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Expedition Guides: How They Make All the Difference on an Antarctica Cruise

U.K. Executive Editor
Adam Coulter

Mar 13, 2023

Read time
7 min read

Sponsored by Silversea

As well as keeping your safety top of mind, the team will provide you with insights, tips and a wealth of knowledge drawn from hands-on experience. We speak to Silversea's Expedition Team Leaders, Marieke Egan and Jamie Watts to find out how they make the expeditions so memorable.

What Makes a Great Guide?

An expedition cruise is not just about adventure and spotting wildlife – it's learning about the environment you are traveling in, as I found out on my voyage to Antarctica on Silver Endeavour in November last year.

I was astounded by the knowledge and passion every one of the guides have – and how willing they are to share that knowledge – on an extraordinary range of subjects.

Whether that's about Antarctica itself (Alexandra Hansen); or penguins (Claudia Holgate) or relating wild tales about derring do back in the day (Filip Brovkin, a former Bridge officer from Ukraine who joined the team).

So much so, that when I returned to the real world, I spent many conversations telling anyone who would listen: "Did you know that Antarctica is the tallest, driest, windiest, coldest continent in the world? Did you know it shrinks to less than half its size every summer then refreezes? Did you know it's about the size of Australia?"

Which is why the team of guides onboard – led by an Expedition Leader – is absolutely key to the enjoyment of your cruise.

Expedition Leaders Handpick Their Team

Silver Endeavour's outstanding 20-person Expedition Team is hand-picked by Team Leaders Marieke Egan and Jamie Watts (pictured above), who swap roles as Expedition Leaders each cruise.

Marieke is a Dutch national who has been an expedition guide for 17 years and, in her own words: "learnt to cross glaciers before she could tie her own shoelaces". While Jamie, who has been an expedition guide for 16 years, was a base scientist on South Georgia: "The ships would come and visit, and invite us aboard for a barbecue dinner and to ask us about our work on base," he tells me.

"The expedition guides thought it was fabulous that I got to live on the island, I thought it was fabulous that they got to sail all over. As soon as I finished my 2 year stint on the island I was picked up by an expedition ship and have never looked back (although I thoroughly enjoy now visiting my old home every year)."

Between them, they have visited Antarctica well over 200 times (Jamie estimates he's on voyage 143).

Their team includes, amongst others: marine biologists, anthropologists, ornithologists, a climatologist, historians, a nature photographer/videographer, and, somewhat unusually, the aforementioned navigational officer, Filip Brovkin, who decided to switch careers.

On Silver Endeavour, they can be found either on the top deck in the Science Room (complete with maps, charts and audio-visual displays) or in the lecture theater. Off the ship, you'll find them expertly steering the Zodiac, helping you get off the Zodiac onto shore or strategically placed near penguin or seal colonies, to provide information and answer any questions.

Passion and Knowledge Are Key to a Great Expedition Guide

Marieke explains what makes a great guide: "Every single team member comes from different walks of life, but they all share one thing, that is they are so incredibly passionate about the Antarctic environment, about the wildlife, about protecting it and I think that passion truly shines through when it comes to the guest experience."

"I've heard it often, people at the end of a voyage, even halfway, they see the expedition team together talking about something, they approach and say: 'Thank you so much, you are making all the difference.'

"Obviously each team member is incredibly knowledgeable as well, but sharing knowledge with that passion and enthusiasm, that's what makes the difference."

Jamie agrees: "The very best guides are curious, enthusiastic and interested enough to really know their stuff."

He adds: "And focused on bringing it alive for and with both the team and the guests."

That enthusiasm the guides have never gets jaded: "I think very often we are the ones that scream the loudest and guests look at us thinking: 'Well if you are so excited then this must be something really special'," Marieke says.

One of the key differences between expedition cruising and "traditional" cruising is guests have not just come to see, but also to learn, which is why it is so important for guides to be knowledgeable.

"Guests want to be educated, they want to become those ambassadors we talk about, they want to share with their kids and grandkids and make them enthusiastic and share the knowledge with them and pass it on.

"They walk away with a much deeper understanding of the place they have just travelled through."

When Danger Arises Training Kicks in Instinctively

But apart from the passion and the knowledge, safety – and the ability to keep a cool head – is paramount in the polar regions, where a fall from a Zodiac is a matter of life and death.

As one team member put it: "This is not the Caribbean. If you fall off a Zodiac you have about five to 10 minutes before hypothermia sets in." – a situation Marieke is all too familiar with:

"It was a calm day, a beautiful day, the wind started to pick up a little bit, but it was nothing of concern," she explains.

"But sometimes you can have [sudden, bitterly cold and fast] katabatic winds that come out of nowhere and we had people in kayaks and suddenly this strong gust came and tipped two kayaks over, just like that.

"I was driving at that moment and I was closest to the scene so you just go into action mode at that moment -- you know exactly what to do, you've practised it enough, so I just went straight to the people in the water and then you know the technique of pulling people out and you get that extra adrenalin, because the two people I pulled out were two very tall men and I only saw that later.

"I pulled them out with no problem and took them straight back to the vessel so in that moment you just need to act like that, but you need to practice on a regular basis."

She adds: "So when something like that happens it just kicks in and you act without hesitation."

Silversea Guides Are Trained to the Highest Standards

The recent formation of the Polar Tourism Guide Association, with which Silversea works closely, has set those standards high when it comes to practical skills a guide has to have.

These include Zodiac driving, navigation skills and interpretation skills – i.e. how you share your knowledge with other people.

"It's that practical skill set that Silversea really invests in and wants to make sure their guides are operating at that high standard when it comes to navigation, understanding, driving in very tricky conditions, ice conditions, wind conditions," Marieke explains.

"Of course, there's a lot of training we do in the field also. So when people are not yet ready to drive they are trained in the field by myself, I'm an assessor, and I can train people in the field.

And there's no better way to assess someone's readiness to deal with a situation than putting them into a (simulated) dangerous situation, which includes simulated rescues, which the team practice when the ship is picking up supplies in Puerto Williams, between cruises.

Guests Are Equally as Passionate

Every group of guests can be different and very group has a different dynamic, but they all have one thing in common – they are enthusiastic and excited to be in Antarctica.

For example, Lauranne from Alberta, Canada, who was on Silver Endeavour in February and writes on the Cruise Critic Forums:

"February 11 was the day we arrived on the Antarctica Continent. We were soon informed that we couldn’t land at Brown Bluff as the current and wind has brought a huge amount of ice to the landing site. The Captain, Giovanni Mazzella and Expedition Leader Michael made the decision to reposition to Action Sound for better conditions.

"Arriving in the sound, it was announced that the Zodiac cruise was a go. We were the fourth group out and our guides were fantastic."

And Anna32, from Germany, who writes: "The story of the Endurance expedition is a fascinating one, which keeps inspiring me every time I hear or read it. Therefore, I greatly enjoyed Mila's talk on Shackleton. She is our onboard historian, full of enthusiasm for the age of the early explorers."

As Marieke says: "They want to learn, they want to be engaged, they are interested in where they are and that is something I see in every group.

"And if you really then highlight that with the energy you give every group and the team sharing their knowledge with that kind of passion, then the end result, how it all blends together, is really beautiful to see."

• To hear more from Marieke check out our exclusive video -- shot on location in Antarctica.

Updated March 13, 2023
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