huge lungfish or armor plates of giant crocodile-like predators. You start to piece together this ecosystem in your mind, and you can paint a pretty accurate picture.

If we could travel back in time 100 million years, and I’ll take you back in time in this Nat Geo show, what we see is this vast river ecosystem that stretched across Africa, across the Sahara, that was the size of the United States. Back in that time, our planet was really going through these hothouse conditions, these extremes in temperatures. It was quite arid overall—no ice on the poles, so the dinosaurs were experiencing violent storms, not very stable conditions and it was very dry. Then you have these giant river systems where all the biodiversity is concentrated. The animals are huge, absolutely enormous. I call this ecosystem the River of Giants.

You have 6 or 7 different kinds of giant freshwater sharks, a giant car-sized coelacanth, lungfish, crocodile-like predators, all of these creatures live in this river system, which must have been incredibly productive. You also have pterosaurs, Spinosaurus, flying reptiles and one thing we found out is that many of the predators in this ecosystem were relying on fish, even predators who were not specialized fish eaters at all. Spinosaurus took advantage of this abundant food supply, this semi-aquatic dinosaur was perfectly adapted to hunt giant coelacanths.

It’s a really bizarre ecosystem because the dinosaurs common to other ecosystems we know are not very common to this one. So, it’s a predator’s paradise. We have no modern equivalent or one from the dinosaur times, either.

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River of Giants by Davide Bonadonna. National Geographic Magazine, October 2014.

CITA: Now that we have an expert, we hope you can answer a riddle for us. Which is: why do you think it is that little kids everywhere love dinosaurs?

NI [laughs]: Quite a few people from different backgrounds have tried to answer this question and they’ve come up with quite a few hypotheses. Some people think that dinosaurs are, yes, big and scary but they’re extinct, so they can’t really harm you . . . kids can exert some control over these monsters by learning their names and facts about them.  I don’t know. Others say dinosaurs represent our parents, that kids are terrified of their parents and impressed with everything their parents can do. Parents are so powerful. So, dinosaurs represent Daddy and Mommy and all the power they have. However, I don’t think that’s what’s driving the curiosity. First, there are lots of kinds of extinct creatures. And not all of them are very popular. Dinosaurs are in a league of their own. I think dinosaurs push the boundaries of what’s possible. They’re the largest land animals of all time, some weighed as much as a whole herd of elephants. They ruled this planet 118 million years—for a very, very long time. I think that’s something that captures the imagination because we’ll never be around for that long. These creatures were around a long time and that alone captures the imagination of people. The best explanation I can think of is that dinosaurs are so bizarre. They are, in many ways, unlike any animals alive today. Look at a mammoth. It’s hairy, but it sort of looks like an elephant, so it’s familiar. Dinosaurs have all these incredible adaptations, skulls and frills . . . when you work with these guys it’s like working with extraterrestrials from outer space. It’s unlike any animal around today. There’s no modern day equivalent. When it was time to look at physiology or biology you’re really kind of starting from scratch. The fact that they’re so alien-looking and from this alien world from their time on this planet; I think that’s what happens. People ask me about kids, why they love them so much, but it’s really everyone. In these Nat Geo series, you see all kinds of people, people in their 30s, 40s, 80s . . . I don’t think there are many people who walk into the museum with these dinosaur skeletons and don’t stand in awe. Very few are like, “oh, whatever.” To get to experience the reality that dinosaurs existed—the imagination goes wild.

Spinosaurus exhibit at National Geographic's Explorer's Hall

Spinosaurus exhibit at National Geographic’s Explorer’s Hall. (Photo: Mark Thiessen)

CITA: As we’re trying to understand the scope of “deep time” you work with, we’re thinking about perspective. Most of us live by to-do lists or calendar apps, and everything feels so important today, or for the next four years, or all this talk about the-world-is-going-to-end. But, you have a different perspective working in deep time. How does that affect your understanding of news, of modern society? When you’re out in the Sahara, do you ever imagine ‘what is the geologic record going to hold from these millennia, what will be left behind from us’?

