How explorers helped seed planet conservation
This article reports on the impact of Rolex’s Perpetual Planet initiative, which supports outstanding individuals and organizations that are implementing novel solutions to the world’s most pressing environmental challenges.
For weeks on end, Alain Hubert kept following the thin white line on the horizon. There’s little else with which to orient yourself in Antarctica. It was 1998 and Hubert, an avid cold weather adventurer, was attempting to cross the continent on foot. This wasn’t his first polar excursion—he’d trekked Greenland and skied across Canada’s Baffin Island. Just four years earlier, in fact, he’d become the first Belgian to reach the North Pole. But the Antarctica trip was a bit different. In addition to his feat of adventure, he was there to take some scientific measurements, helping to document how global warming was affecting the earth’s iciest continent. Polar research is vital to understanding the impacts of climate change; the ice melt not only has consequences locally, but across the entire world. Moved by the urgency of the mission, Hubert—a lover of the natural world first and foremost—would go on to create an organization dedicated to this vital environmental inquiry.
Hubert isn’t the first person to blend exploration with environmental research and advocacy. The world has always had its adventurers—those driven to push the edge of what we know, what we can do, where we can go. But over the last century, explorers have increasingly been inspired by their experiences to do whatever they can to preserve the planet. And like Hubert, many of these individuals have been supported by Rolex, which itself has evolved from a focus on discovery to one of preservation in order to keep the planet perpetual.
We chart that journey in the timeline below, from Rolex’s early support of people who were pushing limits of human potential to its more recent commitment to pioneers who are safeguarding earth’s environments, Hubert among them. In one sense it’s a snapshot of the evolution of one dedicated company. In a broader sense, however, it’s the portrait of a movement—one defined by individuals all around the globe who are motivated not only to explore new frontiers, but also preserve them for future generations.
The history of Rolex’s commitment to exploration
1927 — Mercedes Gleitze
Mercedes Gleitze couldn’t let it go, this unshakable belief that she could swim the English Channel. A stenographer by trade, Gleitze attempted the feat seven times unsuccessfully in the mid-1920s. Yet she refused to stop trying, and in 1927 she became the first British woman to cross the 21-mile waterway separating the United Kingdom from France. Throughout the journey, she donned a small timepiece. Known as the Oyster, the watch was a gift from Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf, who not only wanted to support Gleitze, but also prove the efficacy of his new waterproof model. The experiment was a success; the watch kept impeccable timing, even submerged in the frigid water for more than ten hours. For her part, Gleitze would go on to become an accomplished athlete—successfully completing more than 50 endurance swims—and was heralded by many as the face of a new generation of more empowered women.
1933 — Stewart Blacker
In 1933, a group of men, squeezed into slim cabins of two rickety planes, became the first people to see Mount Everest from above. The flight was organized in part by a British lieutenant colonel named Stewart Blacker. A pioneering aviator, soldier and inventor, Blacker joined the Everest team as chief photographer. Airplane travel was in its infancy, and the flight was treacherous. At one point a sudden downdraft sent the planes plunging 1,500 feet. The crews also continually risked exposure to the bitter cold. Amid these severe conditions, Blacker relied upon his Rolex Oyster watch and later reported that it was unfailingly accurate: “Not the slightest fault could be found with them.”
1953 — John Hunt
“This is the story of how, on 29th May 1953, two men, both endowed with outstanding stamina and skill, inspired by an unflinching resolve, reached the top of Everest and came back unscathed to rejoin their comrades.” These are the opening words to John Hunt’s The Ascent of Everest. Hunt led the expedition during which Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay made the first successful climb to the summit of Mount Everest. An amateur mountaineer, Hunt was selected to lead the expedition largely based on his exceptional record as a colonel in the British Army. Although he was personally unable to reach the summit when his oxygen tubes froze, he is widely credited as the logistics mastermind of the journey. Rolex provided the team with its signature Oyster watches, by then well-known as an adventurer’s timepiece.
1960 — Jacques Piccard & Don Walsh
In 1960, Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard and U.S. Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh set off for the deepest point on Earth, known as the Mariana Trench. The duo were piloting a bathyscaphe, a self-propelled vessel that could go deeper than a submarine. After a nearly 5-hour descent—and one terrifying crash on the way down—the men set a record submersible dive of 35,798 feet under the surface of the Pacific Ocean. (Notably, the vessel had a Rolex Deep Sea Special watch attached to its hull that worked perfectly throughout the expedition.) Beyond a simple feat of extreme exploration, the journey marked a major advance in oceanography, and led to many subsequent unmanned, remotely operated craft visiting the site. But it was more than fifty years later before another human would reach similar ocean depths, when film director James Cameron recreated the journey in 2012, with Walsh acting as an advisor seven miles above.
