Hi, Michaela here, from the Cayman Islands HOEC trip. Just recently National Geographic hosted their 6th annual explorers symposium. I had been looking forward to this since the day I left the Caymans because all of the former winners of HOEC challenges are invited. This means that I could see all my friends. It was a blast! The Symposium was around 6:30, so in the afternoon, some of the Caymans kids, including me, got together and ate lunch. It was so fun to see people! We could not stop talking, catching others up on what had transpired in the last year. Unfortunately, not everyone could make it, and we missed those who were unable to come!
The speakers were incredible! One, a pilot (Barrington Irving), flew around the world when he was 23. In doing so, he became the youngest person to fly solo around Earth and the first African American to do so. Not only that, but he is inspiring children all around the world to do something great. For instance, he challenged a group of kids to build an airplane from scratch. If they were able to do so, then he would fly it. The kids completed it in an extraordinarily small amount of time and he flew it. It really hit him that he was flying a plane made by children when he was taking off, but evidenced by the fact that he is here to tell the story, he survived. He is also building the world’s first flying classroom. He is remolding a plane into a classroom and flying it around the world, landing on all seven continents to teach kids. However, there are three other explorers.
Dr. Enric Sala conducts scientific expeditions in ocean areas around the world as part of his ongoing “Pristine Seas” project. He grew up on the coast of Spain and swam in the Mediterranean as a kid. He watched Nat Geo shows about the ocean and realized that something was wrong. You see, when he went swimming in the Mediterranean, he didn’t see nearly as many fish as the documentaries showed, so he figured that it must be only exotic places that had such a wide variety of life. Eventually, he realized that the Mediterranean should have many different types of life but didn’t, because of overfishing and habitat destruction. So, Enric set out to change that fact. He now travels around the world, crusading for the ocean. Only one percent of the ocean is protected right now, and the nations’ goal is 10% by 2020. To do so, a lot more ocean needs protection. Protected areas of the ocean benefit fisherman who live around the edges of the preserved areas. In about five years, fish in the protected area will have grown so numerous, that they will start to spill over into the surrounding areas. So fishermen get more fish than they would if there was no protected area. But sea life wasn’t the only topic at the Symposium.
Lucy Cooke loves ugly animals. She is the voice for endangered animals that never make it onto posters, like the polar bears, and so are not well known. One frog she told us lives exclusively on the bottom of one lake. Because it breathes through its skin, the skin is very wrinkled, increasing surface area. When it runs out of breath, it preforms push ups, so more water will flow around its skin. Unfortunately, it is endangered because the townspeople around that lake hunt, blend it up, and drink it, thinking pureed frog will make their life better. Lucy goes around, educating people about their wildlife so to protect all animals. Lucy has lots of fun during her travels, doing things like licking poisonous frogs (DON’T TRY THAT AT HOME!), playing with sloths, absorbing different cultures, and protecting animals, no matter how ugly or cute they are.
Dan Buettner was the last explorer. He discussed two of his books: Blue Zones and Thrive. Blue Zones is all about living the longest and secrets from those who have lived the longest. He traveled around the world, finding pockets of people who live a long time. Thrive is kinda like a sequel to Blue Zones; it is all about finding happiness the Blue Zone way. He completed the research in a very similar way to how he completed Blue Zones, he looked for pockets of happy people. One happy place he found was Singapore. In Singapore, there are very strict rules, such as no gum chewing. (Did I hear some gasps?) But every rule has a reason. The reason for this rule is that people were hawking loogies and spitting all over the place, and the government realized that they couldn’t attract business with this happening, thus the law. But even with strict confines, people are very happy. They have a sense of security, because they know that if their children go running down the street to play with neighbors, they will come back for dinner, and a woman can walk along the streets at any time of day and have no fear. If you ask me, I would rather have security and less freedom than loads of freedom and fear. Dan also works at trying to get people happy and living long. He founded a company and one of his clients is the state of Iowa. Dan makes rules that the client can chose to put into practice. At the end of the three year program, if there is significant change in the people, Dan and his company gets paid. One example of a rule is outlawing drive-thrus, so less people would go to fast food, there would be a decline in heart disease, less cars would idle, which would cut down on emissions put into the air.
All of the speakers were very good, and when you talked with them at the reception, they were very nice. Boyd Matson, another explorer and host of the National Geographic radio talk, moderated it. Boyd and his son, Taylor, went on the trip with us, so it was really cool seeing him there on stage. In fact, it was awesome to see all the National Geographic staff who I hadn’t seen in almost a year. Unfortunately, I was unable to talk with Dan (the photographer who came on the trip) and Boyd, so that was a real bummer. But, overall I had an awesome time seeing my friends, their parents, and the National Geographic staff. I envy you Montana winners! Hint of National Geographic: If you really want to be awesome, send all the winners back every year!
