Experiential travel with John CEO of Polar Latitudes, Antarctica

13 minute read

Written by Rebecca Woolford, Senderos

Back in 2010 an expedition company was born from John McKeon’s passion for the continent with no country. Nearly 15 years later, and despite an ever-changing landscape, John remains the CEO of Polar Latitudes, and still visits Antarctica every season. 

A world leader in polar expeditions, Polar Latitudes provides small-ship, immersive experiences, unlike your more conventional large cruise liners. 

Pioneers of a Citizen Science programme, partnering with the likes of NASA and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and counting penguins with non-profit Oceanites; there is far more than meets the eye with this experience-led travel company. 

With mounting interest and controversy around travel to Antarctica, Senderos' Stories navigated towards this complex and multifaceted topic of travel to Antarctica to learn more and share new insight. 

John Mckeon Polar Latitudes Senderos
Zodiac Cruise Polar Latitudes Senderos
Left: John McKeon taken by Adam Rheborg | Right: A Zodiac Cruise Polar Latitudes

Welcome John, it's great to be speaking with you. When did you first fall in love with Antarctica and why create an expedition company in such a remote part of the planet?

“As with many things in life, it came about as mere chance. 

I’d been in the adventure travel space working for a safari company for a couple of decades. I was living in California having lunch with a friend and he said, ‘I know this company, they do Antarctica travel, and they're looking for somebody to run their US office.’ I responded, ‘I don't know anything about Antarctica; I’ve never stepped foot on it.’ I had a profound connection with Africa, and had no plans whatsoever to change course. 
Long story short, after a meeting in London, and much to my surprise, I was hired by this expedition company. 

Following my first-ever visit to Antarctica I came away thinking ‘It’s a bunch of unusual animals and some impressive scenery,’ but I wasn’t totally blown away. It was on my second visit, with a passionate and talented expedition leader, that I truly experienced Antarctica. This is something I carry with me to this day - that it’s how you experience Antarctica, and with whom, that makes all the difference in the world.

I recall the expedition leader saying, ‘Go by yourself over there, sit on that big rock and just let the experience come to you. Just be.’ It was a serene moment that changed my life.

I felt overwhelmed by the mere fact that this is the last wild place left on earth. Antarctica is as close to being on another planet as you can get without going into space. Nothing about it feels like earth as we know it.

That’s not a thing people immediately feel. It takes a few days for them to let go and just wrap their heads around how profound this experience is. After some time I left that particular company along with some other key team members. We wanted to do our own thing, and to do it our own way. We knew the industry well enough at that point. Just one problem – it's hard to be an expedition company without a ship!

So, before we launched our first expedition I spent the first few years visiting various trade shows and gathering support. I then caught wind of a ship that was available to charter, equivalent to renting. I called the guy who owned it and the price was way out of our league. 

But a few months later, I heard that it was still on the market. The price had become more reasonable, so that was how it all started.”

King Penguins Polar Latitudes
Leopard Seal Polar Latitudes Senderos
Left: King Penguins in Antartica | Right: Leopard Seal in Antartica

Let’s talk about responsible exploration in Antarctica and sustainable travel. From your experience, what does that look like?

“Truth be told there is a lot of greenwashing that goes on, and the fact of the matter is the technology of moving ships through water hasn't changed much in the past 50 years. Ships are more or less the same now as they were decades ago. 

Businesses like to say ‘We have a sustainability programme and impact reports,’ but until we can solve the issue of burning fuel we can’t claim that trips to Antarctica are sustainable. No one can. Ships burn a lot of fuel; that's the bottom line. 

The good news is the industry is waking up to the fact that things must change, including the financial institutions who finance these ships. We are in early conversations with a team of experts in energy innovation, green technology, propulsion and design, exploring the idea of producing a low-impact ship, a hybrid, but this will take another 5+ years. 

In the meantime, we’re doing everything we can. Rather than run two smaller ships at capacity, we consolidated, and are now operating just one ship, the Seaventure, which meets the highest emissions standards set by the International Maritime Organization, reducing our CO2 impact by 20% per passenger.

