13 Questions with… Howard Whelan, Aurora Expeditions

LATTE chats with highly experienced Arctic and Antarctica expedition leader

This month sees the release of Aurora Expeditions2024 Arctic & Beyond program, covering destinations such as Greenland, Svalbard, Iceland, Norway and the Northwest Passage, accessed aboard the award-winning Australian adventure company’s two ships, Greg Mortimer and the freshly delivered, Sylvia Earle.

LATTE took the opportunity to speak with one of Aurora Expeditions’ most experienced expedition leaders and adventurers, Howard Whelan.

Originally from Utah in the U.S. Rocky Mountains, Howard arrived in Australia in 1979 as a journalist and has lived most of his Australian life in Sydney.

With his background in journalism and cinematography, in 1984, Howard was the cameraman for the first Australian ascent of Mt Everest, with Tim Macartney-Snape and Greg Mortimer reaching the summit. Upon his return, Howard was hired by Dick Smith to start the magazine, Australian Geographic. Howard produced Australian Geographic for 17 years, while living on Sydney’s Scotland Island and along the northern foreshore.

He currently lives on the NSW South Coast, when not guiding in Antarctica (a destination he has explored over 80 times) and the Arctic (12 seasons and counting).

Howard Whelan | Image credit: Lauren Bath

Howard, what got you into expeditions and outdoor adventures?

I’ve always had a passion for the outdoors. Growing up in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains, my father was into hiking, so on weekends he’d take us kids up into the canyons behind the house, and started me skiing when I was about 6. My parents used to stick me on the bus up to the mountains, on my own, and that probably helped me learn to look after myself.

When I was about 15 I worked at a ski resort in the summer, digging trenches and the like to pay for my passes and coaching for ski racing. After work, some of my teammates took me rock climbing, which evolved into an obsession for mountaineering. When I was 19, I walked from Canada to Mexico with two mates, Fred Nollan and Wally Brown, becoming one of the first parties to walk the length of the Pacific Crest Trail.

Wait, what. You walked from Canada to Mexico? Can you elaborate on that?

I was working in the ski resort of Alta, Utah and my roommate, Fred, asked if I wanted to do the Pacific Crest trail. I’d never heard of it and I thought he said Pacific Coast Trail a 10-day walk on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. I said sure, I’d love to. His response was ‘you’re kidding?’ and I said ‘no no, I’d like to do that’. He said, “if I go out and buy the maps you have to swear that you will go, and I said ‘sure, yeah’. We’re broke but I could afford that!

About a month later he walked in with this box of topographic maps covering the 4,000 kilometre-trail and my response was ‘what are you talking about?!’

Well I’d given him my word that I’d go, so I went. It took five months – the equivalent of walking from Sydney to Perth.

It was probably the single most influential thing I have done in my life.

It was such an outrageous thing to do and seemed to be impossible. It definitely changed all of our lives because we just suddenly had more confidence in ourselves.

Instead of looking at something that we’ve never done before and thinking we’d never be able to do that, we looked at it and said that could be interesting and we’d learn something along the way. Even if we don’t have the skills to start with we could learn them. And that’s held true for me all the way through to my journalism, Australian Geographic and the guide work that I do with Aurora Expeditions.

Kayaking Cierva Cove, Antarctica | Credit: Emma Evans

And you’ve climbed Mt Everest?

When I say I was on Everest, I was the cameraman on the expedition in 1984. We spent 3.5 months on the north face and there were only 10 of us up there at that time.

But let’s be clear, I didn’t summit. Two guys summited – Tim McCartney-Snape and Greg Mortimer. Andi Henderson got very, very close to the summit. For me, I worked with renowned filmmaker Mike Dillon, and we had to be in different positions to film the guys on the mountain. I worked with them on the North Face, but didn’t go to the top.

That was an amazing, amazing trip. It was heavy duty. It’s been called by some as one of the greatest alpine ascents in mountaineering history because it was such a challenging first ascent – and I believe still might be one of the only routes on Everest that hasn’t had a second ascent. It was really, really challenging. We did the whole thing without supplementary oxygen and of course was before commercial guiding even existed.

What we did as a team, was extraordinary.

What other expedition activities have you been involved in?

Howard Whelan

Lots of climbing in the Pacific Northwest of America, volcanoes in Mexico, the Haute Route in the European Alps, that sort of thing.

