As the wife of Peter Raven, chairman of the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration (CRE), I often feel that I have the best job in the universe. It is to travel at the side of my man, with fascinating people, going to unusual places. In the last 15 years, we have been to about 65 countries, with 32 trips just to China. The best journeys are those we have shared with the CRE.
A scientist in my own right, I spent many years in public garden administration and parks management, then transitioned to journalism — and learning how to be a “Chocolate Sherpa” for CRE field inspections.
Since I gave up my day job, some of my friends jokingly call me minister sans portfolio. I prefer to think of myself as a jack of all trades and master of some. The skill I’ve most enjoyed acquiring is that of photography. My eye, my hand, and my equipment have all improved through years of mentoring by NGS experts on these trips. My best camera lessons came while stranded for eight hours in the back of a bus, detained by a landslide on a narrow crumbling mountain road in remote Sichuan province, on our way to the pandas at the famous breeding station in Wolong!
Our January 2016 trip to the Sea of Cortez with the CRE proved to be another great adventure. The images I am sharing here are cherry-picked from nearly 5,000 frames I made during the voyage. They are the images that best sum up what I saw — what I experienced — in such an enchanting part of the world.
My new goal is to improve my editorial skills and workflow so that the best images make it out of my camera and into view. These were all made with a Nikon D800 and a 28-300 mm lens, plus one or two with my iPhone. I think I’m making progress!
The Ship: Sailing on the Lindblad Sea Bird along the shores of the Sea of Cortez is an experience that will raise your spirits and widen your horizons. This unique part of the planet was previously unknown to me.
The best way to explore a new place is with people who know it intimately. The naturalists on the Sea Bird, scientists of the CRE, Nat Geo staff, and guest experts invited to join us all formed an amazing network of knowledge, so extensive no question about this ecosystem went unanswered. And there were questions I would not have thought of asking!
The Chocolate: It all started in Peru fifteen years ago. In the picturesque valley below Machu Pichu, we embarked on an “easy day hike” that turned to misery with sheeting rain and slippery mud. The trail deteriorated into a hog wallow, so we left the path to hike along the slick, wide wooden ties of the railroad that edges the Urubamba River.
Spirits flagged. Tempers flared. In desperation, I retrieved a bag of Dove Dark Promises from my pack and shared them around. Smiles broke out along with the sunshine that appeared suddenly through the mist. Newly energized, we finally reached our destination to explore an ancient, little-known sister ruin of the Machu Picchu complex.
The victory class photo of this field inspection, with the National Geographic flag in the centre of our group, looks like a team of mud wrestlers playing King of the Hill! I’ve been the bearer of chocolates on every trip since.
Clear Sailing Under a Cloudless Sky: We were graced with sapphire silk seas for much of our journey through the Gulf of California, a blessing for those prone to mal de mer. The smooth wake gently rolling out from our hull draws me into this early morning scene of dry sugar-sand island shores floating in the blue-on-blue of water and sky. The absolute purity of the brilliant azure blue was breathtaking.
Glorious Sunrise: Early morning is NOT my time of day. Some people, like Kirk Johnson, CRE member and Sant Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, and his wife Chase, must be born to it. Here they are, just before sunrise, in the pale light of a coming dawn, where I found them on the upper bridge deck waiting for the sun. With the balmy sea air and the magnificence of nature all around, I figured they must have had pure bliss in those coffee mugs.
Stunning Sunsets: Peter calls me his sunset lady. It is my most treasured time of day – the end of toil, the golden hour, a time of color gathering in the sky.
As a night owl, sunset may actually be the midpoint of my biological day. It is certainly a time when my brain is sharp and my eyes are pleased with the daily salutation to the gently changing hues of the setting sun. The Sea of Cortez offered some of the finest skies I have enjoyed. This view of a moody sky over craggy mountains graced our al fresco observation deck cocktail hour as we cruised southward through the Bahia de Loreto National Park.
Dr. Jonathan Losos in Hot Pursuit of a Local Lizard: One of the best things about traveling with such accomplished scientists is observing the passion with which they pursue their particular interests. Here, on Isla Carmen, it was a genuine treat to see Dr. Jonathan Losos, a professor in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University — known to us as Lizard Man — scrambling through the desert scrub, chasing after an elusive lizard. If there was a lizard or snake anywhere, he found it! A passion for the living world is a gift of incredible value. For those that share this love, it gets us out of bed in the morning.
