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Welcome to BrashTalk #22 The Newsletter of the Polar Tourism Guides Association

In This Issue:

From the Chair

Hello Fellow Guides,

Just a few weeks ago the PTGA board held its Annual General Meeting. I am very pleased to report that PTGA remains awash in positive developments and we continue to build momentum within the polar industry. Membership has not only held strong through the pandemic-era, but we’ve actually gained many new members. This Antarctic season proved to be a hotbed of action, with more workplace-based assessments of new status guides than any other previous season. Heading into the arctic season, we expect more opportunities for guides associated with Accredited Provider companies who offer workplace-based training and assessments using the PTGA framework. Additionally, our working budget for implementing additional programming and projects has met expectations over the past year, further powering momentum for meeting strategic goals such as making assessments more available to all guides.

We believe that the growth and momentum behind PTGA is a clear demonstration that the guiding community values professional-level certifications that play a significant role in elevating not only the work of individual guides, but the entire polar tourism industry. We appreciate your trust in PTGA as a strong solution for better guaranteeing exceptional, safe, responsible, and enjoyable expedition experiences across the entire industry.

On a final note, lately there is more and more talk of implementing official guide standards at governmental and higher industry levels. A big part of this conversation is looking inwardly at what is working best in regards to expedition practices, and what is not working. This includes considerations of what sort of training and testing frameworks are working or not – including PTGA’s. You, as polar professionals, are positioned to act as role models and mentors for new and less seasoned staff. Please remember that your performance in the field shines a light on PTGA and we count on you, without exception, to treat every colleague respectfully, to make sound decisions regarding safety management, and responsibly adhere to site visitation guidance. We have a chance to be the bar everything is set to and I thank you for helping PTGA continue to shine and grow for the benefit of guides and operators alike.



Thank You Pascale!

On behalf of the Board and everyone at PTGA, thanks Pascale! We share in the excitement of your new endeavors and wish you the best of successes.

Most of you will have crossed paths with Pascale in your time with the PTGA. She has been the welcoming person you meet upon joining the Association and the person who supplies you with new certificates and guide status badges and all that fun stuff. Pascale joined the team in 2019 and has been invaluable in taking PTGA and our administrative capacities to a better place. It’s not a total goodbye, though – Pascale will continue to run PTGA’s social media accounts.

We are currently interviewing for a replacement as we plan for the next chapter of PTGA’s development and growth.

Svalbard Guide Standards

As most of you know, the Norwegian government is keen to institute a guide standard scheme for Svalbard. There is a proposal on the table – part of a larger environmental and tourism focused management plan – and the ministry has recently put out a call for public comment. PTGA has reviewed the proposals thoroughly and we have submitted commentary to the ministry. Below is a summary of PTGA’s position as we work to support our membership and make this amalgamation of guide standards frameworks smoother for all stakeholders.

PTGA is supportive of a guide standard and certification system in Svalbard. We commend the Norwegian Ministry for a proactive approach to empowering guides and field staff to be safe and effective whilst working in Svalbard. However, our position is that the current guide standards proposal put forth by the ministry is lacking key considerations that will ensure its success. Notably, we emphasized specific points that would make instituting and receiving Svalbard-specific qualifications:

We believe any fair guide standard regulations need to be:

  • Practical in terms of making training and assessments readily accessible for guides.
  • Time Appropriate in terms of defining a grace period for guides and operators to obtain compliance whilst still operating trips.
  • Compatible with the current needs of the Norwegian Government as well as with equivalent existing standards in other polar tourism destinations.
  • Transferrable in terms of equivalency and reciprocity, whereby compatible professional qualifications will be readily accepted.
  • Costeffective for guides and operators alike.

PTGA will continue to monitor and participate in the public scoping process, as we feel that PTGA is uniquely experienced with the creation and implementation of guide standards and thus we can can potentially add ease, efficiency, and efficacy to this current process in Svalbard.

Visitation Guidelines and Industry Compliance

IAATO received a record number of regulation breach reports during the 21/22 season, including many improper operational behaviors clearly documented on social media platforms. A reminder as we head into a busy Arctic season that as PTGA members (via the Code of Conduct) and professional guides working for IAATO or AECO member companies, you are required to understand operational requirements and work within industry regulations and guidelines. Please support responsible polar tourism by role modelling compliance. Be wary of any social media posts that might put your actions in ambiguous light.

