The Performer: Explorer Elizabeth Lindsey

The 21st–century explorer on technology, spirituality and trying to bridge two worlds.

When Dr. Elizabeth Lindsey turned 50, she decided to become an explorer. The soft-spoken Hawaiian had worked as a writer, actress and filmmaker; her 2006 award-winning documentary, Then There Were None, recounted the colonization of Hawaii. A PhD with a specialization in ethno-navigation, in 2008 she became the National Geographic Society’s first female fellow and its first Polynesian explorer, documenting life on remote islands in the central and south Pacific. Lindsey will be presenting at December’s TEDwomen conference in Washington, D.C., and unveiling a new rich-media mapping collaboration with Google at the main TED2011 conference in February. She spoke with Canadian Business reporter Angelina Chapin.

Her longest expedition: 6 weeks

Her usual wake-up call: 4 a.m.

Number of photos taken in micronesia: 15,000

Hours of film shot in Micronesia: 80

Her next trip: Buton, Indonesia

Her must have travel items: High-protein snacks, like nuts

As a child, three Hawaiian elder women who helped raise you prophesied you would become an explorer. What did they tell you?
When I was seven, they told me I would go to the far reaches of the world to keep knowledge safe and pass it on to future generations. They said, “You will look into the eyes of strangers and you will recognize your family, and it will take all of you.”

Then you went on to choose a different career path, acting in episodes of Star Trek and Charlie’s Angels among other things. How did everything come full circle?
It wasn’t a straight line for me. I always knew exploring was what I longed to do, and though acting was enormously creative, I never aspired to become an actor. I always felt it was the human story that needed to be told, and when studying with Lee [Strasberg] I was more interested in writing, because it warmed my ear to the way people really spoke. At the time, I was married, and really happy to be in a relationship that I was completely committed to. I had such a sense of fulfillment from that marriage that when my husband passed away in 2006, I returned to what I instinctively knew fulfilled me.

What are people’s reactions when you tell them you’re an explorer?
One thing I hear is, “But you’re so feminine,” or, “You’re so delicate.” I laugh because I think we have stereotypical images of explorers wearing khakis, and I love that I am shaking up that old idea. My ideal life is going to regions of the world without power or running water and sleeping under a blanket of stars, and the next week being at the Opera House in Paris.

Speaking of stereotypes, when I think about explorers, historical figures like Columbus come to mind. What exactly does a 21st-century explorer do?
There’s not the competition that exists with explorers trying to get to certain places and sticking a flag into a mountain. That to me is a very old idea of exploration, and I don’t have the arrogance to think I need to discover something. What I’m committed to is recovering knowledge and making sure it is safeguarded. The stories and myths and dreams of these cultures are fragile, and fading at such a great rate, and we have to pay attention to them. For me, it’s not about trying to beat someone.

What’s been your most interesting expedition so far?
In 2007, my mentor [the now deceased Pius (Mau) Piailug, a master navigator famous for navigating without instruments] was conducting an initiation ceremony on Satawal Island in Micronesia. We recorded it, and these people had never heard the sound of their own voices before, and they thought it was magic. We came back with hours of chants, songs and stories, and were able to show it to the ambassadors of the United Nations who used this material to speak about how issues of climate change are devastating lives on small islands. These people have lived thousands of years in the most sustainable way. They’re the greatest environmentalists in the world, but they’re dying and no one’s paying attention.

You’re partnering with Google to map the world using digital media, television and live events. Why were you attracted to combining western technology with ancient practices?
We’re at a point with technology where people can tell their own stories using the most basic mobile devices. One of my favourite proverbs is “Until the lion has his or her own storyteller, the hunter will always have the best part of the story.” This is important because hearing other people’s stories makes us less western-centric. I really love that technology is allowing us to record for future generations the wisdom of elders.

Are there dangers to being so plugged in when documenting isolated cultures?
Technology is so brilliant, but it requires wisdom. I’m sensitive to people taking stories without any reciprocation to the cultures they’re taking from. I’ve seen decades and decades of misuse, and now with technology, that’s even easier. If we’re using technology to get as many hits as possible and to create gadgets for millions of people so we become wealthy, that’s not a good measurement. There has to be the deeper question answered of, how can this best serve humanity?

You split your time between San Francisco and Hawaii, but you’re gone at least four months a year on expeditions. How do you physically prepare for such long, gruelling trips?
Around Day 21, the crew begins to break down from both physical and mental exhaustion, so we try not to take them out longer than that. I try to get close to the time zone I’m travelling to a few days in advance, because physically it helps me perform better and keeps my mind clear. I’m really strict about how I eat: I take myself off sugars, wheat and dairy, and I don’t drink alcohol or caffeine. I drink eight glasses of water a day and exercise. It’s those small choices that end up becoming pronounced in the long run.

You seem like a very spiritual person. How do you maintain that, while bridging two such different worlds?
When you’re raised the way I was, you understand nature is guiding your life, and there’s no way to separate that from what you do professionally. A western model separates science from culture, but through an indigenous lens, everything is interconnected. I think the best way I can be a successful businesswoman is to have a strong core of my spirit present in all the decisions I make, and the same holds true for my work as an explorer. I just don’t know any other way.