We recently had the opportunity to do a quick Q & A with Rich to learn more about his background, interests, favorite expedition moments, travel bucket list, what he loves about Zegrahm, and more.
Where are you from and where have you lived?
I am originally from the New York City area but have now lived in Minneapolis, Minnesota for about 15 years. Between those two cities, I've also lived in a small cove on Catalina Island off of Los Angeles; I spent several summers in Alaska doing wildlife biology field work; for six months I lived in a tent in the Peruvian Amazon; and I lived in Colombia, Missouri during graduate school.
Tell us about yourself—what path led you to becoming a Zegrahm Leader?
I've always been interested in education as it relates to natural history and wild places. I used to divide my time between teaching science & outdoor education and working on wildlife research projects in remote locations. Both became my way of traveling and spending time in wild places.
In the early 2000s, I began doing contract work on U.S. government research ships, conducting seabird surveys and marine mammal research. It was through that work that I was eventually introduced to Lisa Wurzrainer, who was doing the staffing for Zegrahm trips at that time. She would become one of my best friends and connect me with the world of expedition travel. After my very first Zegrahm trip, it was obvious that Zegrahm Expeditions had the same values, priorities and goals as I did. The rest is history.
What other jobs, positions or credentials do you have?
I work full time as a naturalist and educator, with the vast majority of my time guiding for travel companies (and the vast majority of that work is with Zegrahm Expeditions). I also do some freelance biologist work, compose music, and am a photographer. My education background is in ornithology and wildlife biology, and I have an MS in those fields from the University of Missouri.
What other fields are you passionate about?
Marine biology, natural history, and conservation biology are the fields I am most passionate about. I'm also very interested in how humans and nature interact as well as the diversity of culture in the world. I also love music as well as art; photography and film in particular.
Where can people find your written work?
I enjoy writing and have a number of articles in popular publications. I also often write blogs and trip logs for Zegrahm Expeditions.
What excites you about working for Zegrahm Expeditions?
Zegrahm is a family made up of a staff who I consider my best friends in the world, as well as a network of guests who have done so many trips with us, that I would consider many of them friends/family as well. We have a huge shared history together. The repeat guests that travel with Zegrahm really makes each trip a homecoming, where we often already know most of the group.
We also focus on small group land trips (10-15 guests) and small ships (under 100 guests), which allow us to bring the trip and the destination to a much higher level. We are flexible to do things larger groups can't, and able to take advantage of situations that pop up on the fly.
What is your favorite Zegrahm memory?
There are too many to name. I would say that getting to travel the globe with such an amazing and talented staff—many of whom have become my best friends—and repeat guests has created such a fun adventure for all of us. We all know that we are off experiencing something special. Also, as Zegrahm does one-off trips, it really feels like we are often doing something that will never happen in the same way again.
One morning, on a Russian Far East trip, I recall watching a huge group of walruses in the water all around our Zodiacs. Later that day, we went ashore and came across a group of reindeer herders. They rounded up their herd and even 'harvested' one of their reindeer right before our eyes! This is just one example of the 'improvisational' nature of our trips, especially those in remote areas, where you don't take the trip, but the trip takes you.
Can you tell us about a time that you were on a Zegrahm expedition that ended up taking an unexpected turn or made an unexpected discovery that took you off the planned trail?
I feel that one of Zegrahm's many strengths is the ability to take advantage of unexpected turns and, as mentioned above, this is definitely aided by our small group sizes. Sometimes it might play out like the story in which we discovered a group of brown bears feeding along a stream in the Russian Far East. That time we were able to carefully and quietly get everyone ashore and up to a downwind vantage point to watch them without being detected.
But other times it's about the things that don't quite play out as planned and turn it into a memorable experience despite the hiccup. For example, there's a story I call "Escape from Miami." It was a cancelled flight that turned into a very fun and memorable adventure. We all met in Miami for an overnight at the airport hotel before an early morning flight to Brazil to start a small ship voyage around the mouth of the Amazon. In the early morning we all got to the gate to find out the flight was cancelled.
So we got everyone rebooked on a 5 p.m. flight, got a bus, arranged to have a restaurant at South Beach give us a room to store carry on bags, and had lunch. Everyone roamed the promenade, some rented bikes, watched beach volleyball, or did some people watching. We were back at the airport for our 5 p.m. flight. We arrived in Manaus, Brazil just before midnight and had a four-hour layover before our final leg to Belem. One of the guests mentioned that he loved visiting opera houses and that there was one in Manaus that was supposed to be world class. We looked into it, arranged for another bus and a local guide, and visited the opera house…at 1 a.m.
The whole experience, though not planned, turned out to be amazing and certainly showed that Zegrahm are 'fixers' who are great at making the experience the best it can possibly be.
What non-for-profits or causes do you support or feel strongly about?
I feel very strongly about environmental and conservation causes as well as those promoting education worldwide, particularly for women.
What are your top three countries or regions in the world to explore?
1. The Philippines and Indonesia: There’s so much great culture, they are perfect to visit by island hopping on a small ship. There is lots of interesting wildlife and fantastic snorkeling and scuba diving.
2. Alaska and Russian Far East: You have the Bering Sea, its islands and, in particular, the remote and rarely visited Russian east coast. There are amazing seabirds, marine mammals, history and indigenous culture.
3. South Pacific: All of our island-hopping trips throughout the Pacific are what we do best. Sometimes we visit small communities that rarely see ships and outside people, we explore amazing coral reefs and we find uninhabited atolls to scout for nature walks, snorkeling, beaches, etc.
What’s left on your explorer’s bucket list/where do you still want to go that you haven’t been yet?
I am not one who keeps a bucket list, but recently I've been wanting to get back to the Amazon (one of my favorite wildlife places), maybe in Colombia this time? Also, I have not explored China and would love to get out into the rural and wild parts of that country. As a lover of rainforest and wildlife diversity, I would love to get into the equatorial rainforest in Africa as I have never been.
What does being a part of the Zegrahm family mean to you?
I feel that with more and more companies getting bigger and bigger, often the disconnect between the field staff and office staff grows, and the relationship between guests and staff can break down. This isn’t the case with Zegrahm Expeditions. Zegrahm has always really relied on the fact that our guests become repeat travelers and are very loyal to us, because we are loyal to them and we appreciate them. They love feeling a part of the family and I think part of the reason they keep signing up is FOMO (fear of missing out). They don't want to miss the adventures we are all having together. And honestly, neither do I!