A year in the life of an Oceanwide Expedition Guide

by Alex Chavanne Expert story

When I was growing up, I’m sure the idea of becoming a guide and travelling around the world didn’t even cross my mind. It’s not the most common of professions, and it is just that for me now, a full time occupation where I spend up to eleven months of the year working.
A year in the life of an Oceanwide Expedition Guide

A year in the life of an Oceanwide Expedition Guide

“You must like the cold to come here from California”. I hear this comment most frequently on cold, rainy days. Let me begin with saying that all of California is most certainly not always warm and sunny, and where I come from in Northern California, the average summer day is 10 degrees C and overcast. Secondly, I love my job as a guide onboard various Oceanwide vessels. How it works to live and work as a guide on Arctic trips and Antarctica expeditions year round is the second question I get. Let me illustrate.

Becoming a polar expedition guide

When I was growing up, I’m sure the idea of becoming a guide and travelling around the world didn’t even cross my mind. It’s not the most common of professions, and it is just that for me now, a full time occupation where I spend up to eleven months of the year working. I log thousands of frequent flyer miles, sitting on sometimes over 30 flights between poles.

In a year, I’ll be guiding guests on several-month long Antarctic expeditions, leading multiday kayak trips, lecturing on subjects of biology and history, crossing the world’s roughest sea, and staying up all night watching for bears, all while staying north and south of 70° N and 55° S, respectively. 

It takes a wide range of skills, an appetite for flexibility, and a certain disregard for the loss of time spent with family and friends back home to be a guide in the most remote places on earth.

Working as a kayak guide

Working as a ship-based kayak guide with Oceanwide is a unique experience. It is full throttle from the moment you step onboard and start hefting provisions down to the fridge, to greeting passengers, to getting everyone suited up for the first trip, to saying goodbye at the end. In that sense, you need to come fully prepared for the job; there is little time in the evenings to work on talks, or go over difficult kayak techniques, as there would be if you were working from land.

Kayaking for me is second nature. It is like walking in a grassy field. I feel comfortable guiding guests because I can focus solely on them, and not worry about looking down at my own feet, so to speak. When a squall kicks up halfway through a landing at Cuverville, for example, I want to have as much control over the situation as I can, so that I bring everyone back to the ship safely, in time for cocktail hour and recap.


© Alex Chavanne

Besides merely transportation, kayaking is a great way to see wildlife, and one of the most special experiences is watching whales swim under your kayak in the Antarctic on a calm blue sky day, or watch quietly as Arctic Terns dip and dive for food in the north of Spitsbergen.  I have spent hours reading up on how Antarctic Krill fits into the food web of the Southern Ocean, and how the ice transforms the coastlines of Arctic beaches so I can help link together what we see on the ocean, land and sky.

Lecturing: passsing along knowledge and inspiration

Like most professions, work doesn’t start when you show up the first day. Lecturing for crowds of 75-150 takes some preparation, and so, several months before signing onto Oceanwide as a lecturer and guide, I begin to think of new topics to present. As a younger guide, and one who hasn’t spent half of his life in Academia narrowing down my area of expertise with a PhD, I have certain flexibility with the topics I can choose from. Lately, I have been making a personal study of polar lichen, and have become quite familiar with the vagaries of that particularly adaptable organism. It’s great to see people getting engaged with the small things around them that they perhaps had seen a thousand times before, but only now are becoming aware of the significance or beauty therein.

To pass along this knowledge and inspiration to guests is what we are here for, but in the process, I find that I learn amazing amounts from the people working around me. One of the best parts about this job is the people working onboard around you, there is no end to the energy, knowledge, and enthusiasm of the crew. Listening to your teammates, lecture on their areas of expertise opens a door into their passions. To get a career scientist talking on the subject of their latest paper will not only allow you to talk to an expert in the field, but inspires you to start down a new avenue of personal research.

Ultimately we have to go home 

When the time ultimately comes for me to disembark, as the snow begins to fall, and the temperatures begin to drop again, I am already looking forward to flying north or south again, with the Terns, and finding the summer sun. I’ll spend two or three weeks at home, visiting friends and family, downloading volumes of TV series, books and articles, and then packing up the sunglasses, down jackets, and rubber boots and heading to the airport.

I don’t plan to be a guide forever; my appetite for change is too strong. I’ve met many guests and guides that have done many amazing things, and every week brings new inspiration in some form. The stories I will keep though from working onboard will be colorful, full of intensely empty and vast landscapes, nature stripped to its essence, and the good natured camaraderie of the crews I have worked alongside.

To help dig deeper into the natural world around you check out, “The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature” by David G. Haskell.

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