Jobs in adventure: Naturalist

From being sick with sharks to goggling gorillas – it’s all in a day’s work for a naturalist.

Catherine Capon is a naturalist – someone who studies animals and plants. Her current mission? Trying to encourage people to think about eco-travel options when booking their holidays. Previously Catherine has worked in sustainability and on wildlife documentaries (including Swimming with Monsters with Steve Backshall). We sit down and ask what it’s really like working with animals – and how to score the gig.

How do you describe what you do?

I describe myself as a naturalist and adventurer. When I was working on documentaries I realised that there was a huge opportunity to raise awareness of conservation issues through travel. It started out as a blog and then this year I’m making it more of a vlog and I’ve just launched a YouTube channel. I’ve now set up my own production company (which is essentially just me) to promote wildlife travel.

Last year I set myself the challenge of going to 12 big wildlife hotspots around the world and promoting them as destinations. Instead of sitting on a beach you could go paddleboarding with whale sharks in Mexico, or trekking with gorillas in Uganda. I think a lot of people don’t realise that these incredible experiences exist.

What’s the best bit about being a naturalist?

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The best bit is when I get people emailing me saying that they’ve gone on a trip that I’ve recommended, or that they’ve been inspired by my vlog or article. I’ll never get bored of having Twitter chats with people or sharing emails. Getting people to take those first steps creates ambassadors for our planet. Seeing a gorilla in the wild was amazing. However, knowing that my story and images have inspired other people to go and do it is so much more exciting.

What’s the worst bit?

Trying to get other people believing in my dream as much as I do! The hardest part is getting the sponsorship for the expeditions. It is completely worth it though as I am living out my dreams. However, it takes hours and hours of creating documents, finding the right marketing director to speak to about sponsorship and equipment, getting hotel rooms donated, working with tourism boards – there are hundreds of forms to fill out. I can email hundreds of brands and maybe only 10% will reply.

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How hard are your expeditions?

There have been hard times on expedition. For example, I have broken my leg, I’ve suffered severe dehydration, I nearly got arrested in Mexico because I didn’t have the right papers…

I went diving with great white sharks in Guadalupe Island as it’s pretty much the only place you can swim free without a cage. Normally the journey is around an 18-hour boat ride from mainland Mexico. However, a hurricane was passing at the time and it took about 29 hours for us to make the crossing.

It was some of the roughest sea I’ve ever been in and I had severe seasickness. When I got into the water with the great white sharks I was vomiting through my regulator. All the sharks were getting into a bit of a frenzy!

You suffer these things though because the rewards are completely worth it. Swimming with a great white shark with nothing between myself and it is one of the most amazing things that I’ve ever done in my life. Yes, the seasickness sucked but I’d do it again!

Are you a believer in luck or hard work?

I’ve had people say to me in the past that I’m so lucky to be doing what I’m doing. Although there is some degree of luck in anything anyone does, I wish those people had sat with me throughout all the hours of work that I’ve put in. When they see the trips come to life that’s the tip of the iceberg. The majority of my time is spent getting the money to create the good stuff.

How do you recommend someone starts out as a naturalist?

I studied biology, ecology and zoology at Imperial College London. I followed the usual path that a naturalist would. Even though I loved science I didn’t want to be in a lab – I wanted to be communicating about conservation in general.

If you want to be a scientist in the field you will have to go down the academic route, but if you want to be a wildlife photographer, I’ve met many who have had no formal training. They’ve just bought a camera and photographed foxes in their garden and got bigger and bigger commissions. I don’t think you need any formal training if you want to be a wildlife artist, writer or filmmaker – it’s more about passion.

Any courses you’d particularly recommend?

Bristol University is an incredibly good university for biology and zoology. It’s both amazing academically and the Natural History Unit, the heart of Wildlife TV, is in Bristol. You have all these career and work opportunities right there. Oxford also has one of the best courses in the UK if you want to study biology. However, if you’re keen to get into wildlife filmmaking I’d recommend Bristol as it’s all on your doorstep.

Anything unusual about your job that people might not realise?

Yes, and it’s something I’m quite shocked about in 2016. Being a woman in the adventure industry has definitely been a challenge that I wasn’t expecting. I’ve had a couple of meetings with media or with brands where they’ve made comments that I can’t quite believe.

I’ve literally had people say to me: “You don’t look like an adventurer.” I’m like: “Why? Just because I’m not wearing combats and don’t have a beard?”

To me adventure is a mindset and it’s about challenging yourself, pushing boundaries, and proving to yourself that you can do things that you didn’t think were possible.

