Adventure kayak guides, Ewan Blyth and Sophie Ballagh, traverse the waterways of the Antarctic Ocean every week with groups of tourists, exploring the wildlife of one of the inhospitable environments on the planet. We spoke to Ewan and Sophie to hear more about their story “Navigating the White Continent” to learn more about their experiences as kayaking guides.
It seems surprising that some people come on your trip without ever having kayaked before! Antarctica seems a pretty extreme place to start. Is it common for completely inexperienced kayakers to come on the trips?
Yes, most would consider Antarctica an extreme place to learn. But it is very common for completely inexperienced clients to come to Antarctica and kayak for the first or second time in their life. And we just cater to these needs. We are dynamic, we can adjust as needed – that is the art of guiding. And ultimately our product is very safe even if the perceived risk – of kayaking among icebergs in freezing water – is considered “extreme.” We can still give our clients an incredible experience without too much risk on their part, so experience isn’t essential at all.
Antarctica itself is an incredible destination to be able to explore. As guides, you’re both obviously inspired by the outdoors. What in particular inspires you about exploring new places?
We both seek solace and connection in the outdoors. It’s our temple, our place of belonging as beings. And exploration of such satisfies our curious minds and our desires to seek out these wilderness places. We have kayaked in many places including the rugged coasts of Tasmania, the deep, untouched fjords of New Zealand, the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard and the tropical islands of the Coral Sea. To be honest, you can’t compare any of them with each other. It’s not fair to. They’re all incredible in their own way, but we do keep being drawn to the Antarctic because it is so special and so unique.
You mentioned that you think people are really disconnected from the planet and from nature. Why do you think it is so important that people experience the natural world?
We are beings of the natural world. That is where we came from, it is what we are. We cannot deny it as hard as many may try. We have much to learn from the natural world and thus connecting with it brings great joy to one’s life. Also, we rely on the natural world for our survival. If we do not connect with it, we will not protect it and it needs protection from the actions of human beings.
Do you think this is why you say an experience like this can change an individual’s attitude to adventure?
We have seen that for some it can teach them about courage, resilience, mental and physical fortitude, over-coming adversity and from that, all sorts of things can spring forth – greater self-belief, increased self-confidence, a greater desire to connect to nature. For some it can indeed be a powerful experience going well beyond the selfie of a lifetime.
Occasionally, clients must behave in a way that puts themselves and/ or others in danger. What goes through your mind when that happens?
Yes absolutely, because often they don’t realise the thing that they’re doing is dangerous at all. What goes through our minds is simply managing that risk. How could that client’s action impact others? This comes fairly naturally now. Sometimes it can be a calm, collected approach and at other times a more direct, authoritative approach is needed. Knowing the right approach for the right time is part of the art of guiding.
What are the biggest dangers when kayaking in the Antarctic?
The greatest hazard as we see it – both in terms of likelihood and consequence (the two key factors of risk) – is ice. This can be in the form of icebergs or glaciers. Both can be incredibly beautiful but incredibly dangerous if humans behave inappropriately around them and don’t both respect them and understand the risks. Trying to communicate this to clients can sometimes be very difficult as it can be challenging trying to understand the risks of something you have never seen before.
Can you describe to us what a typical expedition with clients entails?
There is not a “typical expedition” – that is an oxymoron. An expedition is a unique experience shared just by those on it. Weather conditions are different, personalities are different, group dynamics are different, events and timings are different. What they all share is a collection of people getting to know each other through a lens of witnessing an incredible environment and then gaining a deeper understanding of place and of person – individual and as a whole.
Having said that, hoping that clients leave with a “little piece” of Antarctica in their hearts, what are your hopes for the future of the region?
Our hopes are that this wilderness will continue to be preserved for peace and science as the original Antarctic Treaty advocated. We hope that this will extend not only to the land as per the Treaty but also to all the waters that surround it. And we hope that tourism is responsibly managed moving forward. Not an easy task in any part of the world, but especially important in Antarctica.
To read more about Ewan and Sophie’s experiences guiding in the Antarctic, click here.