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Polar Cruising: An Arctic and Antarctic Expert Shares Her Experiences

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For anyone considering an expedition cruise, the polar regions represent some of the most exciting journeys on the planet. The Arctic and Antarctic also involve some of the most challenging logistics a cruise line crew will ever face. From unpredictable weather at the extremes to maintaining rigorous safety standards, working on high-end expedition cruise ships demands so much more than making sure pillows are fluffed and cappuccinos are served steaming.

What does it take to be a successful expedition guide for a cruise line that sails to the back of beyond? For Karin Strand, the route to such a coveted position was unusual.

Updated May 31, 2019

Strand grew up among the fjords of Norway, eventually pursuing a career in law at the University of Bergen. She worked part-time at Hurtigruten, a Norwegian shipping company that’s known for its cruise-ferries that serve as the country’s link to small towns and big cities along its fjords. The company also operates cruise expeditions that go beyond, with particular specialities being the polar regions of the Arctic and Antarctica.

Her first job? Twenty years ago, as a college student, she worked as a cabin attendant on the cruise-ferries. After graduation, Strand started her career in law, but soon determined something was missing from her life.

In 2002, Karin did, as she tells Cruise Critic, “a complete 180” and abandoned her law career to move into the expedition business. Heading back to Hurtigruten, this time she set her sights on even more exotic destinations. A love of adventure travel helped her become a keen kayaker, who led tours, on – and off -- the water. Today, as Hurtigruten’s Expedition Teams Manager, she is responsible for developing tours and curating the guest experience aboard the line’s expedition cruises, keeping in mind not only educational goals for guests but sustainability practices designed to help promote and protect these pristine regions for generations to come.

“It’s random, really, how life throws you into this business,” says Karin. “Like for a lot of people, it wasn’t intentional at all, but I’m really glad it did -- it fits me.”

As Hurtigruten continues to evolve and grow, developing new ships and new destinations to visit, and embracing a leadership role in the industry in eco-sensitive cruising, it’s a great time to be part of an effort to lead comfortable yet eye-opening trips to the world’s most remote places. After 100-plus journeys to the polar regions, Strand’s got plenty to share, and she shares it here.


How do you become an expedition guide; how did you get started with Hurtigruten?

My background is law, and I finished my law degree and said, 'Nah, I don't think that's going to fit me.' I did a 180 in my late 20s. Starting in 1998 I was originally part of Hurtigruten's coastal product in Norway, which has been going on for more than 100 years. In 2002 Hurtigruten decided to expand, to go abroad, and I was behind the scenes as chief purser. I've grown into my current role over 15 years, without really wanting it. It just happened, but I'm really glad it did -- it fits me.

What kind of skill sets and training are needed for expedition guides?

You need a field of expertise. The industry is becoming much more focused on what skill set you bring in. More than the usual guide, you need a background in biology, geology, glaciology or you're a trained historian in-depth. Or, I would ask if you have any activity guide skills -- certified kayak guide or certified mountaineer, for instance. I staff as well, and when I look for people I would like them to have a formal education within these fields.


Where do you want to go over and over?

The polar regions, regardless of north or south, without a doubt. I've thought quite a lot about this, because it's a question I've been asked a hundred times. There is a common parallel between them all, which I cherish a lot -- an element of surprise and not being able to plan everything. You need to have a framework, but apart from that, you need to be able to juggle weather and ice conditions and that makes those regions have an extra "X" factor that no others have. And the remoteness, the fact that there is hardly any infrastructure anywhere. There are no roads, there are small villages but if they need contact with the rest of the world, they need to get there by boat or by helicopter -- that triggers something in me.

What do you define as the polar regions?

Greenland would be, parts of Alaska, Arctic Canada, Svalbard. Iceland sort of falls into a 'semi' polar category. It still has a certain X factor to it, but it's becoming very commercial.

I've been to Tromso, Norway, which is well north of the Arctic Circle -- does that count as a polar region?

No, that's way too civilized! We don't really count any part of Norway as part of the polar region. If you said that to any Norwegian, they would laugh. If you go up to Svalbard, most people would say that's polar. But not Norway. Tromso is like going to Colorado!


What expedition destinations are we going to be hearing more about in the next year or two?

I think Greenland, for one. Maybe Alaska and maybe the Northeast Passage [the sea route to the Pacific Ocean along Norway and Russia's Arctic coasts]. There are more ships making their way into the Northwest Passage [the sea route from the Arctic Ocean -- along North America's northern coast to the Pacific Ocean]. It's still quite a low number but I think that will increase in the years to come.

What's putting Greenland on the map?

It's a perfect destination to go by ship. The flight connections to Greenland are becoming better, so there's easier access, which of course makes a difference. Greenland itself is putting a lot of effort into using tourism as a future branch of growth to employ people, and Visit Greenland [the country's official tourism bureau] is quite aggressively trying to promote Greenland as a go-to destination.

Why Alaska? It's already quite popular for mainstream cruise ships.

It's already is a big destination, used a lot by bigger ships than the fleet that we represent. But there are more than 30 ships being built at the moment in our size category -- 200 to 500 passengers. As these come into operation in the next three to four years, we're going to have to split out. And, we'd also like to use known destinations that fit our profile -- Alaska fits the profile of the explorer-expedition industry.

We will start very slowly in 2019 with one ship going through the Northwest Passage. We'll start in Greenland, going through to Nome and the Bering Sea islands, then we'll circle around Alaska to Vancouver. But in 2020, we're coming back and we'll be positioning one of our 500-passenger ships for most of the Boreal summer. [Boreal summers in the Northern Hemisphere are usually short and with mild temperatures due to its subarctic climate.]

