It was National Geographic explorer Mike Fay, who had walked more than 2,000 miles across the Congo Basin. The series about his journey inspired the president of Gabon to create his country’s first system of national parks.
The 42-year-old Sala — a Spaniard and respected marine biologist — gave up a tenured post at Scripps three years ago to move to the District, “trying to save the last wild places in the ocean” as National Geographic’s newest explorer-in-residence.
Being a 21st-century explorer, it turns out, entails advocacy as well as adventure. And it reflects a different mission for National Geographic, a 123-year-old Washington institution that no longer simply showcases stunning photographs and stories of the planet’s most remote places, but now acts on their behalf.
National Geographic has funded nearly 10,000 expeditions over the past century and reported on them in its magazine’s pages, bringing extraordinary sites to a global audience. It helped Robert E. Peary explore the North Pole in 1909 and assisted Hiram Bingham as he excavated the lost Inca city of Machu Picchu between 1912 and 1915. Its money helped produce iconic images of the underwater world — as Jacques Cousteau conducted oceanographic research in the 1950s and ’60s — and reshape the way we view evolution, as Mary and Richard Leakey unearthed the fossils of some of the earliest humans.
Recently the institution’s 14 explorers have started posing some uncomfortable questions to their longtime benefactor. They are nudging it to engage in public policy debates, though they don’t dispatch staffers to Capitol Hill as other environmental groups do.
“Increasingly now what they tell us is things are changing — the historical, cultural, natural resources of this planet are changing, and, in many cases, they’re disappearing,” said Terry Garcia, National Geographic’s executive vice president for mission programs, adding that the explorers have started to ask, “Do you really want us to simply chronicle the demise of the planet?”
Brian Skerry, who has worked as a National Geographic contract photographer for 13 years, underwent this transformation over the course of his career.
“At first, when I began, I was only interested in the celebratory picture,” he said during a panel on oceans at the Center for American Progress this month. After discovering “environmental stories I couldn’t ignore,” Skerry said, he began reporting such subjects as industrial fishing and climate change. “It’s not like a grocery store, the ocean; we can’t keep taking things out and expect everything’s okay.”