When the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration toured the southwestern portion of the Gulf of California in Mexico last week, visiting ecosystems, meeting and listening to researchers working in the region, it was a dream come true for John Francis, National Geographic Society Vice President for Research, Conservation and Exploration. Francis, the deputy chairman of the CRE, had been encouraging the committee to visit the Gulf for years. It is a place close to his heart, not only because he spent much time doing his own research and producing National Geographic television programming there, but also because of the dozens of grants the CRE has made to scientists working in the region.
At the conclusion of the expedition, National Geographic Voices interviewed John Francis about what National Geographic has done in the Gulf area and whether the field inspection for which he had advocated had met his expectations.
DB: You have long experience with the Gulf of California, including your research work with marine mammals and the many National Geographic Expeditions you have accompanied in the region. What is the nature of your association with the region over the years?
JF: I started going to the Gulf of California as part of my research program on California sea lions. During graduate school I regularly attended a marine mammal conference in La Paz which allowed me to get in touch with other researchers and know Mexican scientists and their work in the region.
After that, as a producer of National Geographic films, I spent two weeks shooting Humboldt squid in the Gulf, which was absolutely fascinating, and later I lectured aboard Lindblad/National Geographic ships working in the region.
I was also able to collaborate with colleagues John Calambokidis and Diane Gendron by putting Crittercams on blue whales off Isla San Jose. This provided an amazing perspective on life below the surface for one of the most impressive creatures of the Gulf.
DB: Why is the Gulf of California and the Baja Peninsula of particular interest to National Geographic? What was some of the more important research the Society funded in the region over the years, especially on your watch?
JF: National Geographic has a deep history of funding research and conservation in the Gulf with almost 100 grants given since the early 1970s. With its wealth of islands, coastal and mountain landscape, and unique marine setting, it has been a breeding ground for biodiversity as well as an important locale for archaeological and cultural study, including significant conservation challenges.
The highlights of our past work include submarine and terrestrial archaeological studies of archaeology by Amy Gusick and Harumi Fujita, respectively, looking at settlement of North America’s earliest human inhabitants.
On the island conservation front, Bernie Tershey’s early work eradicating invasive rodents and National Geographic-Buffett Awardee Enriqueta Velarde’s lifelong study of seabirds in Isla Rasa and the Gulf are noteworthy.
Regarding the marine, I would point out William Gilly’s important studies using our ship-based expeditions to measure long-term changes in the oxygen minimum zone of the Gulf in relation to the health of Humbolt squid and other marine fauna. And in that same realm Peter Klimley has received numerous grants studying hammerhead sharks and their migratory behavior in the Gulf and beyond.
I am also happy to have supported Young Explorer Antonella Wilby, who is working with Mexican leaders to test new technologies that will to protect the world’s smallest and most endangered cetacean, the vaquita, which has fallen prey to fisheries bycatch in the northern Gulf.
Finally, our long standing support of the Gulf of California Conservation Fund, managed by Lorenzo Rosenzweig of Fondo Mexicano, has long supported a number of key projects in the region.
DB: Typically, the field inspections have had somewhat limited access to marine ecosystems, usually in the form of snorkeling and diving along reefs. Was the most recent exploration the first primarily marine CRE field inspection, and was it more feasible to do a field inspection with so many ocean components on a ship?
JF: This field inspection trip, while being boat-based, covered the diversity of our grantmaking disciplines, including archaeology on Espiritu Santo with Hurumi Fujita, botany in Rancho Cacachilas with grantee Jon Rebman, bats with Winifred Frick and Edward Hurme at the same locale, and even paleontology with a great visit to a Pliocene bed at Punta Colorado featuring CRE grant team member Jorge Velez-Juarbe.
Of course, we heard from the marine side as well and enjoyed wonderful sightings of sea lions, whales, dolphins, marine flora and fauna, and saw the challenges of doing related research.
The advantage of using a Lindblad/National Geographic boat was the convenience of being with grantees on board for several days, the convenience of not having to pack up and move every two days when visiting sites, and the opportunity of showing the CRE members and some new National Geographic staff the wonders of how we invite travelers into our world through the fabulous and adventurous ships.
DB: It was your idea that the CRE do this particular field inspection. Did it live up to your expectations? What was your assessment of what the CRE saw and heard on this field inspection? How was the CRE encouraged and how was the committee motivated to fund additional research in the region?
JF: This trip exceeded my expectations completely. In addition to having the Committee easily visit sites and hear from grantees while traveling within the fabulous Gulf environment, we were able to invite leaders from the Mexican research and conservation community aboard, including Jorge Urban and Diane Gendron on the marine mammal front and Federico Méndez-Sánchez from Grupo de Ecología y Conservación de Islas who presented work worthy of future funding. An added value was to bring in more art and literature into our discussion with an wonderful presentation on Steinbeck and Ricketts by Susan Shillinger featuring the Log from the Sea of Cortez and a stunning view of new artwork focused on extinction by Patricio Roblez Gil.
DB: How do you regard the work of Mexican scientists and conservation organizations and their projects in the Gulf of California area? Are there areas of progress that the global community, including the Society, could lend more partnership and support?
JF: I am generally enthusiastic about strengthening National Geographic support in the Gulf and in Mexico more generally as we strive to expand work in Latin America. Part of the challenge creating a healthier planet involves making connections between those who care and those who can do great work. Helping travelers see this wonderful part of the world and bringing experts to present is magic and National Geographic does it very well.
Obviously, the need to address global change in our oceans, the effects of people on precious island and marine communities, the role of sustainable coastal development, all require teamwork and shared understanding. National Geographic is strengthening its international reach and people of all walks can enjoy and contribute through key and growing collaborations in the region.
DB: What recommendations would you give readers, members of the Society, travelers on National Geographic Expeditions, or anyone interested in exploring the natural areas of the Gulf of California and the Baja Peninsula? What would you personally recommend they see and do in the area? How might travelers help promote awareness and participate in the conservation of this place for future generations?
JF: Of course, I heartily encourage people to travel with National Geographic, hear from NG experts and from the people the institution supports. The expeditions are designed to take in the best the region has to offer and can be a good first introductory step to broader exploration.
What many do not understand is by taking an NG Expedition they offer financial support to the work of the grantees. So beyond just being on the forefront of exploration, one immediately becomes partner to conserving wonderful locales for future generations.
- Committee for Research and Exploration (includes grant application process)
- Blue Whales article in National Geographic (March 2009)
- Life in the Gulf of California Hope Spot (National Geographic Voices, 2015)
- The “Aquarium of the World” at Risk (Ocean Views post by Enric Sala, 2011)
- World Heritage Description: Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California
- Wanna Be a Marine Biologist? Here’s How
- Experience the Gulf of California on the National Geographic Sea Bird: National Geographic Expeditions Baja Cruise Itineraries
David Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.
He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.
Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship.