With her passion for wildlife adventures, from jungle trekking in Uganda to see mountain gorillas or curling up with lemurs in Madagascar, Jessica Pociask is our type of traveler.
As the owner of WANT Expeditions — Wildlife and Nature Travel, a conservation-oriented, expedition-style adventure travel company — Jessica leads tours to see the most amazing natural phenomena on Earth. Jessica has been to over 70 countries, leading expeditions all over the world, and has visited all 7 continents. She has studied climate change in Antarctica, and she was one of 50 women chosen from the US and Mexico for the Women’s Leadership and International Sustainable Development award by the National Wildlife Federation.
A biologist by trade, Jessica recently spoke on a panel with distinguished conservationists and biologists regarding the impact of tourism on conservation at the Wildlife Conservation Film Festival.
And where is Jessica currently? Oh, just leading a tour in Ecuador to see the first new carnivore species found in the Western Hemisphere in 35 years — the olinguito.
Traveling Type: How did you get your start leading wildlife and nature tours?
Jessica Pociask: It’s a long, convoluted story that probably started when I made my first insect collection somewhere around the age of 7. Over the next 20 years, fueled by stories in my grandfather’s collection of National Geographic magazines, I was inspired with the idea of being an explorer and adventurer. I took my first trip abroad when I was 16, and I once traveled with an orchestra through Europe. From there on, I was smitten with traveling, so I began working for various conservation organizations and outdoor outfitters and started traveling abroad independently.
The fundamental turning point, however, was following my first trip to Antarctica. I immediately was taken with the idea of working not just as an expedition leader, but also as an educator and researcher. From there, the idea of WANT Expeditions was launched and was almost an overnight success. We now offer trips to up to 62 destinations around the world.
What’s your favorite place you’ve traveled to?
I think my all-time favorite place is the Okavango Delta in Botswana. Not only is this place chockfull of wildlife, it is hands down the best place to observe wildlife and the circle of life up close and personal. You can actually drive alongside leopards, lions, wild dogs and other predators as they hunt.
What’s been your most exciting travel moment to date? And what’s been your scariest?
It’s a toss up between jumping into the Devil’s Pool at Victoria Falls, or watching a pack of wild dogs take down a tsessebe (a type of African antelope) calf in the Okavango Delta from about 20 yards away.
The scariest moment was last year, when I was caught with guests in the midst of a military coup d’état. We had just finished up a wonderful 2-week tour through Mali and Burkina Faso, and we were supposed to fly out the next day to Ghana for another tour through the “Voodoo Nations.” By the time we woke up the following morning, the military had over thrown the government. The impact was immediate. Regular gunfire continued throughout the week across the city, and smoke from large fires dotted the skies. We were trapped for a week, and I found several bullets that landed in our hotel’s courtyard. Vehicles were regularly being commandeered, so I deflated one of the tires to our 4×4 (we had a spare) and hid the keys. This turned out to be an excellent deterrent, particularly when I watched another hotel guest’s Mercedes being driven off by 2 men in fatigues. When the curfew was lifted 7 days later, we rushed to the airport to discover that no major carriers were willing to land, so I hired a vehicle and driver, and we immediately set off for the Burkina Faso border. Thirteen anxiety-ridden hours later, we arrived to Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, and collapsed, dusty and tired, into our hotel beds.
What’s your favorite place to get away from it all?
I spend a great deal of time on the road, so while most people are at home in their armchairs dreaming of being in some far-off place, I’m in some far-off place, dreaming of being at home in my armchair.
So, my favorite place to unwind and relax is my lake house in Michigan. It is serene and tranquil, and I love that there is a great deal of wildlife that inhabits my property.
What’s the best thing you’ve eaten while traveling, and where was it?
I can’t say it was the best thing, but the story of how I ate it is rather amusing. I always encourage my guests to try local delicacies, but in order to prove that items are safe and/or palatable, I have to demonstrate by eating them first. Last year, I was down in the Pantanal of Brazil, and I was the last person back to our vehicle. My other guide had been showing the guests an edible nut that is the mainstay in the diet of the Hyacinth Macaw.
I had asked him to get me one, so that I could try it as well, and when I opened the nut, I discovered there were several large, white grubs inside. I was about to discard it when he informed me that these grubs were his favorite local delicacy, and they tasted like coconut. I asked him to prove it by him eating it first in front of me, and then showing it to me on his tongue to prove that he actually chewed it. After he stuck his tongue out, I popped mine in without hesitation, and found that it did, in fact, taste like coconut.
I didn’t think too much more about it until later that night. I asked everyone in my group to list what had been their favorite part of the trip so far. When we got around to my guide, he told the group that his favorite part was watching me eat the grub, knowing all the while that he had made up the story about them being his favorite, and it was his first time trying the grubs, too. Everyone burst out laughing.
My travel pillow. Since I’m always on the go, I need to make up for sleep wherever and whenever I can. And, while I can sleep just about anywhere, a travel pillow makes all the difference in the world.
What’s one place you’d love to lead a tour, but haven’t yet?
Bolivia! Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flats in the world, makes it worth a visit alone. Then you have Lake Titicaca and the famous floating islands of the Uros people.
Traverse City, Michigan.
What would you recommend to travelers visiting your hometown?
Nationally, Traverse City is probably best known for 2 things: The National Cherry Festival, which takes place over 4th of July, and the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lake Shore.
In years past, Traverse City was primarily a summer destination, but now there’s something for everyone year round, and because of its location and natural features, it is always beautiful. There are music festivals, beer festivals, wineries, restaurants and more. For the nature lover, there is an abundance of places to hike, bike, fish and hunt. If water is more your thing, Traverse City is right on Lake Michigan, so you can go charter fishing, sailing, swimming, kayaking and the latest craze, paddle boarding.
What’s #1 on your bucket list?
Hmm, tough question. I always love going to new places, but Antarctica and South Georgia have probably the strongest pull, despite the fact that I have been to both places multiple times. Otherwise, in terms of new destinations, I have yet to visit India.
To find about more about Jessica’s wildlife and nature tours, check out WANT Expeditions.
(All photography courtesy of Jessica Pociask and WANT Expeditions)