A worthy way to live your life through adventure is to help others fulfill their dreams and enable people to see the planet from a totally different perspective. A Silversea Expedition Leader does just that: showcasing the world by transporting eager travelers to remote lands in an ethical and responsible way, sharing their passion through education and experience. But it can’t all be smooth sailing at sea. We asked Kit van Wagner to spill some real truths about her adventure career onboard a luxury exploration ship, with one of the Women’s Adventure Expo sponsors, Silversea Expedition Cruises.
What was your personal path to your role as Expedition Leader with Silversea Cruises?
As a graduate student I worked summers in the British Virgin Islands teaching high school students sailing, diving and marine biology. A woman I met through that program worked on expedition ships and unbeknownst to me, recommended me to be a guest lecturer on a small ship in the islands. After the first voyage I was hooked on expedition cruising. Over the years I worked part-time on ships while holding down a full-time job, but eventually realized I craved the travel and comradery that expedition cruising offers and took to seafaring as my primary employment about six years ago now. I was fortunate enough to start with Silversea Expeditions not long after that transition from my “real” job, and was encouraged by other Expedition Leaders within the company to take on more responsibility. Eventually I began leading trips in addition to being a lecturer in Marine Biology, and I am enjoying the role.
Has it been all easy-sailing? What challenges have you faced?
There are ups and downs with every decision made in life, and choosing to work the majority of each year at sea has meant leaving my community of friends and family at home – and that can be difficult at times. In addition, once I’m aboard, the work is extremely gratifying when things go according to plan, but if expedition travel has taught me anything, it’s that even the best laid plans change thanks to situations beyond our control. Weather, ice conditions, bureaucratic red tape, or unexpected infrastructure issues all present challenges for an Expedition Leader that can be stressful. The silver lining to these challenges is that I find it highly rewarding to solve a problem while pouring over a chart of the region and weather and ice maps on the bridge with the Captain, or while consulting members of the expedition team to pool our knowledge and experience to overcome a challenge.
Tell us about one particular highlight while working as an Expedition Leader for Silversea.
In this particular story I wasn’t actually the Expedition Leader, but I was helping him out and it’s such a great tale that I can’t resist telling it. Back in 2014, thanks to one of those last minute changes of plan mentioned above, the ship was heading into far northern Alaska with a nearly full complement of guests; all wanting to come ashore. The day before our unplanned landing I used the satellite phone on the ship to reach out to the small community of Wales, Alaska. I couldn’t find any visitor information on-line, and resorted to calling the general store to find out if there was anyone in the community who could help us arrange some kind of welcome and/or activities for our guests. I was connected to the vice-mayor of the village (also the post master) who said he could assist. With the vice-mayor’s encouragement, the people of Wales exhibited incredible generosity and their accommodation of us was remarkable. We didn’t arrive ashore until close to 10 am, but the whole community was out on the beach waiting for us from 8:30 am onwards. Elders met each guest ashore one-by-one, teenagers acted as tour guides through the village, and the local dance group rallied to give us a performance using traditional drums and items of clothing handed down from previous generations like reindeer boots and wolf skin gloves. It was a wonderful welcome to an isolated homestead on the fringes of Alaska’s great wilderness and for me shines as an example of the unpredictable and wonderful moments that expedition cruising can hold.
What do you get most passionate about in your job?
There are two aspects of the job that draw me most. The first is the travel itself – having the opportunity to feel like a citizen of the whole planet – visiting new places almost daily and making connections with people from all walks of life. The more I travel, the more I realize that people around the world have far fewer differences and a whole lot more in common that one might suspect. The second thing I’m passionate about is the microcosm of the ship that I live aboard. I can’t get enough of the comradery and team atmosphere that resonates from the Captain to the dishwashers and everyone in between. As Expedition Leader my primary goal is to foster a strong bond and supportive atmosphere within the Expedition Team.
Tell us what a day on an expedition voyage is like.
That’s a tough one to answer, simply because every single day is so different. In general, my days start early and end late. I like to be on the bridge at first light to check on our position, the weather conditions, and the estimated time of arrival for the day’s destination. After checking in with the bridge, I often take advantage of the mornings to attend to a few emails and communications for upcoming destinations on the itinerary. Largely the excursions during the day are a blur of activity for me. My role requires that I keep my eye on the big picture considering everything from basic operational logistics and managing my team, to guest comfort, to the quality of the experience, to coordination of the day’s activity with the hotel department and the officers on the bridge, and it’s a lot to process simultaneously. By late afternoon, I need to focus on the plan for the coming day, because each evening I offer the guests a briefing about the plans for tomorrow. My briefings include maps, details of the outings, photographs of the landing sites, activity options and alternatives, currency exchange rates, weather forecasts, and so much more. In preparation for the briefings I often liaise with the Captain and the Hotel Director to make sure we are all on the same page for the next day. After dinner and another quick peak at the emails, it’s time to head up to the bridge to check our speed and the estimated time of arrival for the coming day. By the time my head hits the pillow at the end of the day; it’s with a feeling of satisfaction for having managed a successful (and full) day. At the end of the voyage, when the guests are happy and grateful for an incredible experience and brimming with excitement for their next adventure, that’s my payoff.
What is your favorite destination?
This is an impossible question to answer! For landscape and variety of wildlife, I’d have to say Alaska and the Russian Far East are way up on my list. If we are talking about snorkeling and beaches, then my favorites are probably some of the 17,000 islands of Indonesia, and especially the Raja Ampat region. To speak of cultural diversity, then I would look towards New Guinea, both Irian Jaya and Papua New Guinea. For close range views of wildlife both above water and below, I’d have to go with the Galapagos Islands and the resident sea lions that will swim with you unabashedly and roll around at your feet on the beaches. If we are talking about polar ice and a million shades of aqua-blue then for certain it has to be Antarctica. For human history and resilience of spirit, I’d look to the far north of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, the Orkney, Shetland and Faroe Islands. But honestly, there isn’t a region that I can’t point to and say there is some resounding quality that makes it my favorite in one aspect or another.
Is there anything left to do on your Adventure bucket-list?
There will always and forever be things on my adventure list. Eventually it will be an adventure for me to go out the front door and do some gardening in my housecoat, but until that day…I have three items at the top of my list.
1) Trek in the Himalayas – in particular I’d really like to vanish into Bhutan for a few months.
2) Travel through Italy while eating and drinking my way around the country.
3) Spend a year living on a sailboat in Palau and visiting the amazing array of small islands and outer reefs there.
What advice would you offer someone considering a career in Adventure?
Figure out what your priorities are and use those as a starting point in your job search. For me coming out of university in the cold Northeast of the US, I knew I wanted to teach, and I wanted to be warm and outside. So I started applying for internships teaching outdoor environmental education in warm southern states and in the Caribbean. The internships I applied for had to hit all three of my criteria and when I finally landed one, the training, experience and networking I gained has served me well throughout my career.
“Be true to your instincts because one opportunity will surely lead to another and another, but the starting point needs to be authentic.”
Inspired by her experiences growing up in Japan, Norway and England, Kit van Wagner has been steadily working her way around the globe, sharing her infectious enthusiasm and infatuation with wild places, wildlife, and remote cultures as she goes. She holds a Master’s degree in Marine Science and has directed several government-funded marine conservation initiatives, notably with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
She began working internationally on expedition ships as a naturalist, lecturer, dive master and Zodiac skipper in 1999 and joined Silversea Expeditions full-time in 2014. She holds a US Coast Guard 100-Ton Captains License, Dive Instructor certification, and has a varied career history also working as a sailing instructor and backcountry kayak guide.