Life as an Expedition Leader
For anyone who has ever been on an expedition cruise or group tour, we’ve all wondered what life would be like as an expedition leader or trip manager. From the outside looking in, it looks like a dream job. You get paid to take travellers to some of the world’s wildest and most beautiful locations and experience the many diverse cultures within them. However, what goes on behind the scenes? What is life truly like as an expedition leader?
Matthew ‘MJ’ Swan has been an expedition leader for Arctic voyages operator, Adventure Canada, for nearly eight years, taking travellers on expedition cruises throughout Canada and the Arctic. MJ is also the Business Development Director for Adventure Canada, which his father founded in 1987.
MJ’s love for travel stemmed from his wilderness-loving family, working with the company since he was 15 years old. Becoming an expedition leader was in his DNA.
“I was brought up in a travelling family with a deep passion for nature. It made sense to me to explore the world with like-minded travellers, and to be someone that guests could look to as an expedition leader given my existing experience on ships, with Adventure Canada,” said MJ.
Despite the family connections, MJ wasn’t given a free pass to becoming an expedition leader. He went through the same gruelling training process and years of experience required on ships to become someone who could be trusted to provide an excellent service to Adventure Canada’s guests.
“Expedition Leaders with Adventure Canada must spend years working as part of the wider expedition team, learning logistics, equipment and best practices for dealing with emergencies before they are selected to join our core team. Once in our core team, they work alongside an existing Expedition Leader as an Assistant Expedition Leader to learn the ins and outs of the job. By the time they become an Expedition Leader, they have experienced extensive training and in field experience. It’s a tough but thoroughly rewarding process.”
Coming up on his eighth year as an expedition leader, MJ has experienced it all, from the highs to the lows, the good days to the more challenging. Life as an expedition leader on a ship is like no other job in the world. A typical day for MJ is a long one filled with activities.
“It begins with an early morning rise to consult with the ship’s captain and officers and make alterations to the day’s plan if necessary. Next, I gather with our team of scientists, lecturers, artists, Zodiac drivers and cruise directors to review the day’s plan and assign tasks. Afterwards, we head out for the day exploring UNESCO World Heritage sites, wildlife conservation areas, and remote communities, coordinating a variety of excursions for our travellers and respond to any unexpected changes. Later, we return to the ship where we brief passengers on what is happening the following day before enjoying the evening entertainment, trivia nights, music concerts, featured documentaries, and social gathering–and somewhere in there, find time to sleep and eat!
“Behind the scenes, we adjust plans to ensure the travellers are having the best experience possible. Weather and ice conditions play a major role on these expeditions and so a successful journey relies on a strong leader that utilises the experience and knowledge of their team to deliver an amazing experience, even when plan A, B and C become plan D, E and F. It is important to make responsible, effective decisions in a timely manner in order to minimise the challenges and capitalise on the opportunities that present themselves.”
Challenges are a plenty in this line of work but that is why the training process for becoming an expedition leader is so rigorous. For those rare occasions when the worst happens, they are prepared to make the right call.
MJ says: “Travelling to remote locations comes with extra risks. We must be aware of potential dangers to ensure our clients are always kept safe. I have been hundreds of kilometres from the closest medical facility when the worst happens, and someone gets injured. It is during these times you must be focused and efficient and work closely with local authorities to ensure the best possible outcome.”
The life of an expedition leader is filled with responsibility, but the role does come with perks but MJ doesn’t take the privilege of taking travellers to some of the world’s most pristine and unique, natural locations lightly.
“I feel immense joy and satisfaction leading travellers on these epic journeys and playing a part in creating indescribable moments they’ll never forget. Knowing that I can help make dreams a reality for our clients is extremely rewarding, and it motivates me to work each and every day to make our expeditions as enriching as possible.”
Despite almost eight years of travelling the Canadian provinces and beautiful Arctic region, MJ never tires of the scenery or routines.
“No one trip is ever the same. The experience is always different. There may be polar bears on shore that weren’t there on previous visits; we may have an active glacier face that alters how we Zodiac cruise that area or we may be iced out of a planned destination and get to visit another instead. The beauty of expedition travel is how flexible we can be –one closed door opens many more.”
MJ loves the lifestyle of an expedition leader and all the responsibility that comes with it and he is proud to continue the family name and the traditions and values that have Adventure Canada has championed since its foundation.
“At its core, Adventure Canada is really about people – the guests on our trips, the communities we visit and the team working to make it all happen. We’re focused on making sure our work has a positive impact on the local people that welcome us every year, and in providing our passengers with opportunities to interact and engage with these communities, some of which are quite remote, in order to gain a deeper understanding of Canadian and Arctic culture.
Onboard, our resource staff are passionate about where they are from, and share their heritage, history and culture with our guests through their land, art and stories, allowing for each expedition to develop its own unique bond. One of the most rewarding parts of focusing on people is seeing that it resonates with our guests, and as a result, we’re able to see Adventure Canada continue to flourish,” MJ said.