Mike Messick, Co-founder of Zegrahm Expeditions
Mike Messick is one of the six co-founders of Zegrahm Expeditions, an expedition cruising company specialising in innovative, off-the-beaten track itineraries. Mike and I first met over a year ago and have travelled together three times: the Russian Far East, Papua New Guinea (post here) and Iceland & Svalbard (posts here , here and here).
How many countries have you been to?
According to the official United Nations list, so far I have visited 135 countries out of 195!
However, most travellers who collect countries use two other more comprehensive lists that are much better for “counting countries”, since they cover all corners of the world. Otherwise, you would equate going to London to going to the Falkland Islands, two places separated by an incredibly vast distance!
So according to these lists:
– Traveller’s Century Club: I have been to 220 out of 320 destinations, and
– Most Traveled People: I have been to over 400 of 800 places.
What is the most unusual place you have been to?
I went to Antarctica for the first time in 1986, which was certainly the most unusual place to visit in the early ‘80s. And, of course, South Georgia could be regarded as the most unusual of all: snow-capped mountains towering above a coastal fringe teaming with wildlife; landing on a beach in the company of thousands of fur seals, dozens of snorting elephant seals, and tens of thousands of king penguins is unlike any other experience one could have on this earth!
Of course, there are countless other places. For instance, culturally, Indonesia is the most exciting place, and visually, the Marquesas Islands in the Pacific, are absolutely stunning.
It’s a big, open-ended question, but if I had to narrow it down to one place, it would definitely be Antarctica.
What do you always bring with you on your trip apart from the practical things?
I bring a lot of nuts with me when I travel, that I can snack on: cashews, pecans, almonds, corn nuts…
What is the craziest thing that you have done while travelling?
Base-jumping is what others regard as my craziest activity. I like to jump off cliffs with a parachute, especially in Norway and Switzerland. Another crazy thing that I did once is trying to get as close as possible to where a waterfall dropped down from a narrow canyon. I got into a Zodiac [a small inflatable boat that is the standard of travel and exploration in the world of expedition cruising], hooked up a couple of anchors to both sides of the canyon, and backed up to the very edge of the waterfall, where it was literary dropping. Of course, I kept the engine going. Still, it was sort of really crazy.
What is expedition cruising?
Expedition cruising is cruising to remote, off-the-beaten-track areas, and taking advantage of whatever comes your way. Flexibility is the foremost aspect of this type of travelling. It is great to go to the Arctic or the Antarctic with some sketched out itinerary, but it is even better to be able to change it at a moment’s notice. If you are planning to reach a certain destination by three o’clock in the afternoon, but in the meantime you come across some humpback whales feeding, we will certainly take an hour or so to stay with them.
Another huge component of expedition cruising is the “learning” aspect of travelling: we try to understand more about the remote places that we are visiting, whether it’s the local communities, the wildlife, marine life, etc…
How did you get into expedition cruising?
My parents took my sister and me to the Galapagos Islands when I was 14 years old. It was on the Lindblad Explorer, which later became the first ship I ever worked on. When I saw these young men driving zodiacs from ship to shore, I instantly said to myself, ‘This is what I will do when I grow up!’. I went to the expedition leader of that trip and I told him,’ I want to come and work for you’. He laughed, and said ‘Write me a letter when you are twenty years old’. And I did, and I got the job. Lindblad Explorer is no longer around, unfortunately; she sank in Antarctica a few years ago … It was actually the first passenger ship to go to Antarctica in 1969! And it went there every single season for nearly forty years until she sank in 2007.
How did Zegrahm Expeditions happen?
There were six of us that started Zegrahm Expeditions almost 25 years ago. We were all employees of another company, and while we were working there, we became great friends. When that company went bankrupt, we got together and decided to set up our own business. We knew that we could make it work: we had a great diversity of interest and expertise, and we really wanted to share our passion for travelling around remote, off-the-beaten track areas with others.
What are your most popular itineraries?
By far the most two popular trips are the Antarctica, including the South Georgia and the Falkland islands, and the Galapagos Islands. We have run both of those itineraries every single year that the company has been in existence. Whereas other itineraries, such as the Russian Far East, Indonesia or Wild Britain, regardless of their popularity, we only run every two or three years.
Expedition cruising is about “the unknown”. Can you give me an example or two of situations where the plan went entirely out the window, but the experience turned out even better than expected?
Several years ago, we had a whole itinerary that was supposed to be taking place in Libya. On the day that we were joining the ship, Colonel Gaddafi decided that no Americans were allowed to visit Libya. From one day to the next, we had to design a whole new itinerary… We ended up doing anything BUT Libya: we went to Tunisia, Crete, Sicily, Egypt, etc. We did a fantastic itinerary created in the matter of 24 hours, which was both a tough and fulfilling challenge!
How is Zegrahm different from other companies?
Zegrahm is always looking for innovative itineraries all around the world, which is different to other companies. Next year, we are running some trips along the east coast of South America and the Amazon. In 2016, we have a brand new, unique itinerary that starts off in Iceland, and then across to the eastern coast of Greenland, where very few people go (everybody goes to the West coast).
We always put together a great expedition team. All the companies say that they have the best expedition team, but we no doubt have the best of them all! We have a lot of clients that travel with our competitors; they come back to us and tell us that other companies pale in comparison. Zegrahm also charters multiple ships, which allows us to be in different places around the world each season.