The Explorer

The wonders of nature are everywhere. And John Francis wants to show them to us.

Photo by Liz Lynch
Photo by Liz Lynch

The Antarctic Peninsula looks like another planet to John Francis. He says the spontaneous waterfalls that erupt after a hard rain on Chile’s Robinson Crusoe Island are awe-inspiring. And he proclaims the biodiversity and cultural marvels in Bhutan are unlike anywhere else in the world.

As vice president of research, conservation and exploration at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C., Francis travels around the world in hopes of awakening people to the beauty of nature, often accompanying filmmakers or scientific researchers who have received a grant from the nonprofit organization.

“Everyone can be an explorer,” says Francis, 59, who lives in Silver Spring with his wife, Nancy, and sons John Paul, 19, and Will, 14. “Sometimes it’s just a matter of opening your eyes”

Francis also created and leads National Geographic’s BioBlitz program, an annual 24-hour event in which members of the public—“citizen scientists” as he calls them—help professional scientists catalog species in a national park. The first, held in 2007 in Rock Creek Park, drew several hundred participants. He expects 10,000 people at the May 2015 event in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Francis, who travels internationally about six times a year, says he developed his interest in nature growing up in Seattle “with the woods in my backyard” His maternal grandfather was an outdoors-man who fished and hunted frequently and spoke a couple Native American dialects; several cousins became park rangers. They introduced Francis to the wilderness, and his imagination caught fire. He explored the forests of the Pacific Northwest and camped out in his backyard.

While working on his undergraduate degree in biology at the University of Washington, Francis took a summer job with a professor observing seals for a scientific project on a couple of remote Alaskan islands. His salary paid for the rest of his undergraduate degree and part of graduate school at the university.

Francis worked as an environmental filmmaker for six years before receiving a grant from National Geographic to spend two years on Robinson Crusoe Island studying Juan Fernandez fur seals. Working with two Chilean scientists, he stayed for a total of five years after receiving another grant, sleeping in tents and showering under waterfalls.

Once, a seal chomped into his elbow while he was maneuvering a jerry-rigged capture net. The Chileans nursed him back to health over the course of a week. The nearest hospital, he says, was 500 miles away.

Francis returned from the island in 1993 and took a job as an associate television producer with National Geographic at its Washington headquarters. A couple years later he moved to the research side of the organization. He doesn’t believe he’ll ever visit another place like Robinson Crusoe Island.

“It was just magical,” he says. “I don’t think another place has been so impressive”

He got the idea for BioBlitz after conducting a weekend science experiment with son John Paul, then 8. The two set out to catalog which bugs would be attracted to white light versus black light when both were shone on a bedsheet hanging outdoors.

Francis says it bothered him that he couldn’t identify the bugs they captured. “I’m not an entomologist” he says. “I’m a marine biologist” So Francis scoured the Internet in search of photos of the insects. Eventually he was able to identify 13.

He says the research paid off when a small black bug got into the house that week and the father and son captured it, screaming “Hister beetle!”

“By looking up that bug and investigating it, I came to love it,” Francis says. “I know other people will love it, too”

Francis pitched the idea of BioBlitz to National Geographic and the National Park Service, thinking the event would let others inspect nature the way he had with his son. The two organizations teamed up a year later, agreeing to 10 excursions leading up the Park Service’s 100th birthday in 2016.

Participants are armed with an “iNaturalist” app on their smartphones so they can take photos of plants or animals with tagged GPS locations and in minutes have them reviewed by scientists on-site. If the photos are good enough, they become scientifically documented for that national park. Those observations can help researchers track species populations in the park or discover new ones that have moved in, Francis says.

Francis hopes the trips—and the idea of citizen science—will continue beyond the Park Service’s anniversary. It’s the perfect way, he says, to get people to discover the world around them in a scientific way.

“The whole idea of citizen science has become a loving activity for me” he says. “We engage with nature all the time. Why not put it to scientific use?”

Jacob Bogage, who grew up in Olney, was a Bethesda Magazine intern. He is a junior in the Missouri School of Journalism at the University of Missouri.

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