When I first came to Australia I guided for Blue Mountains Expeditions. They needed somebody to lead a trip across the Kokoda Trail. I led a couple of trips across Kokoda, way before it became the ‘thing’ that it is today. There was nobody else on there in the early 1990s. Just my little group of five. We pre-arranged with some villages to resupply some food, but that was about it. And that was part of my learning about Australia, it’s history and the importance of Kokoda in the Australian culture.

I was also part of a group that tried to make the first winter crossing of Hokkaida, the central mountains of Japan, quite a long time ago.

And then once I started guiding in Antarctica, in the early days, that was all about exploration and trying to climb mountains that hadn’t been climbed and continuing my obsession with mountaineering.

How did you come to work with Aurora Expeditions?

Right after Greg Mortimer had summitted Everest, Quark Expedition’s Mike McDowell contracted him as an expedition leader in Antarctica, where he’s worked as a geologist. Greg had his own business called Greg Mortimer Mountain Services which evolved into Polar Journeys, eventually branding as Aurora Expeditions.

Around his second season in the Antarctic, in 1993/94, Greg asked me to come along to see how the operation worked. I was the editor of Australian Geographic, and went down during my holidays to drive Zodiacs and get a sense of the experience. The following year he asked me to return – also during my holidays – to lead trips. And with the exception of COVID season, I’ve been back to Antarctica every year since.

Alpine trekking in Antarctica | Credit: Tarn Pilkington

When I was at Australian Geographic, I could only go for a month and would lead back-to-back expeditions. When I left Australian Geographic in 2004, I worked with George Miller for two years on the film Happy Feet, to ground-truth some of the story ideas before getting involved in logistics and ended up leading the expeditions needed to gather data necessary to create the animations.

After that I began leading trips around the Kimberley, Galapagos and Amazon. I specialised in Russia – north of Japan – the Kuril Islands, Kamchatka, Chukotka. In over two months in 2010, I did the first North East Passage voyage, taking the ship from Murmansk all the way across the top of Russia, and then down through the Bering Strait to a small place called Anadyr, before continuing all the way south to Sahkalin Island.

What gets you excited about expeditions?

I think that our ‘expeditioners’ are different now than they were at the beginning. At the beginning, they were pretty much the outdoors community – the backpackers, the skiers, the adventurous. That started to change about the Millenium New Year, the year 2000, when polar operators that had been chartering aged Russian icebreakers fairly cheaply, began thinking about building new ships of their own. Over the next decade or so, as the Russian ships began falling out of servuce, ship-building for cruising in high-latitude regions began to boom.

And in the midst of this hive of expedition ship activity, a guy who had developed the X-Bow and was applying it on North Sea resupply vessels, was commissioned to build some passenger vessels featuring this unique hull. Greg was one of the ‘movers and shakers’ in that space, and the Greg Mortimer is the first in this series of expedition cruise ships.

Does the Ulstein X-Bow® hull really make that much difference?

It is unbelievable. Un.be.liev.able. And I don’t say that lightly.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the Southern Ocean. I’ve ridden on a lot of different ships, from big icebreakers down to smaller vessels. I got on the Greg Mortimer in Cape Town to transit to Ushuaia to get the ship ready for its maiden voyage. We came out of Cape Town into a three to four-day storm, Force 11, 8- to 9-metre seas, average of 70 knots of wind, and we were going into it. Gliding straight through.

The sleek Ulstein X-Bow® Hull of Greg Mortimer and Sylvia Earle

The ship is also fantastic in pack ice. It’s one category below an icebreaker so it is built for it. In our category, Greg Mortimer is about the only ship that really pushes into the ice and I’m sure the Sylvia Earle will do likewise.

What gets underestimated nowadays, because everybody is in a rush to get to Antarctica, so want to hurry across, is skipping the Drake Passage to reduce the amount of sea time. I don’t think people really appreciate how wonderful that sea time can be.

Last time I sailed from South Georgia to Elephant Island, pre-COVID, we came across a pod of several hundred great whales, feeding. It was one of the greatest whale experiences I’ve had in my entire life and that site has now been mapped and a group that came through their last summer saw nearly 1,000 of the great whales out there.  All I’m saying is there’s a lot happening out there, it’s not just about attending lectures.

By the same token I understand that some people get seasick easily and don’t want to deal with that. Aurora now offers trips where guests fly down or sail back, or vice-versa, or fly-fly. But look, I’m old school and I like sea days.

You’ve explored the Arctic for 12 seasons. How does it differ from Antarctica?

