Chasing tornados, walking on giant crystals and dodging deadly viruses — it’s all in a day’s work for Canadian explorer George Kourounis. He gave Canadian Geographic the lowdown on life as the host of the TV series Angry Planet just before his recent Royal Canadian Geographical Society Speaker Series event, Exploring the Earth’s Extremes, in Ottawa. His next stop? The U.S. Midwest’s Tornado Alley.
Canadian Geographic: What led you to become a storm chaser?
George Kourounis: I linked up with some experienced storm chasers in Oklahoma in 1998 while on vacation and got to see my first tornado. From then on, I was hooked.
CG: What’s the most intense storm you’ve faced?
GK: Hurricane Katrina, in Gulfport, Mississippi. It was like being in a blender for an entire day. Every drop of rain felt like a needle stinging you in the face. A floating casino was lifted up, carried inland and dropped in its own parking lot. The before and after just didn’t seem real.
CG: So would you prefer to be in a tornado or a tropical storm?
GK: I can’t choose between my children. Next question!
CG: OK, how about this: Twister or The Wizard of Oz?
GK: If Helen Hunt were in The Wizard of Oz, it would be a winning combination, so I’ll say Twister.
CG: What’s been your most memorable experience?
GK: The Cave of Crystals, in Naica, Mexico, is the standout. It has the world’s largest crystals — it looks like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. The temperature inside hovers around 50 C, with about 100 per cent humidity, so we had to wear special ice-chilled suits. After about 35 minutes, every cell in your body is screaming to leave, but it’s so beautiful that your eyes tell you to stay.
CG: You’ve never had a serious injury, but have there been some close calls?
GK: I’ve used up six or seven of my nine lives over the years. I’ve had lightning strike so close that I felt its heat on my face, I’ve been caught in a tornado with debris flying around and I’ve even had a bat that carries the Marburg hemorrhagic fever virus bite me. Luckily, I didn’t catch the virus. I try to do dangerous things in as safe a manner as possible.
CG: How does your family feel about what you do?
GK: Everyone is very encouraging. My wife even agreed to get married on Mount Yasur, an active volcano in Vanuatu, which she climbed in her wedding dress. As we popped the cork on the champagne, the volcano erupted — it was truly remarkable.