The Young Traveler’s Network series showcases candid guest interviews of young people worldwide and the inspiring stories of how they navigate their lives and travels. They share their stories to educate, inspire, and empower others to see the world!
This week a Young Traveler named Emily, 19, shares her experience working full-time as a polar expedition guide in ANTARCTICA!
Emily! I have to admit I am extra excited about your interview. Your topic is so cool, but let me be patient. Go ahead and introduce yourself to start with.
Hey, everyone! My name is Emily Boe Lee and I’m 19 years old. I work as an outdoor-adventure photographer and polar expedition guide.
I’m so excited to be a part of this series. I’ve had a long journey getting to where I am and I’ve learned countless lessons. I want to share my world because I think it’s important for other young people to see that going the “traditional” college-work-retire route is not the only way to spend your short number of years on this Earth.
What made you realize that uni wasn’t the right path for you? What in your personality/lifestyle made you realize you wanted to do something a little less traditional with your youth?
Probably my biggest character flaw is that I get bored easily. I love new, exciting things and I’ve always been called the “maverick” by my friends and family. I’m constantly in pursuit of some new project, from getting my motorcycle license to researching unsolved cold cases.
Despite this overwhelming curiosity for the unconventional, I always had a pretty traditional mentality when it came to the “big things.” College. Money. Career. I grew up surrounded by people who worked 9-to-5s, got married, had kids… That was pretty much the only picture of “adulthood” I had.
But when I got to university (studying biology at the time), this idea of living a traditional life stopped being just an idea. Suddenly, it was real. Now that I could clearly see the tracks I was setting for myself, it hit me that this route was not going to make me happy. An existential crisis and one soul-searching trip to California later, I decided to leave.
How long have you been doing photography? What is your style of photography (landscape, portrait, action, etc.) and what camera do you use?
I’ve always loved photography. Ever since I got to use my family’s DSLR when I was in elementary school it’s been a passion of mine.
I’ve had countless hobbies in my life, but photography was the only one that never wavered. Combine that with my insatiable love of the outdoors, and here I am. My style of photography is mainly outdoor-adventure and landscape. I used to focus more heavily on landscape, but over time I’ve started to notice myself pointing the camera more and more towards people.
So now, outdoor-adventure is my main niche. Mountaineering, climbing, hiking… those are probably my favorite things to shoot. It’s been really cool to see my style evolve over the past couple of years.
As far as equipment goes.
– Team Nikon
How did you find out about the opportunity to move to Antarctica and work as a polar expedition guide? How did you feel when you first found it? How did you decide to finally commit and apply?
As a freelancer, I apply anywhere I can.
I applied to the expedition company I now work with on a whim! They’re one of the top expedition companies in the world so I really didn’t expect to get hired. I was just honest about who I am—my age, my previous experience, etc. I sent them my portfolio. I didn’t try to “stretch” anything, I was just very frank about my desire to learn and grow as a photographer.
And in some crazy alignment of the stars, they liked me and hired me.
I’m curious about your first month working in Antarctica! Where exactly is the place that you work, and for what company? Are you the youngest adult in the area usually?
I work on polar expedition ships that frequent a number of locations around the Antarctic continent. Before working with this company I had never worked a ship before, so it was a totally new experience. It wasn’t easy—I had to learn so many new skills and do things that I wasn’t familiar with.
Although I work as a photographer, I also have regular marine duties like watchkeeping and deck work. I definitely didn’t expect to be untangling ropes at 3 in the morning when I signed up. Really quickly though, I fell in love with ship culture and the work it requires.It’s kind of unheard of that a 19-year old gets hired to do this kind of work, but Emily Lee Boe does. She says it's always fun listening to people try to guess her age. The closest anyone’s gotten is 25! Click To Tweet
However, the most jarring thing for me was probably the voyage from Ushuaia, Argentina (the port city my ship leaves from) down to Antarctica. This is the infamous Drake Passage—the roughest seas in the world.
Think 50-foot waves and 100-knot winds. Bags tied to the railings every yard in preparation for when lunch starts to get restless. Glasses and plates getting launched off tables, food and all (luckily, not many people have an appetite). During the worst crossing of the Drake I’ve experienced, the ship was rolling nearly 40-degrees side to side, and we had to be confined to our beds for the majority of those 3 days.
I’m always the youngest person. It’s kind of unheard of that a 19-year old gets hired to do this kind of work. It’s always fun listening to people try to guess my age. The closest anyone’s gotten is 25!
So, do you work only at certain times of the year? What is your favorite part about your job? Do you still do photography as a polar expedition guide? Tell me more! The most I’ve seen from Antarctica is Anthony Bourdain’s episode in Parts Unknown.
Expeditions down to Antarctica are seasonal—they happen during a 4 or 5-month window during southern-hemisphere summer, so October through March. During the other months, the company does expeditions to the Arctic circle up north. I work both as a photographer and a polar guide.
I get to do and see a lot of cool things! I mean, Antarctica is the closest thing on Earth to an alien planet.
But my favorite part of the job is definitely the people. The camaraderie that’s fostered when you spend months at sea together is unparalleled. From laughing over gin and tonics to shivering out on the bow together, you grow pretty close. This job has made me fall so deeply in love with being human.
