Correction: An earlier version of this story appeared with a incorrect photo caption. The Victoria Falls are located in southern Africa, not South Africa. This error has been corrected.
Jessica Pociask always packs three things when she travels: a camera, a pillow and a black-and-tan Bedouin scarf from Jordan, which can be used as a blanket, hat, shirt, skirt or to tie something up. She jokes that it’s all she truly needs as she crisscrosses the globe. Pociask (pronounced POE-zee-ack) has been to more than 80 countries and every continent. Her latest passport was issued in 2011 and is 50 pages long — there are only three blank pages remaining in it.
As a tour operator for her boutique travel company, WANT Expeditions, Pociask, 34, takes her guests to some of the most remote corners of the world to see exotic wildlife. There are trips to see jaguars in Brazil’s Pantanal region, giant pandas in China and mountain chimpanzees in Congo.
The company’s trips are priced as all-inclusive (with the exception of international air fare and visas), usually last about two weeks and accommodate up to 16 guests, although most groups are in the eight-to-10 range. Trips cost anywhere from $3,500 up to a $45,000 Antarctic expedition that includes stops at rarely visited ports of call such as the Crozet Islands, Kerguelen Islands, Saint-Paul Island and Amsterdam Islands.
Pociask’s fascination with wildlife began at an early age. Growing up in Traverse City, Mich., she brought home creatures she found, bought or was given, including a fox, a snake, tropical fish, dogs, a hermit crab and more than 20 finches. “My parents had a lot of patience,” Pociask says. “And they really encouraged me to interact with the natural world.”
Although her parents didn’t travel much, her father had armchair wanderlust. “He always talked about buying a sailboat, taking us kids out of school and home-schooling us as we sailed around the world,” says her younger sister, Catherine, who does marketing and public relations for WANT. The siblings also share a D.C. apartment when Jessica isn’t traveling or residing at her other home in Traverse City.
When she was growing up, Jessica Pociask’s interest in travel was stoked through reading. “My grandfather had every National Geographic known to man,” she says. “Whenever we went over to his house for Christmas, I would go downstairs in his basement and thumb through them all.”
Two of her favorite books were “Birds, Beasts, and Relatives,” Gerald Durrell’s memoir of living on the Greek island of Corfu, and Richard Halliburton’s “Complete Book of Marvels.” “He went to a lot of places that people still don’t go today,” she says of Halliburton, an early 20th-century explorer and adventure journalist. “They’re the kinds of places I go on my tours.”
As she began reading about early expeditionists, she discovered Freya Stark. The pioneering female explorer and writer was one of the first Westerners to travel through Iran and Arabia in the 1930s. “Historically, when you look at travel and expeditions, it was primarily a man’s realm,” says Pociask, who was inspired by Stark and found fuel for a dream that perhaps she might be able to pursue a similar career.
It wasn’t until 1996 that Pociask got her first real taste of travel. She had the opportunity to tour Europe with the Michigan Ambassadors of Music, which takes high school orchestras overseas to perform. “I sat last chair for violin,” Pociask says. “I was not exactly a model orchestra student.”
After a year at a liberal arts college in Michigan, she decided it wasn’t a good fit. For the next several years, she did seasonal work as a bartender and waitress on Mackinac Island in Lake Huron and in Key Largo, Fla., while volunteering on environmental projects on the side. Every few months, she traveled throughout the United States and took trips abroad to England, Ireland, Iceland and Central America. Ultimately, she enrolled at Michigan State University in 2003, where she earned a degree in natural resources management.
Her senior year, she was accepted into a program for studying climate change in Antarctica. That was the turning point. From then on she was determined to pursue conservation-minded travel as a career. “It’s mind-blowing down there,” she says. “The wildlife is like nothing else you’ve ever seen.” She met ornithologist and photographer Akos Hivekovics on her stay, and the two began dating. After Pociask’s program finished, the two traveled together and were married in 2009.
The pair developed Wildlife and Nature Travel, a firm that promoted other companies’ travel packages and offered its own. “I pushed hard to develop tours, because most people didn’t want to go to these exotic places by themselves,” Pociask says. “Though they were intrepid travelers, sometimes it was costprohibitive, and there wasn’t a lot of information about these places.”