Sea Ice Management and Safety

Leading groups of people on longer hikes on fast ice or sea ice has, to-date, largely been the realm of northern polar guides who have specific training and skills for ski/dogsled/skidoo travel across frozen fiords. Vessel-based polar tourism with large numbers of people has dabbled with shorter opportunistic excursions on ice floes or ‘parking’ a vessel in fast-ice and disembarking the ship onto the ice for a short excursion. The decision to ‘land’ on ice floes or undertake ‘polar park n hike’ has mostly been left to a senior guide or EL (along with the ship’s Captain) who have had exposure to the experience previously.

It’s very clear after the 21/22 Antarctic season that the influx of new higher ice-rated vessels has greatly increased the opportunity to ‘polar park n hike’. Apart from the possible environmental impacts of breaking up existing fast ice ahead of its time, there is now a much higher potential for an incident with guides potentially working well outside their skills and experience. Currently, there are no industry standards to assist EL’s and guides with answers to the many questions posed by this environment and this puts us at risk – an incident or liability challenge would be hard to defend.
Questions we all need to consider may be as broad as: what is the perceived value of this activity? How, as an industry, do we mitigate the risks involved? What verifiable information should an excursion decision-maker use to make decisions? What skills/knowledge do guides need to make this a safe operation? And how does a guide develop from little experience to making decisions for an entire vessel (or company)?
Please be mindful of all of this and go into these excursions with eyes/ears open, ask questions and discuss judgments and decisions with your colleagues.

In response to inquiries from our partners and colleagues, PTGA is considering a Sea Ice Management and Safety syllabus. Thanks to those with bonafide expertise in this area who answered our call for assistance and who are participating in the current discussion. If you missed the first call but feel you have expertise to add, please drop us a line.

New Member Management System

We are now in the final testing and engineering phase of our new database system that will allow PTGA to better serve our members and operational partners. Soon you will receive an email message introducing you to your new ProFile and how to access it yourself. You can find all your PTGA qualifications, certifications, 1st Aid Certificates and any other documentation you have provided over the years. For those of you keen, there will be a lot more for you to play with too: the new system will allow you to track your personal Continual Professional Development (CPD) for easy revalidation, store gps excursion routes, and a whole lot more.

Qualification Review Meeting

PTGA reviews all comments and feedback related to our qualification syllabi annually. The 2022 QRM is scheduled for May 27. If you have any feedback, format, typo’s or relevance of material in any of our syllabi please drop a line.

The Professional Guide’s Handbook

Congratulations to PTGA Board Chair, Colby Brokvist on the release of The Professional Guides Handbook: How to Lead Adventure Travel Trips and Expeditions. The book is a fantastic resource for the polar industry, particularly the sections on teamwork, leadership, conflict resolution and dealing with difficult clients. The models and theories are contemporary and dovetail perfectly with PTGA syllabus requirements. The book has already earned high praise and positive reviews across the industry. Check it out at guideshandbook.com . The book is available internationally in softcover and e-book form.

Revalidation for Status Guides – Class of 2017-18

Currently the people due for revalidation are those who gained status in 2017/18. We will be catching up soon with folks due for revalidation. Keep an eye out for an email in the coming weeks.

Recognition of Current Competency

Thanks to those guides who recently joined PTGA and filed RCC applications. We received 64 applications (40 on the final day of submission!) Now the hard work begins as we double-review each application. Please have patience; it will take a few months and we’ll be in touch when your application is being reviewed. If you submitted an incomplete application per the requirements, just send in your updated material and we’ll add it to your file.


Kudos to IAATO for managing to host an ‘in person’ meeting in Providence. As expected, beside important decision making attendees report how good it was to see friends and reconnect with industry colleagues.

Brandon Harvey to IAATO Executive Committee

Congratulations Brandon Harvey (PTGA Board Member, Senior Guide & EYOS Ops Manager) for being voted to the IAATO Executive Committee. Brandon joins PTGA Accredited Provider Company executives John McKeon (Polar Latitudes) and Diana Galimberti (A21) to make a very strong team with clear interest in the development of guides and professionalism in the industry.

SGA Receives Financial Assistance

The Svalbard Guide Association has received a grant to 50% fund the role running the Association. Great to see this recognition of the value of SGA to the Svalbard community and congratulations to Franka Leiterer (PTGA Senior Guide and Assessor) who currently runs the Svalbard Guide Association for all the work she has done for guides and guiding.

Happy Member Feedback!