I’ve gotten to meet souls who are, in a lot of ways, like me. The dreamers, wanderers, people who are in search of something greater than the endless cycle of work – retire – die – rinse and repeat. I mean, it takes a certain kind of person to want to go to see the edge of the world.
It was over those late-night, whispered heart-to-heart conversations with sailors and mountaineers that I truly fell in love with this unconventional, crazy life I’m living.
Tell me about Antarctica as a place! It must be hard to put into words. Important question: have you touched a penguin?
Where do I even begin? The whole continent is just so untouched by the world. I get to see mountains that nobody has ever climbed and ice fields that go on for eternity. Gigantic blue icebergs jut out of the ocean. I still get giddy when I see a whale’s fluke appear in the water.
Penguins are even cuter in person, but Weddell seals are my favorite critter down there.
Wow. You have seen things that many people, let alone young people, will never see in their life! I’m so impressed and excited for you paving the way on this experience, but I have to ask. Do you ever feel like you missed out on the rest of the “college experience”, or wish you were doing what other “normal” 19-year-olds do?
Sometimes, it does hit me that I’m not gonna have the “college experience” that my friends from high school are having. There are definitely days that I question if I made the right choice leaving university. Intrusive thoughts sometimes float into my head. I’ve had to grapple with a lot of self-doubt in regards to the decisions I’ve made.
A huge consequence of living this unconventional life as a polar expedition guide is the fact that I no longer relate to a lot of people I used to. I’m just on such a different path than most people my age, that it sometimes feels like I have nothing in common with my old friends. It can be lonely and can make you question whether you’re doing the right thing. I struggle with feeling “older than my age.”
In the end, though, that choice to leave school and pursue photography has been the best decision of my life. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I’ve been through a lot to get it straight in my head that I’m not as escapist by any means; I’m honoring what I feel is my purpose in this life and being true to my ambitions.
That love-hate is something I think a lot of us young travelers can relate to. I know I can. So how long do you plan to be a polar expedition guide? Do you have any ideas about what you want to do “next”?
I think that’s another beautiful thing I’ve come to realize: life is so much more fluid than Point A-to Point B-to Point C. There’s detours and scenic routes. There are so many paths to explore, and the course of your life can always be changed. The fact that life is so uncertain used to scare me, but now it’s my source of excitement.
I can really only speak for where I am right in this present moment, and right now, I love working as a polar expedition guide.
Aside from photography, I’m also a certified yoga teacher and host a podcast, “Limitless Living” which is actually about all the stuff we’re talking about here: the pursuit of the unconventional. I don’t think you have to ever just do one thing. People are so multifaceted and complex. I think we should explore everything we can.
Have you had any amazing, specific “aha” moments working as a polar expedition guide where you realized you were happy and exactly where you were supposed to be? Please describe.
A super-vivid memory that always resurfaces in my mind was a moment this past November.
I found myself standing on deck three, starboard-side of my expedition ship, gazing out over a frozen ocean of pack-ice that extended over the horizon and seemed to drop off the edge of the world. I could barely feel the sub-zero winds pelting against my parka. All I could register was wonder for this alien world. It suddenly hit me how far I was from everything I’ve ever known, and it occurred to me that I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my life.No degree, no 401K, no shiny little office with my name on the front door. But I felt like I'd made it. Click To Tweet
The shift in my mentality didn’t actually happen suddenly like that—it was a gradual change that happened over a couple of years—but I think that was the moment I first consciously realized that my definition of “happiness” had been completely flipped on its head.
I used to think happiness was respect from my peers and elders, a cushy salary, and a house I could call my own. It’s become apparent to me that all those things are just fluff. They’re just a Band-Aid, not an actual remedy for unhappiness. It sounds ridiculously simple, but I’ve learned that if you can spend your life doing things that actually bring you joy, it’s better than winning the lottery.
What advice would you give to some other 20-something solo woman who wants to take a leap of faith and drop out of university to pursue an unconventional career path?
I would make sure they know that doing this is not easy. It’s a romantic idea—leaving school, hopping on a plane, and following your dreams. It’s this very Elizabeth Gilbert-esque picture.
But it’s hard work. You have to be willing to fight tooth and nail for your passion. You have to be willing to lose some friends in exchange for new ones. You have to know that it’s not going to turn out perfect. You’ll have to face a lot of self-doubt.
But it’ll be worth it in the end. I stand behind anyone that wants something different than the 9-to-5. I don’t think the “out-of-the-box” life is right for everyone, but if it calls to you, you owe it to yourself to pursue it relentlessly.
Any extra advice, words of inspiration (quote, saying, movie that inspired you or related) or closing remarks?
One of the most meaningful things that anyone has ever said to me was:
“Planning is good, but plans are useless.”
It was the instructor of my yoga teacher training, Christie, who told me this.
You can run through scenarios in your head for your life all you want, but in the end, nobody can predict how anything is going to turn out. I have no doubt in my mind that my life will change a thousand more times before I depart. The only thing we can do is welcome the adventure with open arms.
Are you interested in an unconventional career path?
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