Interview with an Oceanwide favorite
Arjen Drost has been a guide for Oceanwide Expeditions for nearly twenty years. And as any polar traveler can tell you, that’s a lot of water under the bridge.
A lot of icy, berg-filled, bone-chilling water.
He’s worked multiple seasons in both the Arctic and Antarctica, helping countless passengers have some of the greatest trips of their lives. From the polar bear hotspots of Spitsbergen to the penguin-packed shores of St. Andrews Bay, Arjen’s guiding experience includes every major polar cruise destination you’ve heard of – and probably a lot you haven’t.
To get the lowdown on two decades of polar adventure, we had a little chat with Arjen during one of his rare visits to the Oceanwide home office.
You’ve worked exclusively for Oceanwide longer than many guides have worked for anyone. What got you started?
Like a lot of my fellow guides, I studied science at university. I have a degree in ecology from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, and I did fieldwork in Ny Ålesund, Spitsbergen, where I studied barnacle geese for three summers.
During these projects I noticed occasional openings for expedition guiding over the years, and due to my experience I thought I could fit well in that line of work.
When did you actually begin working for Oceanwide?
I started with OEX in 2001. And except for one summer doing land-based tours for Andreas Umbreit in Longyearbyen, Oceanwide Expeditions is the only ship-based polar travel company I’ve worked for.
It has worked out well for me, too.
In my time with OEX, I’ve gone from expedition guide to assistant expedition leader and eventually to expedition leader on s/v Noorderlicht, Oceanwide’s historic two-masted schooner that sails in Northern Norway and Spitsbergen.
Have you discovered any personal favorites in that time?
Many, so don’t be disappointed if I can’t narrow it down. I love what I do, after all.
How about a favorite animal?
Oof. You had to start with the toughest one, didn’t you?
Sorry, we know we ask a lot of our guides.
No argument here.
For my favorite animal, I can go many different ways. When I was a kid, I was already a great fan of wandering albatrosses. But now that I’ve been a guide for some time, I’d also have to add polar bears, emperor penguins, and orcas to the list.
See? I told you it wasn’t going to be easy.
The more the merrier. Do you have a favorite area?
This is a little easier. Can I assume you mean for both the Arctic and Antarctica?
Absolutely. We’re not trying to give you a panic attack.
Good, then for Antarctica I really like Paradise Harbour. Most people call it Paradise Bay, but it’s not officially a bay.
Spoken like a true polar purist.
Yes, you can get pretty particular about names when you’ve been to these places a few times.
What about your favorite Arctic area?
For the Arctic, I’d have to say Relictbukta in Spitsbergen.
It’s in many ways the total opposite of Paradise Harbour. Whereas Paradise Harbour stands out for its spectacular glaciers and mountains and the penguins at Brown Station, Relictbukta on Nordaustlandet has none of that.
Actually, there isn’t much at all in the polar desert of that place. But that vast emptiness is what attracts me to it.
Relictbukta is often blocked by ice, so I haven’t been there many times. But the few times I have been there were really special, with the late evening light and the occasional polar bear. In fact, I’d probably like to spent more time there than in Paradise Harbour, as Relictbukta has great opportunities for hikes and photography.
But they’re both high on my list.
By all means, keep going.
Well, I can’t forget to mention South Georgia - not exactly one area, but the whole combination of very abundant wildlife with the spectacular backdrop of mountains and glaciers makes any South Georgia trip very special for me.
My best day, however, was at the emperor penguin colony on Snow Hill Island. This is one of the most complicated trips we have, and the first two times I was near the island we didn’t manage to land our helicopters at the colony.
The next year, when we managed to land all of our passengers on Snow Hill Island not only once but twice, was a really special moment. To see all those happy faces on the ship, but also to be able to spent some time alone on the ice with those magnificent penguins, will be a memory I’ll take with me forever.
This leads nicely to our last question: What do you enjoy most about being a polar expedition guide?
It starts, of course, with seeing all the wildlife and the scenery. Who doesn’t love seeing a polar bear wandering around on the pack ice or thousands of penguins on a beach?
But nowadays I get more and more joy out of seeing the pleasure our passengers get out of their trips. This is true for most of our guides, I know, because giving our passengers a great adventure should be at least close to our favorite part of the job.
Otherwise, why be an expedition guide at all?
I love to share the passion I have for these areas with the guests.
As long as I still have that passion, I don’t mind the long times away from home. When my own passion is gone, I probably couldn’t do this job anymore. But then, I don’t see that happening anytime in the near future.
However, that’s not to say that the job doesn’t have its challenges.
Sometimes it seems like nothing is going right. The weather isn’t cooperating, the ice is working against us, and the animals are nowhere to be seen. And then at other times, everything just comes together.
When that happens, there’s really nothing like it.