Celebrating 20 Years: My Life as an Expedition Leader
Interview with Zegrahm Cofounder, Mike Messick
For the final 20th Anniversary article from our founders, we interviewed Mike Messick to learn more about his career as an expedition leader. Mike has been enamored with adventure travel since he first visited the Galapágos Islands with his parents at age 14 and knew then that he wanted to make a career of it. In fact, some of his fondest memories in the expedition business were from the early years—driving Zodiacs in Svalbard during a summer college break and his first full-time job out of college as a divemaster in Indonesia.
What is a typical day-in-the-life of an expedition leader?
Ha! There is no such thing as a TYPICAL day when you are an expedition leader. While I start every day the same—by going to the bridge to check-in with the captain and find out about weather conditions, speed, and estimated arrival times—each and every day is different. Regardless of the how everything unfolds, the key to a successful day is to keep passengers constantly informed of what is going on and to give them plenty of options for what they may want to do.
For instance, on our recent Russian Far East trip, we awoke one morning to 60 MPH winds. We had planned to go ashore bright and early, but obviously could not bring passengers in by Zodiac in those conditions. So, I conferred with our expedition staff and quickly scheduled two lectures for the morning instead. As we scouted for other islands to visit, we had the rare opportunity to watch a brilliant display of nature as the wind whipped outside at more than 100 MPH—it was some of the most ferocious weather I had ever seen—and we sat snuggly inside the comfort of the Clipper Odyssey to enjoy it. Fortunately, by late afternoon, we found one protected island where the winds were relatively calm so we were able to give those who wanted to go ashore the opportunity to do so.
What characteristics make a good expedition leader?
Adaptability, honesty, communication, persistence, and enthusiasm. These are by far the most important attributes of a good expedition leader. And, while I think some of these are probably core to my personality, there are others—communication, for instance—that I learned along the way and is so critical to ensure that a trip runs smoothly.
What do you like most about your job?After 27 years in the business, I still get excited about the same things I did the first day on the job so I suppose that means I chose the right career. First and foremost, I love visiting new places (and getting our travelers excited about those places)! This is especially true if no passenger ship has been there before and/or if getting there is inaccessible by any other mode than by ship. Also, I love seeing a plan come together, whether it is the daily itinerary that was printed in the brochure or a complicated plan we put together on the fly—it is definitely one of the most rewarding parts of my job.
How many countries have you visited and, of those, which have left the biggest impression on you?
Well, that depends on which source you ask! According to the United Nations: 122 out of 192; Traveler’s Century Club: 203 out of 315; or the MostTraveledPeople.com (MTP): 400 out of 800. I feel MTP is an excellent source as it shows how extensively one has traveled in each of the countries. MTP also has a very good Web site that compares you to other travelers in a variety of categories. In fact, I am the “third most traveled male in the United States in my age group!”
Regardless of which source you ask, the places that have left the biggest impressions on me need to be broken into three categories. Best wildlife: South Georgia, Botswana, and Galápagos—in that order. Best culture: Indonesia and Vietnam. And, best snorkeling and diving: no doubt that it has to be Indonesia.
Which expedition trips have been the most memorable for you and why?
Antarctica on a Russian icebreaker. And, the reason being is that it is different than any other product we offer and you can’t produce this experience in any other way. It is so amazing to go up to the bridge and watch the ship crush through ice for hours at a time. It is hypnotic, almost like watching a fire. Or, conversely, you can take a ride on one of the ship’s helicopters and get a bird’s eye view of the ship crushing ice and then go farther inland to see the emperor penguin rookeries. Plus, with the icebreakers, you can get to places that are simply inaccessible by other passenger ships—you can go far deeper into the Weddell Sea and much earlier into the Ross Sea.
Which destinations, if any, are still on your bucket list?At the top of my list are Bhutan, Mozambique, Cuba, Mali, and believe it or not, North Dakota. There are also two islands that I would love to get to (and that Zegrahm has never been to): Amsterdam Island in the southern Indian Ocean and Nauru Island in the South Pacific. Interestingly, Nauru is the world’s smallest island nation, but was once the richest per capita country in the world because of their phosphate exports.
So, when the founders and directors meet about future trips each year, do the places that you still want to go influence the planning of expeditions?
Everywhere that Zegrahm goes is in some way influenced by where we want to go to or where we have been that we think is really exciting. A lot of destinations that we have been in to the last 20 years were inspired by the process of simply sitting around a small table with a map and pointing to where we thought looked interesting. We are different than other operators in the sense that we go not where the mass market demands, but to places that we think are very special. So, we certainly have to work harder to make the logistics happen and to educate our travelers about why they should travel to a place they have never heard of, but it is so rewarding to see how amazed people are once we get there.
When you aren’t out leading expeditions, what do you do in your downtime?
Well, when I am not traveling professionally, I am traveling personally. In fact, I have a bike trip to Croatia planned that was inspired by our recent Fabled Adriatic trip that I led. There were so many beautiful sites along the Croatian coast that I had never been to and I can’t wait to get back to explore more. I also enjoy scuba diving (often getting together with other Zegrahm leaders to dive), hiking, and skydiving.