Amazing Nomads Podcast: Lauren Farmer - Poles Apart

Lauren was working in marketing, and freelancing as a photographer on the side, when she went to Antarctica as a guest on a ship. Fast forward six years and she is now an expedition leader promoting sustainable tourism in the Arctic and Antarctica.

Photo © Lauren Farmer

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Amazing Nomads: Lauren Farmer

Lauren Farmer swapped her 9 to 5 marketing job for interpreting wildlife, driving boats, handling firearms for polar bear protection, and leading hikes in crevasse-prone areas.

What’s in the Episode

00:13 Who is our guest 

00:57 What is the NASA Globe Observer Citizen's Science App

01:16 Swapping the daily grind

03:00 Photography was the door in

04:03 Life changing experiences

05:37 The difference between the Arctic and Antarctica

09:21 Polar Bear safety

14:05 What's the Collective?

15:34 Climate change

17:33 Working for HBO

18:27 Just saying yes

19:22 You've never heard a disclaimer like this!

Who is on the Show

Lauren Farmer was born in Australia and lived in Canberra until she was seven when her family relocated to the United States. She grew up in Kansas, went to university in Los Angeles, and then settled in New York for a decade, working in marketing for HBO, the TV network. Lauren was also a freelance photographer.

In 2012, with money she received from her grandmother who had recently passed away, she went to Antarctica as a guest on a ship. “I fell in love with the experience, the adventure and when I returned to New York, started scheming to find a way back. I reached out to the hiring manager of the ship I had traveled on and, long story short, locked in my first contract for that next Arctic summer as the photographer on board.” 

Within a year, Lauren had become the Assistant Expedition Leader and now, five years later, stepped into the Expedition Leader role. Along the way, she learned how to interpret wildlife, drive boats, handle firearms for polar bear protection and lead hikes in crevasse-prone areas. 

"Now six years into my time in the polar tourism industry, my focus has shifted to promoting sustainable tourism in the Arctic and Antarctica."

Lauren was recently featured by NASA as an Arctic Ambassador for Citizen Science, working on getting expedition teams to observe clouds using their GLOBE Observer citizen science app. 

Photo Credit: Lauren Farmer

You can follow Lauren on Instagram.

Resources & Links

Scholarships Newsletter: Sign up for scholarships news and see what opportunities are live here.

The Polar Citizen Science Collective aims to empower the polar tourism industry to make valuable contributions to scientific research


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About World Nomads & the Podcast

Explore your boundaries and discover your next adventure with The World Nomads Podcast. Hosted by Podcast Producer Kim Napier and World Nomads Phil Sylvester, each episode will take you around the world with insights into destinations from travelers and experts. They’ll share the latest in travel news, answer your travel questions and fill you in on what World Nomads is up to, including the latest scholarships and guides.

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Speaker 1: The World Nomads Podcast, bonus episode. Hear amazing nomads sharing their knowledge, stories, and experience of world travel.

Speaker 2: Welcome to this Amazing Nomads episode, in which we catch up with Lauren Farmer, and Phil, she is living proof that you can turn your passion into a profession.

Phil: That's because she was working in marketing and freelancing as a photographer on the side when she went to Antarctica as a guest on a ship. Who wouldn't want to do that? Fast forward six years and she's now an expedition leader, promoting sustainable tourism in the Arctic and Antarctica.

Speaker 2: Yep and Lauren was recently featured by NASA as an Arctic Ambassador for Citizen Science.

Phil: Okay, well, that's going on your CV, isn't it?

Speaker 2: Yeah, yeah, absolutely, an Arctic Ambassador for Citizen Science, and that's for the work she's doing, getting an expedition team. So people like you and I that go on an expedition to observe clouds, using the NASA Globe Observer Citizen Science app.

Phil: I can't think of anything better than looking at clouds. That's a nice way to spend a day.

Speaker 2: How great, isn't it?

Phil: It's lovely, yeah.

Speaker 2: Now, before we give too much away about her story, let's find out how she swapped the daily grind that is nine to five, to interpreting wildlife, driving boats, handling firearms for polar bear protection, and leading hikes in crevasse-prone areas.

Lauren Farmer: Yeah, it's a really good question, and I think a lot of it is the right place, right time, so I actually grew up in the States. I'm Australian, but grew up in the States and moved to New York when I was 21. And I always worked in TB Marketing, so I worked at HBO, the television network, for about eight years, and really loved that. But my family had all moved back to Australia in the meantime, so back in 2010, I decided to move back to Sydney for a while and just be close to my family.

Lauren Farmer: And I got a job at the ABC, so I was running social media for the TV side. And I had a great time. It was really fun. But I always kind of thought maybe there was something a little bit more adventurous out there for me, and I had started taking photos, also, on the side, so a couple years later, when I moved back to New York, I went to Antarctica as a guest on a ship, and that's now the ship that I work on.

