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I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote

- Herman Melville

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Adventure Travel

Jun 14, 2018

Jorge Cervera Hauser: Far From Shore

Underwater photographer, award winning film producer and ecotourism activist, Jorge Cervera Hauser, has a resume as vast as the ocean (pun very much intended), that has connected his intense love for the deep sea and the creatures that inhabit it—particularly the toothy ones we think we’re most scared of.

WRITTEN BY

Alyssa Fowler

“It’s funny how things happen and how only after you see they’re all connected. If I hadn’t lost my toe, I would have never made films and had this business that I love. And it all took me back to the ocean, which is the thing I care about the most.”

He is a Discovery Channel ambassador (although more recently and excitingly for us, recently signed on as a brand ambassador for The Outdoor Journal), has spoken at TEDx, and his breathtaking and explorative underwater photography has led to producing the award-winning documentary México Pelágico, a film that beautifully captures and advocates for the critical balance between local shark fishermen and the ocean ecosystem.

Recently acquiring the legendary SolmarV and running unique and sustainable open water expeditions with Pelagic Fleet, Jorge is bringing more awareness and appreciation of the sea to everyone his work touches.

But at only 22 years old, after a debilitating accident, none of this was on the table for Jorge—least of all, winning the top prize in a Discovery Channel competition.

Animal Planet’s Unearthed

“I was working as a film producer on a channel comparable to MTV, and I was like ‘fuck this’ I’m going to be a safari guide. I had all the paperwork and was getting everything set up to go to Namibia to become a park ranger, and then I had a dirt bike accident. So I lost my big toe, was in the hospital for a month and couldn’t walk for 5 months.

“During that time I had a good friend that came to the hospital, and to my home when I was there, and talk to me about an Animal Planet show where they were looking for the next hot wildlife photographer. He was like ‘That’s you! You should be there!’. And after those months of him coming and telling me about all the episodes, I was just starting to walk again and feeling pretty anxious and ready to go back to work—just laying in bed all the time was horrible. At 7am one morning, that friend called me and said ‘okay, you have to go to this link and submit your application because they’re going to do a second season and you’re going to be in it.’ It was a ton of forms and a lot of trouble… and I was sure I would never be picked. At that point, I really just wanted to get back on track with my life.
“Finally, I had a day with nothing to do and I went back into it, filled stuff out, made a demo-reel, etc., did this stupid casting video. As it turns out, they picked 4 of us out of 35,000 people to spend time in South Africa training and compete in film and photography challenges.

Unearthed Intro from Jorge C. Hauser on Vimeo.

“I didn’t really start off well with the producers because I was a 22-year-old arrogant kid who thought I was there to film my documentary and didn’t realise I was there to be a part of a reality TV show. So, anytime they would ask me to pretend or pose for some shots pointing at something, I would hate it.

“I wouldn’t smile for the photographs and the viewers didn’t like that.”

“And they knew that I loved the ocean and scuba diving and sharks, and I think they did it on purpose that I missed the great white shark part. It seemed like they were always trying to create tension and pin us against each other, even though we were actually pretty good friends. It was funny, but it was definitely one of the best experiences of my life. In the end, I got to spend 2 months in the African bush with all of this infrastructure. At the time it was the most expensive Animal Planet production. So it was a super fun and interesting project. Once I realised it was about the show and not about me, I had a really good time.”

And then he won the entire show!

After going out on his own for 3 weeks, filming, editing and all the voiceover on a documentary, Jorge’s film was selected and screened on Animal Planet stations around the world for the following 6 months. An amazing opportunity at the time and one that spiraled into the multiple careers he’s keeping up now.

Pelagic Life

After years of exceptional underwater film and photography, even leading to starting a production company called Calypso, Jorge joined a non-profit organisation with the intention of protecting wildlife and inspiring ecotourism.

Sea lions by Jorge Cervera Hauser

“Pelagic Life started as a group of friends exploring the open ocean. It’s very easy to go to a reef and scuba dive, but to go out into the big blue dessert and try to really find something, that’s a completely different story. And that’s how we started, to film and photograph sardine baitball with marlin hunting.

