Human Journey

The Flying Classroom Comes to Palau

Water snake, Palau (Photo by Zoltan Takacs)

National Geographic Emerging Explorer Barrington Irving has a lofty idea of what it means to teach—he teaches by example, high among the clouds, and all over the world. As the youngest person to ever fly solo around the world, he knows how to rise above challenges and break into new territory. 

Barrington Irving‘s Flying Classroom recently landed in Palau, an island state renowned for its lakes full of jellyfish and sparkling shores. Barrington teamed up with fellow National Geographic Emerging Explorers Zoltan Takacs and Kenny Broad to take the Classroom into deep underwater caves, pools filled with exotic creatures, and across the jungles and beaches of Palau. The mission? Extract highly potent venom from water snakes.

Teaching and traveling are inextricably linked for Barrington, and he relishes chances like this that can be used to teach to students all over the world. Landing on Palau and wrangling snakes in the water were new experiences for the pilot, but he was ready for anything!

Barrington makes his move on a water snake. (Photo by Zoltan Takacs)
Barrington makes his move on a water snake. (Photo by Zoltan Takacs)

What could anyone want with water snake venom, one might ask? Zoltan, a toxinologist, is on a quest to extract and study the poison, but the objectives are manifold. The venom is crucial for saving lives and treating debilitating conditions. Numerous high-profile drugs are produced with venom worldwide—though the substance itself is lethal, the various toxins within it can have phenomenal medical properties when applied in specific ways.

After a few days of chasing snakes in the water, many were captured and “milked” for their venom by Barrington, Kenny, and Zoltan. Blood samples were also taken directly from the snakes’ hearts for DNA analysis—something that allows scientists to reproduce snake venom by utilizing the genetic sequences that manufacture it.

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Zoltan Takacs (left) and Kenny Broad (right). (Photo by Zoltan Takacs)

Barrington also got the chance to dive some of Palau’s mysterious submerged caverns with Kenny Broad, who uses underwater caves to research the ancient history of both humans and animals. As the two of them descended into the darkness, they had to exercise strict safety protocols in order to survive the dive—literally. Deadly hydrogen sulfide gas can pool at the bottoms of the caves, and tight spaces abound in the pitch-black waters. To say that it was a dive into the underworld is hardly an overstatement. Barrington wasn’t terribly certain about what he was doing—who would be? However, with a mixture of courage, caution and Kenny’s rare expertise, they were able to make it through safely.

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Into the Abyss (Photo by Zoltan Takacs)
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Barrington explores a cave from a submerged entrance. (Photo by Zoltan Takacs)

Barrington says Palau was an unforgettable experience that reinforced in his mind the importance of respecting the environment—both for the amazing things it can give us as well as for how inhospitable it can be.

You can follow Barrington Irving’s continuing adventures at his Flying Classroom blog, as well as read more about projects from Kenny and Zoltan.

You can also listen in on this interview with Barrington Irving by National Geographic:

I've lived and traveled all over the United States and the world. I've been in Germany, Holland, Japan, New Zealand and Australia. I've completed sustainability projects in the latter two countries and studied and written on advanced theoretical biology and technology topics, like artificial life and the search for alien organisms in strange places. People say I am very funny and entertaining. I suppose I am. I am very passionate about a lot of topics and great at analyzing things to an interminable depth. I'm highly imaginative and daydream a lot—not on the job, mind you. Writing has always been my primary focus and greatest area of expertise. I'm currently involved in writing a monograph on first-line HIV treatments, as well as a fictional novel. My interests include biological and geological history, travel (but who doesn't say that, right?), weight training, nature, photography, romanticized historical movies and books, exploration and investigation. I help National Geographic explorers and grantees to publish blogs live from the field, and write original posts covering their work as well.
  • Roger Obakrairur

    Hope you enjoyed your trip to our small island of Palau.

  • Rice O.

    OMG!!! I hope you all don’t fall ill or get bad luck, those water snakes are a NONO….they are like “gods” and should never be bothered with….Hopefully you got the permission from someone…any .Palauan in his right mind would never bother those snakes. Take care

  • vivian r

    Iam Aimeliikian who was repeatedly warned by my grandfather to stay away from this snakes whenever we went fishing. My grandfather words were these snakes are “gods” and in no way should be messed with peroiod!!!!! Best of luck with the venom project Barrington.

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