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Guide Us: Expedition Guides Divulge Polar Cruise Secrets

Veronica Stoddart

Last updated
Oct 10, 2019

Sponsored by Hurtigruten

From whale watching to penguin peeping to iceberg gazing, Hurtigruten's expedition leaders have a front row seat to some of the world's most amazing experiences. It's no surprise, then, that the Arctic and Antarctic exert a powerful attraction on these intrepid scientist-guides. They are deeply passionate about sharing these quintessential polar experiences with passengers. And, they love awakening their guests to the magic of the poles.

Wonder what it would be like to have a career as an expedition leader? What may surprise you is the level of education and job experience that's somehow related to the environment they live in while on expedition cruises.

We asked them to share their most meaningful on-the-job experiences cruising in the polar regions.

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Charting A Completely New Path

Career path: Tomasz Zadrozny holds a B.S. and an M.S. degree in animal science from Warsaw Agricultural University. He has worked as a biologist and base commander of the Henryk Arctowski Polish Antarctic Station and on passenger expedition vessels since 1999. Since 2011, he has served as a lecturer, field biologist/marine mammal specialist and expedition leader for Hurtigruten.

Most unexpected experience: In 2003, I discovered a new channel in the Melchior Islands in Antarctica, which was not on the charts. We were doing Zodiac cruising with the guests in an area with a lot of small islands. Later I did some soundings in the channel, which were reported to navigational chart authorities and a new island there got a name: Bremen [after the name of our ship]. It was so unexpected.

Most memorable experience: I remember early one morning toward the end of the season with the light quite low. We were in a Zodiac with a photography crew. We spotted some whale blows on the horizon. We have rules that we can't approach whales too closely, but whales don't know those regulations. A humpback female with her baby approached our boat so closely we could touch the whale in beautiful transparent water. No words can describe it.

Most insightful experience: Every cruise you learn something, especially when you have guests onboard from all different cultures. After our lectures, we sometimes have hours-long conversations with guests to follow up. One winter, I used a number on air density in my lecture and a passenger informed me that it was wrong. He was Chinese and spoke not a word of English. He worked as a geologist and managed to communicate it to me non-verbally -- using his hands and body language and paper and pencil. I updated my lecture as a result and I was very thankful to this guest.

Most challenging experience: On expedition cruises, everything revolves around the weather. Once, we had a storm, so passengers weren't able to go ashore for two days. It's really hard to explain to people why we're not doing what we originally planned -- especially for someone who has spent their entire life in a city and has expectations for the cruise.

Intriguing questions from guests: Due to biosecurity, which defines the need to protect the animals and environment from disease or harmful biological agents in Antarctica, passengers are obligated to use rubber boats, which are disinfected, when going ashore. We try to keep the landing dry but it's not always possible. You have to be able to step in the water from time to time. One guest asked, "What happens when the water is deeper than my boots?" There's no answer to this question. [Another time] a passenger asked, "Is that island really completely surrounded by water?"

What I love most about the job: I love unlimited space, being outdoors and meeting other cultures. I love the spark in people's eyes when you explain something and you know they understood, that they got it. In my opinion, Antarctica is not just another continent but another planet. It's so different; very remote. It's a place where nature really rules. Animals have no fear of humans because we don't harm them. They're not even used to the sounds we make. From the wildlife point of view, Antarctica is the easiest place to go. You go ashore and the animals are waiting for you. It's just a breathtaking experience, even if you don't like the cold.

Ship-hugging Whales, Arching Icebergs, and Polar Silence

Career path: A native of the Netherlands, Tessa van Drie has a master’s degree in geography education and another in physical geography from the University in Utrecht, where she studied earth surface, water and geographical information systems. She worked as a tour leader in Central and South America before joining Hurtigruten nine years ago to work in both Antarctica and the Arctic as a guide and lecturer, and eventually, as an expedition leader.

Most unexpected experience: In Antarctica I was called by the safety officer on the bridge who said, "I see two whales, do you want me to stop the ship?" If we see whales, it's fantastic. So I went to the bridge and saw the whales -- one humpback and one minke. I said, "Let's stop" [after clearing it with the captain]. These two whales were the highlight of my season in Antarctica last year. They came so close to the ship and began hugging the ship, playing with it. All the guests were on the bow and the whales stayed with us for an hour. Sometimes it's worth it to stop for two whales.

Most joyful experience: Seeing the joy from guests when we have close encounters with nature is so rewarding. On one of my first experiences being close to whales in a small boat, one of the humpbacks came so close and we could smell its breath. I could see the joy and the amazement in the eyes of the guests. South Georgia [in the South Atlantic Ocean] is wildlife heaven. When the guests come ashore, there are hundreds of penguins and seals that come close to us. It's a one-of-a-kind experience.

