AUSTIN, Texas — On International Women’s Day, four National Geographic storytellers came together at SXSW to share how they invaded a male-dominated industry and have created a name for themselves. 

The panel was called “Nat Geo Women Who Run the (Storytelling) World,” and all four of the panelists have made their mark on National Geographic and natural history storytelling. It was moderated by Vanessa Berlowitz, the executive producer of the nature TV documentary series “Queens,” which looks into the women of the animal kingdom who run their tribes. 

The panelists featured were the director of “The Space Race” Lisa Cortes, National Geographic photographer Krystle Wright and marine biologist and lead storyteller on “Secrets of the Octopus” Dr. Alex Schnell. 

All four of the women talked about the challenges they faced to get to where they are now, but with every challenge, they remained bull-headed in their pursuit to become storytellers. 

“Queens” of the wild and storytelling

Vanessa Berlowitz didn’t start out filming “A-list” animals. She had to work her way up the nature documentarian ladder. 

“It was hard to get on to the kind of big sexy, glamorous shoots with the kind of A-List animals,” said Berlowitz. “I started really small with spiders,” 

Over time, Berlowitz began to climb up the ranks and said she had to overcome stereotypes about how to get ahead.

“It’s sort of overcoming all those stereotypes about how you have to be super strong and super powerful and out compete all the males in every way,” she said.

Her work on “Queens,” a documentary TV series with National Geographic, breaks down the notion that you need brute strength in order to get ahead in the animal kingdom.

“There are many ways to lead, and it’s not all about brute strength, and it can be about compassion and listening and using subtleties and nuance,” said Berlowtiz. 

“Queens,” which is available on Disney+ now, is the first natural history production led entirely by women behind the camera. It is narrated by award-winning actress Angela Bassett. 

“Queens” is also the first premium wildlife show to have a person of color producing it, according to Berlowitz.

“Which I’m excited to say, I’m also depressed to say,” Berlowitz said. “Now we’ve been filming wildlife, in Kenya, in Africa, in India, all parts of the world, and this hasn’t happened before. But through our watch, and the support of National Geographic, it has.”

So far, the reception for the docu-series has been very good.

“The reception so far has been phenomenal, from men and women, actually. And that’s been really exciting to have as many guys contacting us saying, ‘I know women like this. This reminds me of my daughter, my mother, my sister, I see myself in it,’” Berlowitz said. “The whole point of making a series like this was to be inclusive. We wanted to bring more voices into the story and make everyone feel connected to the natural world.”

All six episodes of “Queens” are available to stream on Disney+ now.

“The Space Race” and amplifying Black voices

“Black history is American history. We forget it at our peril,” said Charles Bolden, NASA’s first Black leader, in the trailer for “The Space Race.”

That is something that the film’s director Lisa Cortés echoes. Cortés even called out the state of Texas and others like it for passing legislation like House Bill 3979, which passed in 2021 and bans the teaching of “critical race theory.” While proponents of the law say it protects students from the caustic effects of racism, Cortés says learning about this history is important to understanding America's progress. 

“Filling in the gaps only makes us brighter, more empathetic, but also aware of the possibilities for all of our shared future,” she said. 

“The Space Race” dives into the stories of Black astronauts from the 1900s to present day. It specifically follows the stories of Ed Dwight, who was set to go to the moon in 1963 before he was pulled from the mission; Guion Bluford, who was the first Black astronaut in space; and Bolden, an astronaut that would later become the first Black administrator of NASA. The documentary also brings in themes of Afrofuturism, which Cortés thinks was important for this story.

“I think it was very important to look at what changes were happening, and how people of color, specifically, are turning to literature and music to write themselves into a space where they don’t see them existing,” said Cortés. 

Cortés has a pretty amazing resume of films she's been a part of. She was an executive producer on the movie "Precious," which won two Academy Awards. Lately, she's been working in the documentary film scene with her award-winning film The Apollo in 2019 and All In: The Fight For Democracy in 2020. 

“The Space Race” is available for streaming on Disney+ and Hulu now. 

“Chasing Monsters” and the thrill

The only way to describe National Geographic photographer Krystle Wright is as a daredevil and adventurer, which is perfect for her career as an adventure photographer. 

Wright worked as a freelancer most of her early career, mostly sports photography, which is where she found her passion for the adrenaline-pumping sports of base jumping, rock climbing and surfing. 

Her work is pretty dangerous, and an audience member at the panel even asked her, with all the crazy stuff she does, if she ever broke a camera. 

Wright laughed it off, but surprisingly she has only broken two cameras in her career and that was at the same time, while she was paragliding in Pakistan, documenting two friends trying to break the altitude record. She ending up crash landing and got pretty seriously injured. 

After that accident, Wright talked about running into her boss at an event in Sydney. After seeing her injuries, he said he couldn’t hire her because she was a safety concern. 

“To put it bluntly, I told him to get f—ed,” Wright said at the panel. “And that was the end of my newspaper career.”

Despite the lack of job security, Wright continued to pursue her passion, and now, she has multiple awards and films to boast about. 

Her most recent short film came out in 2018 called “Chasing Monsters,” which documents her experience chasing tornados right here in Texas. 

Wright recognizes that she gets a lot closer to the action than most sane people would, but she says it gives her these “heart explosions” that keep her coming back. 

“Secrets of the Octopus” and redefining sentience in marine wildlife

Not many people could say that they were touched by an octopus, but Dr. Alex Schnell can. 

Schnell has been working as a marine biologist for years exploring sentience in marine life, but now, she has been working as a National Geographic explorer to get her findings on film. 

Most recently, Schnell worked on a docu-series called “Secrets of the Octopus,” narrated by Paul Rudd.

The series, which comes out on April 21 along with an illustrated book, dives into the idea of what intelligence is and how octopuses have largely been left out of the conversation of intelligent animals. 

“I think for the longest time, historically, human intelligence and the human mind has been put on this pedestal,” said Schnell. “And initially, we look to our closest relatives, primates, to really try and understand how intelligence evolved. We’ve since moved to other mammals, and that I think the lens is still really narrow.”

Schnell thinks that non-mammals and animals without backbones have been largely overlooked in conversations about intelligence. She hopes “Secrets of the Octopus” shatter pre-conceived notions about sentience. 

“And this project, I hope breaks down those barriers, breaks down those barriers of otherness to show that even an animal who looks so completely alien to us, you know they have eight arms, three hearts and not a single vertebra in their body, still has the capacity to learn, to feel emotions, to problem solve, to use tools, to communicate with other species and to interact with an alien like myself that’s 10 times its size,” Schnell said.

Her work with octopuses even made it to the U.K. Parliament, where they passed a law recognizing octopuses and cuttlefish as sentient animals, which gives them more protections under law. 

You can stream “Secrets of the Octopus” starting April 21 on Hulu and Disney+.