Intro: Welcome to Crew: Life at sea podcast. Here we will share the skills you need to make your experience and adventure out at sea a success, hear inspiring stories from the experienced crew, from all diversities, gain knowledge and know your rights. Be Part of the crew life at sea, and let’s welcome your host, Raymond Crystal.
Ray: Welcome to crew life at sea, the only place where you can find useful information, advice, insights and resources to help inspire you to take that next step in working on a cruise ship. Welcome back to my show ladies and gentlemen. I know it’s been awhile, I’ve been kind of busy and searching for new talent. And today we have the honour of having someone quite extraordinary, I’ll give you a bit of his bio, he’s travelled the world in search of birds, a first trip aboard from Austria, to places like Antarctica, Greenland, Saudi Arabia.
He’s monitored the effects of the gulf war on the birds, even in my home country South Africa, to help penguins follow the treasure, follow the oil spill, also he’s done Chile, this bio goes on and on like you cannot believe, if I have to continue with this bio, we will be here forever, but I’ll have more in the notes. He’s working onboard an expedition ship, and his name is Chris Harbard, and he is a, here we go, Ornithologist. Yes, I got it right.
Chris: Well done.
Ray: Thank you, so Chris welcome to the show, it’s good to have you.
Chris: Thank you, it’s great to be here.
Ray: Chris could you just give us a little run down of your life and how you got here and what made you take this adventurous journey?
Chris: Well I’ve been interested in birds since I was a youngster basically, and I was very lucky that I got to work for an organization called the royal society for the protection of birds in the UK, which is the world’s largest bird protection charity, conservation charity, I worked there for a while. Then I moved on to another company then suddenly in 2004 I found myself out of work. What to do? My friend said have you ever considered the idea of lecturing on a cruise ship? My mind immediately thought of some massive ship with 5000 people on board, oh I don’t know.
He said there are some great expedition ships going to places like Antarctica with just a hundred guests. And you get to see all the Penguins and Albatross’s, and I thought do I want to go there, yes I do. So yes that was my opening, I got down here a couple of times in December 2004, I never looked back from that, I just wanted more and more places. I don’t do it the whole time of the year, it’s just 2 or 3 months maybe.
Ray: Yes, because normally crew on cruise ships work 4 or 6 months, sometimes 9. And you guys are like 3, 2 to 3 sometimes 4. It’s perfect you know, get on see what you want to see and off you go again.
Chris: Well I kind of have another life, so it’s nice to be able to dip into this, and then go away for a while and carry on with something normal, and then ramp up the excitement and come back here and do this.
Ray: Very nice, so could you like, I’ve been at sea for quite a while now, and this is the first time I’ve been at sea with an expedition series cruise line, or however you say it, and I was like wow, this is really amazing, and I wasn’t very clued up on this expedition, and the change of cruise director to expedition leader, it’s so different, so an expedition staff member, what does that actually mean? What do you do onboard as an expedition staff member?
Chris: Well, unlike classic cruise ships where you will have an itinerary that’s pretty well set, you land somewhere, you get on a coach, you go to some particular activity and back again, it’s timed to the minute. On expedition ships you never know what’s going to happen next, because you’re going to isolated places, places where things can go wrong, where weather can change, anything alter at a moment’s notice, so your expedition leader has to be able to run with that, change plans quickly, get a plan B or C or D even, and still maintaining the momentum and keep people doing what they want them to do.
Ray: Keep them happy I guess. Well, this is very interesting because when I came on, I looked at the itinerary and said Antarctica, and I’m going to get to land here and land here, and I said great this is going to be awesome. I get on board, the landing is only a couple of hours, and it’s not that easy for you to get out, number 1, and it’s a mission to go out in Canada, I mean Antarctica because it takes you 5 hours to get dressed. We’ll get to that part later, they’ll understand more. So could you tell me the process if someone wanted to work on board as an expedition staff member? How did you actually get into this? What was the process to get the job?
Chris: Well I guess it’s my knowledge of birds, and my ability to communicate, I’ve done a lot of that over the years. For me I was a lecturer so part of my job was to give talks to people about the birds in the area and inspire them a bit, get them interested, then when we go ashore, I can be there with my optical equipment, point out things, talk a bit more, give them some more in-depth information.
