Photographer, rock climber, adventurer, archaeologist, and anthropologist Devlin Gandy leads the kind of quixotic life many millennials would drool over.
The National Geographic young explorer has an intense passion for discovering, preserving, and protecting Native American rock art sites. Although he grew up in California's Santa Monica Mountains, that passion—along with a penchant for the outdoors—only came along at age 18, when he spent nine months in Patagonia hiking and exploring, largely alone.
“For the first time, I really appreciated where I grew up,’’ says Gandy, 29. “There were 100,000 acres of mountains in my backyard that I had taken for granted. I began exploring every canyon and seeing my home with new eyes. Pretty quickly, I came to realize people had lived in the same region that I grew up in for thousands of years, and I knew nothing about them.”
While hiking the mountains over the following two years, Gandy realized that there were still Indian archaeological sites that needed to be recorded, photographed, and protected.
His growing fascination with rock art eventually led him to apply for a grant from National Geographic's Committee for Research and Exploration, which helped bolster a yearlong investigation of territory traditionally occupied by the Chumash. Comprised of several tribal bands, the Chumash occupied the California coast between Malibu and San Luis Obispo, and as far inland as the Great Central Valley.
“I wanted to shed light on the cultural, social, historical, environmental, and cosmological knowledge and beliefs which existed in Southern California before European colonization,’’ Gandy says. “What happened to Native Californians is one of the darker chapters in American history, so much of their identity, history, and culture was forcibly taken away from these people. Though much has been lost, rock art gives us a limited window into that past. When you visit a site, you have to stand in the same place those who created it stood, and maybe see a bit of it through their eyes. They’re also very sacred to the native community today, and it’s important to respect these sites and protect them.”
Much of Gandy’s work involved off-the-map explorations in rugged and remote landscapes few would recognize as California.
“The mountains and wilderness here are incredible,” he says. “You can drive an hour from downtown Los Angeles and not see another person or hear a car for hours, while you climb waterfalls and stand in forests no one has probably walked through in years.”
He encountered an assortment of wildlife—bears, mountain lions, and rattlesnakes—as well as poachers and illicit marijuana growers. Poison oak was a day-to-day annoyance. “I’m exceedingly allergic,’’ he says.
One of the most interesting finds? A Chumash rock art site in Malibu suggests that tule elk—a species indigenous to California that's come back from the brink of extinction—once occupied the Santa Monica Mountains and the Los Angeles Basin.
More recently, Gandy returned from photographing and exploring Peru’s Boiling River, the mysterious, four-mile-long geothermal waterway deep in the central Peruvian Amazon. He’s part of the Boiling River Project, a nonprofit trying to protect the area from deforestation, poaching, and tourism.
In November, Gandy plans to retrace explorer Ernest Shackleton's journey across South Georgia. Then, in 2017, he'll make a return trip to Peru, followed by graduate course work in archaeology. And more adventure.
"I can't share [details] yet,'' he says. "But it's going to be pretty spectacular."
National Geographic produced this content as part of a partnership with the Rolex Awards for Enterprise.