So You Wanna Be a Polar Expedition Photographer and Guide

Going on a polar expedition would be life-changing. But what about the people who actually lead them?

Even the most seasoned travelers go their lifetimes without ever making it to the Arctic or Antarctica. Those who do get there have an experience unlike any other, which shapes them in ways they don’t expect for years to come. But what about the people that lead these new experiences, traveling icy waters for five months, six months, or a year at a time? We spoke with Lauren Farmer, a polar expedition photographer and guide, about what it’s like to spend half the year among the most remote wonders of the world.

1. Polar expeditions change your perspective

“In 2012 I went to Antarctica as a guest on a ship. Until then, I had no idea how you would even get there. These days, there are about 30 ships operating that do this trip. They port in Ushuaia, Argentina—the southernmost city in the world, on the southern tip of South America.

“I had the trip of a lifetime, and as soon as it was over I was desperate to find a way back. I had become friends with a lot of the staff, who were my age. I realized I needed to do this as a job. Photography was my ‘in.’ Most ships have a resident photographer on board, as well as marine biologists, geologists, etc. I wasn’t even really a travel photographer at the time. I’ve always been a photography hobbyist, and photography has definitely opened the most doors for me. But I like doing other things for my main income, so photography can remain fun. I had started shooting things on the side after I moved to New York, when I was 22, and since I went on that expedition cruise I had photos of Antarctica to show. It was more I was in the right place at the right time.”

2. Polar expedition training is almost all on the job

“I’m there as a photographer, yes, but I’m more there to show travelers the polar region, so I also needed to learn how to guide, how to drive the Zodiac boats, how to interact with the wildlife, emergency procedures—all the things normal guides need to know. There was a lot of on-the-job training.

“The best way to learn how to drive a Zodiac is just to do it. So once, while I was being trained—I had experience driving people but not too much experience in bad weather—I was taking the guests back to the ship from shore. The weather can change dramatically in Antarctica. All of a sudden a katabatic wind came through. These are hurricane-force winds that come out of nowhere, and I was terrified. I’d never driven in something like that, but I knew the only way to go was forward. So I went slowly, and I got everyone back safe. The guests were saying things like, ‘You saved our lives!’ It was scary, but also a huge rush, and hugely satisfying. You don’t get that experience in the city.”

3. There’s a lot of back and forth—but it’s spectacular

“Most ships operate polar expeditions for five months in the Arctic and five months in Antarctica, with two months for travel between the two. Your contract with a ship might be for six weeks or three months. It really depends. A lot of people go from contract to contract on different ships. Typically, one of the ships I’m on will go to port in Ushuaia, pick up passengers, spend two days going through Drake Passage, then cruise around Antarctica for 7–10 days. Then we’ll drop the guests off back in Ushuaia and get new ones the same day. Generally there are 70 crew members, 15 expedition staff, and 130 passengers on board.

“I’ve spent three seasons on polar expeditions in Antarctica now and two in the Arctic. But Antarctica is definitely my favorite place to go. There’s something otherworldly about it—the grandeur of the scenery. The mountains, covered in ice, shoot out of the water. It’s spectacular. Also, I’m partial to penguins, which live only in the Southern Hemisphere, largely in Antarctica. They don’t have any natural land predators, so they have no fear on shore. If you sit really still the chicks will sometimes hop into your lap and fall asleep.”

4. You spend months—or even years—out of contact with the outside world

“It does take a certain personality to thrive in this job. I remember when I went on that first trip, I asked my friends on staff, ‘Do you realize you have everyone’s dream job?’ And they did, but there are some sides to it that wouldn’t be great for everyone. You’re away for months at a time, and it’s very hard to keep in touch with anyone not on the ship. You can go weeks without checking your e-mail, for instance, because you just don’t have access. So the people on the ship become your family. But then at the end of the season, you part ways with those people, too, and you may never see them again. Some people just move from ship to ship and have no real home, but for me having a place to come home to is really important. So I juggle two lives. I spend a number of months in New York every year to maintain my relationships there, and then I spend a number of months out on the ships on polar expeditions.”

5. You learn that ordinary people can do remarkable things

“I also work on a Russian ship in the North Pole that spends nine months out of the year freeing other ships that have gotten stuck in the Arctic ice. In the summer, it doubles as an expedition cruise ship. I’ll be on it this summer as the expedition photographer, but I’m also partaking in a citizen science project. There’s a lot of attention on how quickly the Arctic Ocean ice is melting right now. I’ll already be there for the expedition, and I want to make the most out of it, so I’m going to collect sea ice measurements for the science community. We’re crossing the same area four times, and I’ll take various measurements each time to send back to the research center. If the project is successful, it can mean great things for the tourism industry and for research in these remote locations. Research vessels are expensive, and we’re already going, so why not help collect data that can help us all understand how climate change is affecting the Arctic?

“I want to teach the guests about the project, as well, and incorporate them into it. It’s amazing what ordinary people can do with a little bit of training. The way I see it, this is my way of making an impact and helping with climate change. It’s a big, complicated problem that’s hard to tackle, but this is something concrete I can do.”

Follow Lauren’s polar expeditions through the frozen wild on Instagram, @laurenexplores.

>>Next: What It’s Like to Be an Avalanche Forecaster
Sarah Purkrabek is a Los Angeles-based travel writer.
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