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!
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.
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.
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 also listen in on this interview with Barrington Irving by National Geographic: