1. Home
  2. /
  3. Polar Tourism
  4. /
  5. Brash Talk #15


Welcome to BrashTalk #15, the newsletter of the Polar Tourism Guides Association.

In This Issue:

  • Presidents Pontifications: Letter to Members
  • Guides Inside: Skills Webinar Series in April
  • Scuttlebutt
    • Covid-19
    • Recognition of Current Competency (RCC) Program
    • RCC Fee Deferment
    • Assessor Courses
    • Annual Qualifications Review
    • Experience Log
  • Training and Development: Poor Visibility Zodiac Navigation
  • Guano Happens: Safety and Risk Management
  • Member Interview: Wai Yin (Wilson) Chueng

President’s Pontifications

I hope this newsletter finds you and those close to you safe and healthy. Despite the uncertainty we are all currently experiencing in the polar and adventure travel industry, we at PTGA have been taking this opportunity to regroup and look forward.

The PTGA Board is energised after some excellent strategic meetings during this global lock down period and we have our Annual General Meeting on April 28 to set course for the next 12 months. This has been a silver lining of sorts, allowing us time together to assess the current needs of our membership and ways to improve our systems and programming to keep pace with the continued growth of the PTGA. We appreciate everyone who took the time to comment in the membership survey, which provided valuable feedback as to how we can best support you. We’ll keep you up to date through the year as we work hard to create additional value for members and guides around the world.

This has been our busiest and most successful season in terms of assessing- and moderating assessments- of polar guides. We are through the 350 member mark and fast tracking to 400 members, a substantial increase over last year. For those members who are working toward certified polar guide status, do make sure to read below for information about the Recognition of Current Competency (RCC) program that is occurring this month only. I genuinely appreciate everyone’s continued enthusiasm.

There’s also plenty to be excited about in this issue of Brash Talk. Don’t miss the links to the popular “Guides Inside” series; skills-based webinars hosted by your fellow guides and running on Facebook this month. You’ll also find sage advice from Director Alex Cowan in “Technical Knowledge” regarding zodiac landing operations in poor visibility, an inspiring “Interview” with guide Wilson Chueng, and simple yet essential ideas regarding risk management in the “Guano Happens” section.

Enjoy, and thank you for being part of our community.



We hope you enjoy this series, and are heartened by the enthusiasm amongst our community in sharing and supporting one another during this challenging downtime. If you’d like to see more of this, let us know! We’re very open to your ideas.

Don’t miss the final 2 LIVE presentations!

Group Management in Polar Bear Country with Alex Cowan
Thursday, 23 April @ 20:00 UTC:

Leading in an Evolving Industry with Cheli Larsen
Monday, 27 April @ 8:00 UTC:


Visit the Polar Guides Facebook Group to access the archive, or find them directly using the links below.

Snow & Ice Safety with Kuba Potrawiak
SAR Helicopter Operations with Rupert Krapp
Leading a Walk in a New Place with Heidi Krajewskyo
Interpretation with Universal Themes with Dave Ritchie
Kayak Program Styles with Sophie Ballagh & Ewan Blyth
Incorporating Conservation Topics with Colby BrokvistThe PTGA Board cannot thank Lauren Farmer enough for organizing this series on behalf of the PTGA and the entire polar guiding community. We are very grateful not only for Lauren’s suggestion of the series, but for her experience, skills, expertise and direction as facilitator.


We have a few members infected with Covid-19 virus and we wish them well in isolation and recovery. Also well wishes to everyone in their own struggles in isolation and in getting home (if you are still out there).

We would like to acknowledge and applaud the polar guide community for the support and sharing without company borders that is going on during this period. There are a lot of unknowns at the moment and it’s important to stay connected and support each other. Please do show caution with social media posts that may apportion blame or shame on companies that still have staff and/or crew on ships struggling to get home. There are a lot of factors in play and social media is a much better platform to show support of your colleagues rather than stirring the pot.

Recognition of Current Competency, April 2020

Reminder that April will be the final opportunity to become a certified polar guide through the RCC program. This program is for experienced guides who are tenured in the industry and possess an obvious command of the necessary skill sets which meet or exceed minimum competency standards. If you are interested in applying, there is no time like the present! Use you lockdown time to gather a portfolio of evidence and submit it to us before the deadline of April 30, 2020.

Click here for RCC process information.

RCC Fee Deferral

Given the uncertainty around when expedition and guiding work will again be safe and practical, the Board have decided to offer a deferral of the US$145 RCC fee until 2021 for any applicant who may be financially burdened. We don’t want this work hiatus to impede you in becoming a polar guide! If this applies to your personal situation, do register with a brief explanation and reason why the deferral will help. Feel free to contact us at info@polartourismguides.com.

Please note this offer is for the FEE ONLY not for the application for RCC – we still need this in part or whole by April 30.

Assessor Courses on Hold

We’ve had a lot of interest in PTGA Assessor training courses for this year. The May dates have been postponed, along with any other speculative dates until it is safe and possible for people to travel and be in the same space. If you have been thinking about an assessors course but have not yet registered interest, please contact Pascale in our office (admin@polartourismguides.com) and your name will go on the list for updates and discussions regarding future courses.

Qualifications Review

The PTGA technical sub-committee has held its annual review of all Polar Qualification (PQ) material. We do this to question content and relevance and to then determine any necessary changes. Much of the work reflects feedback we have received from membership, so thank you for your input. Particularly, thanks to our Assessor cadre who are the people on the ground working with these PQ’s the most.

The revised PQ documents will be posted to the PTGA website by the end of May. Please ensure that you are working with the most recent document.

Board of Directors Update

Kit van Wagner has stepped down from her role as member of the PTGA board. Kit had increasing demands on her time and wanted to be able to do the usual superb job she is known for. Her enthusiasm and energy will be missed, and we appreciate the time we had with her. Through her role with Silversea as an Accredited Provider company and as a PTGA Assessor, we look forward to our continuing relationship with Kit in her new capacities.

Experience Log

Don’t forget to take a few minutes in your free time to grab a coffee or glass of wine and update your Experience Log. Click here to download your Experience Log

Training and Knowledge

Navigating in Low Visibility
by Alex Cowan, Senior Polar Guide

Most of the time, those of us working from expedition ships are navigating visually, driving between a landing site and a ship that are in sight of each other. We carry GPS units to allow ourselves to find our way if the visibility deteriorates and, if well set up, this should always serve us. I carry a simple and robust Garmin GPS on which I record the location of every landing site I visit, and I always waypoint the ship no matter how good the weather. I use Eneloop rechargeable batteries which I top up any time the battery falls below 75%, and carry a spare set. I also use the iSailor app on my phone which has the benefit of allowing me to find my way around in the fog even in places I’ve never been before. However, this use of technology can be slow, and despite best intentions I often see staff get caught out by complacency and technical problems when the visibility is suddenly bad.

Before working as a polar guide I would teach Yachtmaster candidates how to navigate their vessels in zero visibility, and we would spend hour after hour picking our way in and out of narrow river mouths and harbour approaches without GPS and without the candidate ever even looking up from the chart table below deck. We don’t have the time or equipment to do this when we are out in Zodiacs but there are a couple of quick and easy techniques we used on the yachts that are helpful to us.

In this example, we set out for a morning landing this season at Base Brown, with visibility of just a few hundred metres. Boats with a waypoint for the landing already stored in their GPS units drove straight there, while one pair of drivers, carrying a new GPS with no waypoints stored in it, set out to the SW through the fog. Unfortunately, they missed the landing site and could be heard driving around in the middle of Paradise Harbour trying the landing (orange line in the diagram).

The scout boat, however, found the landing site with ease without the use of a GPS. They followed a compass bearing based on the chart but not SW, directly to the landing site. If they had done this, there is a chance they would also have missed the landing site and found themselves driving around in circles in the middle of Paradise Harbour. Instead, they “aimed off” and followed a bearing directly south, deliberately missing the landing site by a significant distance. The purpose of this was to ensure that when they hit the shoreline they knew which direction to turn to reach the landing site, following the shoreline in a technique called “handrailing” (red line in the diagram).

While using a GPS unit of some kind is often indispensable given your vessel will be anchored in open water, visibility is sometimes good enough that it can at least be seen from the closest shoreline, so you can handrail your way back to a vessel in many cases as well. Just don’t get too close to a calving face when you do this!

We’ve probably all been caught out by flat batteries or by being somewhere we’ve never visited before so next time the visibility is bad, take a look at the chart to get your bearings, get your compass out and see what you can do without your GPS. To make things even quicker and dirtier you can use the sun’s position or wind direction to orient yourself and head in roughly the right direction which can be all you need to find your handrail.

Guano Happens

Safety & Risk Management Review

The story below was shared with us, describing how a near-miss unfolded during a zodiac operation. This incident highlights all of the standard reasons for skill development and ensuring minimum competencies are in place before a guide takes charge. It also reaffirms just how quickly things can turn from an unsettling/amusing incident to a potential tragedy because of the polar environment.

It was the end of the day and the excursion was wrapping up. The vessel was anchored but some ice had been moving through the area. Experienced zodiac drivers had been pushing ice away from the bow of the vessel and keeping things clear, but these people were no longer available. There was then a large, low iceberg bearing down on the vessel. The only person available was an experienced boat operator but inexperienced polar driver who was driving. The driver had two other non-expedition staff in the zodiac.

