The interior of Madagascar is ringed by razor-sharp rock, impenetrable jungle, and invisible perils that even seasoned explorers dread. No wonder more men have been to the moon. ... "This place is almost completely inaccessible, an actual no-man's-land!" Simon Donato was explaining over the telephone. He was going on an expedition to this remote spot halfway around the world, a chunk of rocky forest near Madagascar's west central coast called the Tsingy de Bemaraha Strict Nature Reserve, and I was hoping to join him. "Right now, we probably know more about what isn't in there than what is. No trails. No infrastructure. It isn't really visible even on Google Maps, because of its tree cover." ... now that the chief qualification to climb Everest is a large checking account balance, and luxury cruisegoers to Antarctica can snap penguin-packed selfies without having to miss their predinner cocktails. Africa is probably the continent most mysterious to North Americans. Madagascar, the massive island nation sometimes called the Eighth Continent because of the uniqueness and diversity of its flora and fauna, is Africa's Africa — an even less-known place. Which makes the Tsingy, as Winston Churchill once said of another strange land, a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
Thirty years ago, Bob Ballard discovered the wreck of the Titanic. He could have stopped there. Yet today, at seventy-three, he remains the world's most vigorous ocean explorer. ... Money is a frequent topic of conversation for Ballard, because it takes $10 million annually to keep the Nautilus in the water for four to six months every year. (Similar vessels, he says, cost six times that.) Ballard's unique position as an oceanographer/owner makes him both liberated and beholden. For that money that frees him to explore, Ballard must regularly court private donors, corporate sponsors, and politicians who believe in his mission enough to fight for public dollars. The donors love to hear about the Titanic. The politicians are guided by an interest in everything from Ballard's commitment to education to his exploration of the earth's crust. ... Ballard seems prouder of his discoveries of the prizes for which he was not looking—the prizes you win, he says, by spending "time on the bottom." In 1977 he discovered the very existence of hydrothermal vents, hot springs in the ocean floor near where tectonic plates move apart from one another, releasing a steady flow of superheated water from deep in the earth's crust. The water is a chaotic mess of mineral-rich fluids including sulfide that, when discharged into the frigid, pressurized water on the ocean floor, can create new ecosystems hospitable to a wild mix of creatures. In the worlds of marine biology and geology, it was a monumental discovery. In the actual world, nobody much noticed. ... "I got addicted to it. In my fifty-five years of exploring, how much of the ocean floor have I seen?" He holds his thumb and forefinger close together. "In all my discoveries, just that much." His eyes grow wide. "So how much have I not seen?"
I first heard about Luke Weiss from an elder of the Waorani, a tribe scattered along the Amazon tributaries of northeastern Ecuador. He spoke of a white man living with the Secoya, a small tribe settled on a nearby river, but one who had ceased to be a white man. This man had become Secoya. He practiced the tribe's oldest and most difficult traditions. He spoke a pure, antiquated Secoya dialect. What's more, he had achieved something no outsider ever had among the tribes of the region: He became apprentice and heir to the tribe's renowned healer, a 103-year-old shaman named Don Cesario. When people from local villages and distant towns seek out Cesario for healing, it is Weiss who prepares the ritual potions. ... Weiss, it turns out, is about to enter his second year of a master's program at the Yale School of Forestry. His research project: figuring out how to cultivate yoco, a caffeinated vine that suppresses appetite and provides a sustained energy boost, making it the go-to energy drink of the northern Amazon. Weiss wants to crack yoco's code. If it can be cultivated more easily at scale and turned into a marketable drink like yerba maté, then yoco could become a viable, sustainably produced cash crop — and the Secoya's only chance for cultural and economic survival. Young Secoya are leaving San Pablo for the cities or taking jobs with the oil companies.
Charles and John Deane, brothers born four years apart, grew up in a foul dockyard precinct on the edge of London. A former fishing settlement on the Thames, the area had been swallowed by Europe’s largest city. By 1800, it had become a squalid reach of maritime activity and drinking establishments overlooking a fetid waterfront. ... the Deanes’ royal titles and estates had long since been squandered by the time Charles and John were born; their father toiled as a caulker, patching seams in the hulls of ships that his forebears once designed. ... many daring divers had attempted to retrieve sunken treasure in a variety of contraptions—wooden containers, copper jackets, metal canisters. Some died. Others were crippled. ... The Royal George sat in waters about 80 feet deep. At that depth, a pressure differential could create suction 10 times stronger than a modern vacuum cleaner. That might not be strong enough to rip off a face and suck it through an air hose, but it would certainly cause permanent damage or death, as was the sad fate of William Tracey and many others that came after him. ... The brothers were learning hydrodynamics by trial and error, and the crowd got a good show.