A Day in the Life of an Expedition Guide

Gemma Bradley

17 Oct 2017

Q&A With Miriam Vermeij

When did your love of animals / the natural world start?

During my youth, I travelled a lot with my parents and sister in Europe. During these holidays I developed an interest in nature and spent lots of time outdoors, discovering the local insects and plants. Following this interest I decided to study environmental sciences, and got a degree with a specialisation in soil pollution. Nowadays I am a self-employed environmental planning officer and nature guide. 

Since 1999 I have travelled all around the world with my husband Marcel, and from then our love for nature has grown over the years.

What qualifications do you have? did you study anything else prior to becoming a guide?  

In 2000 I started a job with a four day working week, so there was time for my studies. I started reading books about nature, but found that I learnt quicker when I was outside and seeing things for myself. In 2002 I started my first nature course in a local forest, after which I started doing voluntary work in the forest. I enjoyed guiding schoolchildren the most, so in 2003 I started my guiding career. In 2006 I started a more advanced course with a Dutch national institute called IVN, which qualified me as a Dutch naturalist guide. Halfway through the course I decided to enlarge my guiding area and started a specific guiding course in one of the largest national parks in Holland: De Biesbosch. In 2009 I finished both courses and started guiding on a regular basis. 

In 2006 Marcel and I went to the Antarctic, which is where our passion for the poles started.

On that trip there was also a couple guiding us, and we started to develop the idea for us to become polar guides ourselves in the future. So we travelled to the Arctic in 2011 and 2013. On the first trip we told one of the guides of our plans, and she told us to get in contact with the office and tell them about our plans. So we did, but we were told we needed more experience in the Arctic. 

In the summer of 2014 we read about a Dutch polar expedition (SEES) departing in 2015. We tried to become field assistants on that trip by telling them that we wanted to become polar guides. They liked our story and we joined the expedition. During the expedition we assisted the scientists and gained a lot of knowledge about the Arctic, and made some very useful contacts. In 2016 we came back to Svalbard as field assistants at the Dutch polar station in Ny Alesund for two weeks. We then also took the polar bear safety and shooting course and again learnt more about the animals, plants and environment. 

As we have been driving boats in Holland for many years, we took that experience with us and used all our time in the Antarctic to extend our boat handling skills. We felt that at the end of 2016 we were ready to guide in the Arctic.

Have you ever lived or studied in Svalbard? If not, would you like to and what would you study or research? 

I have never lived or studied in Svalbard. Two years ago I was looking into a programme at the university in Longyearbyen, and there are a lot of programmes I would like to study, but at the moment I don’t have the time! If I had the time, I would like to do Arctic and Antarctic studies at the University of Groningen in Holland. 

What is your favourite thing about being a guide for NWS? 

I like guiding because you are outside in nature, and with people who like to learn more about the environment you are guiding in. Most people are happy because it is their holiday, or day out, and almost everybody has the same goal. 

My favourite thing about being a guide for NWS is that the trips/ships are all small; within half an hour I know all the guests by name.

After a day or two you know what people like and what their abilities are, and then you can help them on an individual basis to make their trip even more enjoyable.

What is your favourite polar bear encounter? 

I enjoy all my polar bear encounters. Every time you see one it is special, and because they are wild animals their behaviour is always different. However, I do have a couple of especially memorable encounters. We saw a polar bear eating a seal, and after watching it for about an hour we were preparing ourselves to move on. At that moment, a second bear approached and we were expecting a fight between the bears over the remains of the seal. However, the bear currently eating was a young female and the approaching one was a big male, so when the male was close enough, the female went away - no fight. When the male reached the seal he took the head in his mouth and ‘cleaned’ it in the water, before dragging the seal to another place to start eating. 

Do you have a favourite animal in Svalbard? 

If I had to choose it would be a puffin, because they are so colourful, clumsy and funny.

Do YOU have a favourite ship? If so why is it your favourite?

I have travelled on five ships (Antarctic Dream, Akademik Vavilov, Freya, Ortelius and Plancius) and, till now, have only guided on the Freya. Guiding on the Freya was a treat. There is a lot of space on the bridge and it is very easy to walk outside behind the bridge. It’s also very stable and cosy and the small number of passengers gives you the chance to get to know everybody really quickly. 

Do you have a favourite season in Svalbard?

Not really; all the seasons have their own beauty. Up until now I have only visited Svalbard in the summer time: May, end of June, July and August. What I most like about Svalbard is the 24 hours of daylight, but I am really looking forward to staying in Svalbard in the dark season. If I had to choose my favourite month until now, I would go for the end of June/beginning of July. 

During that period most of the birds can be found nesting on Svalbard, and most of the plants are flowering.

What is your favourite restaurant when you are staying in Svalbard? 

Rabalder for coffee with cake, Fruene for lunch, Kroa for dinner and the Saturday steak menu in Huset! 

Have you ever taken the polar plunge?

Not yet, so far I have just watched and taken pictures of the guests... 

Do you have a favourite photo of Svalbard? 

Difficult question, but I picked two. The first is the most northern island of Svalbard, where normally it is not possible to land because of the weather (wind, current). The day I visited the island the weather was very calm and it was very sunny. Amazing! The second one is a photo of the first time I landed the zodiac on the ice, very exciting!

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