Healing Our Planet, Polar Explorer Felicity Aston Says, Begins With Hope

When Barbara Muckermann, now Silversea’s president and CEO and at this time its chief commercial officer for Silversea, asks Felicity Aston, renowned polar explorer and godmother of the newly christened Silver Endeavour, what she hopes guests who travel to Antarctica will bring home, Aston replies without missing a beat, “I think that word ‘hope’ is really important.”

In a lively discussion recorded aboard the new-to-fleet Silver Endeavour after its November launch, the two talk of charting a course of change, fueled by hope and optimism, to start healing our planet.

Human beings can and must champion such causes, impossible though they seem. “When we are facing things like climate change and trying to find solutions,” she says, “remembering that we are capable of really amazing stuff…is really important. It makes you think, ‘If we can do this, what else can we do?’ It enlarges your ambition, and that’s what we need in the world right now, isn’t it?”

“Perhaps the most important thing that people learn when they go home [after visiting Antarctica], is that, yes, we may have lost a lot that it’s too late to save,” Aston says. “But we’ve still got so much left that it’s important to make sure that we protect for the future.”

Felicity Aston on the ice with her term in Antarctica./Photo courtesy the author

One of the keys to that is redefining how we see exploration, which “isn’t just about planting flags or gaining territory anymore,” Aston says. “It’s about searching for new ideas and new perspectives.”

Here are more insights from this interview.

Felicity Aston: My first visit to Antarctica was a bit of baptism of fire. Because then the standard posting was three years. It was a commitment. I was 23, so back then, I just took it on without really a second thought. It was a big adventure. It was two back-to-back winters as well.

I got to see Antarctica on days when there was nowhere else in the world I’d have rather been but I also got to see it on days when it wasn’t necessarily a nice place to be.

Antarctica during the Silver Endeavour’s shakedown cruise in November 2022./Silversea

I think that’s perhaps why the polar environment has captured my fascination quite so deeply. Because when I did leave Antarctica after that time, my first thought was ‘How do I get back into the polar environment and see more?’ I wanted to see the Arctic, I wanted to see Siberia, I wanted to see the Canadian Arctic, I wanted  to come back to Antarctica. That certainly hasn’t dimmed yet.

Barbara Muckermann: Of your many accomplishments, which is the one you’re most proud of?

FA: It’s really hard to choose one because each expedition, each adventure I’m proud of  for a different reason. But the expeditions that I’ve completed with international women’s teams perhaps have a really special place in my heart. There’s something just really so wonderful when you’re with a group of people working together to achieve a goal that seems impossible. When you finally succeed, there’s that real elation and euphoria, which stays with you forever.

Silver Endeavour sailing through the ice in Neko Harbor on its initial voyage to Antarctica as part of Silversea’s fleet./Silversea

BM: Why is it important to explore the polar regions?

FA: I think no one comes to Antarctica and goes home going, ‘Hmm, that was OK.’ They come back not just having seen amazing things and experienced amazing things but they come back feeling changed in some way; their perspective has shifted a bit.

With the world facing the problems it is right now, I think that shift in perspective is really important. We’ll never know all the ways in which, when people go home after a trip like this, they spread that inspiration among their colleagues at work, amongst their family, so we will never know what those ripples ultimately end up in, but for sure they will be doing real good out there in the world.

We hear a lot of really serious news about things that are drastically wrong in our global environment right now and yet you come to Antarctica and you meet all the staff who are really enthusiastic about what we still have left to save.

BM: What is it, you think, that pushes humanity to the limits? What is so intriguing?

FA: It’s all about knowing ourselves better. The human condition is endlessly fascinating, isn’t it, why we are the way we are. Human beings we are capable of such amazing brilliance, creativity and compassion and we’re also capable of stuffing things up really badly. Understanding that human condition, how far can we push ourselves and how far can we go? In my experience, I truly believe that we can go mentally and physically much further than we give ourselves credit for.

Felicity Aston at Lake Baikal in eastern Siberia,/Photo courtesy Felicity Aston

BM: Why did you [become a polar explorer]?

FA: ‘Why’ is a short three-letter word, isn’t it, yet it’s such a complex thing to answer…

For me, I think there was a lot of different factors. I grew up in the southeast of England where there’s not really an extreme environment, there are no mountains, there’s no real winter, there’s no snow. So for me in my childhood when it did snow and the whole world I knew was transformed into something else, it was exciting, and we went on adventures. Somewhere there was some sort of link made in my mind between the winter environment and excitement and adventure.

Also the sort of British heritage of exploration. The idea that the polar regions were somewhere you went to test yourself, to prove yourself, to find out what you were made of, I think that sort of sank in there somewhere.

When you look back on what you’ve done in your life, it all seems to follow a lovely path doesn’t it? But at the time you can’t see that path. I’ve been very fortunate to be given opportunities and to have the attitude that….if there’s something I want to do — that’s the hardest part is deciding what you want to do and once you know what it is, it’s just a matter of following that through until you get to where you want to be — so I feel quite fortunate to have had opportunities and also to have that sort of mindset where you work out what you want and then you work out the steps to get there.

BM: Is there an explorer you admire?

FA: The sort of heroic explorers of the early 20th century, the [Robert Falcon] Scotts, the [Ernest] Shackletons…I admire them but I am not inspired by them because they were men of a very different attitude and approach at the opposite end of the 20th century when I started exploring. And I don’t necessarily understand them, and I don’t think they would understand me.

The Viking Gudrid, shown with her son, may have been the first woman to sail to North America./Gerd Eichmann/Wikimedia Commons

But there are explorers throughout history who I do draw amazing inspiration from going right back to the Viking era in the early 800s. There was a Viking woman known as Gudrid who made one of the first journeys across to North America. And she was a driving force behind that expedition, making things happen and that’s the sort of attitude that really speaks to me and that I draw inspiration–from people that have had these seemingly crazy ideas that have dared to try to make it happen and whether they succeed or failed, I really admire that taking those kind of chances and going for those things.

BM: You’ve traveled to Antarctica many times. Anything about this trip that makes this different? Any differences.

FA (chuckling): It’s the first time I’ve traveled to Antarctica in a beautiful suite with shower and a bath and TVs ….It’s wonderful to do it in comfort. Some people think if you’re not suffering, then you’re not doing anything worthwhile. But I don’t subscribe to that. There’s plenty worthwhile that you don’t necessarily have to suffer.

Passengers who visit Antarctica, picture here on the new-to-fleet Silver Endeavour, become ambassadors after seeing the White Continent./Silversea

But on this trip I have my little boy with me. He’s 5 years old. And I get to introduce him to this place that has meant so much to me in my life…so that’s really wonderful. Although at 5 years old, he might not remember the details of this trip in the future, I hope, at the very least,  there is something of the spirit of adventure and exploration and the attitude with which we are approaching a place like Antarctica. I hope that sits in him for somewhere the future.

This draft has been edited for clarity and length.