It’s Polar Guide Week – a week dedicated to celebrating the role of IAATO Polar Guides and sharing information about the people leading safe and environmentally responsible expeditions South. Here, Assistant Expedition Leader (AEL) Mariela Cornejo shares her journey to working in Antarctica and the responsibility that comes with it.
I dreamt about working in Antarctica from the age of six. That year, 1991, coincidentally the year IAATO was formed, my father was offered a job in one of the Argentinian stations as a teacher. He was going to be the one and only teacher at a school of just a few kids in the Antarctic Peninsula, and I was going to be a first-grade student! That was the first time in my life that interacting with penguins, ice, whales and spending my days wrapped up in a lot, and I mean A LOT, of warm clothes crossed my mind.
My training and background include science, customer service and helping others to live in harmony with themselves and the environment. I am a nutritionist by training, and studied chemical engineering as well, worked in the food industry for many, many years before reconnecting with my old dream.
Born and raised in Ushuaia, Argentina by two sports teachers, I spent my early years doing all sorts of outdoors sports and learning to care for and respect nature. I love being able to combine all of my passions into one role description: boating, hiking, organizing things, logistics, spreadsheets (there are lots and lots of spreadsheets), lecturing and sharing my days with people from all over the world. I am a teacher and sometimes a pupil, I get to facilitate science projects for people who thought polar science was accessible only to a reserved few in a lab. At the end of each day, I have seen the joy, wonder and excitement in people’s faces. I don’t think there’s any other vocation that could put together all the things that I love and let me call it a job.
Back in 2014, I got offered my first job in an expedition cruise to Antarctica. Together with all the excitement and feeling of ‘yes, it’s finally happening!’, many thoughts crossed my mind as I started reading the role description and the tasks assigned from day one to 10 of the voyage.
Standard operating procedures, safety, biosecurity, camaraderie, teamwork, customer service and fun stood out for me on that first document. Although it seemed overwhelming at first, I realized all my previous knowledge, training, and experiences have given me the tools for doing this. I got on the ship, met the team – amazing people who remain good friends – and shortly after we were welcoming our guests to start the best adventure I’ve ever had in my life.
Watching the albatross soaring the waves when crossing the Drake Passage, listening to the Expedition Leader (EL) announce we were getting close to Antarctica, and suddenly seeing those frozen peaks… it was a humbling feeling. It was big, pristine, silent, but noisy with wildlife and ice, empty but full of energy.
But while being a polar guide is a dream come true, it comes with tremendous responsibility. It’s a great privilege to experience Antarctica and we all have an obligation to protect it.
‘Polar guides’ is so much better used in its plural form, as we always work as a team so well-oiled you will never know who did what or if there was one of us in charge of one specific aspect of the operation. Each guide has their own strengths, training and background, but the team, the polar staff, will make the experience unique. For me as a guide, that means educating visitors about Antarctica’s global importance and how much power we have to produce positive change to preserve it. We understand the importance of not introducing foreign species to Antarctica, cleaning all our gear before landing, being silent and careful around wildlife, making eco-conscious decisions when choosing what to eat or how to dispose our garbage, can you imagine the impact of these actions if we all could carry them back home?
We have the power to choose what we want to change and how. It is on us to take action, even if it is small steps in our daily lives. My work in Antarctica has put me in touch with amazing people who have shown me that it is never too late to start doing something, to be an ambassador for change.
About the Author | Mariela Cornejo
Mariela Cornejo, is an Assistant Expedition Leader (AEL) for an IAATO member operator. She joined the world of safe and environmentally responsible polar travel in 2014.
As well as leading responsible expeditions South, a proud advocate for the environment, Mariela educates Antarctic visitors about the power of ambassadorship for protecting the world’s precious places.