“It all came from a deep passion for the ocean. We all have different backgrounds. There’s the lawyer, the consultant and the guy that sells tires, but what we all have in common is this big love for the ocean. We have all been in touch with the ocean since we were kids—mostly through fishing, ironically, through our families. Yet, through that sport-fishing background we started scuba diving and began enjoying the ocean from a different angle.
So, we were exploring the open ocean and seeing this amazing phenomenon, these creatures, and we knew it was our duty to share it. We strongly believe that we cannot care about something we don’t know. And most people don’t know what’s out there. For us, Mexico is such an amazing place for pelagic life and people don’t really know that. You ask people about great white sharks and they’ll talk about South Africa or Australia and they have no idea that the best place in the world to see great white sharks is in Mexico. We knew we had to document and share this. That’s at our core: exploration, then documentation so we can share it. “

This eventually lead to exploring sustainable tourism as an alternative for the local communities and fishermen, reshaping them for tourism so that they would be the sincerely interested in taking care of the resources.

“We started working on offering shark tours as an economical alternative to shark fisherman so that they could make more money taking people on tours to see the sharks than killing them.”

Tiger & bull sharks by Jorge Cervera Hauser

México Pelágico

“With the documentary, we pretty much did it backwards. We had 3-4 years worth of footage, and then we realised there was actually a story to tell here. So with 80% of the footage, we built a structure to the film, came up with a sort of script, and then figured out the pieces that were missing to really start to make the film.”

Mexico Pelagico | Trailer (1) English from Pelagic Life on Vimeo.

“When you do something with this level of passion, with the production company and all of the suppliers and all of the contacts, I started stretching the budget, asking favours and everyone did the same on their end and we ended up doing this independent documentary
Unlike France or the UK, Mexico doesn’t have a huge audience for documentaries. I knew we had a good relationship with Discovery Channel and it would very likely that the documentary would end up there, but then one of the largest movie theatre chains in Mexico were interested in the movie, it ended up showing nation wide. It was a huge shock. You really just don’t normally see documentaries in theatres in Mexico. Then a lot of people started inviting us to a lot of places to screen the film.”

It played at Harvard, Columbia, UCLA, Berkley, even the Pixar Headquarters invited them to screen the film and talk about it. More people watched it than Jorge had ever expected, which opened new doors and changed a lot for the work they were doing with Pelagic Life.

“Before the film, there were a lot NGO’s and people in the diving communities that knew what we were up to, it was a very close circle of friends and friends of friends. After the film, it became so diverse. At each screening there are a lot of people there specifically to watch the film. A lot of people that have never been in touch with the ocean. They’re super interested and want to be involved and help. And the was the whole point of the film, to make people engage with the ocean.

People don’t realise how easy it is to get out there and jump in the water and experience this for themselves. And once you see and experience it, you’re going to want to do something to protect it.

It’s the best way to make a difference. You can post all you want online about any subject and you can try and change legislation, but if you don’t try to actually change the lives of the people who are making their living out of this industry, everything else is pretty much pointless.

“It’s also very easy to see the fishermen as the bad guys, from sitting in front of a computer, but these are people that have been doing this for generations and it’s all they know how to do. They’re not doing it for the kicks of it—it’s a way of putting food on the table and it’s not an easy world they’re living in. If we don’t try to understand where they come from and try to help them, then we’re just jerks with an opinion. That’s why we think this approach is the way to go.”

Jorge, proving he’s not just a “jerk with an opinion” about what sharks are.”

Pelagic Fleet, Solmar V and Ocean Safaris

With his production company and documentary doing well, on top of all his work with Pelagic Life, Jorge realised he had two full-time jobs, “the one that paid the bills—I hated it—and the one that was taking more of my time and money—the one I loved—the ocean. That’s when I knew I had to find a way to make a living out of it. Then the opportunity came up to buy this boat, this live aboard diving boat called the Solmar V. I bought it with my partners in October of last year.”

Jorge says it wasn’t easy and the deal almost fell apart a few times over the two-year period. “The owner of the business, it was his baby. He spent 23 years of his life building it. He is a pioneer and the first one to explore these islands [Socorro Islands] as a diving destination—the first one to explore some of these great white shark hot spots. He wanted someone to carry on with his love for the boat and business and didn’t care as much about the money. I learned a lot during that time and still am. Every day I realise it was the right choice.”