NI: I think it helps to have this deep time perspective, and I think it would help us as humans to act smarter when it comes to making sure that we can be on this planet for as long as possible. If we want to understand things like long-term changes in climate or extinction or crisis in biodiversity, we must have this perspective of deep time. We’re trying to understand these things but we don’t understand long-term effects. We have numbers and data, so we can create models and predictions in a computer, but the only way to really understand how ecological changes play out in the long term on planet Earth is to travel back in time. These things have happened in the past: massive extinction events, dramatic changes in climate, all kinds of things, and we can see what happened to ecosystems and how they recovered.

One thing we do know looking into deep time  . . .  you know, one of the things people are worried about is that we might destroy all life on this planet, and it will be the end of planet earth. I think we shouldn’t worry about destroying the planet because I think we overestimate our power a bit. One thing that is pretty obvious is that our planet is going to recover at some point.  We are in the process of destroying a lot of biodiversity, and that is a real crime.

But the truth is—in a few million years, our planet is going to recover but humans won’t be around. We should protect our ecosystem. If we don’t care about plants or animals that we share this planet with, we should at least try to preserve the planet for selfish reasons because if we continue to act the way we are at the moment, it will be the end of humans on this planet. There will be a huge crisis in biodiversity, but some life forms will survive. Our planet is going to recover, and it will be fine in a few million years without humans around. It’s in our own interest to take better care of our planet. What we’re doing to ecosystems, and oceans, rainforests, and coral reefs, you name it, is ultimately going to harm us. And that is going to be a quite painful process [for humans to endure]. We need the planet much more than the planet needs us. We need the resources, the water, the food. So it’s important that we don’t overestimate the importance of humans [to the planet’s survival].

What you mentioned is an interesting question because we are so focused on this tiny little slice of time that we call the present, as if that is all that matters, but if you are a paleontologist or a geologist, you can step back and see how tiny this slice of time is.

What is going to be left behind if some alien civilization finds earth one day . . .what are they going to find? The answer is difficult to tell, but the things we think are important are probably not going to be preserved in the geological records. Sometimes when you look at a geological section, you find gaps of a few million years missing. And we go, “oh! Three or four million years is missing, not a big deal.” But, as you know, that’s much longer than we’ve been around. You can have gaps from geological processes, so human activity could be missing from the geologic record altogether. Again, we should not overstate our importance. In a few million years, there may not be that much left that we could leave behind.

There’s one thing I think these extraterrestrial scientists would see is a big crisis in biodiversity, a mass extinction, like the one that wiped out most of the dinosaurs. And this one was—hopefully they could figure this out–caused by us, for the most part. There are always some plants and animals going extinct, what you call “background extinction,” and every now and then something very unusual happens. It could be a massive vulcanism, it could be a meteorite impact, or it could be the arrival of homo sapiens. It takes the planet a long time to recover, but it does. That’s one thing they’d see for sure: a mass extinction. Let’s hope they can’t figure out what we did to our planet because we won’t look very good in their history books.

CITA: Perhaps these extraterrestrial scientists will see the layers of fossils and find one thin sheet of plastic which will be all that is left of our time on earth.

NI[laughs]: That’s a possibility. The other thing is that it’s important to have this deep time perspective because it teaches us humility, which is something we always need. I often compare it to astronomy. If you talk to astronomers, they understand we are so small in space and insignificant in many ways. Paleontology is similar because we see how tiny we are in time. So we combine those two and that’s a hefty dose of humility.

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Nizar Ibrahim in Morocco. (Photo: Kat Keene Hogue)

CITA: We’re looking forward to you coming to share your stories of discoveries with us. What else should we know?

