Polar Plunging – One of the craziest things I have ever done

On most trips to the Polar Regions we offer guests the opportunity to do the polar plunge, this is their chance to leap into freezing cold water so they can say they have plunged in the Antarctic or Arctic. I have participated in this silliness many times, including at the North Pole (90 degrees North) where the sea was freezing around us and the sea temperature was less than -1degree Celsius (sea water freezes at -1.9C). I remember with this plunge that I did a pin dive and ended up going vey deep. The water is so cold it absolutely takes your breath away, but when you are under water you cannot grasp. I remember opening my eyes and the water was completely black, because we were surrounded by ice and no light came through the water column. I thought to myself, if I didn’t know which way was up I would be very disorientated. Anyway, I shot to the surface and took a massive gasp of air and pulled myself out of the water pretty smartly.

 

So why, you may ask do I do the plunge once a season. It is a question that is very difficult to answer. Sometimes, it is because I promise to join someone in the frivolity or it is just a case of “Because I can”. But, actually, when I think about it, it is probably the craziest and perhaps dumbest thing to do. The feeling when you get out, though is one of exhilaration, which is probably due to the fact that you no longer feel any of your extremities. I suppose it is a bit like hitting your head against a brick wall it feels good when it stops. The strange thing is that when you get out it feels really warm, even if the temperature is below zero. Sometimes it does take a bit before one starts warming up and your hands and feet ache as the blood slowly returns.

 

An interesting fact about people who swim longer distances in such cold temperatures is that the body temperature continues to drop, even after they are out of the cold water and under a hot shower, so if you leave the water with a body temperature of 35C (already 2 degrees below normal), your temperature will continue to cool and you can become seriously hypothermic. I am never in the water for long enough for this to happen.

 

This year I jumped at 81 degrees North (1000km form the North Pole) in 0C water and in the Antarctic at 65 degrees South in -1C water where the air temperature was -4C. It is a load of fun and there is lots of jollity and laughter at people’s facial expressions and comments as they surface from the water. It always amazes me how many people come out of the water saying, “Wow, it’s cold!” Well, this is the Antarctic, the water is below freezing, what did you expect :-) .

 

In the end, everyone enjoys themselves and for those brave souls who do the plunge, you can go back home and have the bragging rights to say that you swam in the Antarctic.

 

Of course, what I do Duncan also does, so here are the photos of us plunging in the Antarctic. I decided to imitate a penguin and where a penguin suit (Why make a fool of yourself jumping into freezing water, when you can make a complete idiot of yourself and jump in wearing a penguin suit?)

Duncan and Clouds doing the Polar Plunge

Duncan and Clouds freezing after the polar plunge

My advice: If you are ever travelling in the Polar Regions and you have the opportunity to do the polar plunge, DO IT! Remember, you regret more the things you didn’t do, than the things you did do.

Love from the freezer

Clouds and Duncan

 

 

A surreal Existence – the life of an expedition guide

Can you imagine a life where you are exposed to the most incredible wonders of the natural world. Spending 10-14 hours a day sharing these experiences with 100 people, folk who will spend 10 days or a fortnight with you and whose life will be changed by what you can show them. Your accommodation and food is provided and you bond with your guests, who are mostly here because they have the same passion as we do for the unspoilt wilderness. Our job entails driving zodiacs, our little rubber inflatable boats that can land us anywhere, guiding people ashore and explaining all that we are seeing, as well as lecturing on our specialty and talking to our guests about our experiences.  We are expected to know a huge amount of information about every area that we travel in, so it is a constant learning environment, which I enjoy immensely, as many of us share information and some of the latest papers on different topics. An ideal job perhaps, but one that leads to a rather unique transient lifestyle. Many expedition guides don’t have roots, their belongings are with their parents or friends, when they are on holiday, they go travelling to other remote destinations, you make many friends, but many of the friendships are rather superficial, seldom does one have deep intimate conversations with other expedition guides. Your colleagues will come and go, depending on the length of your contract and you may or may not see them again. I will often bond with guests, who then leave and I will probably never see them again, although sometimes we manage to remain in touch.

There are times when we are tired or jaded and you don’t want to go outside into a 30knot wind and big swell, and blizzard and the temperatures are well below zero before wind chill. There are times when you don’t want to put on your happy face and constantly be upbeat. But that too is part of the job. Even if the weather is good, there may be a call for whales and there are times that I think that I don’t want to go out unless they are pirouetting , however, I go out and am infected by the excitement of those who haven’t seen this before

When one gets home, it takes quite an adjustment to living a normal life with a routine and where you have weekends off. You get a chance to catch up with your friends (Something very important to me), although many staff don’t have many friends at their homes (they don’t really have homes).  It is almost impossible for staff working any length of time in the field to have relationships, unless it is with a colleague, which puts other pressures on ones working environment.

