Part 1: A Big Jump for Little Juan
I grew up exploring in nature, dreaming about the ocean, films, and flying. I think it’s good to have a lot of dreams to chase, and I believe you can make your own luck when chasing them. A few years ago I was the Director of the National Marine Aquarium of the United Kingdom. It took a few jumps to get there, and a bigger one to get out.
I spent my childhood in Caracas, Venezuela, born to Spanish immigrants. At the time the country was untouched and we lived right next to the forest and mountains. I’d take my backpack and get lost in that wilderness, dreaming up great expeditions and reading my dad's books about worldly adventures. As a kid I never really knew exactly what I wanted to do, I just wanted to be outside. And then I discovered the Cousteau films. Jacques Cousteau was a famous French oceanographer, explorer, and filmmaker; a pioneer in marine conservation. A legend. He and a bunch of crazy guys in a boat and a helicopter, going around the world, making films of whales. I thought, “This is the lifestyle I want.”
I finished high school in 1981 and my grandmother gave me a plane ticket to go to Europe for a year. I was seventeen years old and hitchhiked everywhere, and in the last few months of my trip, I made my way toward Monaco. I was headed for The Oceanographic Museum of Monaco — everything related to Cousteau took place there at the time. So I get to Nice, France, by train in the middle of the night and sleep at the station, because by that point I had no money left.
My train pulls into Monaco at 5:30 AM. The museum is closed, so I sleep on my backpack under a bus stop at a high school down the street, and wake up a few hours later to the kids arriving for school. When the museum opens, I head for the door but the entrance fee is twenty francs, and I only have ten. I turn to leave and behind me a lady is trying to fix her car. It wouldn’t start so in my broken English I ask if she needs a hand. I end up pushing her car and jumping the battery and we get it starting. I’m walking away, and she comes up and gives me ten francs. I say I don’t need it, but I do, and luckily she insists I take it. So I turn right around with my twenty francs and use it to get into the museum.
I stayed at the museum until it closed late that night. It was the first real close up of what I had been dreaming about. I read about the history of Prince Albert, the first well known oceanographer and founder of the museum. He was an adventurer, collecting species around the world on his boat called the Hirondelle, one of the first oceanographic boats in history. The next floor was all about Cousteau — his equipment, his expeditions, his legacy. And then there was the exhibit on the history of oceanography. That’s what fascinated me — how these guys went to the corners of the world just to get a sample of water or a whale tooth. I walked out of the museum that night and I told myself, “One day I’m gonna come back and work here.”
I was into photography, flying, and nature, and I wanted to try and study all of them in college. My dad said, “Do something better than photography, you can always go back to photography.” Most of my mom’s family are pilots, and they all said, “Don’t be a pilot, because by the time you get to our age, planes will be computerized, they won’t need pilots.” I decided to study biology, with a specialty in aquaculture, because I thought in aquaculture, I would be outside. In fish farms, in the ocean- not in a lab. I didn’t really like the idea of being a fisherman, but I figured in a worst case scenario, at least I’d be working outside.
It’s March of 1987 and I’m finishing my studies and there was an opening at a museum in Monaco for somebody to study the water chemistry of the aquarium. The exact same museum I had slept outside of and slipped into six years earlier. I didn’t apply because I didn’t know much about chemistry and I hated labs. But my friends from school sent in my application because they knew it was my dream. I got a call for an interview and when I went in I nearly froze. There was Cousteau. We met for a minute and then the guy owned the place took me away and asked a couple questions. Can you work in a lab? Sure–I went to school and could probably make my way around a lab. Can you dive? Yes, I’ve been diving since I was kid. Can you take photographs? Yes, my passion is photography. “When can you start?”
I packed my bags. Couple months later I walked into the museum as an employee. Turns out they needed someone specifically from the aquaculture field. I was picked among hundreds of people who applied for the job, because I was an aquaculture guy. I had long hair and holes in my jeans, as you do in your twenties. I was probably twenty-four years old.
Around that time I met and married an American woman, Diane, and we both moved to Monaco. I worked an hour or so in the lab each day, and the rest of the time I was diving, cleaning the tanks, exploring the area. Cousteau would come in and out of the museum, and there were always cocktail parties or dinners going on. He’d be there, and everybody would look at him like this big guy, but I would always said to myself, he’s a person just like I am.