There are a couple of things to think about. One is Antarctica is a continent surrounded by ocean and the Arctic in an ocean surrounded by continents. So what you have when you go up north is the cultural element – Inuits and other indigenous groups that live up there. Plus the Viking history.

Kayaking in Antarctica from Greg Mortimer | Credit: Scott Portelli

We start in Scotland and then head up to the Faroe Islands and Jan Mayen, which has an ice clad volcano, and then up to Svalbard, or we go up the Norwegian coast. And that’s the big difference. With the Arctic you are not going into a place where the only history is exploration.

The other thing that is quite crucial is that we handle our landings very, very differently. This is because we are not at the top of the food chain. When we are up in the Arctic, we are in polar bear country and we have to always be keeping our expeditioners safe. You can’t just wander off. Whereas in Antarctica, we land and you, give you a brief on the highlights and areas to avoid and when to be back for the last Zodiac. Then we turn you loose!

Are there major differences between the Arctic and the Antarctic?

It’s a little more cryptic in the north, whereas in Antarctica it’s in your face. It really is, especially when we go to a penguin colony.

In Antarctica, you really feel as though you are going into this Garden of Eden situation because the animals aren’t afraid of you. Whereas in the Arctic, a lot of the animals, like the walrus and the polar bear are still hunted to a certain extent.

Kayaking at Neko Harbour, Antarctica | Credit: Jocelyn Pride

This summer we saw quite a few blue whales (four or five). Some people go their entire life without seeing one.

What are your highlights of the Arctic?

If you can get into Kong Oscar Fjord, the fjord system just to the north of Scoresby Sund, there’s some pretty unbelievable geology there. And when I say that, I’m not a geologist but I like photography and filming, and visually it’s just – there’s some places there that completely blow your mind. It’s kind of like the Kimberley where you get that amazing banding, you can see the guts of the earth have just been pushed up.

Scoresby is great. It’s dramatic. It’s stunning. Incredible icebergs. As much as Antarctic icebergs are amazing and the huge tabular bergs that are 130 kilometres long, what you see up at Scoresby Sund, you get these beautiful, exquisite arches, beautiful sculpture.

Nordenskioldbreen Glacier, Svalbard | Credit: Michael Baynes

We do a lot of walking in the tundra in the Arctic. Much more than we do in the Antarctic. So if you’re into hiking, definitely go for it because we do long tundra walks and we hike up to view points and try and get in close to musk ox, and there’s always a possibility of polar bears hanging around.

Also as the season changes in the Arctic, the tundra is quite exquisite. There’s tremendous wildflowers and a lot of dwarf varieties. Dwarf beech, birch and if you take the time to get down on your knees and take a look at what you are walking through, it’s quite incredible. And then there’s berries popping out. We’ve taken hikes where we have sat down for a half-hour and just sampled berries like a bunch of polar bears lying in the tundra.

Can you explain your role with Aurora Expeditions?

I’m the expedition leader. I work very closely with the captain to look at what the conditions are and what we can and we can’t do. I’m also responsible for the safety of the passengers when they get off the ship, while the captain is responsible for when they are on the ship

How many passengers does the Greg Mortimer accommodate?

When we are in the Arctic region we have a maximum of 120. The ship was built to take 160 but because of the limitation of how many people we can have ashore at any one time in the Antarctic and the Arctic is 100 passengers. Because we offer kayaking and some other water activities, we can get everyone off the ship with 100 ashore and 20 people out kayaking. Of course, not everybody will want to spend 3 to 4 hours ashore, so as some return, kayakers can take their place. It works really well.

I think this is something other companies don’t really explain.

Greg Mortimer in Svalbard | Image credit: Scott Portelli

Those that have 250 passengers for instance. All operators are bound by time slots that are allocated. There’s a morning slot and an afternoon slot, and then at night, there are no landings, from 10 pm to 4 am. So if you have 250 people, which most of the ships are doing now, then that means for passengers, the best case scenario is they are looking at a two-hour landing instead of three to four hours. And some of the bigger ships now are actually putting people ashore for 45 minutes to an hour, and then doing Zodiac cruises of 45 minutes.

We’re fortunate to be able to give people longer time in the places they’ve come to experience.

What are your thoughts on Greg Mortimer the ship?

A lot of us who have worked with Aurora forever, we loved the old ship, Polar Pioneer, and we were really ready to hate this new one – It’s not going to be the same – but now we absolutely love it. It’s a great ship.


Howard will be on the inaugural voyage of Sylvia Earle from Ushuaia to Antarctica on 10 December 2023.

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