By Jacob Bogage
The Antarctic Peninsula looks
like another planet to John Francis. He
says the spontaneous waterfalls that
erupt after a hard rain on Chile’s Rob-
inson 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 cata-
log 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 Seat-
tle “with the woods in my backyard.” His
maternal grandfather was an outdoors-
man who fished and hunted frequently
and spoke a couple Native American dia-
lects; several cousins became park rang-
ers. They introduced Francis to the wilder-
ness, and his imagination caught fire. He
explored the forests of the Pacific North-
west 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 tele-
vision producer with National Geo-
graphic at its Washington headquar-
ters. 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
He got the idea for BioBlitz after con-
ducting 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
Francis says it bothered him that he
“Everyone can be an explorer,”
says marine biologist John
Francis, who’s traveled the world
through the National Geographic
Society in Washington, D.C.
The wonders of nature are everywhere. And
John Francis wants to show them to us.