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Guiding Light - Insights from Industry Professionals, Lauren Farmer

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Lauren Farmer - Expedition Leader and Citizen Science Enthusiast

Expedition leader, photographer and Polar Citizen Science Collective Co-founder, Lauren brings a dedication and passion to all things expedition guiding.

Thanks for joining us Lauren. We're super excited to learn more about you and your approach to expedition guiding. Let's start from the beginning.Who are you and where are you from?

My name is Lauren Farmer. I was born in a country town in Australia but moved to Kansas with my family when I was 7 years old and was subsequently raised in the States, studying in California and then spending a decade in New York City. Just to keep things interesting, I am now in the processing of settling down in the Scottish Highlands.  

What is your current role in the expedition industry?

I am currently an expedition leader for several operators on ships ranging from 12 to 134 passengers and am a Co-founder of the Polar Citizen Science Collective, which promotes science programs onboard expedition vessels.  

What is your background?

I was very involved in theatre in high school and went to university in Los Angeles to study advertising and intern in the TV & film industry. I worked in the corporate side of entertainment for 12 years at networks like Warner Bros. and HBO. At the time, I was pursuing a side hustle of portrait photography and booked myself a trip as a guest on a ship to Antarctica. Of course, I was hooked and through a heavy dose of perseverance and more than a little luck, I landed an expedition photographer contract on that same ship for the following Arctic season, and the rest is history!  

In November of 2012, I was in Antarctica with G Adventures as a guest on Expedition and Susan Adie, G’s operations manager was also on board. I was fortunate to meet her and befriend several of the expedition staff (one who later became my husband!). A couple of months after my trip, I reached out to Susan and was offered my first contract as an expedition photographer for the following Svalbard season. I was back in Antarctica the following year as Assistant Expedition Leader (with administrative skills I had acquired from my years working in corporate America) and was fortunate to learn most else on the job. Five years later, I became an Expedition Leader.  

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A regular day in the office

Describe a “normal” day for you at work?

As an EL, you’re the earliest up, along with the officer on watch and fire patrol. I usually get up a half-hour before the wake-up call, just enough to look and feel relatively awake and have a strong coffee in hand for the “ding dong” (wake-up call). As the team and guests have breakfast, I’m usually refining the day’s plan, triple-checking the weather, having a brief chat with the Captain and quickly scrolling through emails from the office and from other vessels updating their own day’s plan. As a leader, I work hard to build up other leaders on the team and to rely on the strengths of those around me, so during a day’s operations, I rarely feel like I am “running the show.” On an easy day, everything just clicks. The team is engaged, enthusiastic and are enjoying themselves and the guests are having the time of their lives. On a hard day, boy is it tough to be an EL. The weight of difficult decision-making definitely takes its toll and as a new EL, I am still learning how to manage both my time and energy through the challenges of working in such a high-stress, high-stakes environment. I feel very fortunate to have been given the opportunity of expedition leading and am enjoying the trial-and-error of developing my own leadership style, and the humility of realising you can’t do it perfectly all of the time.  

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Lauren a long, long way north. North Pole Expedition

What’s your favourite expedition destination so far? 

While there’s no denying the Antarctic Peninsula is the most beautiful place on Earth, I have a soft spot for the icebreaker voyages to the North Pole, as they are so unlike any other expedition cruise or destination I’ve experienced. I’ve now been to the pole 15 times on board Russian nuclear icebreaker 50 let Pobedy as Expedition Photographer and sea ice observer. The experience of icebreaking is surreal, slicing through up to 3 meters of ice going 8-10 knots, spending day upon day looking out at nothing but ice and sky. Passing through the Arctic ring of life and continuing north where a sighting of a lone Kittiwake or Ringed seal is rare has helped me to better understand the complexities and connectedness of the Arctic ecosystem. Through these cruises, we have incredible access to repeat transects of the Arctic Ocean through the main period of summer melt, so we maintain an ambitious sea ice observation schedule for Ice-Watch, currently managed by the Norwegian Ice Desk as well as atmospheric observations for NASA’s GLOBE Observer program. Engaging our guests in citizen science has been a really rewarding way to give back to the region and provide valuable data to our scientist partners.  

What aspect of guiding are you most passionate about?

As a guide, I love seeing the satisfaction of a guest who has pushed themselves out of their comfort zone, whether it be signing up for a longer hike, climbing to the top of a hill, going for a bum slide, or simply stepping foot onshore. To get to be a part of someone’s memories which may shape the person they become in the future is a true honour. As a leader, my most recent passion is for finding ways to make sure each guide on my team feels inspired, respected, looked after and has the opportunity to learn and grow.  

What is the thing that surprised you most about expedition guiding? 

Since I came to expedition guiding from the corporate marketing industry, literally everything was new to me! However, in my first few seasons, I was surprised just how emotionally exhausting the job could be, in addition to physically tiring. A lot is expected of us, morning to night, day after day for the length of our contract and it has taken quite some time and effort to learn how to prioritise my own mental health while on the job.  

What strategies or techniques do you use to help look after your mental health?

First and foremost, I remind myself that I cannot be everything to everyone, all of the time, and am learning to set healthy physical, emotional and mental boundaries throughout the day. Additionally, I lean on other leaders on the team and trust that if something is delegated to them, they are more than capable of taking care of it and I no longer need to concern myself with that particular task. I am Type A through and through, so freeing up time in the day to sit down at the computer and get myself organised allows me to better handle the uncertainty. 

Having quiet time on my own to watch a TV show or edit photos is also hugely important, so I often skip a meal or the bar after dinner to make sure I prioritise some solo time before bed. 