1979 — Haroun Tazieff
Haroun Tazieff once said, “To capture the beauty of an eruption you would need to be a Van Gogh.” He would know: Perhaps the most well-known volcano expert of his time, Tazieff enthralled the public through his adept storytelling of the fascinating world volcanic activity, which he witnessed at frightening close proximity. He was featured in numerous nature films and TV series, always donning his Rolex Oyster watch, even in the most extreme environmental conditions. But Tazieff was also committed to finding scientific applications in his activities. His samplings of lava resulted in unmatched gas analyses, for example. By 1979, his interests had expanded to another alarming environmental phenomena, and the Poland native began to speak up about the threat of global warming. “If, instead of destroying the forests of Borneo . . . of Java, Sumatra and Central Africa, we protected these forests, carbon dioxide wouldn’t pose any threat to us,” he said in an interview.
To capture the beauty of an eruption you would need to be a Van Gogh.
1989 — Richard Leakey
Richard Leakey, a paleoanthropologist, is perhaps most famous for his contributions to the understanding of ancient humans. He and his team discovered the remains of a boy who lived some 1.5 million years ago in what is now Kenya; the fossils were at the time the most complete skeleton of an early proto-human ever found. Yet Leakey’s career as a paleoanthropologist eventually gave way to far more contemporary concerns—namely, wildlife protection in his native Kenya. The Rolex-linked conservationist took a bold approach to sounding the alarm about the threats of hunting and habitat encroachment on animals. In 1989, the Kenyan press watched as Leakey, then head of the Kenya Wildlife Service, stood next to a burning pile of poached elephant ivory to drive home the criminality of killing the enormous creatures. The ensuing public outrage helped lead to an international ban on the ivory trade. Since then, the country’s elephant population has more than doubled.
1998 — Amanda Vincent
In traditional Chinese medicine, seahorses are a prized tonic, prescribed to treat everything from asthma to impotence. Demand is such that it has put the very survival of the elegant marine creature at risk. Amanda Vincent, cofounder of Project Seahorse, is trying to address the animal’s population crisis before it’s too late. One of the world’s leading seahorse experts, Vincent first became interested in the species because of their unusual reproductive processes—it is the males that get pregnant and give birth. But her decades of study in their fascinating lifestyles evolved to an equal passion to protect them. One of her most innovative solutions has been providing microloans to fishermen in the region who catch juvenile seahorses in exchange for releasing them into a controlled environment. When those smaller seahorses grow, they reproduce, thus replenishing the population. Once they are fully grown adults, the fisherman can catch them again, when they are worth more. The fishermen then use the proceeds to repay the loan, keeping the profit. Vincent, who was the recipient of a Rolex Award for Enterprise in 1998, says that some villages have not only adopted the practice but taken ownership of it. “They’ve policed it, they’ve enforced it, and they’re very proud, as they should be,” she said.
2002 — Alain Hubert
The Princess Elisabeth Research Station in Antarctica—where summer temperatures top out at 14 degrees Fahrenheit—should require a significant energy footprint to keep its residents warm. However, thanks to its creator, Alain Hubert, the outpost is emission-free. Massive solar panels, wind turbines and careful water usage have made it possible for research teams to study polar science, and the effects of climate change, without being part of the problem. Hubert began his career as a devoted explorer of the world’s coldest regions; those experiences helped motivate him to take a leading role in studying the impact of climate change in the poles. In 2002, Hubert—who by then was a Rolex Testimonee—cofounded the International Polar Foundation, which developed the Princess Elisabeth station in the mid-2000s and continues to conduct scientific research to support informed responses to global warming to this day.
2006 — Pilai Poonswad
In 1978, Pilai Poonswad was approached by a documentary team who wanted her to take them deep into Thailand’s Khao Yai National Park in search of hornbills, an elusive avian species. Poonswad was a natural choice—she had been a forest guide for decades and had worked with a well-known bird scholar. Even with her experience, it took the team months to find a hornbill nest cavity. When a male bird finally arrived hours later, it angrily swooped toward them and then flew away, before it could deliver food to its mate. Guilt-ridden, the crew left their vantage point. But for Poonswad, the experience sparked a fascination with the bird that would last a lifetime. She began formally tracking the hornbill in Khao Yai, starting with that first couple she disturbed at mealtime. In the years since, she’s emerged as one of the world’s leading experts on the species, advancing both research and conservation activities through her organization, Thailand Hornbill Project. In 2006, these efforts got a boost when she was honored with a Rolex Award for Enterprise.
2016 — Sarah Toumi
Sarah Toumi was just in her early 20s when she had the somewhat audacious idea to get the farmers in her father’s native Tunisia to start planting new crops, specifically acacia trees. She knew a fresh approach was needed. The country’s ground was drying out due to less rainfall; traditional crops like almond and olive trees were struggling to thrive in a changing soil, contributing to widespread rural poverty. A native of France, Toumi moved full-time to Tunisia and began working directly with female farmers to introduce plants that were better suited to the land. Acacia trees were a key focus because they both tolerate the dry conditions and replenish the topsoil as their long roots pull from the water found deep below the surface. Farmers can also sell the gum the tree produces to bring in additional income. In 2016, Toumi received a Rolex Award for Enterprise to help support her organization, Acacias for All.
These stories highlight Rolex’s commitment to support research on environmental issues and join forces with individuals and organizations aiming to find solutions to protect the environment. This content was produced independently from The Washington Post Newsroom.
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