Lauren Farmer: So I went to Antarctica and just had the most amazing time and thought, "This would be a good job." And turns out it really was. I met the right person. I persevered. I emailed her all the time. I got my first job and then I just quit HBO and the rest is history.

Speaker 2: So you turned your passion into a profession, as we say here at World Nomads?

Lauren Farmer: That's right, yeah. I was taking photos for fun and then I was taking photos for work and it was always more enjoyable when it was just for fun, but photography was my way into the industry. There's a lot of people who have biology backgrounds and academic backgrounds, and so I didn't really come with that sort of expertise. Photography was kind of the skill set that I had to offer.

Lauren Farmer: So that was the open door for me, and then from there, I learned everything I could, and now six years later, I'm an expedition leader. So photography was a door in, but then I actually learned quite a bit on the ground.

Speaker 2: So what prompted you to go to Antarctica in the first place? Was it just one of those places that you needed to visit?

Lauren Farmer: So Antarctica, to me, had always been something I knew that I would do but figured it would be when I was 60, 70, and actually had the money to do it. And then when I was in Australia, actually a couple of my grandparents passed away and I was left with some money, and my parents advised me, because they know me all too well, that I should use it on a trip, because if I just put it in my bank account, I would have spent it on taxis and lattes and things.

Lauren Farmer: So I booked a trip to Antarctica with that money, and that makes it even more special. You know, I had an amazing holiday, but then it totally changed the course of my life, and when I think back to my grandmother, I know that she'd be really happy that that's what she enabled me to do.

Speaker 2: Okay, let's go back. You got off this ship. Did you get back on it?

Lauren Farmer: Yeah, that's something that seems to happen a lot. People have these life-changing experiences and as they're leaving the ship, they turn around and say to us team members, "Let me stay. I'll wash the dishes. I'll work for free." And I think hundreds and hundreds of people would do that job for free.

Lauren Farmer: So no, I did go back to New York, and I think my post-vacation depression lasted for months. I just couldn't shake the feeling that maybe I could find a way back. So within a few months, I had emailed the hiring manager, who's now my boss, and it was just an opening at the right time, and I was confident enough to say yes, and I just went for it. So within six months of my trip to Antarctica as a guest, I had my first job on the ship in the Arctic.

Speaker 2: Yes, so now you split your time between the Arctic and Antarctica? How does that work?

Lauren Farmer: Yeah, I do, so the industry is polar tourism. So if you imagine cruise ships like you'd go to the Caribbean or something, it's kind of like that, but much smaller vessels and quite a bit more adventurous. So there's no real itinerary. We just go down or up and decide, based on ice and wildlife, where we want to go. So every day is really different. We might have a plan and then that's thrown out the window and the next day, we do something else.

Lauren Farmer: So I work for a few different companies. Most of us do. But we do two or three months up north and then have a break, and then two or three months down south. And then we just kind of go up and down, up and down. And I pretty much spend all my time in cold places.

Speaker 2: So what's the difference, then, between Antarctica and the Arctic?

Lauren Farmer: That's a much better question than asking me what my favorite is because it's like choosing between your two favorite children, I suppose. So Antarctica and the Arctic, the similarities are, obviously, the temperature and the remoteness of it. But the wildlife is totally different.

Lauren Farmer: So down south, you've obviously got penguins, which are a huge appeal. They're curious and funny and you can often have really close encounters with them. And we often get whales, as well, and of course, seals and seabirds and things.

Lauren Farmer: In the north, you have polar bears, which are really exciting. Very charismatic animals, but very hard to find, because we're hoping to see them in their natural habitat, and good for them, but not good for us. They don't tend to stay in one place, so it's a little bit more of a challenge to find them.

Lauren Farmer: In the Arctic, there's a lot of different regions in the Arctic. So you have Norway, Russia, Canada, the US. You have Denmark, which is Greenland. And in Antarctica, the part of Antarctica, the western side, as you call it, that you go to from South America, or you can also go from New Zealand. And it's more days at sea to get down to Antarctica, so that can be really fun because it feels like you're putting in a lot of effort to get there, where the Arctic, you can fly there. So it doesn't quite feel like sort of exciting and wild.

Lauren Farmer: But I could talk for hours about the differences, and I suppose I'm lucky to have spent so much time in both places that I see them as two totally different places that I spend my time.

Speaker 2: So what kind of skills, other than focusing on your photography, have you picked up since you've been doing this?

Lauren Farmer: So on an expedition ship, you have the guests, which are the paying customers, and you have a crew and the expedition team. So the expedition team kind of sits between crew and guests, so we do things like driving small inflatable boats. So where we go, there is no piers or anything, so the ship will come in and anchor somewhere, and then we lower these small inflatable boats and then we get in them to go to shore. And on shore, we might do something like hike or visit a penguin colony or maybe go to a research station. Or we use our boats to do zodiac cruises and icebergs and look at seals and things like that.

Lauren Farmer: So driving small boats is a big one. Also, guiding, just knowing how to plan a hiking route and how to keep people safe as they're walking on ice or upon glaciers or just in slippery surfaces. Also, what we call interpretation, so just understanding about wildlife behavior or just having your head wrapped around all the natural history down there, so that when we see something, like maybe an adult penguin stealing a rock from another penguin's nest, we can explain what that is, and that that's actually how they build their nest. They're always stealing stones from one another. And kind of helping people to understand what it is that they're seeing.

Lauren Farmer: So yeah, it's a lot of things that were very foreign to me at first, but I seem to have gotten the hang of it over the last six years.

Speaker 2: And also using a gun?

Lauren Farmer: Yes, my parents are horrified. Yeah, I am very anti-gun, in my normal life, and would never really choose to go to a firing range, or I would never dream of carrying or anything like that. But carrying a rifle for safety in the Arctic, you have to. It's a legal issue, and also, it's a way that we keep ourselves safe, and also the polar bears safe. So we're carrying just for polar bear safety. They are dangerous animals and we do everything in our power to make sure we are never in a situation where we might have to shoot or even send off flares to scare them, or anything like that. But we do carry, just in case, we end up at the wrong place at the wrong time. But there's a lot of precautions that we take before we do that.

Lauren Farmer: But yeah, so I did have to learn how to carry a very, very heavy hunting rifle. And I go to the firing range, and yep, so I surprisingly feel confident with it now, though I would never choose to carry something like that at home.

Speaker 2: So these pristine areas that you're taking, as you call them, guests, into, it is also about sustainable travel, isn't it?

Lauren Farmer: It is, yes. A lot of people call heading to the polar regions "last chance travel" or something like that. And it's the idea that these are some of the last great wilderness areas on Earth. And so they're precious and we especially need to protect them and make sure that they're around for generations to come, in the way that they are now.

Lauren Farmer: So yeah, it's really important that we operate in a way that really protects it, and so that means we follow a really rigid set of guidelines about how we approach wildlife, how fast we might approach or how much time we might spend with a certain kind of wildlife, as well as where we go on shore. Maybe there are closed areas where we need to not trample on vegetation or something like that. So there's a lot of guidelines that we follow to make sure we're leaving as little an impact as possible.

Speaker 2: Now, something else that you did was form the Polar Citizens Science Collective, and at the start of the chat, you said that most of the people that get on these ships to Antarctica are scientists, biologists. So what is the Polar Citizens Science Collective?

Lauren Farmer: Yeah, actually, so when I mentioned that before, it's the expedition team who has that kind of skill set. So on an expedition team, you have specialists in every area. So that's history, marine biology, ornithology, geology. So we have a lot of people that come from science backgrounds. I am not one of them, but most of them do.

Lauren Farmer: The guests, actually, come from all different backgrounds, so there might be some with academic backgrounds, but it's just people like you and me who want to go on a really great holiday. So the Citizen Science Initiative has come out of a few of us guides who really wanted to try and make more of a difference to the places that we're traveling, knowing that we spend months at a time in regions that are very expensive to get to. And there are a number of research vessels down there, but a researcher might only be able to come for two weeks at a time, based on their whole year, fundraising to try and get down there. Meanwhile, our ships, our season is five months long.

Lauren Farmer: So we have a really great opportunity to use our vessels as platforms for science. So basically doing data collection. So we have set up the Polar Citizen Science Collective. It's a non-profit, where we're trying to inspire all the operators in our industry to adopt citizen science programs. And a really key part of it is that the guests are involved. So if you come to Antarctica or the Arctic with an operator who runs a Citizen Science program, you might get to sign up to go on a Citizen Science Zodiac Cruise.

Lauren Farmer: So instead of just driving around and looking at beautiful icebergs, which you get to do also, you might collect phytoplankton samples. Or you might observe the clouds for a NASA project called Globe. Or you might get a chance to take photos of humpback whales and then put them into a data catalog and see if they've been spotted before, and if they haven't, then you can name that whale.

Lauren Farmer: So it's just an engaging way of adding to the educational side of what we do and also contributing to real valuable science, at the same time.

Speaker 2: It sounds super cool, on top of that.

Lauren Farmer: Yeah, it does sound cool. I know, I never thought I'd be so involved in science. I got, I suppose, more of a creative brain, but I just love the idea of just normal people, non-scientists, actually doing real research down there, and the scientists that we work with are so appreciative. We obviously take a lot of measures to make sure that the data we collect is accurate and it's something that they can actually use. And they encourage us so much to just do whatever we can, within the parameters of our itinerary, but it's rewarding, definitely.

