Polar bear

Meet the Expert: Kelsey Simmons

Zegrahm Expeditions|September 16, 2020|Blog Post

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Kelsey Simmons

Where are you from and where have you lived? 

I am originally from Whidbey Island in Washington State. I lived in Seattle when I attended the University of Washington. After that, I spent some time in Southern California and in Portland, Oregon before returning to “The Island.”  

Tell us about yourself—what path led you to becoming a Zegrahm Leader? 

I got lucky! I have known Lisa Wurzrainer—a fellow Whidbey Islander—for many years. Lisa was the long-standing Director of Expedition Staff at Zegrahm and in 2013, she was on the hunt for a Cruise Director after the lovely Julie Christensen (also from Whidbey Island) decided to start a family with her husband, Captain Peter Fielding. Lucky for me she did… as it made way for a new Cruise Director! Since then, I have been on so many incredible trips, with incredible people, to the most incredible places. I’ve traveled on over 50 ship voyages across all seven continents, but I haven’t managed to catch up to Sandi Gerstung just yet… 

Now, nearly seven years after my first Zegrahm trip, I have taken over for Lisa as the Director of Expedition Staff. Lisa continues to work for Zegrahm in the field as a Cruise Director, together with myself and Lynne Greig. Because nobody can ever REALLY leave this business. 

What other fields are you passionate about? 

I have always had a passion for travel. There is nothing like it and I feel that traveling to see new places, meet new people, and have new experiences expands your world in inexplicable ways. One of my favorite quotes is by Benjamin Disraeli; “Like all great travelers, I have seen more than I remember and remember more than I have seen.”  

Since joining the Zegrahm family back in 2013, the way in which I travel has changed. The world seems so much smaller to me now. Hopping on a plane to head to one of my favorite places (Portugal) seems just as doable as a road trip across a few states. 

In terms of my passions… well… I must admit that I have come to enjoy birdwatching, thanks to my friends and fellow field staff members. In fact, I have become quite addicted to this educational type of travel. As a Cruise Director, it isn’t always easy for me to attend all lectures as that typically becomes precious planning time, but I enjoy them so much and am forever impressed by the depth and range of knowledge presented by our field staff. 

What excites you (or what do you enjoy) about working for Zegrahm? 

What excites me the most is really quite simple. Exploring the world from top to bottom with my friends. We have so much fun and share a lot of laughs all while expanding our horizons.  

What is your favorite Zegrahm memory? 

My favorite Zegrahm memory… well, there are WAY too many to count but high on the list are the following two experiences: 

One day, in the Asmat region of New Guinea, we set off from the ship for a three-hour Zodiac ride to visit the village of Komor. This particular village had not received any visitors for seven years. We began our journey in the blistering hot sun. About an hour into the ride, we came upon one of the strongest tropical downpours I have ever experienced—a wall of water that wouldn’t stop. As I was manning my Zodiac I remember worrying about the guests and how they would do, soaking wet, for the remaining two hours until our arrival. Then, I started to see smiles which soon erupted in to belly laughs. I realized that the downpour, so intense that we could barely see, was going to be part of our story that day. Eventually, we arrived with giant smiles on our faces—didn’t matter that we had been soaked from head to toe or that our bums were numb from the three-hour ride. We were greeted by the amazing people of Komor in the most incredible way as they stormed our Zodiacs and preformed the traditional village greeting. We collectively disembarked the Zodiacs and were immediately swept away for an experience that none of us will ever forget. The villagers chose for us to become a part of their families that day. We were presented with elaborate handmade gifts and fed sago worms, a delicacy. We each had our own adoption ceremony which, in itself, was extremely powerful and moving. It isn’t possible to recreate that day with words. As it came time to leave, we departed into one of the most stunning sunsets I have ever seen. That day was perfect—and it all began with the rain storm.    

