Jon Bowermaster has been at the forefront of environmental awareness for most of his life. His films are an awe-inspiring combination of beauty, storytelling, and advocacy. His life story reads like a novel. He is an award-winning writer, filmmaker, and adventurer and a six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council. One of the Society’s “Ocean Heroes,” his first assignment for National Geographic magazine was documenting a 3,741-mile crossing of Antarctica by dogsled.
Jon has written eleven books and produced/directed more than thirty documentary films. His feature documentaries include “Dear President Obama,” “Antarctica, on the Edge,” “After the Spill” and “Ghost Fleet.” His National Geographic-sponsored Oceans 8 project took him and his teams around the world by sea kayak over the course of ten years (1999-2008), bringing back stories from the Aleutian Islands to French Polynesia, Gabon to Tasmania, and more, reporting on how the planet’s one ocean and its various coastlines are faring in today’s busy world.
For the past several years, Jon and his One Ocean Media Foundation / Oceans 8 Films team have focused on a series of short films about the environmental risks to, and hopes for the Hudson River Valley, the birthplace of the American environmental movement. He is also a Visiting Lecturer at Bard College, in the Environment and Urban Studies Department; and host of a weekly radio show/podcast, “The Green Radio Hour with Jon Bowermaster,” at radiokingston.org.
Through his website, www.jonbowermaster.com, Jon continues his reporting on the health of the world’s ocean and lives of people who depend on it.
There is a rumor you are now 66.
Yes, but hesitate to say it out loud for fear that hearing it spoken will make it true!
“Since Covid introduced itself we’ve been incredibly busy; busier than ever”
What has changed for you and your work during Covid?
I make documentary films and have a small company that produces short and feature-length docs. Since Covid introduced itself we’ve been incredibly busy; busier than ever.
Realizing that they can’t reach their respective publics with messaging and fundraising, a wide-ranging bunch of NGOs and environmental groups have reached out to us to help by creating online videos about their work and concerns. What they are finding is that one slim lesson of the pandemic is that in some cases they are actually saving money by not having to host fundraising galas or events, while still raising the same monies. In some cases more.
It’s a unique kind of branded content we are producing using the same storytelling skills and technologies we use for more reportorial films. Our big current feature-documentary is focused on the planning by communities from Manhattan to Albany and many smaller towns in between for sea level rise on the Hudson River, which is anticipated to come up by six to ten feet by 2100.
Much of your early career was spent with Nat Geo in far-flung locations. It was a lot of travel. How does it feel to not be moving around like that?
Given a global pandemic, I’m happy that my livelihood today doesn’t depend on the days when I was on the road up to ten months a year. But even as I type that, I am itchy to be going … somewhere. Anywhere!
“Kayaking across a lagoon in Gabon and chased by a surprised hippo…”
Favorite encounter with another species?
Kayaking across a lagoon in Gabon and chased by a surprised hippo, who could — not-so-surprisingly — swim very fast. My paddling partner that day said he’d never seen me paddle so fast.
The place you almost died while filming? Or the most dangerous thing you ever did for a story?
Hmmmm. We’ve done lots of cold water expeditions by kayak, in Antarctica, the Aleutian Islands and more, which are always risky. Hypothermia is very unforgiving. In the mid-1990s we did a couple first descents of rivers, in Chile, Nunavat and China, which are always a little dicey — especially pre-GPS — and you have no idea literally what’s around the next bend.
But a reminder that you don’t have to be halfway around the world to find risk, the closest I’ve been to drowning was on a Midwestern reservoir on Halloween when my catamaran flipped. I couldn’t right it and started floating to a far, distant shore as it got dark. I did the thing you’re not supposed to do: I left the boat and swam for shore in cold water. I was both arrogant that day (sailing alone on an empty lake on the verge of November) and lucky.
“That combination of politics, government, and the environment has played a role in virtually every story I’ve ever written or film I’ve made”
You have been focused on environmental issues for decades. What would you say is the origin of your interest?
I have two journalistic niches: Remote corners of the world and the overall health of the planet. I think the former comes from traveling only by books when I was growing up.
What exactly spawned the interest in environmental issues, I’m not sure. But it does go back to the very beginning of my own reporting. I have a graduate degree in reporting on politics and government, which I got at American University in D.C. at the height of Watergate. That combination of politics, government and the environment has played a role in virtually every story I’ve ever written or film I’ve made. (Except for the profile of George Michael for Rolling Stone, which reminded me never to do that again.)
When I was 23, with two others, we started a weekly newspaper and I when I flip through the bound galleys of that paper today I’m happily surprised by how many environmental stories we did.
Storytelling Through Print, Film, and Outreach
You started as a writer then moved into film, although you still write. How was the transition from one storytelling medium to the other for you? One is highly collaborative and the other more solitary.