Speaker 2: So what have you discovered? I know you've been splitting your time between the two poles for the last six years, but how long has this particular program been operating, the Collective? And what sort of things have you discovered?

Lauren Farmer: So the Collective formed about a year ago, but Citizen Science has been happening in a small way in the industry for a while. But there's never really been a coordinated effort to make it big. So that's what the collective is trying to do now. And it's gonna be a slow process because let's say we collect phytoplankton samples over the course of five months. That's a really great data set, but it doesn't mean that much unless you compare it to the same parameters taken the following season or the next season.

Lauren Farmer: So everything is on a slower scale, and it's just over time we might be able to start to see trends with different things. So we've gotten great feedback. We were working with a couple of NASA research scientists on the connection between cloud cover and sea ice melt. So how do certain types of cloud and cloud extent affect the rate at which sea ice might melt? But that's a really big project. It might be a decade before they can actually publish some findings, so getting feedback from scientists is really important. So then we can go back to our guests and say, "Look, we might not see our names in an academic paper any time soon, but this is good data. They're using it. They really appreciate it, and so there's the value, and we just need to keep on going."

Speaker 2: So anecdotally, have you noticed any evidence of climate change?

Lauren Farmer: It's a good question. So again, it's on such a large scale, and you need to look over decades to see those kind of changes, because from one year to the next, especially if you look at sea ice, that's the easiest way to look at how the Arctic is being affected by climate change, the rate at which it melts and the date at which it retreats past a certain latitude. So things like that, you look at that from season to season. And sometimes it's really little and sometimes it's much more than you expect.

Lauren Farmer: So it's really hard to look year to year, but I would say the most tangible thing that I've been able to see is how it's affected polar bears throughout the summer. So generally, when we arrive in the Arctic in late May or early June, the bears that we see are healthy and they've been hunting seals and there's plenty of ice to use as their habitat for hunting. As the summer wears on, the sea ice retreats further to the north, and bears that are lucky, they end up staying on the ice all through the summer. But many actually have to stay on land for the rest of the summer, and then there's very little food for them there.

Lauren Farmer: So we're seeing skinnier bears, towards the end of the season, when they haven't eaten very much in the last few months. But that's really the only sort of tangible thing that we can see, year to year. But there's a lot of glaciers retreating, but then there's also glaciers that are surging, as well. So I'll leave that one to the scientists to figure out.

Speaker 2: So had we have had a conversation seven to eight years ago, what kind of stuff would you be talking to me about? It wouldn't be this, would it?

Lauren Farmer: No, oh my gosh. It would have been social media, actually, because when I was working in marketing for TV, I was on the social media side, so I was on the social media team at HBO just when having brand pages for shows or whatever was a thing. So I remember setting up the Facebook page for The Sopranos and thinking, "What do we put here? Do I just post a photo and see what happens?" It was just such early days, but I loved being at the start of something like that.

Lauren Farmer: And then it was a really, really fun job, and at the ABC, too, I worked on Chris Lilley's shows, which I just love. I'm still obsessed with everything that he does. So I couldn't have been luckier, and I know that that was its own dream job, in a way, but I just moved on and was ready for another big adventure in my life, and I remember talking to someone and saying that I felt like the next thing was just around the corner, and then it was just a number of weeks until things started to happen.

Lauren Farmer: So I'm a big believer in just saying yes, and if you feel like you want to jump into something new, maybe it's not a job or maybe it's a trip or a relationship or something, the best advice I give people is just to make yourself available to say yes. So maybe that means quitting your job so that you actually have the time to look for something else. Or maybe it's just mentally being open to something big and exciting happening. So I'm a big believer in just the power of saying yes.

Speaker 2: The power of saying yes. I like that.

Phil: Look, if you can think of an amazing nomad that we should be speaking to, then drop us a line on the podcast, at worldnomads.com. In fact, that's how we found Lauren, thanks to an email from [Alicia 00:19:05].

Speaker 2: Now, you can download the episodes from iTunes or the Google Podcast app or ask Alexa in Google Home to play the World Nomads podcast.

Phil: Okay, and make sure you listen to this very important information.

Speaker 6: (singing 00:20:01]. This information is only a brief summary. Read the full policy wording very carefully, because of the worldnomads.com. That's all you need to do. It's general advice and it may not be right for you. Read the full policy. It really won't take long. At worldnomads.com.

Speaker 2: Yeah, we'll be featuring a disclaimer album next Christmas. Next week, though, we visit Botswana, home to the world's biggest elephant population. See you then.

Phil: Bye.

Speaker 1: Amazing Nomads. Be inspired.

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