Whales, South Georgia, and Bill Smith

by Oceanwide Expeditions Blog

Bill frequently raises money for SGHT through his drawings, which are focused on South Georgia and polar expedition travel.

Regions: Antarctica

Destinations: South Georgia

What whales, South Georgia, and one Oceanwide Expeditions guide have in common

The South Georgia Heritage Trust (SGHT) recently started a crowdfunding campaign to raise awareness about the whales that populate its waters. And since the health of whales tends to indicate the health of our oceans, this concern is not so localized as it may seem.

South Georgia is one of our top destinations in the south, and whales are part of the reason: humpbacks, blues, and southern right whales feed in the vulnerable seas surrounding these islands, where they were nearly hunted to extinction between 1905 and 1965. The SGHT’s new campaign, called Commensalis, celebrates not only the recovery of these whale populations but seeks to increase environmental engagement via donations to commemorative artwork.

But this is just one of many conservation efforts SGHT has launched to protect the landscapes, wildlife, and waters around the South Georgia archipelago. Campaigns to sponsor local rivers, save native bird populations by eradicating rodents, and advance concerns related to South Georgia culture and history have been and continue to be undertaken by this vital organization.

Picture by Martin van Lokven

Which leads us to Bill Smith, one of SGHT’s top fundraisers. He’s also an Oceanwide expedition guide who has been with us since we acquired and rebuilt Plancius, then an oceanographic research vessel named Hr. Ms. Tydeman owned by the Royal Dutch Navy.

Among our most experienced and recognizable guides, Bill is known for his Scottish kilt and yellow Wellingtons, and he brings an enthusiasm to his work that makes him a favorite among our guides and guests.

Bill frequently raises money for SGHT through his drawings, which are focused on South Georgia and polar expedition travel. Some of these cartoons have been auctioned at fundraising events aboard our vessels for up to £1,800. He’s even auctioned blank pages for close to the same amount, filling them with artwork requested by the buyer.

“This began modestly,” he tells us, “during my first trip to South Georgia. I offered to donate a book to an onboard auction Oceanwide was having. The purpose of this was to raise money for the eradication of rodents that were threatening South Georgia birdlife. Someone who knew I did illustrations asked me to draw a cartoon for the auction instead, and the cartoon sold. So I started doing a cartoon every time I visited South Georgia in my expedition work.”

The sale of these drawings eventually led to Bill even auctioning himself, joining the buyer for dinner in his signature kilt and Wellies. The humorousness of this situation is not without precedent: Bill has raised money for many other charities in his native Scotland, one of which involved building the longest sand castle north of Aberdeen.

If you didn’t know this was a thing until now, you’re not alone.

Bill’s fundraising efforts in South Georgia and Antarctica eventually led him to be named “Honorary Lifetime Guardian of South Georgia” in 2022. We are proud to have played some small part in this, having recommended him for this award due to the many cartoons he’s sold our guests.

These illustrations have their root in Bill’s previous career with Ellon Academy, where he worked for 45 years as an art teacher. But even back then he was passionately involved in the outdoors. After retiring, he focused his attention on these pursuits: he works as a ski patroller outside his work with Oceanwide, and he also runs a croft on the shores of Clachtoll in northern Scotland.

“My work with Oceanwide Expeditions also began accidentally,” he says. “Before I was retired, I was asked to do some first aid training for polar expedition leaders at an Oceanwide conference in the Netherlands. They then invited me to join as a guide.”

One of his favorite aspects of the job are our guests, which comes across in his interactions with them. “You have to be a people person to thrive in this work. Sometimes you have to be strict, sometimes humorous. Both aspects are needed to keep a community healthy on board.”

At the end of the day, however, the polar wildlife and landscapes are as central to Bill’s enthusiasm as guests and guides – just as it is not only love for artwork but also nature that has motivated his fundraising efforts in Scotland, Antarctica, and for SGHT. And it is the fun he gets out of experiencing polar nature that keeps him signing on as a guide even as he approaches his eighties.

“There’s no limit to how many times you can see these places and still be stimulated by them. When you visit the Arctic or Antarctica, you are overcome by the vastness of this dramatic space. Our voyages are life enhancing. I love being an Oceanwide guide.”

Image by Robert Wilpernig

Title image by Felicity Johnson

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