Traversing the waterways of the Antarctic Ocean every day, Ewan Blyth and Sophie Ballagh know a thing or two about the cold. But their biggest problem is icebergs – and excitable tourists wanting to touch them. We spoke to Ewan and Sophie to hear about their story “Navigating the White Continent”, to hear more about what it takes to be an adventure guide in such a remote place in the world.
Both myself and Sophie were drawn into kayaking by passionate, devoted outdoor education teachers during our schooling years. And from then, we’ve not really stopped. We have kayaked in many places, from the rugged coasts of Tasmania, to the untouched fjords of New Zealand, through to the tropical islands of the Coral Sea. But something pulls us back to Antarctica every time. We return to Antarctica because of the place, because of what it means to give people the gift of experiencing a place otherwise largely off-limits.
People come to Antarctica for all sorts of reasons. Some guests come seeking adventure. Some come seeking solitude and solace. Some come for the selfie of a lifetime. A good guide is able to take into account that a client’s mindset and attitude towards adventure is totally different to their own. To us, an adventure is a mindset as much as it is an experience. You might think that no one comes to Antarctica to kayak for the first time. But you’d be wrong. Many clients that Sophie and I take out on expeditions have never even sat in a kayak, let alone kayaked in waters such as are found in the Antarctic. But for these people, their expedition is probably the biggest adventure of their lives.
Even after hundreds of kayaking excursions, the near vertical walls of the mountains reaching out of the semi-frozen sea look like a 2D cutout, a third dimension seemingly lost. The blue of the inner sanctum of icebergs is so blue, your mind fizzes at the concept. The glimpse of the eye of an Antarctic Minke Whale a meter beneath your kayak, 10 tonnes of creature so graceful that the word has simply been redefined. It’s amazing for me even now, so I love to see how tourists react, experiencing it all for the first time.
The best thing about being a guide, is seeing, hearing and feeling the joy that your services and skills have brought to people and their lives. But, sometimes guiding inexperienced kayakers does present its challenges. After all, we’re not in the easiest of environments. Oftentimes with inexperienced explorers, it’s their reaction to something that increases the likelihood of incident. In our personal adventures we deal solely with real-risk. We’re competent adventurers, we’re fully trained, we know what we’re capable of as kayakers and, most of all, we know what to expect from the environment we explore. On the other hand, perceived risk presents itself as the blinkered unknowingness that our minds can sometimes fool us with when we are not fully versed in our surroundings – something that our clients have to face as they set off of their Antarctic expeditions.
We’ve all the seen the tag line “…after falling into the icy water, he/she only had minutes to live”. A kayak-capsize—and therefore a swim—in the frigid waters of the Antarctic brings for many newcomers mental scenes of their final moments on this planet. But for us as guides, this “hazard” is almost at the bottom of our list of concerns for the actual well-being and safety of our guests. The greatest hazard as we see it – both in terms of likelihood and consequence – is ice. This can be in the form of icebergs or glaciers. Both can be incredibly beautiful but incredibly dangerous if humans behave inappropriately around them and don’t respect them. Trying to communicate this to clients can sometimes be very difficult as it can be challenging trying to understand the risks of something you have never seen before.
However, it is rare that things really go wrong. Most of the time we just witness people connecting with the natural world, in ways that they never have before. Our hopes are that this amazing wilderness with continue to be persevered for peace and science forever, that people will be able to visit and experience the continent in respectful and empowering ways and that all tourism is responsibly managed in the future. People are so disconnected from this planet. When you immerse yourselves in it, you change. You become something different and it is always for the better.
To read more about Ewan and Sophie’s experiences kayaking in the Antarctic, click here.