At the same time, Michael Deloire, Cousteau’s head cameraman for the past thirty years, started coming around. He was the underwater director of photography worldwide and did the James Bond movies–a huge big shot. One day my boss, the aquarium director assigned to Michael, got sick. He asked me if I could fill in, because he knew I how much I liked filming, and how much I admired Cousteau. I spent the next three weeks working with Michael, filming the Mediterranean Octopus. He was the sweetest man I ever met in my life. He took me under his wing, spent quality time with me. He knew I wanted to be Cousteau, he knew that was my dream.
Michael introduced me to Cousteau’s first wife, Simone, who owned the Calypso, a tiny old rusted vessel with cracking wood and incredible charm, carrying the best expedition technology around. Eight or ten months later, at one of those dinner parties, Cousteau comes up close to me. “Little Juan, I heard you’re interested in going on Calypso?” I say yes sir, that’s my dream. And he said, “Well, be ready in two days. Fly to Singapore and we’ll meet you there.” I swallow hard and say, “I’m sorry, sir, I have a contract here. I have to finish my final thesis papers, and I just got married.” He shot back. “The train stops only once in your life. Take it or leave it.” I had to turn it down. I knew it was the right decision but it was wrenching. I got home and told Diane, “I can’t believe I just told Cousteau I don’t want to go on Calypso.”
Life kept going, and three months later, at another party, someone slid up from behind and whispered, “Little Juan? The train’s stopping a second time.” I said when, and Cousteau said, “Be in Paris in three days. We’ll fly you to Singapore and bring you aboard.” I went back home that night and Diane helped pack my bags. A week later I was in Singapore preparing for the Indonesia expedition with none other than my hero, Jacques Cousteau
I would go on to spend a lot of time with Cousteau. I started working on more films. But as I was doing more and more, it began being more films than I could take. I could have kept going, but I knew there was more for me to do than just films. Because I had my name associated with Cousteau and because I had worked in the museum, I started to get job offers in aquariums.
Instead of taking an aquarium job right away, I got into a boat with Diane. I had always wanted to sail the open sea, so I bought a 27-foot wood boat. I had been sailing since I was a kid but not enough to know how to cross the oceans in a sailboat. I left Cousteau and put off any next jobs, jumped in a boat with Diane and we started off for the Caribbean.
As we got going on the boat, I got an offer to oversee a new aquarium, at the time the nicest aquarium in the world that was being built in Italy. It made sense. We were in the boat and Diane was pregnant with our first child. We were broke. My first project on the job was a big theater project that failed miserably and we had to start over, but eventually built things back up. I started pitching work to the Italian TV networks so I could stay in the film business.
After five years, and now with three little kids, Diane wanted to go back to the States. I say sure, I’ll have no problem finding work there. As it turns out I couldn’t find a job in for a year. I remember spending six months laying tiles in construction. I looked hard for a good job but also kept in mind my other dreams–like someday finishing that sailing trip.
PART 2: The Sailing Trip
We stuck it out in the States and found our footing, and after some time, I got a call to work in a big aquarium gig in England. Turns out it was at the same time as the production of Blue Planet for the BBC, and another goal of mine had been to work with the renowned broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough, the narrator of the show. I thought if I got the aquarium job, I could find a way into BBC, and sure enough I made it happen. Not because I’m amazing, but because I found an opening: someone from BBC called to interview me for something and instead of calling back, I drove straight down to Bristol to meet face-to-face with the producers and pitched a role for me on the set, while still working at the aquarium. Before I knew it, I was the Director of Husbandry and Operations for the National Marine Aquarium of the United Kingdom while also a field producer for the BBC. I had made it.
Our family spent the next eight years in England. I could have hung up a shingle and planted down. We were comfortable: I had a great job, a wonderful life, a house in the countryside. But I always had this little voice saying “I want to go sailing again, but with the kids.” Once in a while I would drop it to Diane, “We should do it one day.” By then, life was a routine. Diane and the kids were happy, but they were in this little, comfortable cocoon. Then one day Diane said, “Yes, let’s do the boat.” And I remember it was a Sunday morning and I said that in another few weeks, I’ll ask again on a Sunday morning to make sure. Soon after that, she woke up and said to me, “Let’s do it.” Our biggest jump yet.
