Richard Polatty has been guiding expeditions in Antarctica for almost 30 years. He has been an expedition leader on four different ships and is a veteran of nearly 60 round trips to the Antarctic. Additionally, he has done research with the Antarctic Site Inventory for Oceanites (funded by the National Science Foundation).
Some of Richard's accomplishments are:
Working as naturalist in Galápagos for 26 years
Chief naturalist with INCA from 1990 to present
Expedition leader maiden voyage of Polar Circle (now the HMS Endurance) 1990
Research associate for the Oceanites Foundation and researcher for the Antarctic Site Inventory funded by the US National Science Foundation 1992 to present
Avid astronomer (ground own telescope lenses and constructed telescopes) taught astronomy classes for the Galápagos National Park Naturalists Course
Traveled internationally to witness and photograph 7 total solar eclipses
Expedition leader on over 50 expeditions to Antarctica
Collected late laying penguin eggs (under permit with the British Antarctic Survey) for various institutions
Traveled in over 70 countries (including trans-Siberian express in early 70s)
In his own words
Since you have been guiding natural history adventures for decades, what has inspired you as a naturalist and educator?
I have had a lifelong love of nature and science. I love seeing how the world ticks. I have found that a great way to understand it better myself is to explain it others. Then I get great satisfaction in seeing something click in somebody else's head as they finally understand how a natural phenomenon works. I get the chance to open some people's eyes to the world around them. They take so much for granted these days that they have lost the joy of discovery. Much of what is found in nature is directly applicable to "real" life too. It is always a two-way street. I have had the privilege of working with and guiding so many fascinating people who open my eyes to things too. There are always new questions and it's fun finding or at least pondering the answers.
What fascinates you about Antarctica?
I love the dichotomy of the Antarctic. It is the continent of extremes—the highest, windiest, driest, and coldest continent. It is the extreme ends of living conditions that make for truly interesting life forms on our planet. The adaptations that are necessary for Antarctic life to simply survive in this climate are myriad and fascinating. Algae that can live inside rocks, birds that fly 9,500 miles for a single meal for their chicks, and seals diving to the abyssal plains of the ocean are all part of the many life strategies. This also includes the human struggle in the Antarctic from the dawn of the heroic age of exploration such as Shackleton's saga.
Then there is the beauty of Antarctica. This is the aspect that surprises most visitors. Every hue of blue you can imagine (and some you can't) is contained in the ice. Icebergs seem to almost glow with an unnatural light yet at the same time the day is illuminated by that soft glow of a perpetual afternoon. We have had artists come with us solely to paint the Antarctic scenes. Even the National Science Foundation has an "artist in residence" program.
You've done scientific research in Antarctica. Will you tell us about it?
I have mainly worked with the Antarctic Site Inventory. This project was originally funded by the US NSF Office of Polar Programs and is a major baseline study of Antarctic wildlife populations. We have all seen news reports of how human activity, whether directly or indirectly, is affecting life in the Antarctic without much scientific backing to support it. One project's aim is to collect rigorous data about populations of penguins and other species to better understand if and how they are being affected. This inventory has been going on since 1994 and is the longest baseline study available. I have also been involved with collections for museums for the purpose of comparative anatomy. A particular pleasure was being the first Expedition Leader on what was the most advanced icebreaker at the time, the Polar Circle. She eventually became the HMS Endurance so I can say I lead an expedition on the Endurance (of Shackleton fame). Other projects included collecting eggs of late-laying penguins for captive raising.
How have you seen Antarctic research change over the years?
Research in the Antarctic is now much better controlled than in the previous generation. Simply put, scientists were more concerned with science and their own survival than with conservation. Research bases are now models of conservation. The inevitable waste that accumulates and essentially never breaks down has been or is being cleaned up. Now that communications and transportation are better, there is more sharing of valuable data. And as the volume of data from Antarctica has increased, the world is far more aware of its importance. Antarctica is the author of global climate in some ways and is a very sensitive indicator of global climate change.
How has Antarctic tourism changed the continent?
When I first traveled to Antarctica 24 years ago, there were more people at a football game on any given Sunday than had visited Antarctica in all of human history. It was truly remote and little visited. Now this has changed with the ease of travel in comfort. In some ways tourism has been beneficial in that there is an increased awareness of the fragility and importance of the Antarctic. No doubt there are those who will say that we are "loving it to death." Fortunately, we now have systems in place to minimize the negative impact and hopefully maximize the educational value of tourism. There is now IAATO (International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators) to which qualified tour operators belong and they subscribe to strict operational controls. INCA has only used IAATO member ships.
What are your thoughts on global warming and the future of Antarctica?
Global climate change is a reality. One can debate the causes but not so much the fact of global climate change. I have personally seen vast ice shelves that have been stable for at least the last 12,000 years, collapse and spin off huge icebergs. The global temperature anomalies are about their greatest on the Antarctic Peninsula which amount to 9 degrees F. warmer in the winter over the last 60 years – that's a lot. The ecosystems greatly depend on the sea ice in the Southern Ocean which means that not only is the ice threatened, but so is the food supply. Antarctica has 90% of the world's ice and 70% of the world's fresh water – 26.5 million cubic kilometers – that's a lot! That represents about 70 meters of sea level rise and the climate consequences that accompany it. As a geologist by training, I look at long terms and know things will always change on our planet. The key here is that what are doing now affects the rate of change of the environment for us and for all future generations.
What do you think are some of the benefits of visiting Antarctica on an adventure cruise?
First off, it's fun! If you want to get away from it all, come to the Antarctic. It's educational with a complete lineup of lecturers and experts in many fields who help interpret what you will be seeing. If you are a birder you can beef up your life list and see all the incredible behavior beyond your list. Whale encounters are common and many times very close. If you are an historian you can track the heroic age of exploration. Photographers need to bring double your normal amount of chip space as every turn offers another once in a lifetime shot. Or, just sit on the ice and look, listen, and feel the Antarctic around you. If you don't think you fit any of these categories, try it and maybe you'll find a new passion.
What do you like about this particular adventure?
I've always believed that the best way to experience the Antarctic is to see as much of the Southern Ocean and its islands as possible. There is an immense diversity of wildlife and culture that you will see along the way. The Falklands and South Georgia are some of the premier wildlife spots in the world. This is where you will see the majority of King, Rockhopper, and Macaroni Penguins and nesting Albatross. At the same time you can actually visit historic spots in the history of exploration, whaling, and sailing. Have a drink in a pub in Stanley and then a few days later raise a glass to Shackleton in Grytviken.