From the Intelligence Community to the Exploration Community

By October 15, 2015 No Comments

I’m a storyteller; that’s what exploration really is all about. Going to places where others haven’t been and returning to tell a story they haven’t heard before.
-James Cameron

As an up and coming explorer with Blue Marble Exploration, I am honored to be invited into such a prestigious group of astronauts, entrepreneurs, divers and well… explorers. My story is a bit different from other new explorers. I’ve been working for the intelligence community since the age of 19. Due to my test scores, I was recruited by the Army into a program that no longer exists. I was trained as a Counterintelligence Special Agent in the art of tradecraft, source operations, and interrogation. For those of you who are not familiar with the term counterintelligence, it simply means that I keep our nation’s enemies from stealing our secrets.

After the Army, I pursued my intelligence career in private industry, and now I work for the Department of Defense as a Counterintelligence Special Agent. During my travels, I’ve been fortunate to meet many beautiful minds to include fellow explorers. I’ve always admired these men and women above all others. My experiences of global travel, extreme environments, and war zones gave me the qualifications to prosper within my field, but never in the name of science or exploration.

This is not the first time the intelligence and exploration communities have crossed paths. In 1985, Bob Ballard set out to lead an expedition with the hopes of discovering the Titanic. Ballard, a former Naval Officer himself, was able to fund the expedition through U.S. Naval Intelligence in secret. The Navy was not interested in financing the search for the Titanic. However, the Navy was desperately interested in discovering the location of two of their sunken nuclear-powered attack submarines from the 1960s. Stories like Ballard’s inspired me and gave me hope for being accepted into the exploration community.

When I began working with Blue Marble Exploration and The Explorers Club, I was amazed but very cautious. For every similarity between these two worlds, there were several differences. Who pays for this stuff? I’ve been accustomed to Uncle Sam picking up the tab, and had no idea where the funding for these expeditions came from. I recognized very quickly there was no right answer for this question. Corporate sponsors, wealthy donors, crowdfunding, grants, and yes, in some cases the intelligence community has funded many of the amazing expeditions that have awed and educated us over the years.

In order to be accepted into the exploration community, I needed to embrace social networking. This has been the hardest change for me. Having active Twitter and Instagram accounts is considered a general faux pas within the intelligence community, especially for those in non-overt positions. Having a significant cyber footprint on the internet opens oneself up to possible cyber-attacks and visibility from the enemy. However, it also brings public interest to important causes, helps with crowdfunding opportunities, sponsorship for expeditions, and is a medium for educating the public.

Finally, I now have the ability to pursue expeditions with my particular interests. Having the freedom to decide where I want to travel and write on topics I’m personally interested in is a new concept for me. Being a certified scuba diver, I’ve always enjoyed exploring the world’s oceans. In 2016, I’ll be joining Blue Marble Exploration to be part of the first manned submersible expedition to the bottom of Dean’s Blue Hole located in Long Island, Bahamas. The goal will be to pilot a small sub 663 feet to the bottom and broadcast the event live!

I live for these adventures and take this stewardship seriously. I now understand the bond between exploration and storytelling, and more importantly doing it in ways that impacts the human experience and deepens our connection to this planet. These stories are not only meant to entertain but to educate and remind us that the age of exploration is just beginning, not ending.

Contributed by

Justin Shanken
Emerging Explorer
Blue Marble Exploration
Atlanta, GA, USA