It’s been nearly a year since I first stepped off the airplane and onto the island of Grand Cayman. I still remember the way the airport smelled. The air was thick and fragrant. The pungent scents of fish, salt spray, and fruit swirled around me, hinting at the richness of the culture I was about to enter. The week I spent on that tiny Caribbean island was one of the best experiences of my life. With new friends, a camera, and a whole new world to explore, I was, quite literally, in paradise.
Winning the Hands-On Explorer Challenge has opened my eyes to the greater world. My perspective of everything has changed. With help from my camera, I now see everything as a work of art. To me, nothing is unworthy of attention. Beauty can be found in the most unlikely of places. Because I am aware of the seemingly insignificant things in life, I am able to see the whole world as a wondrous place.
I was fortunate enough to go to the 2012 National Geographic Explorers Symposium this summer. There I met several remarkable people who have followed their passion for exploring into adulthood. Seeing the enthusiasm of these men and women was incredibly inspiring. Because of my experiences, I understand that exploring isn’t just a kid’s adventure in the backyard; people actually make it their career. The opportunity to travel and discover seems like such an amazing job. For me, the Symposium was a chance to learn about what it really means to be an explorer. It is up to people like them–like us–to discover and share the beauty of the Earth, so that we will be able to preserve it.
When I first glimpsed Grand Cayman from the air, a spark was ignited in me. It was late at night, and the flickering lights of the island sparkled like jewels against the velvet black of the sea. I thought about all the lives down there; sleeping people in their beds, colorful fish concealed within coral crevices, lizards hidden beneath stones. It was then that I began to appreciate the full extent of the world, and of all the places yet to be explored.
Today was our last day in the Cayman Islands. We visited the Pedro St. James Castle this morning, where we learned a lot about the history of Grand Cayman. The weather was beautiful, as it has been all week. We had a delicious lunch at the Lighthouse Restaurant and then had free time until our farewell dinner on the beach. There were drummers and story-tellers, and great food. Our hosts built a big bonfire and we had fun making s’mores!
Jonathan: We had a very early start this morning because we were off on another adventure to a new island. We took a Cayman Airways plane to Cayman Brac, a sister island to Grand Cayman. Fifteen minutes and 90 miles later we landed in Cayman Brac. “Brac” is Gaelic for bluff and the island got its name because of the 140-foot bluff standing on the island’s coast.
Our first stop was to the Cayman Brac Museum. The museum holds many unique artifacts that shows the history, culture, and heritage of the island that date all the way back to the early 1900s. One of the artifacts we saw was a mattress made by stuffing it with dried plantain and banana leaves. Another thing we learned about in the museum was the history of caymanite. Caymanite is a semiprecious stone, which is layered in different shades of brown, and is only found on Cayman Brac. It was discovered by a tourist visiting Cayman Brac from Alabama in 1978.
After the museum, we headed to the Brac’s caves. My favorite cave we saw was called Peter’s Cave. Peter’s Cave is located inside of the bluff so we had to drive all the way to the top. The cave was made out of limestone and was used by the first settlers of the island to provide shelter from the hurricanes.
Because of its sturdiness and high elevation, Peter’s Cave is the perfect place to hide out during a bad storm. Inside the cave, we had to really duck down so we wouldn’t hit our heads on the low ceiling. It was very dark and cramped in the cave so we needed to watch out where we were going so we wouldn’t crash into any stalagmites or stalactites that were scattered all over. I can’t imagine having to stay in there to ride out a storm because of how humid and tight it was, but obviously people still do because we found a lounge chair, mattress, and jugs of water in the cave. It was interesting to explore Peter’s cave but I was happy to see the sunshine and amazing view of the Cayman Brac when we exited.
Zane: Today, The HOEC team returned to the Cayman Turtle farm. After a quick breakfast at the hotel, we boarded the buses and were off. After a short but scenic drive, we arrived at our destination. The entrance was bright and colorful. Before we entered, a few of us noticed a small green iguana in front of the door. After we had taken many pictures, the lizard darted away.
Inside the laboratory, we met up with Dr. Walter Mustin, Ph.D., one of the turtle researchers who works at the turtle farm. He gave us a presentation about the turtles, and showed us many interesting things, such as a small, five-day-old green sea turtle, and some leathery turtle eggs. He also explained a rather fascinating theory that he formulated to explain the health of the turtles when they hatched in relation to the amount of sand that was on top of them.
After this, we all moved back outside, where we witnessed a turtle feeding session in a large tank. We were ushered along by our tour guides, and eventually arrived at an aviary, which happened to be the largest open air aviary in the Caribbean. In small groups, we entered the structure through a system of doors that were designed to to keep the birds inside from escaping.
Thanks to everyone who is following the blog and leaving comments and questions! luckstomper: The largest animal we saw on the Mastic Trail were parrots. When we were visiting the Iguana Sanctuary, we observed the iguanas and took photos, but we didn’t touch them. zanes brother: Our hotel is right on the beach and has an awesome pool that we LOVE. There’s a coral reef right off shore, and we all love our rooms!
Maddie: MaddiesDad: I saw fish and corals from above the submarine. I can’t remember what kinds of fish I saw and not much about how they looked. My favorite activity so far was when we went snorkeling. I saw so much cool fish.
