Happy 80th Birthday Dame Jane Goodall!

There are many people who help conserve wildlife, who dedicate part or all of their lives to understanding and protecting that which cannot protect itself. Primates, so much like us humans, hold so many secrets of human evolution. More than that, though, they are intrinsically valuable in and of themselves. One woman who has done more than anyone else to both study and conserve chimpanzees, is Dame Jane Goodall. Today is Dr. Goodall’s 80th birthday and we at Leica Sport Optics wish to acknowledge her with this piece written by our mutual friend Juan Valadez. It was during the 20th anniversary of the Rio Grande Birding Festival that we found out Juan would be escorting Dr. Goodall into the Florida Everglades. Knowing that she usually carried a Leica compact binocular, we quickly made arrangements with our colleague Peter Dooling, manager of Leica Store Miami, for Juan to pick up an extra binocular to be sure she was well equipped on her journey. Of course she didn’t forget her own!

We know Juan, and to know Juan is to know there is no such thing as a run-of-the-mill experience in the Florida Everglades. Enjoy!  

-David La Puma


Words and photos by Juan Valadez

Due to several fortuitous events that began months prior with a gracious introduction by Mera Rubell, one of the foremost collectors of contemporary art, and Isaac Lee, President of News for Univision, I found myself watching Dame Jane Goodall and her colleague, Susana Name, descend a barnacle encrusted ladder and step on to the bow of my skiff last November. We were at the road’s end in Everglades National Park and I was at a loss to think of anyone I would be more honored to guide in the Park. Charles Darwin briefly came to mind, but phenomenal women trump phenomenal men. An extremely rare window in Jane’s schedule afforded us a few hours to trade the city for Lower Florida wilds. Like all the wilds she relentlessly labors to protect, but never leaves time to avail herself of, the Everglades and Keys are a bruised, pale shadow of their former selves. No matter — they’re the only place my eye is drawn to when scouring maps of North America and I was keen to show her as much as possible.
We ran the skiff west for twelve miles through Florida Bay to the southwest tip of Florida, Cape Sable, where a hard incoming tide was swallowing exposed mudflats in mangrove lined creeks.

Dr Jane Goodall scans the flats of Florida Bay

For the last several hours, as I sat at stoplights near Jane’s hotel on Miami Beach and hit pockets of suburban traffic on the way to the Park, I’d been thinking about this incoming water and hoped we’d arrive prior to the inundation of these flats. Fortunately, a mud bespattered American Crocodile waited for her on the crown of a disappearing bank. Ever the field biologist, Jane eagerly studied it with her Leica binoculars and told us it was the first of the species she had ever seen. She was also taken by a lone, juvenile Roseate Spoonbill posing nearby. Given the tide I was surprised we’d seen either but Jane explained that animals have a way of finding her.

The American Crocodile, in Florida Bay. Florida Bay is one of the best places in Florida to view these magnificent creatures. Just please keep your hands and feet inside the boat at all times, okay?* (*American crocs are actually less aggressive than American Alligators)


When American Crocodiles want to move, they really do!

A nearby, saltwater lake fed by the Gulf of Mexico and Florida Bay found thousands of shorebirds staging prior to losing their mudflat entirely and retreating for the evening to the relative safety of the coastal prairie and its low, labyrinthine saltworts. Species included Black-bellied, Semipalmated, and Wilson’s Plover, American Avocet, Willet, Whimbrel, Long-billed Curlew, Red Knot, Dunlin, Short-billed Dowitcher, and Least, Western and Semipalmated Sandpiper. The conditions afforded us excellent looks at shorebirds flying en masse as undulating rivers pouring over the mangroves or individuals probing the mud, practically underfoot.

Thousands of shorebirds careen around the flats of Cape Sable, Florida Everglades

A boat is a surprisingly excellent blind for birdwatching in Florida Bay. Here Jane take in the sights and sounds of the flats full of shorebirds.

When the last of the mud gave way to muddy water, shorebirds gave way to Lemon, Bull and Bonnethead sharks, dorsal fins exposed. We left for the Cape’s outer, sand lined edge to watch the sun hit the Gulf. Later, when I told Jane the time had come to pull anchor and run the skiff back twelve miles in near darkness and increasing, heavy wind, she replied, “Back to the city. Yuck,” and after a pause continued quietly “Yuck. Yuck. Yuck.”

Jane Goodall walking the beach at sunset, Cape Sable, Florida Everglades

Juan Valadez and Jane Goodall. Photo by Susana Name.

Juan Valadez and Dr. Jane Goodall. Photo by Susana Name.

I’m not a journalist and I took her out as friend, not a subject of inquiry, but our personal conversations throughout the day ranged far and wide and included child rearing, light pollution, the decimation of Native Americans, invasive exotic flora and fauna, the ivory trade, Bigfoot, an alpha chimpanzee’s attempt at stomping her to death, saving Mary Leakey’s prized dog from a lion (better to face a lion than Mary, she opined), and a six foot cobra sliding over her legs.

In short, my best efforts notwithstanding, I could not have prepared myself for her grace, humility and conviction to protect the natural world, and so found myself fully distraught when saying goodbye that evening.

Dr Jane Goodall and her colleague Susana Name watch the sun set over Florida Bay

Dr. Jane Goodall and Susana Name.

Dr Goodall walking the beach at Cape Sable, Florida Everglades

Juan Valadez is an artist and the director of the Rubell Family Collection, a contemporary art museum in Miami. For the last 26 years he has fished, birded and botanized in Everglades National Park, Biscayne National Park and the Florida Keys. Juan can be reached at jrv@rfc.museum.

To learn more about Dr Jane Goodall’s work, and to become part of the conservation conversation, head over to the Jane Goodall Institute website here.