Q&A With Alastair Newton

4 August 2022
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Antarctica, Ponant, Q&A

Q&A with Ponant’s Expedition Leader and Director of National Geographic Partnership, Alastair Newton

Alastair Newton brings years of polar exploration experience and expertise to his role as Ponant’s Expedition Leader and director of their partnership with the prestigious National Geographic. We wanted to find out more about Alastair’s extraordinary life exploring Antarctica…

What is the role of an expedition leader and what do they do?

An Expedition Leader is responsible for creating the remarkable and memorable experiences of the Expedition. It is a huge responsibility as it is these moments that the guests will treasure. These can include; adapting to a sudden opportunity, such as turning the ship around to watch whales bubble-net feeding in Alaska, helping the guests leave their preconceptions behind so they can experience new cultures openly, or changing the whole itinerary due to changing weather and creating a new program as we see what opportunities present themselves.

To do this, the Expedition Leader must be calm and flexible.  It is key that you are able to work closely with the Captain, to look at the weather, and the opportunities, to work closely with the Hotel Department so you can ask to interrupt dinner for an incredible wildlife sighting (knowing it has a big impact on the hotel team), and to work closely with the team of Naturalists on board so they are able to tell their stories to the guests, guide them through their journey and further enrich the Expedition.

Ultimately, the Expedition Leader is the storyteller, who creates the framework of the Expedition, the story that runs through it brings the guests into that story while continually shaping and moulding it every day, to leave the guests with memories of a remarkable experience.

Image: Ponant

What were your first impressions when you visited Antarctica for the first time?

The first time I visited Antarctica was on the Royal Research Ship James Clark Ross, where we spent 8 weeks at sea in Antarctica conducting marine research. For most of that time, we were at sea!  I distinctly remember seeing tabular icebergs and their unfathomable size and watching them “sailing” through the sea…a piece of ice the size of a small city moving through the ocean.  It was a humbling experience…as was standing on the open back deck, harnessed on, hauling research equipment out of the sea as it rose above us!  It was an impression of how beautiful and powerful the natural world can be and how small we can feel in it. I also remember my first visit to South Georgia…one of our projects required us to stay alongside in Grytviken for 3 days, and those of us not involved could explore. Meeting King Penguins, Elephant Seals and Fur Seals and discovering their complete lack of fear of us. It made me feel much more connected with nature, to be immersed in it and a part of it, where you are not automatically considered a threat, just another animal making its way.

What has been your most memorable experience in Antarctica?

There are two! When I first visited Port Lockroy, the southern-most British Post Office and a historical base…the Base Leader, Nikki mistook me for someone else and gave me a big hug (I was wearing a hat, neck gaiter and sunglasses at the time) before realising she hadn’t met me before.  It was a perfect way to break the ice…and we stayed in touch and got married in 2015!

In 2011, I headed on an Expedition in the Ross Sea to Scott’s and Shackleton’s huts. While visiting these historical huts was an incredible experience, the most memorable part of the Expedition was the challenging ice conditions that we had…and so I spent 3 days sitting on the top of the mast with a radio to the ship’s bridge, helping guide the ship through the leads (cracks) in the ice, looking for open water, as we made our way South. 

Port Lockroy

Can you tell us about your time with the British Antarctic Survey?

In 2005 I was working as an Expedition Leader in the South Pacific when I had a call from a friend.  They were due to join the RRS James Clark Ross for an 8-week expedition to the Scotia Sea to study fish population genetics.  Sadly, one of the team was ill and unable to take up their position on the project and they were looking for a last-minute replacement who had a scientific background and experience working on ships and was available at short notice to go for 8 weeks.  Fortunately for me, I fit the bill and my employer kindly gave me the time off!

I flew out with the team to join the ship in the Falkland Islands. Our goal was to understand whether fish populations had recovered from historical commercial harvesting. My role was to help out in any way I could with the fish research. As you can imagine, we had to deploy and recover nets to catch the fish, and that was one of my main jobs onboard.