Coastal Botany (Senna confinis): On this journey, we were graced with time in the field with botanist Dr. Jon Rebman. He is THE go to guy for the plants of Baja and is on a yearlong collecting expedition for the museum in San Diego, where he is the curator of botany. Through his eyes, I saw many rare and endemic desert plants for the first time. Jon is another scientist graced with a burning passion for plants. This we have in common! A tiny little senna (Senna confinis) was going to seed in a dry arroyo and the capsules splitting open reminded me of a nest full of baby birds begging to be fed. Other plants of this genus are used globally as herbal medicine.
Ouch! Spines on the cardón (Pachycereus pringlei): The elephant cactus, called cardón by the locals, is a gargantuan plant, the largest cactus in the world. Some of them may rise over the centuries to more than 50 feet in height. To keep grazing animals away, they have armed themselves with millions of spines on every outfacing ridge. It is the “apex” plant in the community and depends on symbiotic bacteria and fungi to survive in this arid climate. These plants are fun for shooting close-ups and back-lit silhouettes.
Snow Egret: Have you ever wondered where your backyard birds go in the winter? Our Meramec River Missouri snowy egrets have found a great place to stay warm: Isla Espiritu Santo, Sea of Cortez! Well, this might not be our exact egret, but they do winter in this region. The long white plumes sure look better on the birds than adorning hats of fashionable ladies as once was the mode. The island is a great haven for birds. An old impoundment left to nature has sprung up with mangroves on the ocean side and has become a huge rookery for frigate birds, egrets, pelicans, blue-footed boobies and a host of other avian species.
Los Islotes (the Little Islets): Who would guess that a rock pile in the middle of nowhere would be teaming with life? The first clue is the white “icing” dripping down the rocky outcrops. Get close enough and catch a whiff…guano! The Spanish name for bird droppings, guano is a high-quality plant fertilizer of such economic value that over-collection in the 1800s disturbed so many seabird rookeries that a number of avian species were pushed into rare or threatened status. Another fascinating animal group lives here too…a colony of sea lions! We were able to swim with them and watch their agile antics as the curious youngsters nudged and rolled alongside us in the water.
Boobies and Cormorant: This closer shot, on Isla Espiritu Santo, shows the carpet of guano under a clutch of blue-footed boobies (Sula nebouxii). The single dark bird on the right edge of the grouping is a cormorant (Phalacrocorax), historically called the bald raven or sea raven. Before modern taxonomy, it was thought that they were related to true ravens (Corax). One of our whimsical scientist friends named a new plant genus Megacorax, big raven, to honor my husband, Peter Raven.
Boobies and cormorants feed on small fishlike sardines, eels and squid. Some reports of colony decline have been linked to overfishing by humans.
Wet Landing: Part of the drama of “adventure travel” is the chance to go ashore in places where other humans rarely set foot…because they are hard to get to. At the beginning of our trip, we were advised that every landing would be a “wet landing”. This one, to visit tide pools on the shore of Isla Espiritu Santo, was particularly exciting as the “beach” at low tide was composed of slippery, round rocks and boulders. Fortunately, no cameras were lost!
Tide Pools: On this rocky ledge at low tide were small pools filled with the most amazing creatures. We poked and prodded, flipped rocks and explored these shallow waters with great curiosity normally reserved for childhood. Black brittle stars, spiny sea urchins, fat sea cucumbers and other mysterious and unusual marine species were discovered, photographed and returned to their nooks and niches. Dr. William Gilly, the squid specialist, gave us quick lessons in marine biology. What a fabulous teacher and classroom!
Sunset From Tide Pools: So absorbed were we in finding the next bizarre water creature, we paid little attention to the changing sky.
Already pleased with an adventurous day, who knew what treat was yet to come! Rising from a particularly interesting puddle, I stretched my now-stiff back and arced my face skyward. Whoa! A silvery sheet of mackerel clouds had slipped into place over the spine of the island giving the entire vista an ethereal shimmer. Progressing into the evening was one of the most expressive sunset skies I have ever had the pleasure of enjoying. No wonder they call this the island of the Holy Spirit!
Pair of Whales: Read the promo literature for this cruise route and whale-watching is at the top of the list. Traveling with us on this journey was the CRE’s own staff leader, Dr. John Francis, a marine mammal specialist. He can glance at a sliver of whale body half a mile in the distance and tell you what kind it is, what sex it is, and sometimes, even its research nickname. It’s all about that scientific passion I mentioned earlier.
A friend today said, “It is not work, it is living.” All eyes were focused on the distant horizon punctuated with misty spout spray, straining to see the barely visible whales, and all of a sudden…there they were…a pair of humpbacks (Megaptera novaeangliae), swimming right alongside our ship.
