Nat Geo Marine Biologist Travel Hacks and Stories

These National Geographic explorers have work that takes them around the world. We got to sit down with some of these globe-trotters and pick their brains.

Jessica Cramp is a marine conservationist and shark researcher who is passionate about stopping the over-exploitation of sharks and the degradation of our oceans. She spent time volunteering for a number of marine-related projects in Central America before settling in the Pacific in 2011, furthering her interest in community-based conservation and fisheries. While living in the Cook Islands, she managed the locally based Pacific Islands Conservation Initiative (PICI), where she co-championed a grassroots campaign that rallied overwhelming community and international support that resulted in the 772,204-square-mile Cook Islands Shark Sanctuary.

Currently, Cramp is pursuing a Ph.D. at James Cook University in Australia, studying the effectiveness of large-scale marine reserves on wide-ranging sharks. It’s important to her that the conservation policies she fights for have a real impact on the ground—on the sharks, the fish, and the ecosystem that they live in. She also founded Sharks Pacific, a nonprofit dedicated to shark research, outreach, education, and advocacy. Her goals are to perform solid research that informs policy, support outreach that inspires outcomes, and advocate for what she believes in.

Where does your work take you?

My work takes me to many remote places—specifically, Pacific islands. The island I currently spend the most time on is Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. Luckily, Rarotonga has an airstrip and daily flights, which makes getting in and out very easy. Other islands in the Cook Islands, however, are only accessible by boat—and the boats are unscheduled! Trips are planned around cargo deliveries and only go when a ship is full, unless we have the ability to charter a vessel, but of course that is expensive. It makes planning expeditions a bit difficult, but as you spend more time in the islands, you get used to it.

What’s the most surprising thing that’s happened to you while traveling as a National Geographic explorer?

I’ve been an explorer for about a year, and I’d have to say that the most “surprising” thing happened in a coffee shop in Washington, D.C., of all places. Maybe that is because I am accustomed to crazy travel and snafus are less surprising these days. However, I was truly surprised when, last year, Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala invited me to have a tea during the Explorers Symposium. Enric is an accomplished scientist, photographer, and strategic conservationist. He was living the dream of most marine conservationists. At the end of a nice chat about life goals, sprinkled with friendly banter, Enric invited me to the Galápagos to tag sharks with his Pristine Seas team. Since I was a little girl, I’d dreamt of exploring the Galápagos. I’d never imagined my first trip would be this way—on a ship for three weeks with National Geographic, visiting the remote northern islands of Darwin and Wolf—and studying sharks!

Have you encountered any sticky situations while traveling?

On the Galápagos trip last December with National Geographic’s Pristine Seas, we most certainly found ourselves in a sticky situation—multiple times! During our first trip to shore from the main research ship, we mistimed the set waves heading into the bay and were caught in the worst possible place. The breaking wave flipped our Zodiac, sending gear and people in every direction not once, but twice! Thank God for dry bags. The hilarious part was that I had my mask and snorkel with me (I always bring it with me when traveling over water, but generally in case I choose to go into the water)! While I was searching for gear on the seafloor, I saw sea lions, sea turtles, and my very first marine iguana!

When traveling, what do you never leave home without?

My backpack contents vary depending on where I’m headed and the likelihood that my luggage will get lost en route. However, I always have coconut and peppermint oil with me. If you mix a few drops of peppermint oil into coconut oil and rub it on your body, it will cool you down. Also, it acts as a natural mosquito repellent. No matter where I go, I have a reusable water bottle, coffee mug, and reusable Chico bag. I try to minimize the amount of consumable plastics—especially when my carbon footprint is quite high from all of the airplane travel. You will generally find the game Bananagrams in my pack as well! I love word games, and this one can be used to learn new languages!

Have you encountered any travel snafus along the way?

Last year, I was on the remote Pacific island Niue for the second time in 12 months after I’d managed to convince Enric to run a Pristine Seas expedition there. Niue is one of the most unique and remote places I’ve ever been and Enric agreed to send his team member, Dan Myers, with me. I introduced Dan to the locals and we began speaking about the upcoming Pristine Seas expedition. From Niue, I was getting on a National Geographic Lindblad ship and hitching a weeklong ride back to my home in the Cook Islands by way of a submerged atoll in Niue and a remote atoll in the Cooks. We knew exactly what time I was to be down at the harbor to meet the Zodiac that would take me to the ship.

However, while we were saying our goodbyes to our friends in Niue, we noticed that the ship wasn’t at the harbor. Keep in mind, this is an island of about 1,200 people where no boats are anchored in the harbor. Ships don’t easily “disappear.” We asked a few folks who worked for Niue tourism, “What happened to the large ship that was here?” “It’s gone!” they said. “It left an hour ago.” It left?! We had no cell phones. We laughed in disbelief and raced to the local telephone company. Maybe they could ring the ship to come back and get me? It turned out, the harbor was too rough to send the Zodiac, so the ship moved to another side of the island, but there was no way for us to know. Luckily, I was able to get there, but it wasn’t without much laughter at how on Earth we lost a giant ship the minute we stopped looking!

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve eaten in the field? Did it taste like you’d imagined?

While on an expedition in 2013 to survey the coral reefs of the Southern Cook Islands on the Waitt Foundation’s research vessel Plan B, my Cook Islands friends wanted to watch me squirm. We were in the tide pools on the eastern side of the island of Atiu. We’d been onshore for meetings with traditional leaders and local government. The boys said, “We’ll make a Maori out of you yet,” and dared me to try a raw sea snail—an ariri in Cook Islands Maori. I’m not exactly what one would call an overly adventurous eater. They pulled it off of the rock and handed it to me. It was writhing, slimy, and large—and I had to bite down hard with my molars to remove the snail from its anchor. The slime and saltwater made me gag. My friend had a camera and captured the moment. It was hilarious!

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