Expedition teams – the rockstars of Antarctica

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Antarctica Planning & Tips

Every voyage to Antarctica has one thing in common; an exceptional expedition team. These are the people who go above and beyond to make your experience special and unforgettable.

Having worked in the industry for over a decade now, I’ve experienced first hand just how hard good expedition teams work to make each moment unforgettable. Their work ethic and knowledge of the landscape is truly inspiring. They really do live and breathe Antarctica.

I’d like to share a few stories from my Polar adventures and to give you a flavour of why Antarctic expedition leaders and their teams really are the rockstars of the White Continent.

Safety is at the heart of every voyage

The first priority of all expedition teams is to keep guests safe. Antarctica is extremely remote and weather conditions can change quickly and dramatically.

Exploring the black beaches of Deception Island, Antarctica

I remember walking along the black sands of Deception Island when we were suddenly informed that we had to get back to the ship immediately. I looked up at the sky but couldn’t see any major changes except a slight wind that had picked up. Just 15 minutes later I was boarding a zodiac in gale force winds as waves crashed down upon the shore.

For the next hour, our expedition leader stood in the freezing waters as wave upon wave crashed over him. He helped every guest get aboard the zodiacs and safely back to the ship, and he received a standing ovation that night from everyone onboard. 

Keeping guests safe is something that each member of the team is trained for, and they take this role very seriously. One single mistake in a hostile environment can have serious repercussions for everyone.

No two expeditions teams are the same

An Antarctic expedition leader assists travellers as part of a Citizen Science programme

As any Polar specialist worth their salt will tell you, no two expedition teams are the same. Unlike places like the Galapagos where you have a rating system for guides based upon their knowledge and ability to convey information, there is no such system in place in Antarctica.

You may get several first-year rookies on your expedition team, or you might get a team of seasoned professionals. This is why it’s so important to speak to a polar specialist prior to booking your voyage. Although a good expedition team is harder to quantify than perhaps a cabin, or a ship itinerary, it’s still important to understand your guide-to-guest ratio and the previous experience and reviews of your potential expedition team. A good specialist will know the expeditions teams well and be able to give you the knowledge you require to make an informed decision.  

Saying this, all expedition team members, regardless of their experience and knowledge level, will have completed extensive training to be where they are and you will be in safe hands whoever you decide to sail with. But if you are looking for that extra rockstar quality, speak to a specialist.   

They know their stuff

An Antarctic guide with her travellers during a landing
An Antarctic guide with her travellers during a landing

One thing that always astounds me is how much knowledge good expedition teams have about all things Antarctica. On most voyages, you’ll have an expert on history, wildlife, photography, geology and biology. As a combined force, the expedition team is like a walking library. Even the kayaking master or the camping master should still be able to tell you what each bird species is, or the names of the glacial periods.

One of the best things about sailing across the Drake Passage is having time to chat with expedition team members and learn about their past experiences. Many of them have spent years sailing back and forth to Antarctica and have gathered a gold mine of stories, some of which are laugh out loud hilarious, whilst others send shivers down your spine.

On my last voyage, one of the expedition members had been coming to Antarctica for over 50 years and had seen the landscape change dramatically. It was sad hearing him point out parts of the landscape that were once covered in ice and were now melting at an alarming rate. Antarctica really is a perspective-changing experience. It can feel abstract until you’re there in person. Falling in love with a place makes you want to protect it.

Most expedition team members give lectures on board the ship throughout the journey. The lectures are a great way of getting your knowledge up to speed. By understanding the landscape and the wildlife that inhabits it, you may find, like I always do, that you have greater respect for what you’re witnessing.

They work hard behind the scenes

An Antarctica expedition team preparing zodiacs in the snow
An expedition team preparing zodiacs and kayaks in the snow

The customer-facing role of the expedition staff is just one element of their job. The team constantly works hard behind the scenes to bring guests the best possible experience. They are the first to get up in the morning and the last to go to bed. 

A good expedition leader will work in tandem with the ship operator to create the itinerary for their ship some six months in advance. This plan might change minutes before the landing due to weather conditions, and then another plan has to be executed immediately. If the expedition team are exceptional at what they do, the guest experience will be seamless. If you decide to travel to Antarctica, chances are this may happen and you probably won’t even realise a change of plan has been executed.  

The expedition staff are constantly in communication with the other ships in Antarctica, planning the best possible experience for their guests, keeping out of each other’s way, and passing on cool news of sightings when they occur. This helps everyone to make the most of their time at the bottom of the world. 

4 black rubber zodiac boats in the blue ocean in Antarctica
Zodiac drivers prepare to transport guests to shore

Several seasons ago a lost emperor penguin was spotted by an expedition team at 11pm on the Antarctic Peninsula. The team quietly prepared the zodiacs and then woke the guests up to perform a spontaneous trip so that everyone could witness the unique and special moment. After a successful outing, the expedition team had to stay up most of the night bringing the zodiacs back on board and getting ready for the morning landing. If that’s not a sign of their commitment to the job, I don’t know what is.

The lifeblood of every voyage

In summary, the expedition team are the lifeblood of every voyage. They set the tone and expectation of the trip, entertain and educate the guests and make the trip unforgettable. Whether it’s getting soaked in a zodiac for hours, lending a guest their warm gloves or staying up late into the night to watch for wildlife sightings, a good expedition team is always on hand to make the journey as fantastic as it can be.

An Antarctica expedition team member surrounded by nesting Adelie penguins

Not only are the teams very knowledgeable, but they are also custodians of the land and help to showcase its beauty and fragility through their own experiences and stories. Their passion for Antarctica shines through in everything they do, whether it’s helping a guest, planning an itinerary or being ambassadors for the White Continent during the off-season.

So, when you take your voyage to Antarctica, remember to have a chat with the expedition team, you’ll be surprised what you may learn.

Alex Mudd

Head of Swoop Antarctica

Head of Swoop Antarctica, Alex, returned from his first trip to the 7th continent 16 years ago firmly bitten by 'polar fever' and obsessed with icebergs. Further forays into the Polar regions have included following muskoxen in Greenland and dog sledding across Spitsbergen.

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