I hope young girls today can look at a man and think that they can do the same amazing things. However, I think there will be some young girls out there who would like to be seeing women doing these things too. There are women like Sarah Outen and Anna McNuff who are out there doing incredible things. However, if you said to most people in the general public ‘can you name a woman adventurer?’ I think they’d struggle. There are women out there but they’re not represented in the media.

You’ve travelled to a lot of places, what’s on your bucket list?

Antarctica. I’ve been really lucky to go to the Arctic but apparently Antarctica is like nature on steroids. There are so many whales and penguins!

Where would you recommend people go?

Of all the places I went to last year Madagascar was by far the one that surprised and excited me the most. It genuinely is like nowhere else on earth in terms of the culture, the animals, the plants. There are plants there that I’ve never even seen things similar to!

It’s just so sad how much forest is being lost. Within 25 years, if the rate of deforestation carries on, there will be no more lemurs left.

There are 107 species of lemur in the country at the moment. There have been some huge conservation efforts to work out a plan of how to save them and the unique forest. Eco-tourism is the number one thing on that plan. Let’s make the animals worth more alive than dead. You can’t blame the local people who are cutting down the forest for agricultural land to feed their families. Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world. However, if tourists come in then jobs will be created in the forest and locals can earn more money that way.

What about your carbon footprint? Can’t tourism do more harm than good to an area?

I really hope solar airplanes will come out in my lifetime, or that there is a huge breakthrough in biofuel – but I can’t change everything all at once. People have and always will travel. Unfortunately, there is no other way of travelling in the time frame, and for the money, that most people have for their two week holiday. I’m trying to change the destination people travel to. Rather than staying in mass, un-eco, tourist resorts switch to more sustainable accommodation that works with locals. This way they see the money rather than big national corporations. That one small change I think is making a huge difference.
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If you weren’t a naturalist what would you do?

I’d be a biology teacher. It’s still a way to excite, inspire, and communicate all the amazing things about the planet to young people.

This article was originally published on RedBull.com

BEST ADVENTURE HOLIDAYS FOR SOLO FEMALE TRAVELLERS

Eco-adventurer Cat Capon suggests the best places for solo female travellers who are looking for adventure. Cat has already visited 60 countries and over the past year and a half the intrepid explorer has visited a different location each month spending time in Borneo, Burma, British Columbia, South Africa, Madagascar and Antarctica.

Girls’ World #1

British Columbia – The Great Bear Rainforest

The atmosphere: If you want to get away from it all, visit the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia. This wild land of ancient tree forests, glacial waterfalls and uninhabited islands might be as close to a pristine ecosystem as one can get. The humbling silence is only broken by the chuffing of bears, the exhaling of whales and, if you’re lucky, the howling of coastal wolves.

The location: Being a wilderness area, travelling in British Columbia isn’t particularly easy or cheap, but it’s more than worth the effort. And just because you are staying in the wilderness doesn’t mean that you need to rough it. You can find accommodation in luxury lodges miles from anywhere with abundant wildlife right on their doorstep.

Who you’ll meet: British Columbia attracts individuals, couples and families, who worship nature, the outdoors and wildlife.

What you should do: Early September is the best time to visit the Great Bear Rainforest. At this time of year, you can kayak with the resident orca, watch black bears, grizzly bears and spirit bears feeding on salmon before their hibernation and go on whale watching safaris. Canadians are some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet.  It’s very safe, there are no language barriers and you can join plenty of guided tours.

Girls’ World #2

California – Monterey

The atmosphere: If you’re a solo female traveller who is new to adventure holidays and not quite ready to hike through scorching deserts or sail in perilous seas to catch a glimpse of an endangered species, then Monterey is your perfect introduction vacation. You don’t even have to leave the harbour to catch sight of the local wildlife as you’ll often spot surprisingly large sea otters floating in the harbour while eating their invertebrate treats.

The location: Monterey is situated in Northern California, a two-hour drive south of San Francisco on the Pacific Coast. You could happily spend an entire vacation kayaking, diving, whale-watching and hiking in the local vicinity, but the wider vicinity has a lot to offer too. Pacific Grove is Monterey’s neighbouring city and is famous for monarch butterflies. Between mid-October and mid-February, the monarchs stop at this overwintering site and in peak season the trees are dripping with the beautiful winged insects. Just south of Monterey is Carmel (where Clint Eastwood was once mayor), which is the locals’ surfing spot as well as being a dog-owners heaven. Further south still is Point Lobos State Natural Reserve which offers pristine wildlife watching opportunities without the boats and buildings of Monterey. And for truly breathtaking scenery, purple sand beaches and dizzying redwood forests, continue south on Highway 1 past Bixby Bridge to Big Sur where, if you’re lucky, you can spot the endangered California condor.

