Interview with Conservation Biologist Dr.Fernando Gonzalez

© Ben Sullivan.

Doctor Fernando Mateos-González is a Spanish biologist with a PhD in Animal Behaviour who has volunteered as a Leader for British Exploring Society (BES) on their expeditions to the Peruvian Amazon in 2017, the Canadian Yukon in 2018 and Iceland, by sail boat, in 2019.

Páramo, as official kit provider to BES, were lucky enough to secure an interview with Fernando, to hear more about his trips and work…

Nando, the past couple of years have taken you to the Amazon in South America, the Yukon in Canada, and Iceland. What is most memorable about these trips?
BES expeditions are a reset opportunity, a pause where the world shrinks to a much more manageable set of parameters – just the stuff you can fit in your backpack and a small group of new friends having an adventure and working together towards a common goal.

They are designed to keep Young Explorers on their toes, testing their limits almost daily. However, thanks to careful planning and a wonderful, dedicated team of expedition leaders, the challenges are not overwhelming – rather they are demanding enough to maximise personal growth.

Paddling the Teslin river in Northern Canada, August 2018. © Ben Sullivan.

You join BES expeditions as a volunteer, why are they so important to you and what do the Young Explorers you mentor and guide take from these trips?
When I first joined the British Exploring Society, my main reason was not very altruistic… I just wanted another excuse to visit the jungle! To my surprise, though, I discovered that helping young people develop and grow is an incredibly rewarding experience.

Volunteer Leaders like myself work hard to ensure that Young Explorers get a lot from these expeditions, including sparking their curiosity about the natural world, promoting self-reflection and helping them to improve their social skills.

This summer, after just two weeks aboard a sailing vessel (granted, a very cool one!) several of our Young Explorers decided to join the Merchant Navy as a result of the support and mentoring they received on the trip. In other words, BES showed them that a career in the Merchant Navy was a perfectly attainable goal.

Spotting Iceland after two weeks sailing the North Atlantic aboard SV Tenacious, August 2019.

What is it about BES that draws you back again and again and how is it different from your full time job as a Conservation Biologist?
When I was a teenager, there was a yearly competition for young people on TV whereby the winners joined a hero of mine on amazing expeditions. I entered many times, but was never selected as one of the lucky kids. Working with BES has allowed me to fulfil my teenage dream and follow in the footsteps of my childhood hero, as I live the same excitement and joy for adventure through the eyes of the Young Explorers.

It is different from my full time job in many ways but one example is that whilst my profession tackles complex problems with a long term focus, often using very specific training techniques, BES expeditions, although more physically intense, have simpler challenges. On these trips I’m just another kid most of the time, sharing my enthusiasm for nature and discovering and learning with the Young Explorers and other Volunteer Leaders. One feels like a holiday from the other!

Spotting wild moose in the Yukon Territory, Canada, August 2018. © Ben Sullivan.

In new environments around the world, what surprises and intrigues you the most?
Once, in the jungle, we were returning to basecamp after a long day, ready to climb in to our hammocks for some well-deserved sleep. Just as we reached the basecamp perimeter, I glimpsed something under the light of my head torch. It was just a small spider, but a very special one that I had only seen before on nature shows! It took me hours to fall asleep after that, and, when I did, it was with a smile on my face. I endeavour to prepare well for each expedition and spend hours researching the various environments I will visit, yet each and every time I am surprised by unexpected encounters.

Animal, insect or reptile?
I am mesmerised by many critters but a long-time favourite is the Amblypygi, an ancient arachnid, full of legs and scary pincers, yet harmless to humans. It is a jungle highlight for me!

I am also fascinated by the Mantis shrimp, which is like a real life Pokémon with many superpowers! The shrimps have club-like appendages that can hit prey with such speed the surrounding water instantly vaporizes, reaching temperatures close to those of the surface of the Sun. They also have some of the most complex eyes in the animal kingdom, able to see colours, ultraviolet and polarised light in ways we cannot imagine. Scientists are even using their vision as a guide to develop cancer-detecting cameras!

What are your thoughts on the devastating effects of climate change?
The effects are pervasive, profound, and very scary. The world as we know it is changing rapidly and in some cases we are not even sure of how. Scientists are identifying more and more cascade effects that make predictions fall short almost invariably. We will lose a lot of biodiversity, tropical diseases will likely thrive, and extreme climate events will be more common.

I hope that, at some point, necessity will set our priorities straight and that we will coordinate a worldwide effort to make things better for our children’s children, and beyond.

Trekking to Sellandafjall, a Pleistocene volcano in Iceland, August 2019. © Jenna Pickering.

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