Kelsey Simmons

Another favorite day happened in Greenland in the Napassorssuaq Fjord. We spotted a polar bear up the steep sides of the fjord and based on the bear’s behavior, we decided to launch the Zodiacs. What happened after that was the most remarkable viewing of not only this female bear, but also her cub. Undisturbed by us or our Zodiacs, they made their way down to the water’s edge where they rolled around in the patches of snow, took a little rest, and went for a swim. It was incredible to witness the interaction between a mother and her cub so intimately, and the playful nature in which the cub would interact with her. As if that wasn’t enough, as we returned to the ship we came across another bear. This time a male on ice. A bear on ice is something you are always hoping for. The sun was shining with not a cloud in the sky, the water in the fjord was like glass, the icebergs were bright blue, and the bears showed us a bit about themselves. It was an incredible day—one that I will never forget. 

Can you tell us about a time that you were on an expedition that ended up taking an unexpected turn or made an unexpected discovery that took you off the planned trail? 

Ohhh yeah. Where do you want me to begin!?  

With expedition travel, unexpected turns are the name of the game. “Plan A” will often turn into “Plan B” or sometimes even “Plan C or D…or E.”  But the fact remains that whatever we do will be great. 

One day in particular during our West Coast of Europe voyage, the ship docked in Vilagarcía, Spain where we loaded into buses for one of the most fantastic days on the itinerary—a visit to Santiago de Compostela. During our time on shore, the ship was due to reposition to La Coruña where we would meet at 18:00, and re-embark for dinner onboard. It is very common for the ship to move to a new port with guests and staff on shore in order to save sailing time later. 

We had an incredible day at Santiago de Compostela. We learned all about the pilgrimage from our local guides and even saw many pilgrims on their last stretch coming into town as they headed to the façade of the famous Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela with the iconic scallop shells swinging from their packs. We were of the lucky few who were able to witness the swinging of the botafumerio, the largest censer in the world, during the pilgrim mass in the cathedral that day. After a lovely morning and afternoon in this beautiful town and lunch at the parador just adjacent to the cathedral, we joined our buses for the drive to meet the ship in La Coruña. You can probably imagine where this is going from here. 

As the Expedition Leader (Mike Messick) and I checked in with the ship, we soon realized that the marine traffic separation scheme was not accounted for when planning the reposition. Long story short, this meant that the distance for the ship had increased by 30 nautical miles, changing the ship’s arrival to WELL after dinner. We scrambled with our local operator to throw together a dinner onshore for about 80 people within minutes. We ended up at a fantastic little spot, overlooking the water. It was a day off for the servers and kitchen staff, but despite this, they all came in (smiling!) and put on one of the most amazing meals. They were the loveliest people, and we were able to experience another famous Spanish meal! Needless to say, Mike and I were extremely relieved when we saw the ship ‘round the corner’ while nervously enjoying our bites of flan!  

What are your top three countries or regions in the world to explore? 

Scandinavia for its sheer beauty. Antarctica, because it changes you forever and presents itself in a different way each time (yes, I definitely realize how lucky I am to have been there more than once). And Indonesia because the weather is warm, the snorkeling and diving is the best in the world, the places we visit are incredibly remote and the people are wonderful. 

Kelsey Simmons

What’s left on your explorer’s bucket list/where do you still want to go that you haven’t been yet? Why there? 

The Philippines!!  I was FINALLY scheduled on our Philippines voyage earlier this year after stealing it from Lynne Greig who managed to ALWAYS get it, and then Covid-19 struck. I was looking forward to so many aspects of that trip, but most of all the culture. My Filipino friends are some of the kindest and most caring people I know. I was looking forward to not only visiting the Philippines, but doing so by ship alongside them. Their love for their home country runs deep and I was very much looking forward to experiencing it. So, the Philippines remains at the top of my bucket list, and will until I get there! 

What does being a part of the Zegrahm family mean to you?  

When I embarked on my path with Zegrahm nearly seven years ago, I wasn’t aware of the friendships that would ensue. In fact, these people have become such a huge part of my life that it’s almost strange to think about life before then. And, I am late to the party. Many of the field staff and guests had been traveling together for 25 years prior to me entering the picture…or even longer in some cases! 

The world is big, but the community is small. And I am so glad that I am a part of it. 

Who is the Zegrahm Explorer/Traveler? 

The Zegrahm guest is a lot like the Zegrahm field staff member, which is probably why once we get out there, we operate as one big family. We are all a little quirky, and we are fiercely passionate about learning and traveling as explorers, not tourists. We embrace the unexpected, and almost expect the unexpected knowing that those experiences are often what we talk about for years to come.