Catching up with Antarctic Guide Andre Belem
Catching up with Antarctic Guide Andre Belem
Award-winning guide and polar oceanographer Andre Belem is at the helm of one of our favorite expedition ships in Antarctica. We tap into his vast knowledge of the Antarctic in this exclusive interview.
With an impressive bio that includes a PhD in both Polar and Physical Oceanography, a leadership role at the Oceanographic Observatory, research writing on climate change, and much more, Andre Belem is what we like to call a five-star guide. He is an expedition guide on the M/V Ocean Nova, the ship used in many of our adventures to Antarctica, and a true wealth of knowledge when it comes to all things Antarctic. We caught up with Belem to find out the best lessons he’s learned on the ice and what keeps him coming back for more.
Q: Tell us about your history with the Antarctic.
I have always been in love with nature and everything connected to the sea. Jacques Cousteau was my childhood hero and at that time I did not even think of Antarctica as a dream. I graduated in oceanography in the summer of 1993 and was starting my master's degree at the same university with my mentor quite involved in cooperating with a foreign researcher in oceanography. Dr. Hartmur Hellmer, by then a researcher at Columbia University (and now a senior scientist in Alfred-Wegener Institut in Germany), became interested in the job and sent an email saying he was on his way to Antarctica and could visit my university. At once I had the craziest idea of y life: asking for a hitchhiking to Antarctica! As unbelievable as it sounds, the answer was positive after the NFS approved a small project I wrote to fit in the research he was doing. Four months later, I was embarking to Punta Arenas to board the R/V “Nathaniel B Palmer”, an icebreaker from the American Antarctic Program, to make the first Antarctic voyage of my life between Chile and New Zealand, breaking the ice in the Amundsen and Bellingshausen seas during the austral winter, working on the ice with a team of scientists and seeing with my own eyes what I had only dreamed of on Jacques Cousteau's TV shows. As soon as I got off this trip, I was already packing my bags to get on another project, this time from my country, on the Antarctic Peninsula aboard our polar ship. From then, I did not stop and I was more or less just a few months at home. In 1995 again in the winter I was on board the R/V Nathaniel B Palmer with Dr. Martin Jeffries from Alaska Fairbanks University, learning everything about sea ice. Between 1994 and 1997 there were 6 expeditions, winter and summer, when I finished my master degree and went to Germany to do my PhD in Polar Oceanography, also sometimes breaking ice and going deeper and deeper in my research until 2007, when I came to know Antarctic tourism more closely. Since then I have worked in combination with tourism and science, realizing every day how delicate the Antarctic ecosystem is.
I have always been open to learning more and more, and I keep my strength focused on my research on climate. In 2009 I had the opportunity to enter in the world of Antarctic tourism and realized that the opportunity to learn and live the Antarctic environment could be much more effective in terms of navigated time and distances. Antarctic Tourism is very dynamic and flexible compared to the operation on scientific ships, where we must plan much earlier and sometimes Mother Nature shows us that predicting her mood is very difficult. Today I am proud of my 23 years of Antarctica and about 18 operations on the sea and on ice, tourism, and science.
Q: What do you think is the most striking part of the Antarctic?
Its immensity. There is not a specific place but the whole place. At the same time, I feel insignificant in the face of such great whiteness, and part of it. When I see thousands of years of history in the layers of snow and ice that cover everything, I feel that although fragile, we humans are part of a living planet. The superlative Antarctic, the coldest, the tallest, the driest and most certainly the most beautiful.
"Antarctica is not just a place, it is a very unique system of ice, water, air, and life that interconnects and absorbs those who enter into their domains."
Q: What do you want the world to know about the Antarctic?
That life on earth as it is depends on the Antarctic, between ice ages and interglacials. It is at least naive to think that Antarctica will be completely destroyed one day by perhaps a sudden warming of the climate. Long before that happens, Mother Nature will respond through the ice and cold showing what Antarctica is there for. It regulates our climate through the sea and ice, and its ecosystem is its main monitoring system. In the recent geological past of this planet, the last 500 thousand years at least, Antarctica has shown itself by determining the changes of the climate. Although we humans do much damage on the planet, it is certain that the ability of Antarctica to respond with cold and ice is enormous. It is only a matter of time for this to happen. What I would like the rest of world to understand is that the more preserved we keep Antarctica, the longer survival time we gain.
Q: What has the Antarctic taught you about life?
It taught me that everything has a beginning, a middle and an end. The seasons, the cycle of ice, water, and life, including mine. Every season has a beginning, a middle and an end, and if I know my place in all this, I do not feel anxious about what is ahead. To get back to Antarctica, I have to leave. To leave, I have to be there. I take this with me as a life lesson. How much time does a penguin live? Enough for it to have its history. How long does an iceberg last until it thaws? Enough so that it also has its role in the ice cycle. Much of what happens in Antarctica is almost unpredictable, in relation to the weather and to what we will find ahead. We are so powerless in the face of the magnitude of the environment that we do not have to worry about ourselves.
Q: Tell us a little about the Ocean Nova.
I have been guiding on the M/V Ocean Nova for 8 years and I just love that ship. I feel so comfortable on board that I consider it my "first home.” I am very proud to work on it not only because of the great reputation of breaking records (for a long time the Ocean Nova has been the first ship of every season to sail beyond the polar circle and visit almost inaccessible places, besides facing the ice in the Lemaire Channel with dexterity). The bridge is always open and the officers are always smiling with affection of the crew and hotel team, absolutely fabulous food, and obviously, always pleasant company of everyone I know on board. All of this makes me miss the ship when the season is over. On research vessels, programming is usually very rigid. At Ocean Nova, what I hear most is "let's try.” Working on an expedition ship with such flexibility and good humor is really a prize for me.
Q: What are your favorite parts of expedition cruising?
This is a difficult question because there is no specific place, perhaps a moment in the expedition. What I like most is to experience the excitement of the passengers and dazzle it as we go deeper and deeper into the ice and fantastic scenery. I always love the way Antarctica stirs our emotions. Therefore, I think there is not a better part but a growing continuum of emotions. The best part is precisely exploration, to find out what lies ahead.
"What I would like the rest of world to understand is that the more preserved we keep Antarctica, the longer survival time we gain."
Q: What advice would you offer to the guests preparing for this journey? What should they pack and prepare for, etc?
It is essential that the future Antarctic passenger is prepared with: 1) time to reflect, 2) patience to realize that he is not in control, but nature is, and 3) flexibility to make the most of this experience. The best preparation is to be open to learning and experiencing. Each one has its comfort zone and there is a huge number of materials, clothes and equipment that can help, but what I feel most lacking to some is exactly “time." Leave your camera aside, forget the internet and the outside world, and just breathe as deep as you can. Take your time and remember that there are other senses beyond sight.
Q: Why come experience the Antarctic?
To find yourself in the world. Antarctica makes you realize how powerful Mother Nature is. Although there are other very beautiful and magical places in the world, this magic here is strong, it is ancient, it is the owner of our destiny. The best answer may be: not coming to Antarctica is denying your own place on the planet.
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Andre Belem Interview
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