A big thank you to the awesome people who keep the wheels of the PTGA turning. Also, the members page and the YouTube channel has been a great resource and I am certain that without the PTGA qualifications, gained through the EGA, I would not have been able to “get into the game“ so confidently.

Training and Development – Managing Terrain Traps in Polar Bear Country by Rusty S Hackle

When running landings in places like Svalbard, there are two main situations in which unwanted bear encounters can occur:

  1. A bear swims or walks in during the operation after the scout has finished.
  2. You surprise a bear during the scout process.

Here I’m going to talk about the latter. When scouting you’re checking that there aren’t any bears in the operational area, which is going to involve checking there aren’t any hidden away in hollows or behind rocks or huts. The worst thing you can do when checking these places is walking right up to them, because if there IS a bear you’ll be right on top of it and suddenly you’re in a situation where you might have to use a firearm (if you even have time). We should always endeavour to stay away from situations where a firearm becomes the solution to an encounter.

Let’s use Phippsoya in Sjuoyane, Svalbard, as an example of how to manage hidden spots. This is a popular landing, with many ships making landings from Isflakbukta; there is a hut to look at and often a walrus haul out on the beach. But it’s also a very common place to see bears, so when starting the scout you’re already even more alert than usual.

The first place where problems can occur is the beach. There is a huge beach berm here; this is a ridge with a deep hollow behind it, running parallel to the waterline. This can be formed by wave action or, more likely in this case, by pack ice being picked up the beach in winter. In the image below the snow highlights this berm (waterline accented in red, note the sea is frozen in this image) and you can see the linear hollow. I have twice been in a situation where I am within 10m of a bear but cannot see it on this beach, because I’m in a Zodiac and the bear is walking behind the berm. If you’ve got a great bridge team or a big expedition team then you’ll hopefully have a spotter on the bridge to help — they have just enough elevation to see a bear that is walking around behind the berm and this has saved me before from making a landing next to a bear. But if the bear is lying down then you have no chance of seeing it, and the risk is that a staff member with a loaded firearm is suddenly
right on top of a surprised bear.

Next time you are there take a careful look at the shape of the beach and the berm. You’ll see that the berm peters out to the east and if you land right at the far eastern end of the beach you’ll have great visibility as you come ashore and there is an extremely low risk of being surprised, at least up close. Always make a TON of noise before your first person steps ashore, because if you can get a bear to stick its head up before you go ashore then again you’ve avoided an unwanted encounter. As soon as you are up on the beach you are then able to see down the linear depression behind the berm to your west and can confirm there are no bears hiding in it from a distance of several hundred metres, with a Zodiac for quick escape close behind you if you do see one in there.

The next problem spot is bears sleeping in the vicinity of the hut (approximate position indicated by the red dot in the diagram). They seem to like being up here, possibly because it’s a good vantage spot. If they are behind the hut then they are invisible from the water. Again, you don’t want to walk right up to the hut, march around the back and trip over a bear, so instead work your way up to the north and get a bit uphill so that you can see behind the hut and the big boulders around it from a safe distance and from a good vantage point. When I’m doing this I’m always making noise; usually singing or shouting, but some people bring noisemakers like bits of pipe or a spinning football rattle which can be very effective.

The black dotted line in the image shows a good route to take to land, check behind the berm and then check behind the hut. The terrain you are walking on has great visibility and you are very unlikely to get an up-close surprise here.

What remains now is the valley to the NW and the coastlines to the N and W, but you can tackle these using the principles outlined here and your common sense. Remember to:

  • Look behind obstacles and into hollows from a high vantage and from a long distance. It sounds obvious but not doing this has caught people out, even those who know what they’re doing.
  • Make lots of noise. This can be challenging if you’re landing for a walrus haul out and don’t want to disturb them, or you’re approaching reindeer and are scouting as you go, so again use your common sense.
  • Don’t rely on the gun; scout as if you didn’t have one. Thinking like this will help you to make careful, conservative decisions.

Drones have the potential to be a fantastic scouting tool, allowing teams to check every boulder and hollow without ever risking an encounter, and I hope we will see more and more use of drones for this purpose in the future.

The sea is frozen and the coastline indicated by the red line. The linear depression parallel to the beach is deep enough to hide even walking bears so head to the far eastern end of the beach where it vanishes and land somewhere around the X. Follow the dotted line for your scout; at point (a) you’ll be able to look almost all the way down the depression and can confirm there are no bears hidden here. Somewhere in the general vicinity of point (b) you’ll start being able to see behind the hut. This area is tricky but use your common sense and think about whether or not it would be possible to get surprised by a sleeping bear.

