Round table on the polar guide profession | Polarjournal
Crossing a glacial river on South Georgia Island to the St Andrews Bay penguin colony. Ligne de vie installée par les guides pour aider les passagers à y accéder. Image: Camille Lin

The Polar Issues Chair led by Anne Choquet and Brest’s maritime higher education courses looked at the profession of polar guide, at the heart of the controversy surrounding tourism in the Arctic and Antarctic.

Last Tuesday, at the Institut Universitaire Européen de la Mer, polar guides spoke about their profession at a round table open to the public and especially to students from engineering schools and universities. The latter took part in a week-long training course designed to “deconstruct the preconceptions about the polar regions that can be found in the media”, explains Anne Choquet, a teacher and researcher in law and the French representative at the Antarctic Treaty consultative meetings.

Future mining engineers, polytechnics, naval and telecoms engineers, coastal managers and politicians have all come to find out what is at stake, and in particular, on this day, that of polar tourism. After launching the discussion, the debate turned to the dreams and quests that attract tourists. “Seeing the fox, the bear, sleeping next to a glacier, hearing it calve, the landscape, climbing a mountain…”, says Lucien Chaillot, head of operations for the French company 66°N. Or, more broadly, “there are these quests for origin, spiritual and social, with the enhancement of the self, for example selfies”, explains Marie-Noëlle Rimaud, a teacher and researcher in law and tourism in Greenland.

The guides also share an attraction for these regions. “There are beaches with elephant seals and penguins, and you get the feeling that they’re living their lives without looking to see if you’re there, something we don’t have in Europe,” explains Alain Bidart, a polar guide on cruise ships, recalling his best memories. Lucien Chaillot, for his part, recalls the guard duty around the camp to keep an eye on the bear: “You’re alone in the face of immensity, and at that moment I sometimes wonder how long I’ll ever want to go there.”

Moulting period for king penguins on the outskirts of a colony, a regular destination for cruise ships. Image : Camille Lin

For Marie-Noëlle Rimaud, “it’s the seal and halibut picnics with the Inuit of the Ilulissat region” that motivate her. She warns against the excesses of some of the tourist products on offer. “The Inuit have a fabulous linguistic heritage when it comes to sledging, but it’s a shame to boil it down to a 10-minute ride,” she says, urging that “the original message be changed.” In other words, catalogues that convey images that are out of sync with reality.

“Guides have to be the masters of the game in these dreamy, inaccessible places, and they have to be able to position the cursor precisely between dream and reality”, explains Éric Bayard, President of the Bureau des Guides Polaires and a professional sports excursion leader. Indeed, trips are constrained by environmental and safety standards that travellers don’t necessarily have in mind when they are being sold a holiday.

Grounding of the Ocean Explorer in a Greenland fjord in 2023. Image: Arktisk Kommando

The hearing questioned the legal and binding means available to them to enforce the rules governing the use of sites. For cruises, there are distances to respect when approaching animals, “it is the expedition leaders and the captain who can prohibit a person from disembarking”, explains Alain Bidart, estimating that excesses are committed by isolated passengers, or even sailboats passing through.

For the other guides, whose activities are mainly on land – skiing, snowshoeing, sledging, etc. “It’s all down to the leadership of the guide; it’s up to him or her to decide whether or not to exfiltrate a client because his or her behaviour is jeopardising the excursion”, explains Lucien Chaillot.

The aim of polar guides in the field is to combine safety objectives with legal and environmental constraints, and to pass on a passion for wildlife and indigenous culture, through camp-building techniques for example. Image: Michael Wenger

Finally, Anne Choquet points out that for French companies in Antarctica, the French Southern and Antarctic Territories issue permits and check the environmental risks posed by a company. “They are very vigilant about behaviour in previous years,” she comments. “They can hand out financial fines and bans on leaving.”

The audience went on to raise the issue of introducing quotas, taking the example of visitor numbers to sites in Iceland. “The most difficult thing would be to put them in place, but when it comes to transporting travellers, we have a card to play,” replies Lucien Chaillot. 66°N is mainly active in Scandinavia and Svalbard. For Antarctica, the discussion is at Treaty level. “We need to convince all the States, and some of them have economic needs”, comments Anne Choquet.

The round table is part of the Chaire Enjeux Polaire (Chair in Polar Issues), one of whose projects is to introduce a diploma for polar guides that meets international standards. And the discussions will have enabled the audience to develop a polar culture, like this former student passing through who is leaving to work in the diplomatic sector in Denmark.

Camille Lin, PolarJournal

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