National Geographic explorer Albert Lin, National Geographic photographer Cory Richards and Adventurer of the Year Felix Baumgartner; Photograph by Rebecca Hale

National Geographic explorer Albert Lin, National Geographic photographer Cory Richards, and Adventurer of the Year Felix Baumgartner; Photograph by Rebecca Hale

Six exceptional individuals were honored last night at the National Geographic Society’s 125th Anniversary Gala celebration for their efforts to lead exploration, advance scientific understanding, conserve natural resources and expand knowledge of the world.

At the sold-out event held at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., National Geographic Society CEO and Chairman John Fahey presented the Hubbard Medal—the Society’s highest honor—to explorer and filmmaker James Cameron, oceanographer Sylvia Earle and scientist and author Edward O. Wilson. Cameron and Earle were recognized for their critical efforts in ocean exploration and conservation, and Wilson was honored for his lifelong commitment to the planet’s rich diversity through his research and writing. Fahey presented the Chairman’s Award to philanthropist and humanitarian Howard G. Buffett for his contribution to conservation, the Adventurer of the Year Award to BASE jumper Felix Baumgartner for his 2012 feat of accelerating through the speed of sound in freefall to advance aerospace research, and the Alexander Graham Bell Medal to National Geographic Bee moderator and “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek for his 25 years of service to the Bee and his commitment to geography education. Cameron also received the Explorer of the Year Award for his record-setting solo dive to the deepest point of the ocean in 2012.

“Exploration for our founders in 1888 was driven by a desire for knowledge and adventure,” said Fahey. “Today we have the same goals, but our explorers—and those who support them—are driven by a deeper purpose. In this new age of exploration, they want to help navigate the increasingly complex relationship between humanity’s needs and the natural world that sustains us.”

The Adventurer of the Year Award was presented to 2013 winner Baumgartner by previous years’ honorees photographer-climber Cory Richards and engineer-explorer Albert Lin.

John Fahey, Felix Baumgartner and James Cameron; Photograph by Rebecca Hale

National Geographic CEO John Fahey, Adventurer of the Year Felix Baumgartner and filmmaker James Cameron; Photograph by Rebecca Hale

After the presentation, Baumgartner and Cameron, who have traveled to the highest and lowest places on Earth, respectively, sat down with Fahey to discuss risk. “I’m not a risk taker, I’m a risk manager,” said Baumgartner. Cameron revealed that he is motivated by personal challenge, not by risk.

I had the chance to ask Baumgarter how being National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year compared to all the other recognition and awards he has received since his historic dive from the stratosphere. “Being the Adventurer of the Year matters to me the most because it is the most serious award I have received,” he replied.