I’ve been researching polar exploration for more than 40 years, so going to Svalbard and Spitsbergen was an incredible opportunity. You go out in small boats and make landings in all kinds of weather, which allows you to experience a little bit of what it was like for the explorers who went to these places 200 years ago. You’re where they were, and you can juxtapose the things you see with what they saw, whether it’s the wildlife or the geography. Sharing these stories with passengers is my job when I’m travelling with One Ocean.
Here’s an example. In 1818, the British sent two ships, HMS Dorothea and HMS Trent, to try and cross the Arctic Ocean from Spitsbergen, sailing through the Bering Strait and into the Pacific. On the Trent was a man who had never sailed in the Arctic before but who would one day be renowned for his journeys in the region: John Franklin. Impenetrable sea ice meant that by July 6 the ships had reached their farthest point — 80°34’ N — the exact spot we reached with One Ocean 198 years later, to the day.
Moments and stories like that astound people. At first they can’t believe they’re at the same places, but then they really start to connect with explorers and the idea of exploration. As a historian, being there brought everything full circle for me. It’s hard to imagine a more complete experience.
The Arctic was my very first love. I read a lot of exploration books as a teenager, and I fell for the Arctic by seeing it through the eyes of explorers — by seeing it as a stage where people could express emotions ranging from cowardice to endurance and, ultimately, face life or death. But if you ask me why I go to the Arctic now, there’s a much simpler answer: to continue to see things I’ve never seen before.
As a naturalist, my whole life has been guided by the ability to get people excited about the natural world. When it comes to the North, I’m fascinated by how life has adapted over long periods of time to the extreme climate, and I love sharing my expertise on Arctic wildlife with
passengers, especially when we can see it up close. Being able to experience the Arctic from a ship or a boat is a unique experience that gives you a perspective on the region that you can’t get any other way.
On one trip, we were cruising in a Zodiac along the rocky shoreline of one of the Savage Islands, which are at the mouth of Frobisher Bay, when we spotted a polar bear nearby. After it stared at us for about 15 minutes, the bear started walking, and as it reached a high point of the shoreline, the light hit it from behind, creating a golden halo around it. It was one of those magical moments that you just can’t plan for.