My Perfect Adventure: Mireya Mayor

The Emmy-nominated nature correspondent on her wild love of Madagascar, how David Livingstone got her to Tanzania, and the college class that changed her life

Mireya Mayor.     Photo: Philip Anema/ZOZI

"I was born to be an explorer."

Mireya Mayor is probably the only person who can say she’s a former National Football League cheerleader and that she discovered a new primate species.

Her website says, “My job title is a bit tricky to define,” but here are a few definitive facts: She has a Ph.D. in anthropology, studies primates extensively, and has earned two Emmy nominations for her television work, which has included the History Channel’s Expedition Africa and National Geographic’s Ultimate Explorer. She’s also the author of Pink Boots and a Machete: My Journey From NFL Cheerleader to National Geographic Explorer, a book whose foreword is written by Jane Goodall.

A Fulbright scholar, Mayor spends much of her time working with wild jungle animals in Africa, even though she’s the Miami-born daughter of Cuban immigrants. When she discovered the rare mouse lemur in Madagascar, she convinced the country’s prime minister to declare the tiny monkey’s habitat a national park.

With four daughters and a swamped travel schedule, we wanted to know more about what keeps Mireya Mayor excited about exploring.

Describe your perfect day, from dawn 'til dusk. Where would you be, who would you meet, and what would you do?
I would love to share the wilds of Africa with my family. My perfect day would begin by waking up to the sounds of a nearby stream and wildlife clamoring overhead. There in the rainforests of Congo, I’d be camping with my husband and four daughters. As we hike through the forest, Jane Goodall would motion us to join her as she observes her beloved chimpanzees. The evening would end with all of us sitting around a campfire sharing stories of expeditions past.

If you could travel somewhere you've never been, where would you go and why?
I would love to explore the rainforests of Borneo, which were home to some of the world's most majestic and forbidding forests. Sadly, the orangutan population there has greatly diminished in recent years because of habitat destruction and poaching. I have always dreamt of seeing them in the wild and of helping to prevent their disappearance.

Where is the best place you've ever visited?
Madagascar. From the moment I stepped off the plane, I felt an odd sense of familiarity, as if I had arrived home. The people are warm, generous, and friendly and the biodiversity is unsurpassed. It was in Madagascar where my colleague and I discovered a new species of mouse lemur, the world’s smallest primate. 

If you could have lunch with any explorer, who would it be and why?
David Livingstone, one of the most famous pioneering explorers of our past. His explorations of and writings about the African continent inspired me to trek across Tanzania. 

What’s something you can’t travel without?
My camera. It’s so important to me to document every aspect of my journeys—the places I see, the people I meet, and the incredible animals I come across.

When you arrive at a new destination, what’s usually first on your agenda?
Getting out of the city and into the wild as quickly as possible.

What motivates you to keep being an explorer?
Exploration is deeply embedded in my soul. The sense of wonder and discovery is electrifying—I love nothing more than venturing to remote and unexplored parts of the world and seeing things that no one else or perhaps only few others have ever seen. Every part of the journey is a learning experience, a window into another world. It makes me feel alive.

As a child, what was your dream job? If you gave up that dream, do you have any regrets?
I was born to be an explorer. I climbed trees and observed animals since I was old enough to reach for the branches. I strongly believe in having no regrets.

When and how did you first venture into primatology?
As an undergraduate at the University of Miami, I took an anthropology class that triggered my interest in primates. I learned about so many amazing species that were virtually unknown and on the verge of extinction. In 1996, I went on my first expedition to study primates in Guyana, one of South America’s most remote and unexplored regions, and I’ve been studying primates around the world ever since.

What advice you would give to an aspiring wildlife correspondent?
Stay focused and true to yourself and your work. As a conservation and science communicator, you carry a huge responsibility of sharing pertinent information with worldwide audiences. Never take that for granted.

Have you ever had any role models or mentors?
My graduate advisor, Patricia Wright, has been both a role model and a mentor who inspired me to always think outside of the box. She taught me that I could balance a career and a family and always encouraged me to pursue my dreams despite obstacles.

Do you have a life philosophy?
I have several. One is: Have no regrets. Another is best put by James A. Michener: “The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his information and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he's always doing both.”

Have you ever made a mistake or experienced a near accident in your travels that made you think twice about going out again?
I have made many mistakes and have had too many near accidents to count, but not once have I thought twice about not going out again.

If you had to choose a different career, what would it be and why?
A doctor, so that I could provide medical care to remote villages that have zero access to healthcare.

Name three things you still want to cross off your life bucket list.
Surfing, skiing, and learning to cook.

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