Slave Shipwreck Hunter Tara Roberts Named the Rolex National Geographic Explorer of the Year

tara roberts explorer of the year
Tara Roberts stands at the end of a hidden tunnel on Mozambique Island in December 2018 that archaeologists say was used to take captive Africans to boats headed for enslavement in the Americas | Courtesy Tara Roberts

Diving into the untold history of the Transatlantic Slave Trade through her Into the Depths podcast launched earlier this year, Tara Roberts went in search of slave shipwrecks and answers. The effort has earned Roberts the prestigious Rolex National Geographic Explorer of the Year honor.

Roberts makes history with the award, as both the first Black American and first American woman to be named Explorer of the Year. Her achievement follows the 2021 award recipient, Kenyan wildlife activist Paula Kahumbu. 

“We are deeply committed to investing in our community of National Geographic Explorers—passionate changemakers and boundary-pushers who are illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world,” Jill Tiefenthaler, CEO of the National Geographic Society, said in a statement.

“In Tara, we honor a gifted storyteller who embarked on the journey of a lifetime to shine a light on the Transatlantic Slave Trade and, in doing so, preserved cultural heritage and history for millions of people around the world.”

Roberts’ six-part Into the Depths podcast launched in January, just ahead of Black History Month. It featured more than 40 voices from the team of Black divers and archaeologists to historians and descendants of those who were brought to America on the ships.

“As I got to know the divers, the ships they had found, the stories of those who had been captured, I realized this was a way to come to grips with those 400 years, with this traumatic history [of much of the Black population in the United States],” Roberts says in the opening of the first episode. “Through these ships, we could bring lost stories up from the depths and back into collective memory.”

Tara Roberts explorer of the year
Divers investigating artifacts | Brenda Altmeier (NOAA)/Courtesy of Chris Searles

The series was a success, earning Spotify’s Best Podcast of the Week distinction, and was downloaded more than 430,000 times. The series also made Roberts the first Black American female Explorer to grace the cover of the National Geographic magazine.

Despite its praises, the series was difficult for Roberts, who said she experienced pain and came to a crossroads with her identity as a Black American as she searched for a sense of belonging while making the discoveries.

“What I was experiencing was this sense of longing. I think this is a unique thing for African Americans. Where is home for us?” Roberts asked while visiting her home in North Carolina after tracing ship routes from Africa back to the U.S.

Into the Depths was complemented with the March cover story in National Geographic Magazine and a documentary special, Clotilda: Last American Slave Ship, which premiered in February.

“As a Black journalist, it’s been uplifting to edit and produce this podcast together with Black women storytellers who have brought tremendous insights and creativity to this groundbreaking series, including Tara as well as National Geographic Explorer and poet Alyea Pierce, sound designer Alexis Adimora, and producer Bianca Martin,” said National Geographic’s executive editor Carla Wills.

Also honored this year, Giuliana Furci and Rachel Ikemeh, received the National Geographic/Buffett Awards for Leadership in Conservation.

Furci was awarded for her leadership in Latin America. The Chilean conservationist is focused on protecting Chilean fungal communities. Furci built the country’s first field guide to mushrooms and is the country’s first mycologist. In 2012, she launched the Fungi Foundation—the world’s first dedicated to the research and protection of fungi.

Ikemeh was awarded for her work in Nigeria where she’s focused on protecting the critically endangered Niger Delta red Colobus monkey—one of the world’s top 25 most endangered primates. Estimates put the population in the wild at fewer than 500.

The annual Rolex National Geographic Explorer of the Year award recognizes individuals whose actions, achievements, and spirit personify leadership in exploration and storytelling. It shines a spotlight on National Geographic Exlorerers who bring attention to important issues and discoveries as well as the challenges the planet is currently facing, inspiring the world to make more sustainable choices.

The award is part of Rolex’s three-pronged Perpetual Planet initiative, which it launched in 2019. The Perpetual Planet initiative supports individuals who are bettering the world through its Rolex Awards for Enterprise; preserving the oceans; and understanding climate change through data. 

Earlier this year Rolex and National Geographic announced a two-year exploration and conservation effort of the Amazon River Basin. The two-year-long effort is aimed at illuminating “the diversity and connectivity of the people, wildlife, and ecosystems that make up this magnificent region.”

Learn more about Tara Roberts and her podcast, here.




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