Meet Silversea Expedition Leader Kit van Wagner
Kit van Wagner is a Product Specialist and Expedition Leader for Silversea Expedtions. 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).
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 recommended me to be a guest lecturer on a small ship in the islands. After the first voyage I was hooked on expedition cruising and took to seafaring as my primary employment about six years ago now. I was fortunate enough to start with Silversea Expeditions, 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.
Do you sometimes feel like you’re on a final frontier?
An expedition ship certainly provides one of the best platforms out there for pushing the boundaries and discovering new landings, hikes and experiences with nature. We are self-contained and flexible in our abilities to maneuver and operate, which allows all aboard to discover wildlife and cultures they might not have known existed.
In this way, the work I do aboard is all about frontiers and setting the bar for what is possible in terms of wildlife encounters, visiting remote cultures and witnessing first-hand the gravitas of the earth’s processes in spewing volcanoes or calving glacial ice. But, is it a final frontier? I’d like to think not.
I suspect the more mankind explores and delves into discovery, the more we will continue to find. For us in the expedition world, places we think we know well will surely reveal new treasures on a second, third and fourth review. In this way, we continue to hone our skill and improve our offerings.
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 was your hairiest encounter with wildlife?
This is a hard question to answer because although I’ve been close to whales lunge feeding while I’m out in a Zodiac, have listened to a bear turning rocks and slurping a fresh clam out of the shell it just dug up in southwest Alaska, have seen a massive male orangutan haul its lumbering body across my path in Borneo, and have had well-fed sharks swim by me at close range in the impossible blue waters of Palau, I would not consider these to be “hairy” encounters.
The wildlife we come across is generally not interested in red-parka or snorkel wearing bipedal organisms. We are fortunate to be silent observers of their private habits and modes of survival. That said, I do not wish to meet a polar bear on terra firma at close range, and fortunately have not as yet!
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.
The most intense weather event and how you negated it?
It is not uncommon on expedition voyages to be presented with some kind of weather-related challenge. Storms near or far can dictate what is possible and what is not in terms of operations for the ship. It’s a tongue-in-cheek tradition in the world of expedition cruising that the guests aboard are responsible for the weather and the crew and Expedition Team will take care of everything else.
I’ve dealt with a massive hurricane and a diabolical Southern Ocean storm that have both stood between the ship and her intended destination, but we changed our plan and bent to the forces of nature. It’s important to remember thought that weather interferes on a smaller, more regular basis as well. When weather is a concern my days start early and end late. I like to be on the bridge at first light to check on our position, the current weather conditions, and the estimated time of arrival for the day’s destination. After checking in with the bridge, 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 and the quality of the experience.
It’s with these factors in mind that I have to decide, along with the Captain what is possible for that day given a weather event. We consult maps, details of the outings, photographs of the landing sites, activity options and alternatives, and so much more. Changes of plan require briefings be created to inform the guests of the latest updates. With all aboard informed, updated and on the same page, me and my team can carry on with offering the best possible program to our guests in the face of our challenges. The opportunities sometimes offered by weather to explore new regions and unexplored coves, bays, and sheltered waters can turn out to be extremely gratifying for everyone involved.
What do you want guests who haven’t expedition cruised before to know?
An expedition cruise is unlike any other cruise you’ve done before. Sure we start out with a neat and tidy brochure that advertises stops and destinations and Zodiac cruises, but all of those words and images on a page are not necessarily going to represent what actually takes place on your voyage. Every single expedition is different, even when they are run back-to-back in the same region such as Antarctica or the Arctic – and that is the beauty of it all.
There are no guarantees of wildlife turning up on que, or of weather and ice cooperating with our itinerary. If accepted in the correct light, changes to the itinerary – new and unexpected twists in the plan – are often the best parts of the whole voyage.
What keeps you motivated?
Part of it has to be the destinations themselves - and of course making connections with people from all walks of life in isolated parts of the world. 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 other aspect, which is equally important to me, 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.
However, the bottom line for me comes 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 and my ultimate motivation.
What is your favourite 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 Raja Ampat. 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, 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.
- Trek in the Himalayas – in particular I’d really like to vanish into Bhutan for a few months.
- Travel through Italy while eating and drinking my way around the country.
- Spend a year living on a sailboat in Palau and visiting the amazing array of small islands and outer reefs there.