And we do a lot of other things to offset our impact. We’re committed to supporting the scientific community and organizations that are doing important climate and wildlife research in the region. Over the last decade, we’ve set aside over $1 million US in cabin space to groups that might not otherwise be able to make these journeys. 

These organizations also offer our passengers a chance to engage and learn, as part of our Citizen Science programme. So it’s really a win for everybody, but especially for Antarctica. 

We also host mentorship programs in both grade and high schools in Ushuaia, where we introduce the local children to the expedition sector. They visit the ship, learn about the business, and we welcome interns on our voyages. 

We view our ship as being more than just a vehicle for expeditions; it’s also a platform to enable research and understanding. And our guests get a richer, more meaningful experience by traveling alongside the science community.”

'Think global, act local' was introduced back in 1915, yet it’s something that still lives on today. Can you share some of the ways you incorporate big picture thinking in your voyages?

"As I touched on earlier, we partner with scientists from organizations like Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Scripps Institute of Oceanography, Happywhale, Oceanites, and we’ve been teaming up with the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust; all to help deliver critical assistance to climate and conservation research, while also enriching our onboard Citizen Science programme.

Citizen Science gives our passengers the chance to better understand changes taking place in the Antarctic environment, and to return to the so-called ‘real world’ as more committed advocates for Antarctica and the planet in general. 

Right now we are working on a project that will put whale detection technology on our ship, making us the only expedition ship with a system in place to know where the whales are, reducing risks of whale strikes and, as a happy by-product, offering our passengers a more likely whale spotting experience.

We have scientists traveling with us who are out in the water tagging whales and doing critical research like collecting phytoplankton samples. They make good use of the science lab on board our ship, which also doubles as an engaging classroom of sorts for our Citizen Scientists.

We constantly ask ourselves how we can do better. Whether that be for local communities in Argentina, the environment, or the guest experience. The best answers by a long shot don't come from inside the boardroom. They come from the people on the ground. Many of the science-led initiatives we support originated from our guide team, who are as passionate about the environment as anyone you’ll ever meet.”

Over the past few years, a trip to Antarctica has gone from ‘rare to ‘mainstream’. With the competition heating up, what makes Polar Latitudes different?

“When visiting Antarctica, whether you’re with Polar Latitudes or onboard another ship, we all essentially go to the same place. We all see whales and often see the same penguins. So, what makes us different? 

We hire the best talent and treat our team differently than many other companies. Our expedition guides are not temporary contractors. They're not hired for a month and then let go. Our expedition leaders are part of the Polar Latitudes family and therefore we listen to them and take care of them.  

My team has openly shared with me that they could make more money with another company but they know with absolute certainty that they wouldn’t be able to find the same culture. When I go on board, I often hear guests saying ‘Man, this is the best team I've ever experienced. These guides are unbelievable!’ I love hearing that.

Devil's Island Polar Latitudes Senderos
Phytoplankton Polar Latitudes Senderos
Left: Kayaking with expert guides | Right: Collecting Phytoplankton samples

"Many on our team have PhDs and have dedicated their lives to studying Antarctica in some shape or form, and these stories are then shared with our guests. That expertise, rich exchange of knowledge, and interaction with our team is what makes the difference. If you remember me telling you earlier about the expedition leader who changed the way I experienced Antarctica, there was a lot to be learned from that.

What shines through far beyond the expertise is the dedication and compassion that our team encompasses and embodies. It's not scripted, it's not rehearsed. 

There is a book called ‘The Customer Comes Second’, it was really impactful for me. The message is simple, you cannot expect your team to take care of your clients if you don't take care of them. To deliver a world-class service, unlike any other, begins with how you treat your team. 

There are indeed ever-growing numbers of ships coming down to Antarctica. And so the competition is heating up and that encourages companies to question their angle, and find their advantage point. Some companies offer helicopter rides, or stand-up paddle boarding, scuba diving and god forbid someday somebody will probably try to offer jet skis.