Want to explore a part of the world and its wildlife you couldn’t normally get to? *link*

What’s Next?

It seems pretty clear that Jorge isn’t very good at staying still. Only having bought Solmar V this past October, they’ve already acquired another smaller boat for their Ocean Safaris and are still on the hunt for more.

Needless to say, that’s not all.

Years ago, Pelagic Life spent some time in Chinchorro with luring American saltwater crocodiles out of the murky waters to photograph them as never done before. GoPro took notice and liked what they saw so much that they invited them back there last year to team up with them, only releasing the footage this month.

Crocs Chinchorro (GoPro Production) | Pelagic Life from Pelagic Life on Vimeo.

As the area was an old fisherman’s town, this was the ideal success story of what Jorge and Pelagic Life have been trying to do with the fishermen in Baja: discover new places with wildlife and make them into tourist destinations to interact and protect the wildlife (as opposed to making money off killing these beautifully misunderstood creatures). Jorge says, “Now this guy charges a lot of money to take photographers out there and is booked for the next 2 years. It happened so fast. I hope that over time it will be like that for the fishermen in Baja, that they could have such successful businesses so easily and quickly. ”

However, his favourite projects right now? He a personal project where he’s heading to the Amazon in September to photograph anacondas on the water. “We’re a small group of 4 people that really don’t know what to expect because only a couple people have done this before.”

Pelagic Life is also working with a bank to come out with a coffee table book to give away to their VIP members. “I always love it when we’re able to go back to our roots of exploration, a little bit of conservation work just by showing people what’s out there. And I love that.”

If you would like to purchase México Pelágico then you can do so here.

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Focus

Oct 01, 2018

The Forbidden Zone: Mongols, to Your Horses

The rolling green hills, rocky passes, flower-laden meadows and clear streams of Gorkhi Terelj National Park in northern Mongolia is the birthplace of the Mongols. The Outdoor Journal spent a week on horseback with Stone Horse Expeditions in the heart of this country’s vast wilderness.

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WRITTEN BY

Apoorva Prasad

Tdrihe Khan Khentii mountains stretched before us, from one end of the azure sky to the other. Tegri, the Great Sky God, watched us with his infinite panorama. From here, I could see miles and miles into the distance. This was the “Forbidden Zone”, that unknown wilderness where Genghis Khan was born. As a child and then again much later on, he hunted here, his true home, on a horse, sheltered in a ger or under the blue sky. When he was a boy, exiled with his family into the cold and harsh wilderness of the northern Mongolian hills, his only friends were what these lands contained. After he built an empire and died, it became a sacred and taboo zone, left to the deer and wolves. For decades the area had been closed off. The Soviets enforced it as a Highly Restricted Area to allow them to do what they wished with it – from logging and military exercises, to also countering any potential rise of Mongolian nationalism around the great Khan. Despite those years, the Area remained wild.

No wonder the Mongols worshipped it.

A day before, we had crossed fresh bear tracks. There were no signs of human presence apart from our train of horses and riders. And now, this vista lay in front of us, green and yellow grassy hills, long valleys, meadows of flowers stretching to higher mountains all the way to Siberia, some still snow-dusted despite the summer sun. Burkhan Khaldun stood further behind higher peaks. And that incredible sky. No wonder the Mongols worshipped it. We all lived once under this blue infinity. As we’d ridden northwards away from Ulan Bator, the city’s pollution had faded away long ago, the gray curse had lifted and my eyes had once again accustomed themselves to what they had evolved to do – see long distances, look for hares, deer, bears, navigate passes and ford streams, climb rocks, and watch falcons circle on thermals above. And over the last few days, we had done all these things.

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The weary horseriders arrive in the ger to refresh themselves.