Guano Happens: Kayak Squeeze

This incident poses some very important questions for our growing industry and in particular, recruiting and training responsibilities. Contemporary models of safety responsibility, accident investigation, and accountability put the responsibility of access to current knowledge, minimally competent skills, and vocational support squarely on employers or managing institutions. The theory holds that individuals don’t ‘want’ to break rules or create incidents and that in most cases incidents and accidents trace back to ineffective support and systems at the company level. Food for thought as we approach the expected busiest Antarctic season on record.

This is an incident shared by a kayak guide. It was during their first season in Antarctica. They were working as 2^nd guide to a Lead Guide who was also in their first season.

We were drifting in the Erebus and Terror Gulf after an attempt to reach Snow Hill had been frustrated by ice. We were offering zodiac cruising and sea kayaking as the only excursion options. There was plenty of open water but also an area with some ice floes and a more distant tabular iceberg.

As we started paddling one of the kayaks was consistently falling behind, as sometimes happens. I asked the lead guide to stand by a couple of times and wait for us. Eventually, we reached an area of older pack, more than kayaker head height above the water making it difficult for me to see where the lead guide and faster paddlers in the group were. Up until now, we had been paddling around the outside of the area of ice but not between the floes. Conditions at this point were calm with no wind or noticeable tidal current affecting the ice floes.

I paddled around a section of floe only to see the group heading into a channel between floes. I was nervous about this but didn’t respond. The urge to stay in contact and follow the group was stronger than common sense at that point. With clear hindsight, I should have taken the slower, last kayak and just stayed outside of the floes.

I immediately noticed one of the floes starting to move against the other and the channel (with the last kayak in it) started to close – and fast!

I knew right away they would not clear the gap. The ice was rugged beneath the water and on the side of the floe and I backed myself to climb it. I called on the radio “MOB, MOB I need help!” as I scrambled out of my kayak into the water and took two or three swimming strokes and climbed up onto the ice and started running towards the guests who were now starting to be crushed. I saw the kayak flip and the guests stuck. Luckily I was able to reach down and grab the first guest under their arms with my legs spread across the floes. The second guest was pretty wedged but with adrenaline (mine) and wriggling (theirs) I managed to haul them to safety.

Once things were stable and I’d caught my breath I called on our working channel and the safety zodiac came and picked us up from the floe.

I was quite shaken by the incident and asked for a review by the ship’s Safety Officer and the EL. Nothing came of it. We were very lucky with the outcome.


There are a number of good lessons here and much is tied to deficiencies outlined in the introduction. Let’s break it down.

The issue of two inexperienced Antarctic sea kayak guides without mentorship raises some immediate questions. A sea kayak operation with two inexperienced [polar] guides can run safely in good conditions. But these guides got themselves into conditions that should only be considered by guides with plenty of experience in and around Antarctic ice, or even the site-specific nuances of the Erebus/Terror Gulf. The guides started the excursion within their capabilities but the moment they entered the ice floe area the risk profile and resultant management needs changed. The moment this happened they were well outside their capability and far more vulnerable to errors in judgment. At this stage, they were hampered by the fact they didn’t even know what they didn’t know. This is a normal first stage of any development journey but not a safe state to be managing sea kayakers in floe ice. Not even knowing what you don’t know has never been a successful path out of liability.

It’s important for a modern professional guide to be aware of the real risks in their role/s and the tendency for polar conditions to change very suddenly in state or climate. It is incumbent on guides, but more importantly, on the company to make sure their staff have adequate information, training, and mentorship in order to not walk into situations outside of their management capability.

Tied closely with the lack of experience in polar operations seems to be the lack of relationship and communication protocol between the guides. The 2nd guide references being nervous about the changing circumstances but didn’t have any protocol established with the lead guide to discuss what they were doing and raise any concerns about the new environment they were heading into.

Risk Shift (when a group collectively agrees on a course of action that is more extreme than they would have made if asked individually) is a common decision-making trap that can easily result in poor and potentially unsafe practices. All guides should have a clear and receptive pathway for communicating concerns or alternative ideas to a leader. We all know some guiding relationships can work with simply a raised eyebrow, or a head nod in a certain direction between experienced guides – this wasn’t one of them. It was a new relationship with seemingly no prior discussion about how they would deal with changing conditions. Any new co-guiding relationship will benefit from some frank discussion prior to the excursion, determining any protocols to allow front-to-back comms, and a way for either of them to bring up an issue without it being a mayday call.