How do you explain to people back at home what you experience and what your life on the ship is like. Well, I think it is impossible and have given up trying. Sometimes I will show my photos to friends and I enjoy giving talks explaining what we see, otherwise I change my life for a regular 8-5 desk job with its own pros and cons.

Many people think I go on holiday for 2 or 3 months at a time. Well, it is a 24/7 job, with no breaks when you feel tired or sick. No breaks from people when you get all peopled out. I am however, incredibly privileged to work in the areas I work, to work with the people I work with and to meet the guests who share our excitement. If I can influence a few people every contract and give people an experience that will change their view on what is important in this world, then I have achieved what I set out to do and experienced the world most people never get to see. I love my job and in spite of the rather unconventional way we live our lives, there is something addictive to  this crazy and surreal existence.

Does it get cold down there?

Isn’t it cold? This is a questions asked so often and the simple answer is yes! Only it would be a lot colder in winter. We are travelling around the Antarctic peninsula which is colloquially what is termed the Banana belt, because it is so warm (comparatively speaking). On average the temperature is around 0 degrees Celcius (32 F), but will often drop to 5 or 10 degrees below. This of course doesn’t take into account the windchill factor which can cause the temperature to drop to -15C. Wind is our greatest enemy down here as we cannot operate the zodiacs in winds greater than 35 knots (1knot = 1 nautical mile per hour and 1 Nautical mile =1.852 km. So anything over 65km/h means that we have to stop our operations, even if the sky is clear. We will operate in any other weather  conditions, snow, rain etc.

Zodiac cruising in great weather

People often ask me what we wear, and as it is not very cold we wear layers which are normally reasonably thin. So on an average day, I will wear a pair of thin fleecy long thermal underwear, warm trousers and waterproof pants, my top layer will include a T shirt, thin fleecy thermal layer, a thicker fleece and either a waterproof shell or a float coat (this is a coat with a layer of foam that acts as a life jacket but is warm and waterproof). I always wear a scarf and buff as well as a warm hat. We wear heavy neoprene wellies (gumboots) as we are getting out into water and water sometimes gets into the zodiac. If it is very cold out, then we add another layer of thermals to the mix.

Sometimes when we take passengers out on zodiac cruises and we are driving for 4 hours, sometime in the rain and snow, our gloves get soaked and we freeze. I have had occasion in the Arctic to be so cold that I could barely pull myself up the pilot ladder after a
particularly cold zodiac cruise.

Does this sound like fun? It is! But we need to be prepared. As Roald Amundsen (The first man to the South Pole) said “Adventure is just bad planning”

A regular day in my office

Although I have many different jobs (I am the environmental manager for the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), teach medical courses, work as an operational paramedic and work on ships as a climatologist/geologist/ornithologist(Birder) as well as zodiac driver and medic. My official title is lecturer, zodiac driver  and medic (I lecture in climatology and ornithology, and sometimes do a bit of geology, as my  background is in physical geography, and I have 25 years experience birding). We are all part of the expedition team (there are 10 of us), we have an expedition leader and assistant expedition leader and then a mix of lecturers, usually an historian, birder, geologist, marine biologist, sometimes photographers, and then one or two people who can lecture on different topics, depending on their specialty. We all drive boats and for me to get this job I had to get my skippers ticket (Boat drivers licence) to drive boats offshore.

Clouds driving the big MK6 Zodiac

When I am working on the ship I only need to think about a few of these jobs, but our job requires us to be very multi talented. Most of us drive zodiacs (inflated rubber boats), we guide people ashore, we lecture and I then am the medic as well!

Our standard day will start at about 7:30am when we lower the zodiacs by crane onto the water (on some ships it is really fun as the crane is lowered to deck 4, where there is a little gate where we climb into the boat and then we get lowered about 20m and hope that nothing happens to the crane as you hang there). We will then pick up the guests and shuttle them to the landing site.