We had left our last camp around mid-morning, some hours ago. One half of the party broke away to ride into another valley out west, while Keith and I wanted to ride up and to the pass in the range of hills that separated the Gorkhi Terelj from the Khan Khentii. We skirted the granite mounds which punctuated the ends of this valley, forded a marshy grassland below the campsite, fought off the bloodsucking horseflies that made our horses’ lives miserable for a little while, eventually entering a tall forest of larch and birch. The ground began to rise as we entered a narrow rocky trail that started to wind uphill. Jerry, my sturdy, stubborn little Mongolian horse plodded on. This easy gait was infinitely more comfortable than the long trots of our previous days in the saddle. Keith Swenson, a taciturn, the 64 year-old owner of Stone Horse Expeditions along with his wife Sabine Schmidt, showed none of the wear I felt – my skin of my thighs were quite literally raw after 50 kilometers of riding and trotting in the wilderness. After a few days Keith opened up with wisecracks. “People ask what do you do, and I say I’m a rider”, says Keith, punning on his American accent. “They think I mean ‘writer’, “and they ask, what have you written?” “So I say, Blackie, Brownie, Ol Dirty Face…”, naming his horses.

These lands, however remote, are important.

Halfway up the trail was a shaman’s totem, poles placed on the ground to make a conical structure, wrapped with bits of fabric and ribbons. But at the base, and near a tree, we also found broken shards of glass, vodka bottles drunk and thrown by unknown travelers who no longer respected their old ways. We’d been riding for an hour or so and we stopped for a short break in the little opening in the forest. It was quite warm in the strong sun, perhaps 30C like every day of the summer, but cold at nights, often dipping below freezing.

_mg_7103
These Mongolian horses play a huge role in making a trip across the steppe easy and fun for riders. Each horse has a unique personality. Big Dirty Face pictured here loves coffee and will drink it straight from your cup if you let him.

The Mongols invented the modern world*

The old ways are important. These lands, however remote, are important. The Mongols invented the modern world*. When, at the age of 55, Genghis Khan rode out into Asia and Europe, he created the largest empire known to humanity, as well as its first international postal system, and the largest free-flowing network of ideas, trade and culture. But today, Mongolia feels relatively isolated and far away, landlocked in the Eurasian continent. And getting there turned out to be a greater adventure than we’d expected. Instead of flying, we took the famous Trans-Mongolian from Beijing to Ulan Bator. At 11pm, the train pulled into the last station on the China-Mongolia border to change the undercarriage (the railway gauge is different in Mongolia). Three hours later we got back on the train and waited patiently for the Chinese guards to hand us all our passports back. Our intern’s passport was returned ripped from its cover. Before anyone could make a move, the train entered Mongolia… where the Mongolian border guard insisted that the 18-year old girl get off the train because she wasn’t allowed to enter on an invalid passport. Twenty minutes of arguing later, at nearly three am, we got off and watched the train leave without us.

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Mongolian cuisine is typically meat and dairy products. Vegans beware.

Fifteen hours later, after many phone calls and emails to various embassies and important officials, she was finally allowed to enter the country. The Trans-Mongolian having long gone, we finagled an eight-hour taxi ride across the great steppes (on a second-hand car coming off a goods train) for $45. Welcome to Mongolia.

REAL MEN TROT

I did not have much riding experience, but I usually don’t let a little thing like that deter me from a trip. Keith, once also a climber, agreed that anyone up for adventure would be perfectly fine on a Mongolian horse. They were sturdy and forgiving. We all gathered at their staging camp an hour’s drive from Ulan Bator – a Singaporean couple on their second trip with Stone Horse, their friend from Hong Kong, a French diplomat from Swaziland, our team of three, Keith, Sabine and their crew – Nyamaa, Buyana and Jackson, the American intern. Soon, our team of 16 horses and Stinky the Mongolian Dog, a most genuine companion if there ever was one, were off towards the north. Day one went reasonably well, with a short four hour ride to our first campsite inside the Gorkhi Terelj National Park. The other experienced riders asked me various questions about how I felt and whether my horse had cantered or galloped, and I said I didn’t know, but the horse seemed to know what it was doing. Apparently, they have many gaits.

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Nomads Yadmaa and Tavaasurn inside their summer ger, just outside Gorkhi Terelj.

I learned what that meant the next day.

