I have been lucky to have the opportunity to spend my summers outside of university as a wildlife guide in some of the most remote parts of the world.
I’m not talking about the rugged Southern Alps of New Zealand – I’m talking about the cold polar regions. Widely considered some of the most desolate, inhospitable places on the planet, you would be surprised to hear how much life there is on these barren lands of ice. But navigating the fine line between observing and impacting these beautiful animals is where life gets difficult.
My role in this unique part of the world was as a sea kayak guide on an expedition cruise ship. I would transport clients safely through parts of Svalbard in the Arctic, South Georgia in the sub Antarctic islands and the Antarctic Peninsula. A big part of this role is to educate clients on the fragility of the ecosystems and the wonder of how they function in such a barren part of the world. The hardest part of the job is to stop people from being too eager to see these animals up close and personal. We must constantly reinforce that we are there to observe; take only pictures, leave only footprints (or rather, paddle strokes). This gets hard when people feel entitled because they spent thousands of dollars getting there.
One of the coolest creatures I have observed in my time afloat is the magnificent polar bear. Back in the days when I was still a trainee, we were en route to paddle alongside a glacier and an incredible set of cliffs called Alkefjellet, Svalbard (worth a Google). We were moving in the direction of the glacier when one of my colleagues said to me, “Dang, don’t you just hate how many yellow rocks look like sleeping polar bears?”
At this point I took out my binoculars and looked where she was looking. After a minute or two of us moving forward and observing this ‘yellow rock’, one of the other guides said, “That's definitely got a head!”
At this realisation the entire group surged forward towards the sleeping giant. As guides we had to contain our excitement and rein in these clients for fear of disturbing the bear and potentially endangering ourselves.
Unfortunately, we got just close enough for someone to notice our arrival – but it wasn’t the sleeping mass we were focused on. A tiny cub poked its head out from under its mother and gave us a curious sniff. We held everyone back far enough so as not to seem intrusive. At this point the cub decided it was wasn’t bothered with us as it had more important things on its mind; food. It began trying wake its mother up for a feed, but she wasn’t having a bar of it and just kept on sleeping. I’m glad we managed not to disturb these creatures too much in their daily routine. Energy equals life, and polar bears can’t afford to squander any of theirs.
My favourite wild animal I have been lucky to behold is the humpback whale. For such a large creature, it’s crazy to see how it moves through the world with such grace. Antarctica is a rare place to find humpback whales that continually surface in the same area without moving on to somewhere new. There are rules in place for us to not approach humpback whales and give them a great deal of space. This is an attempt to avoid disrupting their feeding habits. But there's no rule against them approaching you…
This is where being in a kayak with no foul, noisy machines around grants you a peaceful coexistence with the animals around you. One of the moments that truly took my breath away was in a place called Cuverville, Antarctica. We were kayaking alongside a giant iceberg when the water around me began to writhe and bubble. Suddenly, two huge heads burst from the water no more than three metres away from me. They let out an enormous spray to signal their arrival and cover in us in what I can only hope wasn’t whale snot. Then they were just sitting there logging (a term for when whales sleep on the surface). If you thought your partner could snore, just imagine these gigantic creatures puffing and blowing. We sat there, barely making a sound, watching as these gentle giants slowly floated past us.
If we had sought to touch or interact with these creatures, they would have left in a hurry and we would have disturbed their eating and sleeping habits. We all know how ‘hangry’ our friends get without eating lunch – imagine creatures who need every ounce of energy at their disposal to survive. We are surrounded by wild animals wherever we go. Yes, they are fascinating, but they need to be respected. We can observe, but we must do everything we can not to harm them. You must always strive to be conscious of your impact on your surroundings; that's the first step in being harmonious with the wild creatures we share this planet with.