Once endangered by commercial whaling, the populations of many whale species are slowly rebounding since conservations efforts were begun in the Gulf of California.
Whale Tail in the Sunset: One of the holy grails for a wildlife photographer is to catch a calendar shot of a breaching whale. If photography is not your day job, any whale species will do. The perfect image would be to capture the whale fully clear of the water, in an artistic arc with fins outstretched, including enough water splash for drama, majestic scenery in the background — and dynamic lighting, preferably sunrise or sunset. Well, I got three out of five: part of a whale, with the rocky point of Land’s End in the background bathed in the golden light of the setting sun.
Now I understand why the whale tail is the artistic symbol of the region…you must be extremely fast to catch more than just the tail. My respect for professional wildlife photographers has increased 100-fold as they do all of this while pivoting on a dime, with a two-foot-long, 15-pound lens on tired arms, with hair-trigger reflexes, on a windy, rocking deck. Hats off to Patricia and Patricio who taught me a few new tricks.
Swimming With the Whale Sharks: For me, the most exciting event of the trip was our expedition to swim with the whale sharks (Rhincodon typus), the largest living non-mammalian vertebrate, in the shallow waters near La Paz.
While the simple word “shark” brings up images of the killer beast in the movie, Jaws, and conjures fear in surfers and swimmers, this shark is actually a filter-feeder and no threat to us at all. That is hard to believe when you are in the water with your face mask only a few feet from the gigantic, gaping maw of this creature. I’ve read that a large adult may have a mouth over four feet wide on a body more than 20 feet long! No fear here, just huge respect.
Enjoying the Thrill: National Geographic President Gary Knell (Knellus garyi), and his wife, Kim Larson (Larsona kimberliana), still dripping from their swim with whale sharks, bask in the sun on the bow of our diving pontoon. One of the best treasures to be found on the CRE field inspections is the time to get to know others involved with the committee and to share our common enthusiasm for the amazing world around us.
Deep, Lasting Friendship: The joys and hardships of travel together forge strong bonds of friendship with those who journey along the same road. Whether it is surviving a muddy trail in Peru, swatting gigantic mosquitos in Honduras, treating a painful macaque bite in China, or scanning the horizon for whales on a glorious sunny day in Baja, shared experiences draw us closer together.
Seeing the world through the eyes of an expert, discussing the deep philosophies of sustainability and conservation at dinner, or watching the stars slowly revolve in ink-black skies are all ways of broadening both the mind and the heart. My fellow travelers here in a joyful windy moment in the whale-rich alley off Punta Gorda are Catherine Rigsby, Melissa Losos and Carol Harden.
Reflections of Beauty: We spent one whole all-too-short morning exploring the beach at Punta Colorado, on Isla San José. The arresting beauty of the cliffs and canyons made me pause to reflect on the majesty of light and sand, sky and sea. This island has topographic drama with rose and gray cliffs plunging into the ocean, fossils of long-extinct species, including some well-preserved sea turtles revealed in the layers of eroding stone, and the hidden beauty of tiny green flies pollinating flowers along a rugged arroyo.
There was no human footprint on the beach here when we landed our craft in the morning. It is a place where nature can still be nature.
One of the most important gifts the National Geographic CRE has given me is the opportunity to see the world, one place at a time, with depth and detailed scientific interpretation, from macro- and micro-perspectives. Approaching with social sensitivity and ethical practices, we have interacted with people in communities of every kind, from watching dirt-path villagers braid rushes into mats in remote Madagascar to dancing under the stars with the Queen of Bhutan.
By weaving the stories of human history, the geography and geology of the continents, and the influences they have on the biological richness of the natural world, Nat Geo has helped me comprehend and appreciate the complexity of our special planet. Conveyed with this gift is the clear understanding of our responsibility, individually and collectively, to care for this world, and to do our best to protect and preserve it.
Pat Duncan Raven lives on a beautiful hillside just west of St. Louis, Missouri, with Peter H. Raven, Chairman of the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration. An avid photographer and journalist, Pat is the garden writer for the Ladue News. She has more than one hundred columns and scientific articles to her credit. Pat’s photos have appeared on PBS, on the National Geographic Voices blog, and been used to promote the Travel Photography Competition of the St. Louis Post Dispatch. Trained as a plant scientist, Dr. Raven earned her Ph.D. in horticulture from Ohio State and spent much of her career in the botanical garden world. She was the Executive Director of Mercer Botanical Garden in Houston before marrying Dr. Raven.