The driver attempted to ‘drive on’ and move the berg as they had seen others doing. The piece of ice was massive and in strong tide current. They didn’t stand a chance. With about 10 feet to go before the berg hit the vessel, the driver drove the zodiac between the berg and the ship to try and stop any impact. The berg continued its journey and began to crush (taco) the zodiac, which then popped up and began to tip. The three people in the zodiac were able to scramble onto the iceberg (it was fairly low profile with flat sections luckily). There was no other zodiac handy for a rescue if anyone had fallen in the water. The Bridge managed to pull the vessel back to allow the berg to carry on its way unhindered, and the zodiac sat flat again. Through all this, the driver had managed to hang on to a rope to the zodiac. Once clear of the vessel, the driver managed to jump back into the zodiac, start the engine, and pick up the other two people. They then wrapped up operations.

Key Causal Factors

  • Ability was exceeded – this person did not have the skills or judgement to deal with the situation. We can’t over state the value of comprehensive induction, training and development specific to the polar environment and that minimum competencies are an excellent start before people embark on their polar career.
  • Lack of supervision – they were left isolated in a situation that needed supervision and back up – we acknowledge the dynamic nature of the polar environment and critical to this is constant vigilance and support strategies for all people working in the industry.

The critical incident balance point between near miss and tragedy was simply that no one fell in the water. The causal factors and errors leading to this critical balance point are a clear and valuable lesson for all.

Knowledge and reporting of ‘near-miss events’ across the industry is extremely important; there is a lot we can learn here as professional guides who are responsible for the care and safety of others as well as ourselves. This case demonstrates that if you aren’t fully confident in your own skills, or are faced with a task that is new to you, then ask for help and mentorship. Another reminder is that in situations with heightened risk, we should consider whether others involved are contributing to the success of the task, or if they are liabilities. That is, is it necessary to expose them to the risk at all?

Thankfully, the incident described above was just a near-miss, and we can all learn something from it. If you have an incident or near-miss, you can share with us anonymously so that we can all learn from it. Please drop us a line.


Wai Yin (Wilson) Chueng, Senior Polar Guide

Wai Yin (or ‘Wilson’ as he is known by many) was our first (early) person keen to gain Recognition of Current Competency. He has an extensive career in a range of roles in polar guiding, deep field camp management, personal journeys/mountaineering/skating/kayaking and dragging sleds. He was also the first person to achieve our Lead a Polar Journey PQ which is aimed at guides capable of leading ski trips to the poles or across ice caps. It seemed like there was nothing this man couldn’t do and we had to redesign his guides certificate just to fit all his qualifications in! We thought we should find out a little more about him.

PTGA: Congratulations on your recent Senior Polar Guide status. You have a lot of experience from a lot of different areas of polar guiding. Why did you join PTGA and seek Recognition of Current Competency?
WC: My first Antarctic visiting was in 2007, as a student to learn the uniqueness of Antarctic ecology, marine biology and geology. Comparing with today, the annual number of visitors has increased by 30%, and the nationalities of visitors have shifted over the years with an increasing number of visitors from the eastern world. All these rapid changes bring considerable impacts in both polar regions. As polar frontline observers, we love and care about the regions very much. Therefore, I firmly believe that the PTGA professional standard in the industry is an essential key to maintaining the polar tourism sector sustainably. Certified PTGA personnel not only ensure operational safety and eco-friendly protocol, but also improves the quality of frontline staff to reduce the potential impacts. By joining the PTGA family and working shoulder to shoulder, we share our polar passion and its value to our guests in order to enhance their awareness of the polar regions.

PTGA: You are the first Asian status guide with the PTGA, is this significant for you and what does it mean for the future of Chinese guides?
WC: This is very exciting for me to be the first Asian PTGA Senior Polar Guide. I was born in a busy metropolis – Hong Kong. I have always yearned to explore nature and admire the legends of great explorers. I never imagined that one day my dream could come true and build my career in expeditions. By training and hard work, I became the first Chinese polar expedition guide in 2011. Later on, I founded my own company Polar Research & Expedition Consultancy (PRECon), which takes researchers to the polar region to conduct scientific research projects, and organizes citizen science and education projects to let more people understand the beauty and fragility of the polar regions. PTGA certification is the best witness and affirmation of my career so far!

As a first Asian PTGA Senior Polar Guide, I really hope my real-life story can inspire more potential candidates, especially in Asia, to obtain the PTGA awards and involve the polar tourism industry in multi-dimensional level. Additionally, a newcomer can refer to the standardized syllabus to develop their own career pathway within the industry. In the near future, I really hope to see more cultural diversity of polar guides working in the polar regions, because it belongs to all humankind. By integrating different cultural perspectives in the polar regions, this cultural diversity will increase the capacity of human systems to adapt and cope with the rapid change in the future.