NI: Well, I wanted to go back to something you said earlier when you mentioned that you might not have the patience to go to the lab. People often think of paleontology as this work that goes out and collects fossils then puts them together, but it’s really so much more than that. And, it never really gets boring. You do have lab work, but that is always interesting. Sometimes you’re looking at the microstructure of dinosaur bones or another day you might be putting together a digital skeleton, or studying the chemical composition of the bones and what that tells you about the lifestyle of the animal. You teach students and lead expeditions, and do this National Geographic Live series. It’s the intersection of many fields—you never get bored and you’re not restricted to one academic box. You use tools from many different areas, and that’s worth mentioning.

One of the most rewarding things for me is to see how excited people get about science and exploration. I got a letter from someone coming to the show, and she’s flying in with her son to the Straz Center for the talk. It’s his seventh birthday present, and they’re flying all the way in from New Mexico. We have a wider impact beyond scientific exploration to affecting people, and an experience can change someone’s life. Children see the show and say ‘I want to do this, I’m going to be a scientist.’ That’s exciting.

CITA: That’s an amazing story! We see all the time the direct impact the performing arts have on children’s lives. And, for children who are here to see someone like you—who, at seven years old, decided to find dinosaurs. We hope that child asks you a question during the Q&A at the end. That story warms our hearts.

NI: His mom says he might be [laughs] ah, um, a little star struck. [laughs] So, I told her maybe we could do a meet and greet before or after the show. But yes, museums and performing arts centers are so important to culture. Ask any scientist how it began, and they’ll tell you ‘my parents took me to a museum at five years old’ or ‘I read a National Geographic story’ and these experiences create the passion. I’m trying to make sure young people in Morocco are exposed to this spark of curiosity. We need scientists and innovators, and these events trigger a real passion for culture.

I was just in Africa for a conference, and I told them there—as Africa has huge areas of cultural desert—and I said, it’s really terrible. Look at a place like London, for example, and you take away the culture, the museums, everything, then what’s left? A cold and souless place. That’s how you know how important a vibrant cultural landscape is.

CITA: Yes, yes, yes. We agree. Culture is the soul of humanity. We’re looking forward to seeing you here. There will be a huge audience who loves your work who will be eager to ask more questions at the end of your talk.

NI: Thank you and see you soon.

JAWS Made Me *Want* to Get in the Water

A wild conversation with National Geographic underwater photographer Brian Skerry

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“Fish in can” ©Brian Skerry

First, let it be known that everybody loves Brian Skerry. When we not-so-secretly leaked an announcement about this interview on social media, many OMGs and “wow” emojis followed, including a few messages of “Tell Brian I love him!!!!” and “You’re so lucky! I love his work!” Some of you may remember his visit to The Straz a few years ago, when he delivered what some audience members proclaimed was “the best talk I have ever heard in my life. I’m not even kidding.”

Brian merits many exclamation marks, which you, too, will understand when you come to his next presentation here in January to kick off our National Geographic Live series.

(You will be delighted to know that the feeling is mutual. “I love Tampa,” he says. “It’s one of my favorite places. I can’t wait to get back.”)


“Dolphins” © Brian Skerry

Brian is the best kind of nature photographer — his technical skill matches an artistic sensibility; but, what really nabs people’s loyalty with Brian’s work is how unselfconsciously smitten he is with wild creatures. Brian is deep, and his art is deep. His images poke at that sleeping giant buried in the overburdened soul of indoor-dwelling workers: we want that primordial reminder that we are alive on this planet and we belong here with these other magnificent creatures. This is our place; this is our home. We forget that we live, breathe and move as part of the perfect miracle of life on Earth.

Brian’s photos stir the giant. Our connection to the planet crackles with awe. That’s the gift of a little bit of time with Brian Skerry — an awakening. Here are the highlights of our illuminating conversation with this incredibly cool person who is strangely compelled to put his body alongside enormous and often toothy marine life.


“Sharks” © Brian Skerry

CITA: You’re obsessed with sharks. How did you get this way?

