For Ben Bressler, Nat Hab’s founder and president, an early interest in nature was cultivated in a rather unlikely place: suburban Maplewood, New Jersey.
As a young boy, Ben played for endless hours in a gully a block away from his home, collecting salamanders and building forts. Though the small ravine was perhaps 20 feet wide, to Ben it felt like “the most giant natural place on the planet.” By the time he was 8, he was venturing into nearby South Mountain Reservation, with its deer paddock and acres of woods, reveling in adventures during those heady years of laissez-faire parenting when kids would take off for hours with nary a maternal worry.
Though Ben had no idea then that his life’s work would take him to the planet’s most far-flung wild places, he had discovered early on the life-enhancing power of exploring nature. And when he later pursued his dream of creating a small travel company 30 years ago, he knew the outdoors would be his focus. What he didn’t have in mind was driving a garbage truck at a New Jersey amusement park to raise seed money for his new venture, but that’s how Ben saved the first $600 that launched Natural Habitat Adventures.
“For the next two years I slept on the kitchen floor of my brother’s Manhattan apartment and stole his laundry money for subway fare,” Ben recalls. “I was fortunate that the local Chinese take-out served portions slightly larger than my brother’s appetite, so my dinner was pretty well guaranteed on a daily basis.”
Then Ben received a phone call in 1987 that would change that fate and establish conservation as a central focus for his fledgling company. The director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare had gotten wind of Ben’s nature travel enterprise and approached him to operate helicopter-based expedition trips to see baby harp seals in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
The adventures were designed to replace seal-hunting dollars with seal-watching dollars, a system defined by the newly emerging term “ecotourism.”
“This sounded great to me,” says Ben, “as I had always loved adventure travel, and though I hadn’t quite yet uncovered my inner environmentalist by this time, I did find it ‘cool’ to be helping out a beautiful species such as harp seals.”
Eleven months later, 25-year-old Ben took his first guests to maritime Quebec to see baby harp seal pups. He had spent most of a year scrambling to arrange helicopters and airplanes, leasing hotel rooms and booking restaurants, and sending thousands of brochures and letters around the world to promote the trips. The result was 330 passengers from 11 different countries who had committed to coming to the Canadian subarctic in the middle of the winter. For years, these dedicated supporters had donated money, written letters and protested to help protect the cuddly white-coated seal pups and were anticipating the experience of a lifetime.
“It dawned on me,” recalls Ben, just one day prior to the first departure, “that it was now my responsibility to provide it for them.”
He will never forget that first helicopter ride to the ice floes with four enthusiastic guests. “They had tears in their eyes, and I could see how important these animals were to them – what it was like for these ladies who had donated $50 a year to their welfare, to see them up close. I realized I enjoyed being able to present this experience to other people even more than seeing it for myself.”
While the decades since have provided tens of thousands of guests the opportunity for wildlife encounters around the world, and Nat Hab has received countless awards, Ben believes the company’s most important achievement is “employing local people who are able to earn a living by protecting a sustainable natural resource.” And that’s true not only in places like Africa and Central America, but also through employing staff in Nat Hab’s Boulder, Colorado headquarters.
“Providing work to young people with a passion for nature, travel and conservation is one of the driving elements in my work,” says Ben. And that is the key to making sure natural habitats and their wild residents continue to exist all around the planet – Nat Hab’s reason for being.