Who you’ll meet: Monterey attracts surfers, divers and wildlife fans from all over the USA.  Many backpackers also visit Monterey whilst road tripping between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

What you can do: I kayaked with Monterey Bay Kayaks, dived with Breakwater Scuba, visited the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium and went whale watching with Princess Monterey Whale Watching. Divers will be pleased to know that there’s  agreat dive site by the harbour with beach entry so you don’t have to board a boat. On these dives you can glide among the lazily undulating kelp fronds to look for resting leopard sharks and innocuous octopus. Monterey is fantastic to visit all year round, but the weather in April and October is hard to beat.

Girls’ World #3

Norway – Svalbard

The atmosphere: Svalbard is an archipelago of extremes. This remote icy wilderness is in perpetual darkness for three months during the winter when temperatures regularly drop to -20°C.  The main island of Spitsbergen is home to the most northerly settlement on the planet – Longyearbyen – and there are more polar bears here than people. When you visit Svalbard, you’re reminded that this isn’t a holiday; it’s a life changing expedition.

The location: For more than half of the year, Svalbard is entombed by frozen ocean.  But the summer months offer a short respite from its icy confinement.  Endless daylight and relatively warm temperatures (reaching 7°C) turns the land into a flower-filled tundra with Arctic foxes and reindeers wearing their slimmer summer coats. Svalbard is a safe destination in terms of crime (everyone leaves their houses and cars unlocked).  However, polar bears are an issue so you’ll need a guide if you want to leave the main town.

Who you’ll meet: Svalbard attracts adventure junkies from all over the world.  It’s an expensive destination so travellers tend to be ‘high-end’. It’s also a Mecca for arctic photographers.

What you can do: June and July are probably the best months to witness the wildlife of Svalbard. However, if it’s the Northern lights, husky-sledding and snowmobiling you’re after; then the winter is the best time for a visit. Numerous cruise ships can be found in the area. You can take long tours, or short trips to get a taste of the Arctic.

Girls’ World #4.

Madagascar

The atmosphere: I’ve travelled to over 60 countries in my 30 years on earth, but none have made an impact on me quite like Madagascar.  It’s truly unique and doesn’t feel like anywhere else on the planet. However, I’m afraid for its future – 30,000 hectares of forest are being cut down each year and, if this rate continues, there will be no forest left within 25 years. Ecotourism is a viable way to make the forests worth more to the local people than turning them into agricultural land. If the Malagasy people can make a good living from guiding tourists through the forests, they are far more likely to protect them for future generations.

The location: I travelled to Madagascar in October (the dry season). The best months to visit are April – November.  Things to note are: the roads are poorly maintained so be prepared for a bumpy ride, the accommodation is basic in some of the reserves so don’t expect luxury and Air Madagascar has a tendency to change internal flight times at the last minute so always check before you travel. Parks that I’ve enjoyed include Andasibe-Mantadia National ParkThe Avenue of the BaobabsKirindy Forest Reserve and Berenty Private Reserve

Who you’ll meet: Madagascar attracts wildlife enthusiasts, divers and adventure travellers from all over the world. The island used to be a French colony so a large proportion of tourists are from France.

What you can do: See lemurs in their natural habitat, count how many species of chameleons you can find, be dwarfed by the giant Baobab trees and enjoy white sand beaches of the Indian Ocean. You can join an organised tour of the island with English speaking guides. However, I’d avoid walking around the capital, Antananarivo, alone.

Girls’ World #5

Indonesia – Komodo

The atmosphere: Komodo National Park is a paradise on earth with glassy waters, conical green peaks of tropical islands and technicoloured coral reefs teeming with wildlife. Jumping on a houseboat for an ocean adventure will see you come face to face with dragons as well as majestic manta rays.

The location: Most cruises through the national park will take you to the most iconic islands and reefs. Rinca and Komodo are the islands where you’ll see the dragons, you can witness an epic fruit bat migration every evening from Kalong Island and you can snorkel to Pink Beach which is created from red-tinted coral.

Who you’ll meet: Komodo National Park attracts divers and backpackers and lots of Aussies.

What you can do: Hike to see the dragons (but listen to your guide, the dragons are wild animals and can be dangerous), snorkel with turtles and reef sharks, dive with manta rays, cruise past lush tropical islands and sleep under the stars on a houseboat.

This article was originally published in Lightfoot Travel Magazine.