Dr Claudia Holgate has been lecturing for Silversea since 2008. Here she tells us about her lifetime love of birds, why South Georgia is her favourite place on the planet – and how she learnt to drive a zodiac.
You once fenced in the Olympics, now you’re a climatologist and ornithologist. That’s a big change – can you talk us through it?
I fenced competitively, internationally for 15 years, but I then had a very bad accident, and ended up with a punctured lung and thought, well, maybe now is the time to move on and get a real job! I’ve always wanted to work in the Antarctic, but after I finished my studies I went off and I did other things; I worked for the government, the United Nations and then moved into academia teaching climatology.
I still had this drive to go to the Antarctic, so I decided the best way to go would be on expedition ships. I spoke to a number of people in the field and they said you have to get a zodiac drivers licence. Expedition ships take ornithologists and geologists and I thought, ‘How am I going to really sell myself?’ I’ve been birding and bird ringing since I was about 14, so I thought, well, I can talk birds and bird biology, and I’m a physical geographer, so I can talk about climate and climate change – and I can drive zodiacs!
I joined Silversea when it bought its first expedition vessel, at that point the Prince Albert II – now the Silver Explorer – and I started working on it in 2008. I have had a very happy relationship working with Silversea ever since. I’ve been very, very privileged to travel most of the world.
On an average cruise, what is your main role?
I’m a lecturer. So I give lectures on sea days or half sea days. Depending on the area we’re in, I’ll lecture on birds or climate change or geology. I’m pretty much a general naturalist. And I drive zodiacs, which is a crucial part of our work, and I guide ashore. These [lectures and tours] give guests a much greater appreciation of the experience, about everything around them. That’s really what expedition cruises are about.
Silversea must get a lot of bird enthusiasts on board. Do any book just to see wildlife?
It depends on the region. One of my favourite areas is the Russian Far East and Alaska, where you have so many endemic species – it’s the same in the Galapagos and Antarctica. There are a lot of people out there, serious birders, who will pay a lot of money to go and see special birds that you can’t see anywhere else. I’m a birder myself, so I understand [the logic behind], ‘I want go to that region and these are the birds I want to see.’
There are certain birds that hold an allure among that travellers – the emperor penguin, for example. Why is that?
You’ve got your iconic species and the emperor penguin is one. Unfortunately, you get many people who think they can go to Antarctica and see emperor penguins, which are much farther in land [than other species]. You need to take a special trip, with an ice-breaker and helicopters to see them. However, the king penguin – which is also a really large bird – we find on South Georgia, which is just an unbelievable island, my favourite place on the entire planet. There we get colonies of 200,000 king penguins, which is an experience that is completely life-changing. There are species people will travel just to see, particularly if they are quite rare – such as your flightless cormorant. There’s only about 900 left in the world. You’ve also got the wandering albatross, which has a wingspan of about three and a half metres. They nest on South Georgia, and when you’re going down to Antarctic, they fly behind the ship. They are such incredible creatures, they can fly for several days without flapping their wings. It’s one of the most magical things, to have these magnificent birds following the ship, often for hours.
What do you say to environmentally conscious people who are worried about taking a cruise?
It’s something I have to get my head around. If anything I’m a climate change specialist, and I think, of course, the ships are burning a lot of fuel to travel around the world. The way I think of it is that if we don’t get people to see these amazing places, then no one is going to protect them. Particularly somewhere like Antarctica, which has a vast amount of natural resources – it could be mined and destroyed. If people don’t see it, they can’t appreciate it, and they don’t put any pressure on governments. Our visitors come back home and talk about it to their friends, so a large part of what we do is planting that seed. I give a lot of lectures on climate change and I’ve had a lot of guests email after a while and say they didn’t really think climate change was a big thing but we’ve really changed their mind. Antarctica and the Arctic also have very strict rules and regulations of how to operate. The vision of all the operators there is to have environmentally responsible tourism. We take that very, very seriously.
Where the wild things are
Antarctica and islands
Best for… penguins
South Georgia is home to more than 200,000 King Penguins
Best for… whales and bears
Lines such as Princess offer whale-watching special cruises to American state
Best for… endemic species
Darwin called it “a little world within itself” – here you’ll find giant tortoises, flightless cormorants and iguanas that you’ll find no where else on Earth