On Top of the World

Kit van Wagner never gets bored. “That’s a good thing,” says van Wagner, Silversea’s Director of Expedition Training and Staff Development. It’s hard to imagine her adventurous life getting boring. When we spoke, she’d just returned from a voyage on the Silver Muse going from Japan to Russia to the Aleutian Islands to Alaska. From marine biology lecturer to expedition leader to her new role training the best and brightest at Silversea, van Wagner shares moments from a maritime life.

What is the cultural sensitivity and environmental training that you conduct?

Kit: It involves how we interact with the various communities that we visit, so that we’re doing it in an appropriate manner, experiencing the culture and appreciating it for what it is. That could be a village in Greenland, Papua New Guinea or Bordeaux in France. We make sure that our staff understand the importance of being good visitors and how to best brief our guests, so that they can also be culturally sensitive. It might be just wearing the right attire covering your knees and your shoulders when you go out in public, because you’re in a country that’s sensitive to that kind of norm. I do environmental sensitivity training when it comes to watching wildlife, making sure that we are not too close, not disturbing wildlife or not seeing any signs of agitation in the birds or the sea lions that we’re enjoying.

Are there certain things travelers are surprised to learn about that they don’t know before an excursion?

Sometimes it’s something as simple as the way that greetings are made. While traveling in Malaysia, I noticed right away that the local people would greet you, shake your hand and then cover their heart with their hand. It’s a sign that they’re welcoming you into their hearts. In part of Indonesia, it’s rude to point with your index finger, so they point with their thumb. There are all kinds of little things like that you pick up along the way, that we would share with the guests during briefings before we get to a site, so they can do their best to comply with the local norms.

silversea ship

Are there ever natural occurrences that you don’t anticipate?

Last year we attempted to go halfway on the northwest passage on the MS Fram, but the ice blocked our way. The Northwest Passage is becoming more and more open as climate warms, so it’s tough to know. In 2017, a friend of mine went all the way through the Northwest Passage on a fiberglass sailboat without any trouble. Some years, it’s smooth sailing, and other years it’s very difficult.


Are there any icy expeditions that are most memorable for you?

Svalbard is one of the highlights. We always take a day to go as far north as we can and find the edge of the polar ice cap, cruise along the ice edge, and it’s interesting because you’ll often find wildlife like walruses hauled out on the ice taking a little break from feeding and fishing and cruising around. We found pods of orca whales trying to feed on the walrus; we found blue whales hanging out on the ice, but of course the thing everyone is hopeful to see is the polar bears. I was fortunate enough to stumble upon three bears feeding on a narwhal carcass, so that was pretty incredible.

scott's hut

What trends are you seeing in guests taking these trips?

Around the holidays we tend to get some multigenerational families … the grandparents, kids and grandkids will all come along. The great equalizer is being on those Zodiacs, because everyone has the same experience, whether you’re an 80-year- old grandma or a 10-year-old grandson, so it’s pretty neat. We also get a lot of couples, and expedition cruising is incredible for solo travelers, because meals are all family style. It’s very social in the evenings, and you have shared experiences with people right away, being in the same Zodiac and cracking jokes and getting excited about the podded dolphin that you saw. They are very social voyages, and there’s a nice camaraderie on board, so that appeals to all kinds of people; Silversea has got such a nice family feeling.

polar bear

Bob Rowland loves cruises so much, he dropped out of college to go on them, learning more about geology on oceanographic cruises than he ever did in the classroom. Later, after being drafted and trekking to the South Pole and Antarctica with the Army, he earned a doctorate in geology working out of Nome, Alaska, where he now returns as a Hurtigruten expert lecturer.

You divide your time between the Antarctic and the Arctic. What’s the difference in those two locations for travelers?

Bob: When you go to the Antarctic, a lot of the ship landings are at places where there is no human presence—penguin rookeries, beaches, etc., whereas in the Arctic you are often landing in towns and villages. There’s no permanent human presence in the Antarctic, whereas in the Arctic, you’re often at places where there’s a lot of people around.

Have you been noticing the effects of climate change, on your travels?

Yes. I used to work at the U.S. Geological Survey, and for more than 20 years, I took a lot of coastal photographs. You can see from those photographs that there’s a lot of glacial retreat, and even in Greenland there are a lot of places where climate change is causing the glaciers to retreat. I discuss that in various talks, because as a geologist that means that more of the geology is sticking out.

hiking red rocks

What’s an upcoming trip that you’re excited about?

I’m going across the Northwest Passage, which I haven’t done before. On Hurtigruten’s new ship Amansen, I’ll go from Iceland to Greenland with stops in Greenland and then on to Nome, Alaska and down to Vancouver. It’s historic because the first person to go across the Northwest Passage was Roald Amansen, which the ship is named after. I’m looking forward to it for the geology and the culture, meeting the local people. Folks in the villages know we are coming, and they have handicrafts they’ve carved to make available to the passengers on the ship. I’ve found that people are usually excited to have a ship come in.

What is a particularly memorable trip for you?

One that really stands out for me was several years ago Hurtigruten advertised in Norway that it was going to go to South Georgia Island, which is an island off the coast of South America with many whaling stations run by Norwegians. They were looking to find if people were descendants of Norwegian whalers and wanted to visit the island where their ancestors had worked. What turned out to be so touching was that a lot of the people who went found out that in some cases their relatives had died while they were working on the island. They were probably the first family members to ever visit the grave of their deceased relative— as a consequence they could say a few words in memory of the person. It was so different from taking people and showing them penguins or geology.