Immersing yourself in bone-chilling waters to document the polar depths is a tough job (seriously), but someone has to do it.
Enter Paul North. An Undersea Specialist with Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic (LEX-NG), North spends six months a year in cold climates from the Arctic to Antarctica, delving into frigid seas while capturing stunning photos and videos to share with guests during onboard presentations.
When he’s not diving, North writes plays and also serves as the director of the nonprofit organization Meet the Ocean (check out its podcasts, which he also hosts). His ultimate hope: “To educate the public on the importance of our planet’s saltwater ecosystems, in order to awaken them to embrace a conservation mind-set.”
We caught up with North just prior to his latest Antarctic expedition, and our discussion ranged from the sanity of working in subfreezing conditions to everyday steps we can take to save our seas.
How did you get your start as a diver?
I began SCUBA diving in Honduras’ Bay Islands in 2005. Originally, it was just for fun, but the more time I spent underwater, the more I wished to stay. I started working for LEX-NG in Alaska, a place I’d been diving for six years before beginning with the company.
Diving in polar waters sounds … really cold. Are you sure this qualifies as a “dream job”?
Absolutely. Consider how remote and inaccessible some of the places our ships travel – that alone is a wonder. Then add to that the potential for me to dive where few, if any, have ever been. Every bit of it is incredible. I find it difficult to process at times, simply because of the constant barrage of new experiences. In the course of one day, I might be viewing a pod of humpback whales, and soon after doing a plankton tow to examine what it was they were eating. Being able to witness the beginnings and end of the marine food chain, all within a day’s work, is a mighty thing.
Your preferred office environment?
My favorite place to dive is Alaska, and always will be. It’s demanding, and often inhospitable due to strong currents or poor water clarity, but the life is spectacular. Plus, you get a real sense of yourself when a 15-foot giant Pacific octopus is giving you the stink eye.
But you started diving in Honduras. Wouldn’t it have made sense to stick to warm waters?
I’m a cold-water diver because I like to earn it, plain and simple. Anyone with a bathing suit can dive warm water, and I encourage them to do so, but for me, it’s about accessing the rarities of our planet. Places that are inconvenient, or uncomfortable to access. Most people think that the more spectacular creatures and colors are reserved for warm water. I make it my personal challenge to prove them wrong.
The most spectacular sea creature you’ve encountered?
Brace yourself, because it sounds like they put three animals in a blender: the crocodile dragon fish. So far, I have only seen one when diving South Georgia Island. It was about two-and-a-half feet long with bright orange skin and shimmering blue eyes. Its mouth took up about a third of its body, and resembled the bill of a platypus. It was a strange thing to behold.
What’s it like to take the plunge in polar waters?
My face is exposed, so that gets numb first. After that go the fingers. Takes about 30 minutes for me to start losing feeling in my digits, and that’s where it can get dangerous. You have to be able to use your fingers to operate your equipment. So it becomes a question of when does being cold turn into a hazard. (For a safety margin, we limit our dives to 45 minutes in polar regions.) Reasons like these are why you don’t see people lining up to take my job.
So, are you superhuman, sadomasochistic, or just completely insane?
Fair question. I think it boils down to a want for experience. It’s the reason we travel. To find ourselves somewhere new, which forces us to reassess who we are within such new surroundings. Part of my job involves pain. It’s unavoidable. After a dive, it can feel like a thousand needles are pushing into my fingers, but it’s likely that I just spent time with a whale skeleton, or encountered a species I have never seen before. Those moments make the suffering an afterthought.
Once you’re back on board, how do you warm up?
Scotch. Though such rewards come after a few hours of editing the dive footage. I dig on Balvenie or Lagavulin, and the bartender usually has one waiting before I can even put in a request.
For those who have an aversion to the cold (think: “sane”): Where should they dive?
Indonesia is touted as a mecca for diving. Have not been myself. Too afraid I might thaw out.
“Meet the Ocean” is a curious name for a nonprofit. Do we not know enough about our seas?
I suppose it’s a matter of philosophy. When do we truly know something? Just for example: Most of us grew up thinking trees supplied the majority of oxygen on our planet. Turns out that is a misconception. More than 50 percent of it comes from the micro-algae in the oceans. I want to introduce audiences to the ocean they do not yet know, using storytelling, science, and humor to add to their understanding.
Conservation is one of your primary goals. What are basic steps we can take to save our oceans?
At an individual level, it’s about conscientious choices. Avoiding plastic when possible, especially single use items like straws can be a big help. And knowing where your seafood comes from and how it’s caught is huge. We live in a world full of ingenuity. Solutions exist that have economic and environmental benefits. It’s just a matter of challenging the status quo. The company you choose to travel with is also important. It’s not about simply ticking a box on a life list. It’s about giving nature priority.
For those cruising to Antarctica: Waters in the Drake Passage can be especially rough. Any advice for how to stomach the crossing?
Grin and bear it. Incredible experiences await you on the other side.
Your top tip for making the most of an expedition cruise?
There will always be something to learn or do, on what is essentially a sea-going seminar. But to maximize the experience, I say find the moments that are your own. Nature is our greatest teacher, so find the time to appreciate it, either in silence, with a loved one, or at the bar as tabular icebergs sail past the window.