BRIAN: Sharks and their protection are near and dear to my heart. I was intrigued because they were predators — the same way most people are intrigued by lions, grizzly bears, any big predator that can eat us. I’m not sure if I remember my earliest moments. You know, I started SCUBA in 1977, a few years after Jaws. I was in the movie theater with everybody else when it opened — June 18, 1975, I think (note: we checked—June 20, 1975—impressive recall for the shark enthusiast). I watched the movie, and I may be one of the very few people who saw that film and wanted to go in the water afterwards. Some people couldn’t even get in the bathtub for a year, but I wanted to be Matt Hooper [the Richard Dreyfuss character]. I wanted a life on boats, in the ocean, interacting with sharks.

I live in a little New England town outside of Boston, so I never thought I would have much of a chance to interact with sharks. I met a shark biologist, Wes Pratt, who worked for NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] and works for MOTE now [a marine lab in Sarasota]. He’s so wonderful, charismatic — a real life Matt Hooper — and he would go on shark cage trips off the coast of Rhode Island. I asked if he would take me, this is around 1982, and so I got to go out there in a cage that Wes built himself. Bright yellow. We chummed the water, and I was in the cage in the late afternoon when I saw my first shark emerge in the green, murky water.  I mean, I was so compelled to be near this animal. I had my camera and wanted a picture, so I opened the door of the cage and swam out.


I had an overload of emotions. My heart was racing, of course, as I was thinking “what if she comes after me?” but I was also hypnotized by her. Her grace of movement. She was aware of me but paid me no mind. I was hooked. I later found out I was the only person ever who’d left the cage. [laughs]

I remember driving home after the dive filled with such peace and contentment at having had this encounter with a wild animal. I was absolutely intrigued. Part of that early attraction was being so close to such a predator, but that changed.

As a photographer, I was more intrigued with the shape of sharks. Their confidence. They moved so elegantly with this grace, this blending of grace and power. They exuded confidence and supremacy. I spent time trying to capture what the soul of a shark is, so I would return to them as a subject many times.

Over time, I came to see sharks as being something fragile — 100 million sharks are killed [by humans] every year, mostly for shark fin soup. There’s a lack of concern for the loss of sharks because people see them as these shadowy, one-dimensional creatures waiting to eat us. I’d been content making happy pictures, but as a journalist I couldn’t ignore that these so-called tough guys were struggling. They couldn’t overcome the anthropogenic struggles. As predators, they keep the ocean healthy, so I could see the correlation between breathing air and the health of the ocean. We should care about sharks. We should absolutely care about them.


“Shark” © Brian Skerry

There’s been more of a revolution for sharks recently. My more recent quest has been to help people appreciate their magnificence — sharks exist in a state of perfection in the ocean. Each is sculpted so differently.

Now I see them in all the ways I’ve grown to love them over the years. I want people to understand their importance, their magnificence. That’s one of the reasons I like doing the talks — there’s nothing quite like being in front of people and sharing stories to build empathy. It’s an essential way to communicate. It’s a bit of a race against time to create empathy for them.

CITA:  Will you tell us one of your favorite Brian-and-sharks stories?

BRIAN: Great question! Yes, every time is a special moment. It’s an adrenaline high, but more than that, it’s a connection with nature and a privilege to be able to see what you see down there.

I’ll tell you about the first time I ever encountered an oceanic white tip shark.

So, the oceanic white tip shark is classified as the fourth most dangerous species, if you’re into that kind of thing. As recently as the 1970’s, they were considered the most abundant large animal on earth, something over 100 pounds.  But today, with an estimated 99% in decline, they’re on the verge of extinction. I wanted to do a story, and I wanted to photograph the oceanic white tip.

I didn’t know anyone who’d seen one in a long time, but I heard a rumor some fishermen off Cat Island in the Bahamas had these sharks stealing yellowfin tuna off their lines. So, I get National Geographic to send me to Cat Island for 16 days so I can capture one of these sharks [on film]. We don’t see any oceanic white tips.

Later, we found out we went down there at the wrong time of the year.

Then, one day, mid-afternoon, an oceanic white tip appeared. About a 9-foot female.