But having a specialist field is important, and we employ not just ornithologists just like myself, we have geologists on board who can talk about volcanic activity and rocks and goodness knows what, we have marine biologists to talk about the seals and the whales. We have historians to talk about the whaling industry. So having some speciality like that can be very useful.
Ray: I didn’t know this for so long, I’m so surprised and so happy that I actually had this experience. So when you looked for the job, did you look in the newspaper or did you go to an agent, like how did you get the contract?
Chris: For me, serendipity, I met someone, a wife of a friend of mine, she was in the industry, and she knew of a vacancy and that’s why she mentioned it to me, she thought well Chris is available, he’s looking for something, he’d be good, why don’t I suggest that to him and to my contact at the cruise industry.
Ray: Amazing, lucky man. I always say, it’s about who you know, that’s how you can get that kind of a job.
Chris: And then kind of having done it once, I was approached the next year to do it again, you get to know people, you get to know expedition leaders who will be putting a team together the following year and saying let’s get Chris back, he was good. So a lot of it is word of mouth. What I always say to people, because I don’t really want to do 3 or 4 months at a time, I’m often available at a moment’s notice, if you get someone who dropped out and need to fill a hole, think of me. And that’s how I got a lot of my jobs, just filling in when someone else has dropped out, maybe a couple of weeks, that’s all, maybe it’s a couple of months.
Ray: That’s really nice, that’s a nice job title, just come in for a few weeks or months and then off you go. Could you tell me what a normal day for you would entail? Let’s say ok, sea days are different to landing days, because obviously when you land you’re going to go out on the shore and explaining to people about the birds. Can you just tell me a little bit about a sea day what you do and a day on land? just so people can know more or less what the job entails.
Chris: Well we all have duties around the ship basically, and because we’re ‘the entertainment’ for the guests, we provide a lot of the talks and various other things. So giving a talk is a great example, I’ll be giving one later today, the talk will be about 45 minutes, I’ll be talking about the sea birds of the Southern Ocean, and after that there are usually a few questions, and I always say to people you’ll find me up on the deck for an hour or 2 afterwards, so I can actually point some sea birds out to you, some practical demonstration.
Ray: Is that part of your schedule to be out there or is that on your own accord?
Chris: No that’s on my own accord if I’m free, because I’m a kind of a passionate rather obsessive bird watcher you might say, I spend a lot of my free time up no deck so, but that’s good, but on the other hand they might say Chris we want you to run the trivia quiz this afternoon, so I go up and spend half an hour asking trivia questions.
Ray: You see I think, on normal cruises they have entertainment, and you guys have replaced the entertainment with some of the duties they used to do, stand at the doors, greet people, trivia, obviously your trivia questions are going to be much better than the entertainment staff, so I think that’s how it kind of like works guys. I wanted to ask is it dangerous and do need any sort of certificates, so when you got this job, they didn’t actually ask you for any certificates or anything? And have you been through anything dangerous? Is it dangerous out there?
Chris: No it isn’t dangerous as long as you’re careful, as long as you don’t take risks. You’re well looked after by the trained staff here, perhaps the most dangerous thing is getting off the ship into the little inflatable zodiacs, and they say as long as you follow the instructions there are no problems whatsoever.
Ray: Yeah when I went to the meeting, and they said you’ve got to do this and this, I was like oh my god I’ve never done the zodiac thing, but it’s nothing.
Chris: you soon pick it up and it is great fun actually going in the zodiacs, so for example if the weather is bad and we can’t get on land, we go for a zodiac cruise for like an hour in the zodiacs, getting up close and personal with an iceberg or a seal or something like that, and that’s just as much fun as getting on land and walking along and looking at the penguin colonies. You have this variety and flexibility.
Ray: Wow that’s great. Just to clarify, on cruise ships when you dock it’s called port, on expeditions, it’s called landing. The zodiac pulls up on the land, I was kind of confused when I was on board and they said we’re going to land, and I was like what do they mean, just so you know landing is with the zodiac onto the shore, and docking is with the cruise ship on the side. I had to learn the hard way.
Chris: There are 2 types of landings, there’s a dry landing and a wet landing, and in Antarctica they’re basically all wet landings, the dry landing is when you come up to a jetty and step out onto dry land, but generally in the zodiacs you’re nosing up on the beach and the waves are crashing in and you have to get into the water. So you’ve got your nicely insulated rubber boots on and everyone goes ashore, wades up, takes the life jackets off, then we go out exploring, and it really is an exploration, it is an expedition.
Ray: I must say you guys, anybody out there, it’s something to do at least once in your life if you can, it’s not that easy but if you keep pushing you can always get through these, to get to your dreams, because I’m still shocked and amazed. Now that you’ve told me about the duties, you’ve been such a talented man and always busy as you can see you have to take care of the guests and do these things, how do you ever get a chance to expand your knowledge for your own personal, do you get a chance to grow while you’re on board?
Chris: Raymond, all the time my knowledge is expanding, every time out there, because I say to anyone who comes on these trips, take time to stop, look and watch, don’t be rushing around on shore, take a bit of breathing time, and particularly with penguins, if you crouch down and watch, you see all sorts of things going on, and I’m always seeing little bits of behaviour that I’m not sure what they are but I can try interpret it or look it up later, but yeah that’s the nicest thing about Antarctica, I’ve been there, I’ve lost count how many times, 15 or 20 times, something like that, every single trip is different, no 2 trips are the same, if you’re thee at a slightly different time there will be a lot of ice one trip and hardly any ice the next, thick snow one trip, thick stones on the ground all the snow is melted on another, and so on. It’s very different, it’s fabulous, I love that.
Ray: It’s totally different, it’s so different, on cruise ships you’ve got a schedule and that’s it, boring. I don’t want to go back to cruise ships, I’ve done it for so many years, don’t get me wrong, cruise ships are still amazing, this is just a different side of the cruise ship, totally different but wow. So tell me a little bit about your hours, do you have a proper schedule system with hours or is it like more a free based kind of thing? Because I just want them to know, from what I’ve seen your work hours on this kind of ship, it’s not like you have to do 8 hours, it’s kind of like a free based thing, you have to go with the flow kind of thing.
Chris: Yeah you just cover whatever duty it is, for example, if we have 200 guests we might have to take them ashore in 3 different landings, each guest gets an hour and a half ashore in one group, then the second group will come out and then the third group. So they’re onshore for an hour and a half, you’re onshore for 4 and a half hours plus whatever time there is to get out there and back as well. Sometimes I’m standing out there for 5 hours in the cold yes, it’s lovely don’t get me wrong, I enjoy every minute of it, but sometimes you come back after 5 hours and you’re cold and tired, and hungry, always hungry.
Ray: I was going to ask you actually as a personal note, what happens when you’re hungry because you’re not allowed to take food?
Chris: you’re not allowed to take food; you have to make sure you take plenty in your stomach before you go. So you know if we’re going out for an early landing and we have to be there an hour before the guests, they make sure the crew mess is open early for us so we always have something, there’s no reason we wouldn’t get something.
Ray: That’s why when I see you guys come on, you’re like an animal’s ah get out of the way I want to eat, no I’m joking it’s not like that. That was actually a question I didn’t have noted, I was like ah s**t I need to ask you about that one. So living onboard out at sea can be very tough as you can see, tell me about your accommodation, how is your accommodation?
Chris: Well yeah we’re usually in the ‘crew accommodation’, they usually ask the expedition staff to double up, so we’re coming here not quite sure who we’re going to be sharing a room with, they’re pretty good at selecting a companion for you, and the nice thing is the team part of this is working with a good team of like-minded people, the team is really good and you start having fun together, and that’s nice because I think that’s something the guests also appreciate, to see you having fun together, it helps them to enjoy it as well.
Ray: Chris, I’ve been at sea for a long time, and this expedition team kind of thing, it’s really amazing, when I see you guys all together working together, it’s really nice, every one of you have your special talent, but you all know what the main purpose is, you all have that main goal and work together and that’s really nice, that’s what I’ve noticed, and I’ve only been here a while and I’m still learning everything. So you have expedition staff, expedition leader, and what were the other ones, expedition administration, what’s the level, how does the level work?
Chris: Yeah well the expedition leader is basically the person in charge of the team and what the team does, he obviously has some staff to help him. But he has the problem of saying if we need a plan B what can plan B be? And here in Antarctica it’s different because all these places we’re going to, you have to book them, probably a year in advance, I’m going to be here in the morning at this place and you book it, you have to be at that place and if something happens and you can’t go to that place, you say well I’m going to go to that place around the corner, someone else has booked that one.
So you can’t always do that but, all the expedition leaders get together by radio every day to discuss what’s happening and what might be changing, and you do a bit of wheeling-dealing, you know each other, so you say I’d like to get in there, can anyone help or is there someone else who is going to move from one to another, you do a bit of wheeling-dealing and find a place to make up for the place you can’t make it to, and that’s all hard work, for an expedition leader, I must admit I would not want that responsibility of trying to sort all that out, it must be some big headaches. I’ve heard of trips coming down here for 5 days and they get 1 landing in 5 days.
Ray: I’d be fuming if I was paying 10 000 to 30 000 dollars’ package and get 1 chance to go on shore, I’d be like what the beep.
Chris: But you’re out here at the mercy of the elements.
Ray: Yes of course, the snow and the wind, I didn’t know this until recently, I went out for example, had the whole kit on, the gloves the whole toodaloo, went out giving champagne on the zodiacs, and I was wearing thee thin gloves, and they were pouring the champagne and I didn’t know some of the champagne spilled on some of my fingers through the glove, and I thought nothing of it, 20 minutes later, there are my fingers freezing, and I was like it’s so cold, I took off the gloves maybe it would help, it was even worse, I had to put the wet gloves back on, so in actual fact for about 2 hours I suffered, but I learned the hard way, so now I know for next time, but you learn during the time when you’re out there.
Chris: That’s why you wear the waterproof outer layer whenever you’re in the zodiacs because of a little splash and it soaks in and the wind blows and you freeze.
Ray: So now you know, so don’t complain about your weather back at home, you have felt nothing until you come to Antarctica. So imagine your toughest day you’ve ever experienced at sea, can you tell me about it and how you got through it? If you had one of those types of days
Chris: Gosh toughest day at sea, that’s an interesting one. Well we’re just poised now to enter the drake passage which is the area between South America and the Antarctic Peninsula, it’s where the Atlantic Ocean and Pacific Ocean kind of meeting, it’s notorious for bad weather, so we’re always on the lookout watching weather maps, watching what the waves are going to be doing, watching what the swell is going to be doing, because all of that combines to move the ship around that the guests don’t like and sometimes, the expedition team don’t like either.
I’m blessed I’ve never suffered a moment of seasickness in my life, and I hope I don’t because it looks pretty awful for those who do suffer? But I have been through some pretty rough drake passage journeys when things are getting thrown around the room, and you’re not allowed out on the deck because it’s just too dangerous, it really makes you realise how tiny and small and insignificant we are on this planet. We’re not in control of it, it really is in control of us, it’s kind of a nice feeling, I kind of like that.
Ray: As you said, drake passage for me was kind of scary, and after a while I went, the ship was swaying from side to side, we were flying from left to right, I went back into my office, everything turned over, it looked like somebody went in there and rand sacked the place looking for something. I had to go pick up like 6.7 million nails that fell out of a box.
Chris: Yeah I put my camera, my binoculars, my computer on the floor, because at night who knows what might happen.
Ray: I’ve been at sea a long time, and I haven’t experienced something as rough as the drake passage.
Chris: But we haven’t had it rough yet.
Ray: Don’t say that, because I thought it was bad already recently. Oh no, let’s move on. Could you just tell me a few positives and negatives of your job? There has to be a couple of negatives or something you know, something that’s not really enthralling in your job.
Chris: I mean if it is negative, it is the fact that sometimes my particular duty will be standing by a penguin colony for 5 hours, you can keep up your enthusiasm for the first 3 or 4 hours but sometimes that last hour you start to weigh in a little bit, always try to be upbeat and passionate and talk about penguins while all the while my stomach is rumbling, my feet are a block of ice or something like that.
Ray: Yeah because I thinking of coming to the expedition, it looks all good but I don’t know what you go through on land, like standing there for 4 and a half hours, that could actually get to you after a while.
Chris: I mean they can be quite long days, the hardest ones are maybe when you’re up at 5 o’clock getting ready for a 6 o’clock landing for the guests say from 6 o’clock until 11 o’clock, you then come back, have an early lunch, you move on to somewhere else and you’re back out there at 2 o’clock until 5 o’clock, then you have an evening landing like we had a few days back, so you have 3 in a day, and you’re back at 9 and you’re up at 5, and you’ve been out there 3 times in the cold, feeding in between frantically. You come back and you really know you’ve been out there. But it’s fun that’s the thing, even then you’re tired, worn out, you come back feeling you’ve achieved something, you get those guests saying wow that was the best day I’ve ever had and that makes you feel good, it makes you feel good.
Ray: When I went on one of those trips I came back alive, something that jolted through me.
Chris: So you have negative moments, but the whole thing is pretty positive for me.
Ray: Ok so I ask every single person this question, the big question I ask everyone is telling me the most shocking thing you have ever encountered or seen in your career at sea? I’ve had ghost stories, I’ve had explosions, I’ve had fires, I’ve had crazy things, what is the most? You see it’s the Antarctic so it’s a little bit different so maybe you could, even if it’s something you thought you’d never see on land maybe, like wow it shocked you.
Chris: That’s an interesting one, there are things that you prepare for but when you actually see them, they’re even better, so seeing my first glacier carving where a big chunk of ice plunges into the water, that takes your breath away, then after that it splashes into the water and you get this huge wave as a result of it, which is a little bit like a tsunami and I remember one of the things we go to every time, and this happened and I watched, and I could see the water drawback to the shore and suddenly rush forward with 6ft of water splash on the shore, and that’s actually what a tsunami is and you’re actually seeing that in a miniature version after this piece of ice breaks off like that, it’s kind of stunning, again it’s the planet showing you what it can do, and nothing is in control of that, but we have to be aware of it and prepared for it.
Ray: Lucky that you’re talking about this, yesterday or the day before I was with another lecturer and I saw his glacier, he had a video of another glacier drop, I’ve never seen one, I’ve seen maybe a little piece, and as you said the tsunami came, the seal was one the ice, were you nervous at all?
Chris: Well no, I was on land when I was watching it, so that was ok, but if you’re in the zodiac, again the zodiac drivers know what to do, they how to sit when the wave comes and the just ride on the wave, if you side on to it maybe you could get flipped. These guys are trained really well to drive these zodiacs, and they need to because they’re an essential piece of equipment but they’re very safe.
Ray: I’ve learned so much from this contract, really appreciative of everything and grateful. Just a few more and then we’re going to end this off because I could go on for hours but we have lectures to do and work to do onboard, so just a couple more. Would you recommend somebody to work on a cruise line as an expedition staff member?
Chris: Yeah I think if someone is keen and like travelling then this is a fabulous way to travel to the places that you’ve really got no other chance of getting to, some of these tiny little islands in the middle of nowhere and there’s no other way to get to them, apart from sailing close by and going out in the zodiac, and that’s wild and wonderful so yeah if you have a mind to, try thinking about what you could offer, the speciality you have, develop a skill maybe, something you could offer, even if it’s just driving a zodiac. Then you have the skill to offer, it really is the most incredible and privileged way of seeing the most special places on this earth. I am so grateful for the opportunity I have.
Ray:Chris you are utterly appreciated and an amazingly clever man, they know nothing about what I see here in your bio, I just haven’t got down to putting it all out there, but you have a world of knowledge in that little brain of yours, and I thank you on behalf of being a part of my show, and if anybody would like to get hold of me or Chris about anything, just drop me an email and I’ll contact him, he’s one of the best, and Chris thank you very much.
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