At Polar Latitudes we’re not playing that game. It’s an unwinnable contest where everyone is trying to outdo each other. My feeling is, they can have that space. But we're going to stay in our own space, doing what we know best, and what we think creates the best experience for our passengers.

Polar Latitudes will always be about people power, not engine power. Kayaking, hiking, snowshoeing, immersive nature activities, Citizen Science - that's what we do. We're not trying to distract our guests from the environment, from connecting deeply with this place. We want to get them intimately engaged in it. It’s what we do better than anyone else, and it’s what we love about coming to this place, so why change?”

Discover the 5 things that make Polar Latitudes stand out here

Camping Polar Latitudes Senderos
Camping Polar Latitudes Senderos
Left: Visiting penguins at dusk | Right: Preparing for wild camping on Horseshoe Island

What draws people to travel to Antarctica? And what kind of immersive activities can guests expect?

“People are drawn to Antarctica for what they can find there—whales, penguins, dramatic scenery, the vast wilderness —and for what they can’t find: cars, concrete buildings, 5G.

Antarctica is the last great wilderness on the planet. 

An example of immersions that help our guests to create a deeper connection to this place would be sea kayaking. Seeing the dark, mystical waters from up high on your balcony in a cruise ship is incomparable to being just a few inches from the waves, surrounded by ice, penguins, seals and on occasion, even whales. 

Our guests also have the opportunity to sleep under the southern skies in a bivy sack. With the stars shining above their heads, they’ll experience the ethereal sounds of gently lapping waves, creaking glaciers, chattering penguins and perhaps the blow of a whale passing by.

The different classifications of ships help people to understand the differences between what we do and a traditional cruise ship. Category one ships are fewer than 200 people, which we sit within. And then there's the next level 200-400 people, and that category has more restrictions, they can't land in certain places. 

Then there are the large ships that take 500-1,000 people and can’t do landings. 

Again, Citizen Science is an integral part of every single voyage at Polar Latitudes, something we pioneered. We work alongside a number of institutions. Collecting water samples is one element. These water samples give insight into salinity, phytoplankton, and krill for example.”

Sunset Polar Latitudes Senderos
Snowstorm Polar Latitudes Senderos
Left: Sunset from the deck of the ship | Right: A snowstorm in Antarctica 

Faced with the climate crisis and as travel to the continent becomes increasingly accessible, how do we justify travel to Antarctica?

“If I stopped everything today, planes will continue to fly, ships will keep sailing. I have the opportunity and I’m in a unique position to be a part of the solution.   

For each voyage we take 125 people. That’s another 125 new advocates for this place. I believe humans only fight for places they've created a connection with. By building this community of folks who are seeking ways to keep this place protected makes sense. 

I respect that for some people they don't feel it's the right thing to do to travel to the Antarctic. I would also say if you drove around the UK for two weeks in a caravan you would likely burn just as much fuel as your portion of the ship.

Rather than focus on what I can’t achieve at this moment in time as technology evolves, I want to stay focused on what we can achieve.

For example, we provide the only fully recycled expedition jacket in the industry. We purchase from manufacturers that deliver 100% plastic free goods and there is zero single use plastic on our ships. Over the past three years, we’ve cut our onboard use of plastic in half, with a goal of zero plastic by 2025. And we prioritise local suppliers and logistics partners, supporting the local community and limiting fossil fuel consumption.”

What's next for Polar Latitudes?

"We’ll keep moving forward, making positive changes wherever we can, supporting our scientific partners and local communities, and sending inspired passenger-advocates back out into the world.

As I alluded to earlier, we are not one of the big gorillas in the industry that follow the grow-or-die theory. We follow the evolve-or-die-but-stay-true-to-who-you-are theory, so we will continue to evolve, to become even better providers, citizens, and protectors of this remote and fragile part of the planet.”

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Polar Latitudes

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