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?
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.
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.
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