*Heuristics are decision-making methods/tools we use to solve problems that we don’t have clear answers to. They can be mental shortcuts that allow quick and easy approximation and use of strategies from like situations to ease the cognitive burden of decision making in novel situations (rules-of-thumb, trial and error etc). We have examined their common use in novel polar guiding situations in other editions of Brash Talk.

We can see some other common safety management heuristic traps buried in the narrative:

The Consistency heuristic trap suggests we can be easily caught out by continuing to operate in a certain manner even in the face of new and ambiguous circumstances. Polar tourism incident reports are rife with “we’d been doing okay up until now, we thought we’d just do the same thing” reasons for why things have gone awry. This incident started off in easy-to-manage conditions within the skills of the guides, but by moving into the floes without a change of management style to suit the new situation they were easily exposed.

We can’t speak for the decisions and mindset of the lead guide and we aren’t privy to why they decided to do what they did without a discussion and change of strategy. A possible reason may lie in the manifestation of a novel experience – a divergent and exciting route through the floe ice.

The polar environment provides easy access to the Scarcity heuristic trap and the belief that exposing clients to an uncommon or novel experience is somehow more valuable than a ‘typical’ experience and therefore worth the risk. The presence of ‘easy’ conditions (calm seas, blue sky sea kayaking with little tidal current) in close proximity to a novel and more risky environment (taking beginners into the floe ice region) has been a root cause in myriad polar tourism incidents. Guides need to understand and identify these situations. One only has to realize how far off an easy, safe, marked trail at Portal Pt or Neko Harbour one has to step to immediately be in very dangerous terrain suitable only for well-equipped small groups and qualified mountain guides.

Stay within your scope of experience and stick to the agreed-upon plan unless you have a frank discussion with other members of your team to ensure everyone agrees that a new and novel situation can be managed in an acceptable manner.

The second guide references concern for the new route and the lack of radio communications but then appears to fall prey to the unconscious bias of Expert Halo trap and the tendency to ascribe knowledge or skills to someone because they have skills in another area or ‘position’. In this case, the ‘lead’ guide changed the plan simply because they were in the front and the 2^nd guide just went along with it. Be conscious, and wary, of this heuristic because ‘both’ guides are accountable for the decisions made if a disaster occurs even though the lead guide made the call to turn into the ice. The flood of new guides and new companies with little experience is sure to come with a solid supply of Expert Haloes.

The incident narrative closes with the guide requesting a review of the incident by the EL or Safety Officer of the vessel. No review was offered. Of all the lessons to distill out of this incident, this appears to be the most tangible and telling oversight. Guano happens, but only by embracing a culture of shared learning and continual improvement can an individual, expedition team, company, or the wider industry hope to get better and avoid these errors reoccurring. To not share all that was experienced and learned with the guides and expedition team was a lost opportunity.

This was a significant incident and we hope the review has been useful in highlighting some of the very real issues we are all dealing with as we ‘shake the cobwebs off’ after two years of limited operations. It also is a mirror for the industry as a whole reflecting the pressure on new guides who don’t have the support and mentorship their roles require. A huge thanks to the contributor, this was an incredibly valuable lesson outline for many guides.

It is not the role of this forum to tell guides ‘how to do things’. To that end, we don’t have rules and regulations for sea kayak guides because paddling amongst floe ice is an incredible experience and can be done safely with experienced situational knowledge and accurate risk mitigations in place. The broader issues of guide competency for the task, communication structures for the field or review/reflection tools, and a clear understanding by the industry as a whole that it is a company’s responsibility to ensure their staff has information, skills, experience, and support systems in place to develop deficiencies and review incidents that is critical as we speed towards Antarctica 22/23.

Member Updates

PTGA Members – 486
Senior Polar Guides – 218
Polar Guides – 123
Provisional and Full Assessors – 37

Congratulations to Recent Endorsements:

Polar Guide: DanePo Bergman, Elizabeth Pierce, Federico Beaudoin, Peter Bergman, Ken Wright, Justine Bornholdt, Dot Robertson, Hana Michel, Kristy Dick, Sue Walsh, Jenny Waack. Paolo Belleze, Wei Deng, Martin Bianco

Senior Polar Guide: Louis Justin, Susan Currie, Dmitrii Kiselev, Elizabeth MacNeil, Massimo Bassano, Allison Liddle, Alberto Alejandro, Mark Brophy