Aunt Gigi: The most amazing sight so far was the sea turtles at the turtle farm. I saw babies too. I’m going back tomorrow when we are going to hold the turtles. The activities I’m most looking forward to are the turtle farm and when we are going to a different island. The submarine ride already passed but that was one of the activities I was excited about. I also really liked the blue iguanas.
My favorite part of the day was Stingray City. I loved the smooth, soft texture of the stingrays. Someone told me they were slimy at an aquarium I went to, so I was nervous to touch one until today. They weren’t slimy at all.
Thanks to everyone who has left comments for us! Skimp27, the food is pretty much the same as the food we eat at home, but there’s a lot more seafood. The hotel is really nice. We love that we can walk right from the pool to the ocean, and it’s very close to cool sites. The drives to the activities are pretty short.
Emmie: This morning we departed our hotel after breakfast and drove to the Mastic Trail. It was a longer bus ride then the ones before, but the scenery was amazing! There were really pretty trees with gorgeous orange flowers, cows, and even a sign with “Goats for sale” written on it! We got to the trailhead, where we were met by our guides. We split into four groups–two each of parents and kids. Our tour guide was very interesting, talking about birds, plants, and the island’s history. A few minutes into the hike, our tour guide stopped and pointed out what looked like an ordinary fern. Then we looked closer. A tiny little snake lay curled up on the fern! It was amazingly camouflaged, looking exactly like the fern it sat on. Our guide explained that this was a ground boa-a very rare species of boa constrictor. It was so small, we could hardly believe that it was a boa! As we continued, he pointed out several species of toxic plants, including one that had fruit that could kill a horse. Needless to say, we gave those plants a wide berth. The trail became very rocky, so we had to look at the ground to make sure we didn’t trip. There were some tiny flowers that I doubt I would have noticed otherwise. They were lovely, and we got some great pictures.
A little further down the trail, we heard woodpeckers. The guide located the nest and told us that woodpeckers had been almost wiped out by Hurricane Ivan. I borrowed Kobie’s binoculars and saw a woodpecker feeding a baby chick. The woodpecker had a striped head and was amazing to view up close. However, since it was up a tree that was off the trail, it was very hard to photograph. Also hard to photograph were the swallowtail butterflies, which were very fast. I managed to capture one shot of a bright orange butterfly near Michael’s knee. After some more walking, the trail evened out. We came upon a mango tree, which had very small, yellow fruit. We took a few, which were very sweet and stringy. When we finished the two-mile hike (which took us two and a half hours because we kept stopping) we stepped gratefully into the air-conditioned busses and guzzled ice cold water.
Diego: Today I plunged 95 feet into the ocean in the Atlantis submarine. This is where I saw and documented the marine wildlife of a coral reef through the crystal clear water. As the submarine went by the coral reef I could see dozens of fish swim by. As I dove deeper I could see why they call this submarine a technology marvel. I say this because it sustains perfect life conditions for humans. As the submarine surfaced I wished I could stay but I knew that I had to board the ship and head back to shore. Then I realized that more exciting adventures will come later in the week.
We’ve arrived on Grand Cayman, but we are still waiting for four team members to get to the hotel. They were on later flights. Meanwhile, eleven of us want to share our first impressions of this beautiful island.
Photograph by Dan Westergren
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The 2011 Hands-On Explorer Team is getting ready to leave for the Cayman Islands! We’re almost done packing, and we have all received our itineraries and passports, so we’re just about ready to go. We’ve been getting to know each other by email, but we’re all excited to finally meet in person. We fly to Grand Cayman this Friday–that’s only two days away!
Each team member received an expedition backpack, water bottle, and journal. We have been practicing with our new Nikon cameras, and we’re really excited about the great pictures we’ll be taking with them.
We plan to post blog entries every day with photos illustrating our adventures. Follow the blog to live the adventure with us!
Photograph by Margaret Jackson, My Shot
The expedition to the Cayman Islands starts on July 8. Visit the blog to learn more and get updates from the Cayman Islands expedition team!
During the judging phase (going on now), we will not be posting comments about the 2011 Hands-On Explorer Challenge. We will resume posting comments about the HOEC after the winners are announced.
The 2011 Hands-On Explorer Contest is now closed. No new entries will
be accepted by the judges. It’s time to wait to find out who won!
The 2011 Hands-On Explorer Challenge is in full swing. If you’re a legal resident of the United States (excluding residents of Puerto Rico) or Canada (excluding residents of Quebec), and you will be between the ages of 9 and 15 by July 1, 2011, you could win a trip to the Cayman Islands! Remember to submit your entry before December 1, 2010.
Looking for inspiration? Read excerpts from the 2009 Hands-On Explorer Challenge winning essays.
Photograph courtesy Cayman Islands Department of Tourism
Looking for inspiration? Read excerpts from the 2009 Hands-On Explorer Challenge winning essays.
Photograph courtesy Cayman Islands Department of Tourism