She kept bouncing her nose off my camera; I was doing these pirouettes, rotating 360 degrees. She wasn’t trying to bite me, she was just curious, and we did this for about 15-20 minutes. We had a shark cage and put it down in the water, and Wes [Pratt] got in. I was able to get this picture and tell the story of the decline of this animal. Maybe this picture helps the conservation of this species.

The shark stayed with us, for some reasons, settling into lazy loops around the boat for a couple of hours. I can remember distinctly being in the blue Bahamian water, and she had this beautiful golden brown coloration, big pectoral fins, just gliding through the water like an aircraft. The light dappling on her back was so majestic, and she was so friendly. So polite.  It was truly a magical moment for me, no doubt one of my most memorable.

CITA: Hearing your poetic descriptions of sharks reminds us of Jack Turner’s essay, “Mountain Lions,” where he talks about his emotional response to seeing a cougar for the first time, only later did he realize that he was smitten.

BRIAN (laughs): It’s hard not to be smitten in the presence of wilderness. I don’t think that’s unique to Jack or me, though. I think humans are drawn to that quality in nature. We need it. There’s something in our DNA that responds in a primal way to nature. When you see how perfectly adapted it is — it’s so perfect — you see the connection we have. We’re all connected in this.


“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”— John Muir

CITA: Seems like, as humans, we’re finally moving away from the domination model, the extract-and-control model, that drove us before and trying to get back to belonging to the bigger picture of our relationship and interdependence.

BRIAN: I think it was John Muir who had the quote about tugging at one string in nature and finding it connected to everything else . . . the more time I spend in nature the more I realize that is so true. We’ve placed ourselves above and apart, and that is a mistake. The more we can understand how everything is connected, the better off we’ll be — we’ll have a different ethic.

CITA: We wanted to ask you about one of our favorite photographs, the right whale swooping in on the diver. What an extraordinary image of scale, of capturing a sense of harmony between a human and a whale.

BRIAN: I’d heard about a population of right whales near the Auckland Islands after I’d spent a year working on a story about the northern right whale, who is on the verge of extinction because these are urban whales that have a lot of stresses. This southern right whale, the Auckland population, didn’t know about people. I took an 82-foot sailboat and went down there for three weeks. When we showed up, it really was this moment of “natives swim out to greet us” when these giant whales came around the boat. I was in about 70 feet of water trying to photograph them, but they were so curious. They didn’t know what I was. They didn’t know about people. A whale would swim up, like a school bus, so big it would block out all the sunlight, right up to my face. I was bent backwards on the bottom in some kind of yoga pose, and this curious whale, it’s softball eye, looking right at me. It could have crushed me like a grape, but it didn’t. They’d try to touch me. I try not to touch any animals in the wild — they might not like it, and that’d be bad. Or they might really like it, and that would also be bad. But it was nudging me, nudging me, like it wanted me to pat it — it was unreal. Finally, I had this idea to take a photograph with a human and a whale, so I asked my assistant to get in the water. Here comes this 45-foot whale, and I got the picture.


This whale decided to hang out with us for two hours. I could never swim fast enough to catch up to an animal like this, so we knew they were choosing to be with us and spend time with us. I imagine it was like when the Pilgrims arrived, and whales were everywhere, so trusting and easily approachable.

It was important to show this trusting nature they have. Somewhere along the way we betrayed this trust. So it was a very special time to be in this moment down there with them.

CITA: And you’re going to bring your manatee pictures from the Crystal River when you come for your talk here?

BRIAN: Well, I thought since I’m coming to Florida, I had better bring them. (laughs) I’m also bringing a lot of other photographs, and I’ll be talking about solutions for the ocean, too, aquaculture. I used to be very skeptical of aquaculture, farming in the ocean, but I’ve done a 180 in my thinking on it. I’ll also have [pictures of] dolphins from a story I did on dolphin intelligence. I’m really looking forward to coming back.

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Brian Skerry

To learn more about Brian or see more of his photographs, visit brianskerry.com or like his Facebook page. Want tickets to his talk? Get them here.