PTGA: How can we get Chinese guides trained and qualified to minimum levels of competency for the increasing Chinese market, so they are full members of an expedition team and not just translators?
WC: Although a number of the potential candidates from Asia would like to focus on the industry, polar tourism is still a new concept among Asian countries. Thus, it is challenging for them to obtain the essential hard skill training and related paperwork from their homeland. It is fantastic that some polar operators offer opportunities for their Asian staff to develop the essential skills onboard. In my opinion, there is a substantial need for PTGA to provide a related training course in the Asian country.

PTGA: What advice would you give a young Chinese person considering this lifestyle?
WC: Life in the polar expedition world! You must have a strong passion for these regions. Our primary duty is sharing our passion for the polar regions and inspiring our guests to care for this last frontier during their life-time journey. Therefore, continuous learning with deep curiosity will help you enjoy the most of this polar lifestyle. However, a coin has two sides. In my personal case, Hong Kong society does not have any social safety net, such as national health insurance, for the freelance contractor in case something goes wrong. Moreover, the income as a polar guide is not always stable compared to traditional office work. Thus, you have to find solutions to those issues.

PTGA: What are you studying for currently?
WC: Currently, I am studying my master course in Polar and Marine Science (POMOR) at St. Petersburg State University. And, I will work with the Working Group on the Randolph Glacier Inventory (RGI) for understanding and monitoring the regional glacier distribution around the Altai Mountains where there is a robust potential analogy with Martian polar ice caps. Moreover, I was selected as a PoSSUM scientist-astronaut Candidates. Hopefully, I can undergo some field analogy test of extravehicular activity (EVA) suits in the polar region in order to prepare the ice-mass exploration in the future manned lunar base. Besides, I am studying at the University of Iceland, a programme of Northern Tourism, to follow my cross-culture studies in the Polar Regions. Besides my scientific works, cultural studies are one of my many strengths. With my background of M.A. Transcultural European Outdoor Studies, I am preparing two charters of books: “Antarcticaness” & “Asian mobilities of consumption in Arctic destinations”.

PTGA: What do you think will happen to the industry over the next 12 months with the Covid-19 pandemic?
WC: Before the vaccine is ready, the polar tourism industry will suffer significantly. We all know the Canadian Arctic won’t allow any operation in this season. The Russian Arctic will extend the national isolation until the summertime. It seems there is no hope of an arctic season under the current circumstances. Moreover, COMNAP is preparing recommendations for next season, and it suggests to limit operations and personnel, which likely will apply to the approaching Antarctic season too. Additionally, it will take time for international visitors to get confidence in Vessel-Based Operations for visiting. Therefore, we have to take a break for a while. Optimism is an essential tool for us to work in the polar industry. We can take advantage of this period to equip ourselves and improve our current operation model in the polar regions. Consequently, we can be well-prepared and ready for recovery of the industry after this blizzard storm.

PTGA: Favorite place as a polar guide and why?
WC: Wrangel Island, Russia. The island is full of wildlife, exploration histories and surreal landscapes. All the elements tell you an enriched earth’s story for each visitor.

PTGA: Favorite polar hero and why?
WC: Fridtjof Wedel-Jarlsberg Nansen. Although he is not the most famous polar explorer, his expedition and personality is a great role model for everyone and I truly am inspired by his life stories.

PTGA: Favorite polar critter and why?
WC: Qupqugiaq, the dangerous 10-legged Polar Bear of Inuit mythology. This is the good way to show the vivid part of Inuit culture and landscape interpretation.

Fab Feedback

“As someone aspiring to be a polar guide, the PTGA PQs and assessments just expedite the process of knowing what truly makes up a great guide. I think having some standards to strive toward, or make sure you can perform, is so pertinent to being a guide. If you’re new, yes you have “mentors” on board who teach you on the job training, but with the PQs I could see what ELSE I should be asking and learning that wouldn’t have necessarily come to mind just being on a ship observing others behaviors.”

PTGA Members – 355

Senior Polar Guides – 126

Polar Guides – 61


Congratulations to:

  • Polar Guide – Annette Scheffer, Marc Jensen, Allison Cusick, Blake Hornblow, Nicole Genoud, Alexander Watson, Rutgert Bianchi, Monserrat Karkling, Michael Jackson, Jeff Reynolds, Jakob Potrawiak, Joselyn Fenstermacher, Karen Edwards, Corey Accardo
  • Senior Polar Guide – Marieke Egan, Sandra Walser, Joel Moore, Wai Yin Chueng, Jonathan Teuchert, Ulyana Horodysky, Victoria Stokes, Moira Le Patourel, Gerard Baker, Christian Engelke
  • Completing Provisional Assessor requirements – Robyn Mundy, Sara Merusi, Nico Danyau, Marieke Egan, Jamie Watts, Liz Pope