I started out as a print journalist and morphed into a filmmaker, mostly by demand. For ten years, 1990-2000, I was getting annual grants from the National Geographic Expeditions Council to do big sea kayak adventures. My Oceans 8 project took us around the world, one continent at a time. Of course we didn’t paddle around entire continents but rather, I would pick one emblematic coastline or country with a particular environmental story to tell and we’d travel there for six weeks, two months, by kayak, ultimately bringing back stories of overfishing, plastic pollution, the impacts of a changing climate and acidification. (Aleutian Islands, French Polynesia, the Altiplano, Gabon, Croatia, Tasmania, Antarctica & Vietnam. www.oceans8films.com)
As part of its funding, National Geographic asked for as much “content” as possible, which meant that from each expedition I would do a combination of the magazine story, book, internet dispatches, educational/mission outreach and films. I’d previously made a couple of documentaries for public television and had worked as a producer for a commercial filmmaker to learn the tech side, but that Oceans 8 series of films, which ran in 150 countries on National Geographic International, forced me to focus on filmmaking, which I liked, and for the past decade I’ve only been making films. None involving kayaks.
The biggest difference, as you suggest, is that writing is a very solitary pursuit; you spend a lot of time alone. Making films, by comparison, is a very collaborative process involving multiple teams. I produced a 90-minute feature doc in 2018, “Ghost Fleet,” about the global plight of fishing slaves, which took about six years to make and involved working with dozens of different people in a half-dozen countries … sometimes stretching my desire to collaborate and wishing I was at home, alone, writing a book.
“As a species we are very slow to learn. While today there are solutions to every pollution out there, we are dragging our feet on making cleaning them up a priority”
You have been observing and advocating for the environment for your entire career. As a species, how are we doing? Have we made any progress, or is it worse than ever?
I wrote a book published on Earth Day 1990 called Saving the Earth. It looked at the causes, effects, solutions of fourteen or fifteen global environmental issues of the time, ranging from climate change to ozone depletion, plastic pollution to acid rain.
I get that book out every Earth Day and page through it to see how we’re doing … and to be honest, we’re not doing so well in all but one of the arenas I looked at thirty years ago — except for reducing chlorofluorocarbons, which were opening the ozone hole over Antarctica. (In the end, even that turned out to be a pyrrhic victory when manufacturers eventually found different polluting chemicals to power their refrigerators and spray cans.)
As a species we are very slow to learn. While today there are solutions to every pollution out there, we are dragging our feet on making cleaning them up a priority. Which could prove ultimately disastrous for us, and not particularly good for the planet.
I have to ask, what is the truth about recycling? Is it all kabuki, or does it really help? Plastics? Does it vary by locality?
What we know is that very little of the “recycling” you put out on your curb or drop off at the transfer station actually gets recycled. China, and other Southeast Asian countries, used to take all that plastic junk and do who knows what with it. A couple years ago they said they don’t want our trash anymore.
Many of us engage in what is called “wishful recycling” … just put things into the recycling bin and “wish” them away.
At 66, with all the recognition of your work over the years, why do you keep at it? What is driving you?
There are still lots of great stories to tell, which is the beauty of being a storyteller. You can do it all your life.
At Home in the Hudson Valley
You are very involved with the area where you live, the Hudson Valley of NYS. As someone who has quite literally been everywhere, what is special about that part of the world to you?
I’ve lived in the Hudson Valley for 33 years; initially it was a move to live surrounded by green rather than cement and to be within easy distance of NYC, back in the day when I needed to schmooze with editors and colleagues 90 miles south.
I had a stretch where I did travel, a lot. I think one year I was home 77 days. But I always kept my house in the Hudson Valley. I lived in Paris for ten years, and still came “home” to the Catskills. It was important for me to know that I had a home to return to whenever necessary; I wouldn’t have been good at being truly homeless or rootless, a wanderer.
Where I live, alongside America’s First River, the Hudson, is particularly beautiful with a great history as the birthplace of America’s first art movement (The Hudson River Art School begun in the 1820s) and its environmental movement. I contend, though have no empirical evidence, that there are more environmental activists per capita in the Hudson Valley than anywhere in the country.
The combination of art and environmental activism and natural beauty is, for me, a great motivator for staying right where I am.
Your work in the field is very physical. What do you do to stay in shape?
It used to be very physical and in those days I would purposely travel with younger teammates who pushed me to keep up and mocked me if I didn’t. These days, while we spend a fair amount of time in the field and on the river with cameras, I spend far too much time chained to the desk.
What music do you listen to? Favorite films? What are you reading?
I’ll give you one: Carl Hiassen’s new book Big Squeeze, in which in the opening pages a fictional heiress hanging out at a Mar-a-Lago-like club in Palm Beach gets a little tipsy on tequila and half-a-tab of ecstasy, wanders outside, and gets swallowed by an 18-foot-long python. Which, according to Carl, is completely within the realm of possibilities given how many former pet pythons now roam southern Florida! Can’t wait for the movie.
Rumor has it you are single. Is that by choice?
I was married. And while I very much appreciate some of the long matrimonial relationships I observe, even envious sometimes, I proved not to be very good at it.
Main image of Jon by Jen May.