Some of my most frustrating moments as an EL are when you are trying to get to sleep but can't stop thinking about the next day's plan, so I've found doing a short 10 minute sleep meditation through the Headspace app to be effective in quieting my mind and ensuring I get a proper night's sleep, which in turn helps me better tackle the day ahead. 

Knowing what you know now, what would you tell yourself starting out?

I would tell myself to maintain non-guiding sources of income as now, thanks to COVID-19, we have all unfortunately realised just how financially insecure we set ourselves up to be. Thankfully, from my previous career, I have maintained certain skills which I am employing now in freelance projects but if I knew then what I know now, I certainly would have paid more attention to the nature of our contracts and planned accordingly.  

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Expedition guiding! Cool and cool.

For those looking to join the industry, what advice or insights would you give?

I was very lucky to get into the industry when I did and was able to learn most of the hard skills on the job. That is no longer the case, and anyone wanting to “break-in” needs to commit both their time and finances to get the relevant certifications. Passion isn’t enough and new guides need to identify what it is they have to offer to an already highly-specialised industry and dedicate themselves to expanding that knowledge or skill. Though it’s not always feasible, I’d also suggest to actually go on a trip as a guest and see for yourself what it means to be a polar guide. It's not always driving Zodiacs through ice and being pecked at by penguin chicks! If you’re keen to dig old insoles out of smelly boots and carry an insane amount of boxes back and forth down a tight hallway, you’ll be very welcome. 

What skills or knowledge do you think are most important for professional guides?

I feel soft skills such as communication, conflict resolution, time management, dependability, motivation and ability to work in a team are incredibly important to the success of a professional guide. Unfortunately, these are not as “easy” to teach as hard skills like how to drive a Zodiac or flag a route. I encourage myself and those around me to ask for feedback on these soft skills and to make real effort to improve them over time.  

For current guides looking to advance their expedition career, what advice would you give?

I’d encourage new guides to work for several operators who offer a range of itineraries so that you have a diversified view of how things can be done and how procedures can be adapted to different destinations. I’d also suggest that they try to fill as many roles on a team as possible, including camp guide, kayak assistant, citizen science coordinator, AEL (assistant expedition leader), education coordinator, etc. and always be working towards making yourself as employable as possible. Not all operators are created equal so if a new guide finds themselves feeling discouraged, unsupported or stunted in their growth, don’t waste time in moving on and finding your way to a team where you can thrive. Finally, work to develop an industry-wide reputation in your off-season by attending conferences and offering your expertise and opinions in public forums but always remember, your future employers are likely watching/reading!  

What has been the biggest learning moment from your time in the industry?

Something I did not feel necessarily prepared for but learned a great deal from were two experiences where I had shared responsibility for telling guests their trip was cancelled (one was due to engine trouble and the other was COVID-19). As someone who empathizes strongly, assisting someone through the shock, disappointment, disbelief and anger of a cancelled trip is a huge challenge. I’ve learned a lot about showing compassion while not accepting blame, setting personal and professional boundaries for the assistance offered and empowering my teammates so as to not shoulder the burden alone.  

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Delivering the magic. Zodiac cruise, Antarctica. Photo: Yuri Choufour

 What future trends do you think guides need to consider as we look ahead? 

Professionalism is key, as is understanding what that means to you and for the career, you are building. Do you desire to be a better guide than you are now, to be given more opportunities in the future, or do you feel you’ve accomplished as much as you have set out to? Expedition cruising is experiencing an unfortunate but hopefully better-in-the-long-run transition thanks to COVID-19. Who knows what it will look like, or when we will be back working as often as we’d like to. It's a good chance for all of us to reset our priorities for the future, whether those be professional or personal. What’s important to you?   

If you could bring anyone on an expedition, where would you go?

I hope one day to be able to share Antarctica or the Arctic with groups of children from marginalized communities around the world, who haven’t been afforded the privilege that many of us guides and the majority of our guests seem to enjoy. We are so fortunate and wherever possible, we should be creating opportunities to share the polar regions with as many people as possible, whether that be in person on a ship or through school presentations and online events.  

Are you currently working with any groups to help realise this dream?

Unfortunately I haven't yet given this the thought it deserves. I'd be very open to connecting with others who would like to brainstorm how we can bring more diversity to our industry and create more inclusive opportunities for those who may like to experience the polar regions. I've always admired the work of Students on Ice and would like to learn more about how they recruit their students and the ongoing connection they maintain with them following their trip. 

If you could have been on any expedition ever?

If I could be a fly on the wall for one expedition it would be Salomon August Andrée's ill-fated attempt to reach the North Pole by balloon in 1897, simply because I am desperate to know what actually happened during those final few days on Kvitøya. I would highly recommend Bea Uusma's book titled The Expedition, it paints the most dramatic, other-worldly picture of what those final moments might have been like for Andrée.

I would also have signed myself up for Nansen's 1893–1896 North Pole expedition on Fram. From my experience on the icebreaker, I'm drawn to the idea of freezing yourself into the ice and seeing where the drift takes you. After several visits to Cape Norway in Franz Josef Land, where Nansen and Johansen overwintered before their rescue, I am confident I would have enthusiastically volunteered to stay on the ship!

Thanks so much to Lauren for taking the time to offer us some insight into her world of guiding. If you'd like to follow more of Lauren's adventures then check out her social media links and contacts below.

Lauren's social media & website info:

Instagram: @laurenfarmer

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Photo credit: Ryan Valasek



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