Most insightful experience: I've been traveling in the Arctic and Antarctica for 10 years, and even though you plan to the tiniest details, you don't have control. The weather often messes up your plans. You have to let go sometimes. You can't plan everything.

Most challenging experience: Sailing in the Chilean fjords, we were stranded ashore with 150 guests in Puerto Natales. We were anchored there and shuttled guests ashore and within an hour the wind picked up and the harbormaster decided we couldn't have any more boat operations until the wind lessened. We almost had to spend the night and arrange hotel rooms. By 10 in the evening, the wind died down and we could shuttle them back to the ship. We had arrived at lunchtime so had to arrange food for them, entertain them and calm them down. The fact that we didn't know how long we had to stay was a challenge. We lost a whole sailing day and had to change the itinerary for that trip.

Strangest request from a guest: We offer tender boat cruising in the vicinity of icebergs. One time, we saw an iceberg with a big beautiful arch and a guest asked: "Can we go under the arch?" I said, "No, because they are unstable and can crack." But the guest insisted and said, "Oh that won't happen." At that very moment, the arch collapsed and crashed into the water.

What I love most about the job: My passion is travel, so to combine traveling with my job is fantastic. I'm also a people person. The expedition team is international and I learn so much from them because they include biologists, geologists, historians. Polar regions are so silent with so many unspoiled locations. Sometimes I'm the last person leaving a landing site and taking in the colors and the light and the wildlife in the Arctic and Antarctic is so special.

Humpback Whales and Magical, Molting Penguin Chicks

Career path: A native of Wales, Tudor Morgan holds a degree in geology from Manchester University. He has worked for the British Antarctic Survey, the Antarctic Heritage Trust and the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators. Since 2007, he has worked for Hurtigruten as a lecturer and/or expedition leader. He was awarded the Polar Medal by Queen Elizabeth for outstanding "services to Antarctic science and heritage," one of only about four people a year to receive this award.

Most unexpected experience: At [the] start of last season in Antarctica, crossing the Drake Passage, we came across a pod of humpback whales, which was unusual so early in the season. They played and the guests could see them well. It was a real bonus. Everyone was very happy. You think: This is why I'm here.

Toward the end of the season, when penguin chicks are molting but old enough to wander on their own, we've had penguins jump into the landing boats. It's crazy and lots of fun; just magic. Those are moments guests will remember forever.

Most amusing experience: We do a polar plunge where people go swimming [in freezing Antarctic water]. About 15 to 20 percent of guests go for a swim, which is very amusing for others to watch. Scandinavians are the most likely to swim. There are no wet suits, just swimsuits. It becomes a bit of a spectacle because of how people react to the icy temperature.

Most insightful experience: When you go to Antarctica and see the scale and the wildlife and the impact from climate change … or in the Arctic, you can see receding glaciers … or when you see the human waste washed up on beaches in the Arctic, you realize what an impact we're having as a human race and how people react to that. We participate in a litter pickup program in Svalbard [Norway]. People who haven't really thought about that get engaged in the program. We're creating ambassadors; we hope they will take their knowledge and experience back home and share it. When you're onboard for two to three weeks, you really see how people change and adapt, how these things sink in.

Most challenging experience: The real challenging thing is trying to deliver the best possible guest experience when conditions are tough. You're always up against the weather in the polar regions. Guests want to tick every box, but safety comes first. When there are high swells, it's too dangerous to do small-boat landings. So when you have to cancel a landing, guests don't always understand. It's their trip of a lifetime.

Intriguing questions from guests: When you take someone out of their natural environment, suddenly their rational thinking can disappear. So, we get strange questions: Are the penguins talking to each other? Does the crew sleep onboard? What altitude are we at? Is this the same moon and sun that we see in the Northern Hemisphere?

People fall in love with the place. They'll ask, "Can you just leave us here?" We get people who want to get married. Captains don't have a license to marry people, but we can do a small ceremony onboard. They'll say, "This is it. We've been talking about getting married for years, can you marry us now?"

What I love most about the job: One of the great things about Hurtigruten is the crew and team. We're a happy crew. It's like a big extended family, which extends to the guests. I've got lifelong friendships with people I work with and with repeat passengers. Going onboard to work, you look forward to it. It's good fun and we make it fun.

Want to learn more about polar cruising? Check out our other stories on Cruise Critic...

An award-winning writer and former travel editor of USA TODAY, Veronica Stoddart has visited and reported from more than 100 countries. She has contributed to Conde Nast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, AARP The Magazine, Los Angeles Times, Robb Report and many others. She believes that travel can be a force for good in the world.

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