Aaron Russ: Son of the Sea
Aaron Russ's expedition career began at the age of six.
For 30 years his family has operated Heritage Expeditions, a cruise company running voyages from New Zealand to the Subantarctic Islands and Russian Far East.
We caught up with Aaron who's leading the Scotland in Depth tour next year. He describes why he rates this trip above anything he's done in his 30 year career and talks about his life's work ...
Why did you choose to lead the trip to Scotland?
I've been fortunate to lead expeditions all over the world and Scotland is one of the most diverse destinations you can voyage in.
The history, culture, people, wildlife and landscapes are all incredible. I can't think of anywhere else you get that concentration of diverse and remarkable experiences.
Years ago, I read a book about St Kilda ... a story of the people and landscape. That's stayed with me since. We have it on our brochure once and most people don't even think it's Scotland. It's a truly amazing journey.
What first inspired you to get interested in nature?
It was probably the fact I travelled with so many professors and lecturers when I was younger. Growing up in the expedition business I was lucky to meet all these people and I travelled widely. Later in life, the professors would be out guiding on ships, then University term would start and there they were again with me, this time in the Uni lecture theatres.
How did you first get involved in small ship cruising?
It all started when I was about six. For 30 years my family has operated Heritage Expeditions, a cruise company running voyages from New Zealand to the Subantarctic Islands and the Russian Far East. I've been to Antarctica every year since I was 12. My earliest memory is a trip to the Auckland Islands. I was eight years old on a 60ft yacht with a film crew. We spent new year there and were leaping ashore to visit penguin and albatross colonies. As an 8-year old it was all quite surreal. You don't realise the full value of what you're seeing and experiencing until much later. Of course that was also in the days when you sat beside an albatross - you couldn't do that now.
And you ended up studying albatrosses?
Yes, I did an honours thesis on Buller's Albatross reproductive strategies. I spent a whole winter living on the Snares, 60 miles south of Stewart Island off the far south tip of South Island, New Zealand. I lived in a hut and weighed adults returning from sea and, every day, their chicks ... so we could work out the difference in the investment of energy by parents of different sex.
Why did you give this in for a life tour leading?
I started a PhD but soon realised you can see a lot more of the world sharing it with other people than studying it. I headed off and became an expedition leader and have done so ever since then.
What people have you met that really influenced you?
Early on I travelled with a guy called Dr David Given, a world authority on plants living in hostile environments. He was genius in his time, also in terms of his perspective on the world. Brian Bell and Don Merton are also big influences of mine. They were the people who saved the Kakadu and Black Robin from extinction on NZ. On the very last trip I went on, we travelled with Mike Stephens. He's a harmonica musician who runs a charitable organisation going to the Canadian arctic. He takes instruments to the kids to give them an outlet, an avenue to express themselves. He also has a very unique way of looking at the world.
Describe your typical year
These days, I usually pick and choose the expeditions to a degree and go on ones that interest me. I lead perhaps 2-3 a year. I was in Japan in May. I had a week around Spain and Portugal with 50 passengers touring to shore each day, between Malaga and Lisbon. I've just come back from the northwest Passage, Greenland to Alaska with 170 guests and an expedition team of 20. We sailed right through the northwest passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific. In a couple of weeks time I'm heading back to PNG and really excited as Tim Flannery on board. We start in Madang, then visit the islands of the north to Bougainville and Solomons, finishing in Honiara.
Why is an interest in nature so important to you?
I think at the end of the day, you can choose to do these voyages for cultural reasons but no matter where you go, there are amazing nature experiences.
In Japan we got to visit some of the great wilderness areas one day and the next we'd be in the heart of Hiroshima. There is always wildlife. The NW Passage journey is a superb and exceptional example. It's an iconic journey in itself but the wildlife that inhabits the Arctic is truly unique and adds a lot to the experience.
For instance, Belugas come into the shallows late in summer to moult and rub themselves on the shallows to shed skin. There are several bays they do this in but they are not always there. We headed into one semi-enclosed lagoon where 200-300 Belugas were moving around, playing and moulting ... they came right up to the boats. Miles from hunting and human habitation, they are quite unafraid so for 4-5 hours we were out among them and they'd swim by. The young ones would literally be a foot or two off the side of the zodiac, lounging around. We believe the polar bears congregate here to hunt them. This year they were all exceptionally fat and mostly lined up along the shore. On other occasions, I've seen the polar bears trying to leap on the whales' backs to eat them.
How do other people react to your enthusiasm?
Enthusiasm is infectious. The more guests are enthusiastic, the more I am and vica versa.
What are you trying to achieve for guests?
At the very highest level, I hope they go home with an appreciation and understanding about the region. It's always going to be a snapshot. I want them to have an amazing experience that will stay with them forever but also want them to go home thinking and knowing these are very special places.
The Scotland in Depth tour departs Glasgow on Sunday 10 June 2018.