Being lifted up by the crane when recovering the boats from the water

We split the driving, so 3 will drive and 4 will be onshore, those onshore guide the passengers and interpret what they are seeing. So effectively we are like Polar field guides, thus, even though my speciality is climate, I am expected to be able to talk in detail about the geology, seals, birds, penguins, history and ecosystem. Each landing lasts about 3,5 to 4.5 hours and we will head back to the ship at around 12pm where we have lunch and get the chance to have a micro nap (less than half an hour). We are back out on the boats again at 2pm for our second landing at a different site and will normally finish this one at about 5pm. By the time we have lifted the boats it is usually closer to 5:45. We have a chance to have a shower and prepare our recaps for the day. These are short snippets that we have to present on something that happened during the day, for example I may talk about a particular flight pattern of the albatross which allows them to fly without flapping, or the behaviour or breeding biology of a bird we have seen. Our recap starts at 6:45pm for 45minutes and we then have a quick meeting and head off to eat dinner with the  passengers (we are expected to socialise with the guests). I don’t normally get out of the dining room much before 9:30pm and then our time is our own to try and check emails (when we have satellite internet), download and process photographs from the day. We seldom get to bed before 11pm. On sea days or half sea days we have to give 1hour lectures on our area of expertise and we are expected to have a very high level of knowledge of this area, hence most of us have the minimum of a Masters degree. Working on ships is tough because you never have a day off, we have a few hours on turnaround day, when we disembark one group of passengers and embark the next group. This is the time we go shopping and call home. I normally work 2 month contracts, sometimes longer, but then one gets very tired.

Can you think of a better job to have? If you love the outdoors (and being with people), being a guide is a fantastic job!

Claudia Roedel – from the Amazon to the Antarctic

This is the first of a collection of stories from people I have met on my travels who have done the most extraordinary things. Claudia has worked with me and is the reason I am called Clouds – so that people on the team knew who was being referred to. Claudia and her husband, Iggy, have travelled the world and guided people everywhere from the Amazon to the Antarctic.

Claudia Roedel  – Driving boats in the Antarctic

Hello!

My name is Claudia Roedel. I was born and live in Brazil, South America. Clouds has asked me to write a few words about what inspired me to become what I am today, so I think it’s better to start by the end.

I studied Biology at the University of São Paulo, and after graduation I moved to the Amazon where I studied Tropical Ecology – the science that studies the inter-relationships between plants and animals in the tropical zone. A tropical rainforest is about the most complex ecosystem there is. In a way I am glad I started the studies with a complex system – it makes all others easier to understand.

I like to paint watercolors, to read and watch movies. I have an insatiable curiosity to understand how things work, how they are done and what makes them tick.I dive, I climb, I love to take long walks in nature, and I ride a motorcycle. I built the cabinets in my house, painted walls and made clothes and costumes for myself and for others.

Currently I work on board cruise ships that focus on nature trips. As we visit wonders of the natural world, I try to explain to passengers a bit of what they are seeing. What are the animals and plants we see, what the relationship to each other is. What is their biology – how they grow, where they live, what they feed on. My work gives me unique opportunities to visit remote corners of the world, and although it’s very intense, it’s also very rewarding.

So, how did I get here?

When I was growing up I had a huge curiosity, and I was blessed to have parents that also loved to read, so they had answers to most of my questions. When they didn’t, they knew where to find it – a book, or an encyclopedia.

I was an avid reader, and would go through books so fast that my mother soon made me a card to the local library – before I bankrupted her by buying so many books! I read everything that I could lay my hands on – classical novels, mystery books, even encyclopedias. I loved to travel to different worlds, explore maps, learn about animals.

I was specially inspired by Jules Vernes, he was my favorite author for a long time. I would picture myself riding a hot air balloon around the world, or visiting the depths of the ocean on the submarine Nautilus. I pondered how I would react in this or that circumstances… and the lack of women on those books always bothered me. Sometimes I would invent a female character for myself, that would allow me to take part in those adventures.

My parents gave me further incentive to read – my father would read to me, making different voices to the different characters.

One day visiting a family friend, I found a drawer full of pulp spy books. The main character was a knock-out beauty named Brigitte Montfort and she was a spy for CIA…. Not any spy, she was CIA’s top spy. She could speak several languages fluently, was an expert in martial arts and in handling any weapon. She could drive or pilot any vehicle that moved over land, water or air. She was a master of disguise and infiltrated any base. I sat on the floor and read as many of those as I could, then had to work really hard to convince my parents to keep buying books. Lucky for me, my father was of the opinion that ANY reading was edifying, and eventually obliged!

I was only 4 years old when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped on the moon. I watched it with fascination. My father bought every single magazine that came out on the time – he said we had just experienced history happening. I have these magazines until today and for a long while I, like so many kids, wanted to be an astronaut.

TV in my time was very different than today. Where I lived there were only 4 TV channels, and most houses had only one black and white TV. So everybody watched the same programs. You might not like it, but that’s what’s on.

