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Guiding Light - Insights from Industry Professionals, Sarah Merusi

expedition guide, antarctica, expedition cruise industry, zodiac driver, expedition guide academy, polar tourism guides association, senior polar guide.
Work ethic with a smile - Sarah Merusi

Expedition guide & Assistant Expedition Leader

Global adventure enthusiast, climber, mountaineer and aeropress coffee connoisseur. Sarah can usually be found mid-season on a ship somewhere in the world with an ear to ear smile. We catch up with Sarah at home in Patagonia.

Thanks for joining us Sarah, we appreciate you taking the time. Let's take it from the beginning.

Who are you and where are you from? My name is Sarah Merusi and I am from the USA. I grew up at the intersection of 3 states - New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.  What is your current role in the expedition industry? My roles fluctuate between two companies, Antarctica 21 and Silversea Cruises, but I am first and foremost an expedition guide. I work as a Cruise Manager, Assessor/Trainer, Naturalist, Zodiac Driver in Antarctica, Norway, Svalbard, Iceland, Greenland and Canada. I also work as a Rifle Handler in addition to my other roles in the Arctic. I am a PTGA (Polar Tourism Guides Association) Assessor and Senior Polar Guide. 

What is your background? My professional background is in leadership development, program management and operations. I have worked for non-profits, private sector companies and in higher education. For five years, I worked at Wharton School, first coordinating executive education programs and then managing outdoor experiential leadership expeditions and training programs for Wharton Leadership Ventures. This work allowed me to visit all seven continents, guiding in Patagonia, Iceland, and Utah among other places. I have a Bachelors degree in French & Asian Religions from Elizabethtown College and obtained a Masters degree in Nonprofit Leadership focusing on cross-cultural coaching and social entrepreneurship from the University of Pennsylvania. I am currently working as a consultant for UN Women promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment in the private sector. How did you get your start in the industry? My love of the outdoors began as a cross-country runner. For over eight years, I ran tens of thousands of miles on trails. It opened up my mind to appreciate the magic and beauty of nature. I started working in the outdoor industry in 2002 as ski instructor and later became more involved in running operations and guiding through my work at Wharton Leadership Ventures. One of the expeditions at Wharton is a 10-day trekking and glacial traversing expedition in Antarctica. I joined the expedition in 2013 and the pristine environment of Antarctica never left me. Around this time, I met my now husband Nico, who had been working as a mountain guide in Antarctica. I longed to join Nico working in the polar regions and transition from guiding land based expeditions to ship based expeditions. Several years later, after completing my Masters degree, I left my career at Wharton, put all my belongings in storage and joined Antarctica 21 on her first voyage to South Georgia, as a Quality Manager and expedition guide for the company. I had never been on a ship before this and the four-day voyage at sea to South Georgia was a rough entry point to expedition cruising! I learned so much from my colleagues and owe a lot of my growth to their mentorship and support.

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Not task too small... or big! MV Ocean Nova, Antarctica

Describe a “normal” day for you at work?

This would be a somewhat normal day for me as a Cruise Manager (AEL)/Expedition Guide.  Wake up an hour before breakfast and have a coffee enjoying the view outside. Check conditions on the bridge, meet with EL, Hotel Manager to talk through plan for the day. Check in with head office through email and meet with guests throughout the day. Ensure the disembarkation process runs smoothly and then head outside for several hours of guiding at a landing/or zodiac cruise two times in the day. Have meals at some point and have an eye on everyone and everything all the time.  If I’m working as an Assessor/Trainer, I would be planning some assessments or trainings and debriefs at small pockets during the day as well.

What is the best thing about expedition guiding? Sharing incredible experiences in the most awe-inspiring places on the planet with your teammates and guests. I am lucky to work alongside my husband in this field and feel fortunate to share these experiences with him. What’s your favourite expedition destination? Anywhere south of the polar circle along the Antarctic peninsula!  What aspect of guiding are you most passionate about? Helping fellow guides and guests become their best selves - whether that is through sharing inspiring moments to help guests become ambassadors of the place or assessing and training my fellow guides to become better guides. Knowing what you know now, what would you tell yourself starting out? Take a deep breath! You will learn what you need in due time. I felt like I needed to be an expert in everything immediately. I now know that we are always growing and developing - the learning never ends. What is your biggest hope for the future of the expedition guiding industry? I hope to see more intersectional representation in teams and leadership (intersectional meaning race, class, gender, age, and sexual orientation). I would love to see more women expedition leaders and more diverse and inclusive hiring within teams.  What is the thing that surprised you most about guiding?  Often times, little needs to be said. You don’t have to talk and interpret all the time. In places like Antarctica and Greenland, a place or an experience speaks for itself. What is most important in these situations is to guide reflection.  What skills/ knowledge do you rate the most important for professional guides? Cultural intelligence, situational awareness and risk management. We work in extremely high risk environments, keeping your eyes open to what is happening all around you is vital in this role. We also work with people from around the world, cultural intelligence supports communicating effectively within a team and with guests. For those looking to join the industry, what advice would you give? Become familiar with the history and environment of the places you visit, learn to use resources from IAATO, AECO, and the PTGA. Enroll in a course with a training academy like the EGA! I wish something like this existed when I got started, it’s great to learn all the introductory skills needed and have a framework for development. For those looking to continue advancing their expedition career, what advice would you give? Seek mentors from senior guides and don’t be afraid to ask for help if you’re unsure about the way to do something. Follow the path of a PTGA certification and use this path to become a better guide. What is the biggest learning moment from your time in the industry? Learning to do a surf landing in a zodiac. I have learned that no matter how skilled you feel, you are always capable of more growth and development. Learning to do a surf landing in a zodiac requires your 100% focus and attention on your own skills, your boat, your guests, your team at the beach and the sea conditions, among other variables. I was scared to take this next step in zodiac driving for a long time, but finally learning this skill has taught me that this same level of focus and attention is necessary in everything we do as guides. 

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Bad day? No way! In the thick of some classic Antarctic weather

Where do you see yourself in 10 years time?

As a seafarer, I truly feel at home while at sea. In 10 years, I hope to still work on ships and visit the polar regions for some part of each year! I plan to remain an active part of this industry through training and assessing. What future trends do you think guides need to consider? As the climate changes and environmental activism increases, guides can encourage their companies to be environmentally sustainable and take action to be climate neutral. I believe it is not enough for us to individually offset our own work-based travel.   What’s your favourite zodiac driving conditions and why?

0.5 meter waves, light breeze, cloudy and snow falling, with a view of the mountains in the distance. It feels like you’re driving inside a snow globe! If you could bring anyone on an expedition to Antarctica with you, who would it be and why? My dad, he isn’t much of a traveler, but I would love to show him my favourite place on the planet and where I am most proud of working. If you could have been on any expedition ever, what would it be and why? This is a very tough question because I would also have loved to be a fly on the wall for  Shackelton’s Endurance expedition or Charcot’s Le Francais expedition.  But if I could physically be on the expedition, it would have to be the Swedish Antarctic expedition with Nordenskjold from 1901-1904. There was so much at stake for everyone who split up to never find each other again and yet they did. The intuition each team member had to reconnect with one another is mind blowing. I would have loved to be a part of that team. Sarah's social media & website info: Web: Instagram: @sarahmerusi

Thanks again for taking the time to share some of your story with us. Best of luck with the Southern winter and we hope to see you in a port town sometime soon.



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