You mentioned the Northeast Passage.

I think there is potential in the Northeast Passage which is untapped. We have no definite plans for the Northeast Passage in the next itinerary launch, but I know that we're looking into it for the launch coming after. It's a complicated route to do, because of the Russian permits you need to get, and can be quite expensive to operate as well.


Is there a trend in the cruise industry to become more sustainable?

Absolutely. We see that across the industry, that companies are getting rid of single-use plastics and batteries, trying different fuel formulas. Because we operate in these very fragile areas, we should be at the top of our game and be on the edge of technology as well. We try to be at the forefront, leading the way as a company, and hope that it trickles through and gives us a competitive edge.

We serve as an ambassador for polar regions, and for climate change, because it's so visible in the Arctic. The cruise industry thinks of sustainability more than the normal commercial shipping industry, and I think we have a place there to put forward an even more balanced view of the situation. There's a limit on the ships that can enter these pristine places. In Antarctica, you're not allowed to land with ships of 500 passengers and over. International regulations control the amount of people coming. Because humans, we trample -- we trample all over the place. If you take a plane and look out, you see how much humans have changed the landscape over the last thousand years -- there's hardly anywhere around where you can find unspoiled nature anymore.

After the polar bear incident a colleague of mine asked, "Why are cruise ships going to the Svalbard Archipelago?"

(A polar bear was shot and killed after attacking a cruise ship guard in July 2018).

I'm not going to pass judgement on any of my colleagues at another company. I really think there is value to the human presence in these areas, like anywhere else in the world. But there's a fine balance between us being predators rather than being observers. The safety and security of our guests has to be of the highest priority. It was not a good thing that this bear was killed, but I think it needs to be put a bit more in perspective before we pass judgement. Three bears that we know of have been killed over the time that tourism has been conducted in Svalbard. In Arctic Canada and Greenland, where there is a legal hunt of polar bears, thousands have been killed over the same period. I have nothing but respect for my colleagues on the ship where this occurred, and I know they did what they could. This was an unfortunate event and we might go 10 or 15 years before we see anything of this sort again, if ever.


People are quite aware of the state of the planet. They ask for more information about climate change and what we as operators do to be sustainable. And then our guests are really interested in being active. Back to 2002, a normal landing in Antarctica put people on land for an hour, they walked around in a circle, took a few pictures of the penguins, then came back to the ship and had their lunch. Those days are very much over. People like to experience something very unique, so they like to kayak, or snorkel or stand-up paddle-board -- they want to immerse themselves into the elements and the ice a lot more. They're a lot bolder than they were 15 years ago.

How are cruise lines evolving to meet the needs of adventure travelers?

Snowshoeing is a fabulous kind of activity, because you have a very light footprint, much lighter than walking in your boots. So we've put quite a lot of effort into snowshoeing for the last three years, and we'd like to continue that on even a bigger scale in the future. It fits the sustainability model, to tread lightly. Destinations are important to adventure travelers as well. Iceland is very high on a lot of people's lists, because it is so highly profiled. But the content, to be able to be active, is what I see in the future, even more than it is now. Maybe even bolder things, like diving and mountaineering, are going to be more common in 10 years than they are now.


What distinguishes the Hurtigruten expedition experience from other expedition cruises?

It's our heritage. Snowshoeing and all these activities that we do -- it's second nature to us. We come from tradition where this is stuff we have been doing since we were tiny kids. It's the stuff that we still do when we're grown up, it's part of our DNA. I think that might be some of the difference between Hurtigruten and other operators. This isn't something that has been taught to us through any course. This is lived experience for us.

With Hurtigruten you can sleep in a tent in Antarctica?

Other operators do it, too, but we've invested in state-of-the-art equipment. We have all-Scandinavian equipment, like tents from the Swedish company Hilleberg, so we go with the stuff we really know. I tested this out myself in 2016 when I applied to conduct a private expedition to Antarctica for three weeks. I asked our CEO if he could support five of us from the Hurtigruten Expedition team -- I asked if we could bring our gear down on one of the ships and they could pick us up three weeks later. For the rest, we were going to be self-sufficient, and he said, "Hell yah, I'll support you." We paddled 200 kilometers and I tested out all the gear and we found new spots to tent on the Antarctic Peninsula.

Our private time goes to expand and explore and to find other things that we can do for our jobs. That's quite special for us -- we're pretty hard-core when we want to be.


Last question! Can you just chill out and relax on an expedition cruise?

Some of these regions, like Svalbard, you get a digital detox whether you like it or not, because there is no connection. They force you into it. In East Greenland or around Thule Air Base -- you have no choice. The first day, you have these jitters where you can't cope. It's like a heroin addict -- you get spasms almost, because you cannot update your Facebook profile every day. When that first day has ended, you start to get used to not having your face in your phone or the computer all the time. The relief in people's heads and minds is quite staggering and that says something about how addicted we've become. They find, "Fine. I can survive without updating my Instagram today."

This is one of our strong suits actually, for people who want to go off the grid. This can also apply to crossing the Atlantic, from Canary Islands over to Brazil -- toss your phone and everything digital away, and just be. Meditation and yoga and things like that are popular. Just go off and be, and have the ocean as your detox temple.


Want to learn more about polar cruising? Check out our other stories on Cruise Critic...


A native of San Diego, David Swanson has been awed by Alaska on more than 10 separate trips, including land-based journeys, one of which ventured north of the Arctic Circle. His writing and photography has been featured in the pages of National Geographic Traveler, American Way, and the Los Angeles Times for more than 20 years, and he has served on the Board of Directors for the Society of American Travel Writers since 2009.

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