However, I guess I was a rebel from the early days, because I chased some programs that showed in funny times, where not many people were watching. I loved to watch animal documentaries and movies, like Born Free,WildKingdom, Daktari. Especially I loved to watch the documentaries by Jacques Cousteau and Ron and Valerie Taylor, who focused on underwater photography.

Then came Star Trek! I did not watch it on the first run as I was too small. I caught it on the second run, during the seventies. I felt that show was significantly different. I think for the first time I could relate to some of the characters. First of all, they were traveling through SPACE, THE FINAL FRONTIER!  They were going where no man had ever gone, exploring new life, new civilizations. Every new show took place on a different planet, and the crew, under the command of brash Captain Kirk had to establish relations, patch wars, do biological surveys, and work together to achieve their goals.

Among the characters, although I loved Dr McCoy, and tough the captain was quite “hammy”, I related in special to Lieutenant Uhura and First Officer Spock.Many have criticized the show’s female miniskirt uniforms, but most people today don’t understand how liberating showing one’s legs was in the 60! It was a sign of affirmation of your sexually, a way of saying that you are a woman and proud of it. On the pilot, the women wore pants, just like the men, but the female cast members asked the producers to be dressed on more feminine clothes. What I really loved about Uhura is the fact that she was a very competent professional, an officer on the bridge, and at the same time, she was very feminine: she was always made up, her hair was neatly styled and she wore her miniskirt like she would a suit. The fact that she did not have to behave like a man to be on what was at the time considered a man’s job was very important to me.

Many people like to belittle her job, saying she was just a glorified operator, but I work on board ships, so I know that the communications officer is much more than this. They must know all codes and protocols for different kinds of communication, which frequencies to use, how to operate the different equipment, and very importantly, how to repair and maintain all equipment under their care.

Spock was a different matter. All very quiet and very professional, incredibly intelligent and knowledgeable. But what really spoke to me was that, because he was a hybrid between a human and a Vulcan, the Vulcan children would tease him, and bully him. He grew alone and never fully integrated into Vulcan society, and now, on a human ship, he never fully integrated into the humans either. His Vulcan discipline of suppressing his emotions kept him apart from the crew, but we would see he cared about them, and they cared about him too.

I related to him because like the character, I was also bullied at school. I was too nerdy, too clever, too Ms. Smartypants knows-it-all… I had an answer for everything, from the books I read, and I made the alphas of the school uncomfortable – so they picked on me. It bothered me in one level, but on the other level I knew they were just envious. Spock was also bullied as a kid, but he turned out alright. He had the job he wanted, on an exploring vessel, doing the science he loved, surrounded by crewmembers that respected him – even a couple of real friends. So I found hope for me as well. If Spock had been bullied, and turned out alright, I would also turn out alright when I grew up.

I started learning English when I was only 7 years old (and I always thank my parents who put me in language school when I was at the perfect age for learning a foreign language. Today English is my second language, and it allowed me access to a wider range of information and opportunities. Later I learned French and Spanish, and studied German, Bahasa Indonesian and Hindi (these three with VERY limited success!). Like my heroin, Brigitte Monfort, I tried to learn as many languages as I could.Inspired by her, I learned to drive cars, trucks, motorcycles and boats. I hope one day to learn how to fly a plane or a helicopter.

When my aunt decided I needed to practice some physical activity, she took me to ballet classes – that’s what girls did for exercise back then. Lucky for me, the school was taught by a couple. She taught ballet – he taught Judo! Of course I chose judo over ballet, and later I took classes on karate, self defense, capoeira and ballroom dance. I learned how to shoot with revolvers, pistols and shotguns (hope to learn rifle one of these days).

Inspired by Jacques Cousteau and the Taylors, I convinced my mother to enroll me on diving classes as soon as I was old enough, at 14. I am glad I inspired a girl friend to enroll with me, and the two of us were the only teens – and female to boot! – among all the grown men doing the course.

Because of them I decided to study Biology. I thought I could became a researcher and travel the world discovering new and exciting things. Little did I knew that Jacques Cousteau was not a biologist. Instead, he was a naval officer and an engineer, who helped improve the Aqua-Lung and gave birth to the open circuit breathers used by divers today. He also improved the design of inflatable rubber boats. He was not a scientist, but a man who loved nature and wanted to share this passion with the world, making documentaries about it.

It turned that I am more similar to him than I though – today I travel the world on board cruise ships, drive rubber boats and share my passion for nature and those amazing places with the passengers.

Spock was a science officer on board an exploratory vessel – today I am a science lecturer on board expedition cruise ships!

So, all those things, and many others shaped me – who I am today.