Our voyage took us from the Falkland Islands to the South Shetlands at the Antarctic Peninsula, across to the South Sandwich Islands and then back up to South Georgia.  We visited several research bases, saw an erupting volcano and experienced truly impressive weather during our travels…and successfully gathered a lot of data as we went. 

What do you love most about your role as Director of the National Geographic collaboration with Ponant?

I love working with the incredible Experts and Photographers from National Geographic. All of our National Geographic departures have both an Expert and a Photographer onboard from National Geographic. Many people may not realise that National Geographic has over 130 years of experience conducting research and explorations all around the world. These Experts are a continuation of that heritage and talk about their own work, the current work of their colleagues and of course the history of National Geographic…it is an incredible perspective to have. Photographers are some of the best visual storytellers in the world, and their mission is to help everyone tell their own story. This means that they do workshops, photo walks, one-on-one sessions and talks. I have found these tips great when I am at home taking pictures of my kids growing up…these tips are really great for everyone, whether you are an avid photographer or just wanting to snap pictures on your phone!

Tell us more about the Citizen Science Programme that is available onboard, I believe you can actually take part in some of this incredible science yourself.

Our Citizen Science program is an incredible opportunity not only to delve deeper into the science behind what guests are seeing but also to contribute to new science. We find this really creates journeys with meaning. By connecting directly with scientists sailing on board, or whether through the scientists on our Expedition Team, you get a much deeper insight.  Guests can participate in projects that monitor whale migration (and even get updates as “their” whale is spotted in later months, or even years), or monitor how the ice is changing, or study the abundance of birds. They may even be able to help NASA by studying the clouds!

Can you tell us about some of the amazing animal encounters guests can have in Antarctica?

Everyone expects incredible penguin encounters, and rightly so.  Penguins are, of course, the main feature of Antarctica.  However, if you stop and watch them, you can often get drawn into fantastic moments in their lives, like watching your own penguin soap opera! 

What I particularly enjoy is spending time out on the deck watching the albatross that frequently follow the ship, especially in the Drake Passage. I remember watching a Wandering Albatross fly past a passenger on the deck and realising that it really did have an 11foot wingspan!

On voyages that visit South Georgia, nothing can quite prepare you for the Southern Fur Seals. They have to be treated with a lot of caution as they can outrun us on land! However, watching them, you again get to see the incredible dynamics and I can’t help but laugh when a pup runs out like a terrier trying to prove how tough it is!

Finally, the whales are a remarkable feature of Antarctica and a constant reminder of its history of whaling. Seeing these enormous animals make their return to populate the Antarctic often leaves you mesmerised, as you reflect on their huge lifespan and all the things these survivors have witnessed in their lifetime, and of course, seeing the role of young whales repopulating these waters is an emotional experience!

What is your favourite thing about Ponant Expeditions?

The incredible teamwork onboard. All the teams are passionate and knowledgeable, whether it is the fascinating naturalists or sommeliers onboard! On a PONANT Expedition, you step back and forth between the world of Expedition and wonderful French luxury. It is great to see how these two worlds come together in harmony through excellent teamwork and collaboration between the Expedition Team, the Nautical Team and the Hotel Team. There is nothing quite like having an incredible wildlife experience ashore and then stepping back on board to reflect upon it while sipping French champagne!

…and lastly, what’s your best piece of travel advice for visiting Antarctica?

Make sure you have plenty of layers. Antarctica can be warm and cold…and very cold If you get cold, you will need to get back on board to warm up…so have plenty of layers, always add one more than you think you need on the day and make sure you stay toasty and warm (especially hands!)…this way you only have to return to the ship when you are ready!

Also, if you are getting a new camera for the trip…make sure you learn how to use it before you come on the Expedition…and get a bag to keep it dry!

Ready to start planning your incredible Antarctica expedition cruise with Ponant?

Simply complete our enquiry form to get in touch, or call our Polar Specialists on 0203 196 1000.

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