We were both ready. We were having days where I’d look at Diane and say, I don’t want to be 50, 60, 70 years old and see you getting older with gray hair and going to the same supermarket every week, saying hello to the same people every week, parking in the same parking spot every week. Life has much more than that. We should be able to go to a different supermarket, look at different people, and we should show the kids that the world is there for them to grab. If we stay here, we’ll pass up on jumps we know we want to take.
By then I had a file on my computer of boats and different itineraries, what we could do, what we couldn’t do, and from that point to when we picked up and left — sold the house, moved everything to the States, bought a boat–I think it was six months, tops. So in six months we changed our lives from being a steady forty-year-old couple with three kids and great jobs in the United Kingdom to having nothing more than cash in the bank, living with Diane’s aunt in Florida, looking for a boat.
People ask, how can you do it? Everyone can do it. Truly. We just sold everything we had, and went for as long as that money would take us. There are many people who spend their lives dreaming of sailing around the world, studying the routes, researching the gear, and they never leave. You have people that spend years rigging their boats in the marina, thinking they’re leaving next year, and they never leave because they listen to the wrong little man on the top of their head who’s saying, “Don’t do it. Don’t do it. What happens if? What happens if? If you don’t get a job when you come back? If you get sick along the way?”
I did my research so I could shut up that wrong little man. It was not easy. I spent a long time looking for the right boat, then places to go, what to do, a lot of studying on how to do this with three kids aboard. I had put all the possibilities on the table: “Okay, what if we don’t like it? What if somebody gets sick? How much money do we have for how long? What is the budget?” Diane worked wonders getting home school set up for the kids. By the time we left, we were ready for the jump. We had looked at everything. So it’s not like we woke up one morning and said, “Let’s get in a boat and go.” We spent almost a year planning, and then we gave ourselves a place and date. We would start in Florida, where the waters were friendly and warm, and we’d leave on the 15th of January. That’s the date we were to set off with the boat, and if the boat wasn’t ready then we would finish working on it as we went. On the 15th of January 2006, the three kids, Diane, and I set sail and left on our boat.
We started in the Caribbean and before we left there, I sat down with the kids and asked if they wanted to keep going. If not, we could slowly sail back to Florida and sell the boat, and be done with it. But the kids were enjoying it. We were all very happy. We decided, “Okay, this is what we want to do. We’re gonna do the Pacific.” So we sailed across the Pacific, our family of five. And for the next three years, we just kept sailing. Everywhere, all over the globe. We stopped at every island, every place we could. For the kids, those three years on the boat was their education. For me and my wife, it was our dream.
Our original plan was to end in Australia, but for a few different reasons, we decided to finish in New Zealand instead. When we neared Auckland, we were running out of money. It was time for me to start looking for work, but things weren’t that easy. Passing by the island of Tonga, the boat got caught in a cyclone, and that destroyed the sails. By the time we reached Auckland, I needed a job really bad. Eventually through friends of friends, I found a company looking for a guy like me. I got my work permit, and started over again.
That job came up from something I learned while I was away–never stop moving. From the boat I would send the occasional e-mail out to somebody to know what was happening in the professional world. Those e-mails kept me in the loop, and helped set me up with friends of friends in places like New Zealand later on. My biggest fear was, “what the heck am I gonna do when I finish? People will forget who I am.”
But a funny thing happened: it went the other way. When I came back to my field, everyone knew more about me than before because I was the person who left with his family on a sailboat. I’d be at a conference in China and my colleagues would say, “You’re back! How as the trip?” They knew the story, and it created a lot of curiosity. People love to live through other lives, whether it’s from books or films or whoever they meet. So I come in with this story to tell and they’re interested. And that starts a conversation that leads to an interview. I knew I didn’t have to be brilliant but if I was smart enough and could carry a good conversation, I would end up in a good place.
I don’t think people have good luck or bad luck. The luck is there. You just need to know how to grab it, and when you see an opening, take it. It’s a wonderful world on the other side of making a jump, and that goes for taking a boat on the water as it does for changing jobs or just selling your house and buying a new one. For some people, the biggest decision in their life is to change their job, or their car, or their home. It’s easy to think only about the negative consequences when doing something like this. It’s our nature and would be irresponsible not to. But try to think about the positive consequences, too, that come from jumping.
It’s not all been fun and easy by any means. I’ve made it near the top and dropped back down to the very bottom, started and restarted back at zero more than a few times. But I grew up with many dreams, and I will continue to make jumps so I can chase them all. It’s been a winding course, but no good sail ever goes in a straight line.
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