The morning begins easily and we move along a gentle valley. At a stream, the horses bend to drink. They’re herd animals, comfortable only in their own numbers. Suddenly, there’s a commotion as one of the pack horses spooks and bolts. We’re unprepared, and good old Jerry decides to follow the bolting horse too, suddenly turning 180 degrees and galloping wildly. I have to pull firmly on the reins to stop him, while the teamsters have to get the other fella back. He’s bucking around wildly, his unshod feet stamping, his grass-eating brain telling him that that bee sting he felt on his hind was a wolf’s nip. Stinky ignores the commotion, running ahead happily back in his favorite hunting grounds, chasing ground squirrels to their holes. We continue, entering a forest and then riding uphill to a pass. On the other side, a wide open valley, and our first real gallop. Now I feel the sensation, riding with the animal as one, gently cycling my feet in the stirrups and gripping with my knees, all of it coming naturally to me and I urge Jerry on, on, on. Chhoo, Jerry, Chhoo! We stop at a babbling brook in the valley below where we wash our faces. Are we in paradise?

And then the long trot begins. For a horse, it’s the most comfortable way to move. But it’s bouncy. I try to “post” like all the real riders. Watching me grimace in agony, Keith smiled and said, “real men trot,” as he rode along comfortably with that rolling ankle movement to compensate for the horse’s bumpy ride. “Trotting is how the Mongols moved such vast distances. If you make him gallop, you won’t get very far, you’ll kill the horse”.

a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities

But Mongolia changed the course of human history since long before the great Khan and his riders, the ultimate, self-sufficient soldiers. Apart from the Mongols, it is also the original homeland of the Huns and the Turks. It is a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities, where thousands of years ago two language families met and separated – the Indo-Europeans and the Altaics – and possibly where the wild horse was first tamed, thereby changing the course of history. When men on horses first raced out of Central Asia, first ancient Mesopotamia, then Egypt fell. Europe’s original ‘mother culture’ and India’s Harappan civilization disappeared. Humans, moving incredible distances on horses, spread across Asia, from the western end of Europe to Korea, all the way down to Arabia and India, creating nearly all the cultures we know today. Some of the languages they spoke evolved today into English, and others evolved into Japanese, but some of their words have become so intermingled that it’s hard to distinguish which came from which. Hindi is an Indo-European language, but today the common Hindi word for “home” is “ghar” (from the Sanskrit “grhá”) which is nearly identical to the Altaic Mongolian’s word for home, ger.

When the Hunnu (“Huns”) fought the Chinese Hans, the clans that lost fled towards Europe, creating Hungary, as well as leading to the downfall of the Western Roman Empire. Centuries later, the Turkics originally from the Mongolian steppes came hurtling into Constantinople, wiping out the Eastern Roman Empire.

We ride through rocky hills and rock formations, up and down defiles, over passes and across shallow streams, through meadows of flowers and knee-high grass. We ride all day, and every evening set up our traveling camp like the Mongols of old. We sleep in modern-day lightweight tents, under trees or under the stars, breathing cold clear air, drinking from fresh rain-fed streams, eating atop rocks while falcons circle above and the horses graze.

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The Stone Horse team from left to right – Jackson, Keith, Buyana, Nyamaa and Sabine.

The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.

One day we stretched out the ride to reach a farther campsite, a Hunnu gravesite. We set up our tents atop 2000-year old graves, low mounds of stones marking the places where men, women, children and horses were laid to rest. “I believe that these people would have loved us to be here, living like they did,” said Keith. When they hear our horses, they’ll feel alive”. The next morning, I pulled my horse off to a side and to a vantage point to shoot the group riding further down the valley. Jerry stomped and neighed angrily as the herd passed him by, but I held him back. When the group disappeared into the distance, I quickly packed my camera gear back into the saddlebags. Then jumping back on, I let the horse fly as he wished, back to his herd. Jerry, the funny but tough little horse, galloped madly a mile north over the gently rising slope. Our hooves rang out in the valley, as two large round mounds, Hun graves, emerged in front on the mountainside. Neither Jerry nor I needed to veer, and we galloped directly over the centre of the mounds, the sound of our hoofbeats gladdening passed Hunnu souls. Their ancestors, our ancestors, had once tamed wild horses, and together changed the world. The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.

Images by Madhuri chowdhury.

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