The company was launched in 2007 and quickly found success. The first year, they led five trips. There were 17 the following year, 32 the year after that, and approximately 40 in 2014. In 2009, they hired their first guide; now there are 10. (Pociask and Hivekovics divorced in 2012, and she bought him out; the company became WANT Expeditions, which focuses solely on its own packages.)
Pociask leads many expeditions herself — last year she headed up 17 — despite the fact that she is an atypical adventure-travel guide. “I often joke that I have the three strikes against me: I’m young, female and American,” she says. “But it works to my advantage. It has helped me stand out more.”
Tours are focused on conservation, so Pociask gives lectures that go deeper than simple observations and rote recitations of facts. “If we’re looking at the elephant, I’m not just talking about the elephant,” she says. “I’m talking about what’s happening in the environment and what’s going on socially, politically and economically and how that relates to what we’re seeing.”
Most trips go off without a hitch, but sometimes Pociask has to deal with life-or-death situations. German nature photographer Gunther Riehle traveled with her in the winter of 2012 to see harp seals give birth in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in southeastern Canada. He was lying on the ice snapping a shot of a newborn seal pup when chaos erupted. “Suddenly, from the edge of my eye, I saw a huge, furious mummy seal coming out of the water like a torpedo,” he says.
He managed to momentarily confuse the angry animal by throwing his camera bag at her, but then the seal lunged at him again. Luckily, her teeth only went through his outerwear; she just missed flesh. Before she could try again, Pociask used a ski pole to distract and maneuver the enraged mother away, allowing Riehle to escape. “Three minutes later I was taking pictures again,” he says, “but that evening at the bar, Jessica was still shaking.”
An entire group found themselves in a tough situation on a March 2012 tour that ended in Bamako, the capital of Mali. They were staying at the Mande Hotel on the Niger River outside the city center. On the morning of their departure, Pociask woke up to gunfire echoing through the city, the smell of burning tires and the news of a coup d’état. After gathering her guests to assure them she was working on an exit strategy and alerting the local U.S. Embassy of their presence, Pociask deflated a tire on her van and hid the keys in case she was searched. It was quick thinking. Later that day, militants raided the hotel’s parking lot and stole several vehicles.
While fighting raged around them, Pociask and her tourists sheltered in place. Everyone tried booking flights out of the conflict-ravaged country, but they kept being canceled, and eventually the fighting closed the airport. A few days into the situation, she decided to throw a “coup party” to help everyone relax. “The mentality you maintain is important,” she says. “If you sit there wringing your hands the whole time, it’s terrifying and stressful.”
After six tense days, the airport announced it would reopen. Pociask got everyone to the terminal, only to discover there were no seats available. Feeling that a longer stay in Mali would be unsafe, she hired transportation to drive them six hours to the Burkina Faso border, although they were unsure what they might encounter there. “When we got close, we joked with Jessica, ‘Time to put on the makeup, get the good looks going and get the hair flowing,’ ” says Jori Delvo, a tourist who was on the trip.
At the checkpoint, a guard tried to exact a bribe from Pociask, but she refused to pay. After a battle of wills, the guard relented and the group was allowed to pass. “That’s what I like about her: She takes control,” says Delvo, who traveled with WANT Expeditions again after that trip. “That’s what I’m paying for. I don’t want some slouch who’s saying, ‘Go take care of yourself.’ ”
Sometimes the smallest gestures leave the biggest impressions on Pociask’s clients. Last winter, Cristián Samper, president and chief executive of the Bronx-based Wildlife Conservation Society, commissioned Pociask to arrange a trip for him and some of the organization’s trustees to visit field projects in Congo and the Central African Republic. “We were out in the rainforest after a 15-mile hike — the middle of nowhere — and she pulled out a little bag of dried cherries from Michigan,” he says. “I’ll never forget that. It was a nice touch after a long day.”
Last year, Pociask had a chance to take her first personal vacation in years, rafting the Colorado River with some former clients. It was a complete turnaround from her usual traveling style. “I was in charge of running the bar,” she says. “If someone needed a beer, I reached into the cooler and handed it to them. It wasn’t too difficult.”
Martell is the author of several books, including his most recent: “Freak Show Without a Tent: Swimming with Piranhas, Getting Stoned in Fiji and Other Family Vacations.” He tweets @nevinmartell.
More from Travel: