Training Coordinator, Expedition Leader, PTGA Senior Polar Guide, Assessor and ridiculously well-travelled expedition guide. Kit van Wagner blends her Master’s degree in Marine Science Education with a very well rounded expedition portfolio. Amongst her leading, teaching and inspiring a new generation of guides, she has also created the online social hub that brings expedition guides together, Boat People.
Thanks, Kit for taking time to join us and share some of your incredible knowledge and experience in the expedition industry.
Let us start from the very beginning...
My name is Kit van Wagner and I was born in New York City to parents with US passports and an itch to travel. The first year of my life the three of us lived in a VW van travelling around Europe. Shortly after that, my family moved to Japan where my brother was born. From Japan, we moved to New Hampshire for a while (where I gained a sister), then to London, and then to Norway for four years. After Norway, we moved back to England (welcoming another sister) and finally we all landed in New Hampshire again where I finished high school.
This peripatetic upbringing makes me a “Third Culture Kid,” defined as someone growing up in a culture not their own, while also not feeling at home in the culture of his/her passport. Being a Third Culture Kid means I’m adaptable and able to blend in just about anywhere, but it also leaves me with a lingering rootlessness that has permeated my adult years and my career. As a consequence of my upbringing and subsequent expedition career, I have worked in and visited over 130 countries and territories worldwide.
What is your current role in the expedition industry?
Up until the pandemic, I was primarily training expedition guides, but also working occasionally as an Expedition Leader. I am a Senior Polar Guide and an Assessor with the PTGA.
At the moment I am back in graduate school studying Instructional Technology with the goal to integrate the best in educational pedagogy with the latest technological teaching tools to create innovative remote training for expedition guides.
What is your background?
I grew up on the water sailing, rowing, canoeing, kayaking, water skiing, surfing and swimming. I earned my 100GT US Coast Guard license and PADI Scuba Instructor rating in my mid-20s. In addition, I have an undergraduate degree in Environmental Studies, a Master’s degree in Marine Science Education and now I am working on an Education Specialist degree (Ed.S.) in Instructional Technology with a concentration in Instruction Design.
The fields of Instruction Technology and Instructional Design are rapidly growing, especially now in light of the pandemic and the increase in remote and on-line learning. I am studying the best theories and methods in design innovation to create environments that support diverse learner needs. This knowledge will allow me to devise strategies to integrate technology into training that inspires learning and to understand technology’s impact in an increasingly connected world. I hope to use new technology as it emerges to create technology-enhanced learning experiences. The field is exciting and wide open in terms of possibilities for the application of technology and design thinking to boost learning opportunities for expedition guides.
How did you get your start in the industry?
While I was in graduate school in the late 1990s, I was working a summer job teaching sailing, navigation, and diving to high school students on yachts in the British Virgin Islands. I spent four consecutive summers with the program there and made some great professional connections in the islands. One of them was a woman who was working for the BVI government. She was advising me on a marine science curriculum I was developing for the islands. It also turned out she worked on expedition ships as a lecturer and recommended me to her company when they were looking for another guide. I had no idea she’d even referred me until I got a call and invitation to come and work aboard.
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 camaraderie that expedition cruising offers, and I took to seafaring as my primary employment. Eventually, I started working as an Expedition Leader in addition to being a lecturer in Marine Science.
Describe a “normal” day for you at work.
On board as Expedition Leader there is no such thing as a normal day! 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 relative quiet 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 and the quality of the experience, to coordination of the day’s activity with the hotel department and the officers on the bridge. It is 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 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 is 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, it is with a full and successful day behind me.
What’s your favourite expedition destination?
For landscape and variety of wildlife, I have to say Alaska and the Russian Far East are way up on my list. If we are talking about diving, snorkeling and reefs then my favourites are probably Palau and some of the 17,000 islands of Indonesia; especially the Raja Ampat region. To speak of cultural diversity, then I would look towards Papua New Guinea, Vietnam, or Burma. 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. For remote and rugged beauty I would probably choose the New Zealand Sub-Antarctic Islands. 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 a quality that makes it my favourite in one aspect or another.
What aspect of guiding are you most passionate about?
Hands down it is the teamwork. I thrive on the fellowship and shared mission to give the guests a fantastic experience. I find it highly rewarding to solve a problem while pouring over a chart of the region with 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. I also enjoy the never-ending opportunities to learn by attending lectures, or when experiencing dynamic field operations, or handling changing weather conditions.
Knowing what you know now, what would you tell yourself starting out?
I am so glad that I did as much travel as I did when I was younger, especially now in light of the pandemic and how much this will inevitably change how and where we can travel. If I could, I’d tell my younger self to do even more travel and to do a better job to document, photograph, write and paint my experiences.
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. I would tell myself setting out to be prepared for the trade-offs of a life at sea, but I have made a fulfilling career of it and I count that as a success.
What is the thing that surprised you most about guiding?
It’s been incredible to watch expedition guiding turn into a proper career over the years. When I first started, it seemed we were a small community of mostly part-time guides who worked a few contracts each year in select destinations. There was very little required in terms of certifications or STCW training and that’s simply not the case anymore.
What has guiding and working in the polar regions taught you about yourself?
Aboard, the work is extremely gratifying when things go according to plan, but if expedition travel has taught me anything, it is 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. In this way, expedition has allowed me opportunities to push myself in critical situations. In a “normal” job you rarely have a chance to find out what you are made of and how you react in acute circumstances. As expedition guides, we constantly test ourselves and learn about our limitations, as well as our potential for growth. Being open to these opportunities for self-improvement has been a great lesson for me.
I have also learned so much from the travel itself and having the opportunity to feel like a citizen of the whole planet while visiting new places almost daily and making connections with people from all walks of life. The more I travelled, the more I realized that people around the world have few differences and much in common.
What skills/ knowledge do you rate the most important for professional guides?
Such a great question! In general, terms, knowing and trusting your abilities and limitations is incredibly important. It is all too easy to overestimate your abilities only to have the rug pulled out from under you. I love the expression, “Be humble, or be humbled.”
More specifically, if you want to drive Zodiacs and work at sea, then learn absolutely everything you can about seamanship from collision avoidance regulations and chart navigation, to tying a perfect bowline with your hands behind your back.
For those looking to join the industry, what advice would you give?
Be true to your instincts because one opportunity will surely lead to another and another, but the starting point needs to be authentic. 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. I built skills that allowed me to put one foot in front of the other and progress in my guiding career.
For those looking to continue advancing their current expedition career, what advice would you give?
Study everything and everyone around you. Learn from your own mistakes, but learn from mistakes that others make as well so that you will not fall into the same traps. Tell stories of your field experiences to your colleagues and encourage them to tell theirs, so you can debrief together and build up your own mental library of proficiencies. You can draw on the knowledge of these shared experiences when you need guidance in a critical moment. Seek out ways to expand your knowledge, whether that is attending the lectures of your colleagues, reading accident reports, or pursuing another certification in boat handling.
And finally, if you want to take on more responsibility and move into the Expedition Leader role, find those amazing ELs who will support you in this endeavor and give you opportunities for growth and gradual shouldering of responsibilities. Over the years my most encouraging ELs let me take charge of a Zodiac cruise, create the staff roster for the next day, build a destination briefing, complete a landing report, or deliver the Zodiac briefing for guests at the start of a voyage. All these incremental leadership opportunities helped me build a portfolio of skills in a safe environment with plenty of feedback well before I was “thrown to the wolves” and doing it on my own, for real, for the first time. Seek out these people and initiate your own opportunities to grow.
What is the biggest learning moment from your time in the industry?
In 2014, thanks to an unexpected change of plan, our ship was heading into far northern Alaska with an extra day in hand, a nearly full complement of guests, and no prepared activities what so ever. Scrambling to come up with a plan as we steamed from Russia to Alaska, 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 postmaster) 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.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years (COVID-19 aside)?
At this point in the game, I want to create innovative training and teaching tools to help professionalize and prepare the next generation of guides using remote learning technology and exemplary pedagogy. With my experience and background in expedition guiding combined with my latest academic studies, I hope to be positioned to deliver pioneering on-line courses and remote learning opportunities for our industry.
What future trends do you think guides need to consider?
With the move toward expedition guiding as a more formalized career, the more certifications and formal training guides can acquire, the better. Build your resume by adding every possible accreditation, endorsement and qualification you can. These become essential for a guide to be competitive and legitimate to employers, and respected by colleagues and clients.
If you could bring anyone on an expedition to Antarctica with you, who would it be and why?
Ah, this question brings a little tear to my eye because without a second thought I would bring my dad who passed away three years ago. He was a climbing and mountaineering aficionado and just being around the peaks and stunning snowscapes of the Peninsula would have blown his mind. I would have especially loved for him to have seen South Georgia and visited historic Grytviken. I can only imagine how special that adventure would have been for us to do together.
If you could have been on any expedition ever, what would it be and why?
As a marine science disciple, I have to say the Challenger Expedition of 1872. Three and half years of collecting data and specimens from the world’s oceans with almost 5000 new marine species documented. Everything I have read about that venture speaks of how well-appointed, well-executed and well documented the expedition was – truly a professional endeavor.
How did 'Boat People' come to life?
The Boat People group on Facebook is a real labour of love for me. It got started in November 2012 when I was home between contracts. I was honestly just hanging out around the house and like all good ideas, this one came out of nowhere complete with the name. I didn’t dwell on it too long, just jumped online and created the group by inviting about 50 friends from around the expedition world. Now, in 2020 the group has grown to almost 2000 people. That growth still amazes me!
I work hard to limit the group to professionals in the expedition industry, the vast majority of whom are expedition guides or once worked in this role. I monitor the posts almost daily to keep out politics and inflammatory material, but thankfully the membership is really conscientious as a whole and it is not often that I have to step in and moderate content or comments.
I am thrilled to see how Boat People has become such a useful platform for discussion and idea generation in our industry. I know people who have gotten their first expedition guiding contracts from the group, and others who have passed away and been recognized in tributes from their peers on the platform. Boat People is a huge extended expedition staff family that I’m proud of creating and happy to see prosper.
After a busy season, what's on the top of your list when you finally get some downtime?
SLEEP!! Oh, the joy of sleeping. Reading a book with a cup of home-brewed coffee, going for a run, or paddling out to catch a few waves also get prime consideration. It’s usually such a delight to simply do what I want, when I want since our days on expeditions are so structured. I like to let that all go and allow the days to unfold without a plan…for as long as possible.
Kit's social media, website info:
Again, thanks so much to Kit for taking time to share some of her experience and insights into our expedition industry.