Women Breaking Boundaries in the Polar Regions


"With open-hearted thanks to the women who forged the challenging path to Antarctica before me. You have enabled my life’s dreams to be fulfilled."
—Annie Inglis, Quark Expedition Guide and Marine Biologist

Photo by Acacia Johnson

The empowerment of women. It’s such a beautiful thing.

We need only look to Felicity Aston, who chronicled her polar journey in "Alone in Antarctica: The First Woman to Ski Solo Across The Southern Ice.

Aston, an English explorer, nailed it when she wrote: “It was clear to me that the success of my expedition had not depended on physical strength or dramatic acts of bravery but on the fact that at least some progress – however small – had been made every single day. It had not been about glorious heroism but the humblest of qualities, a quality that perhaps we all too often fail to appreciate for its worth – that of perseverance.”  

The perseverance of women is just one of the things that all people will celebrate on International Women’s Day 2020 (Sunday, March 8).

You could say women are breaking the ice ceiling in the polar regions – at least with Quark Expeditions. At the moment, 4 out of our 8 expedition leaders are female. That also mirrors the gender breakdown of our passengers: In the last five years, women have accounted for approximately 53% of our passengers to Antarctica, for example. Our expedition staff and crew frequently encounter women travelling solo or, as is often the case, with an all-female group of friends who are breaking personal boundaries together in the polar regions.   

Brave, innovative women have long played integral roles in our understanding of, and ability to access the polar regions. In honour of International Women's Day, join us in celebrating groundbreaking women in polar exploration—from the nomadic Thule, to early Antarctic explorers, and to the women pushing boundaries in the field today.

Inspirational Women Who've Explored Antarctica

One of the last frontiers—our seventh and least explored continent—has long intrigued and delighted the curious. According to Māori oral history (that of the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand), female Explorer Ui-te-rangiora reached Antarctic waters around 650 AD. Louise Séguin became the first Western woman to visit the Antarctic region in 1773, as she sailed on the Roland alongside Yves Joseph de Kerguelen. 

Women have played an integral role in Antarctic exploration and this International Women’s Day, we celebrate

Ingrid Christensen, First Woman to Set Foot on the 7th Continent

The first woman to actually set foot on the Antarctic continent was Ingrid Christensen, who landed at Scullin Monolith. She was immediately followed by four other female explorers: her daughter, Augusta Sofie Christensen, Lillemor Rachlew, and Solveig Widerøeher. 

Maria Klenova, First Female Geologist Working in Antarctica

Russian and Soviet Marine Geologist Maria Vasilyevna Klenova served as a member of the Council for Antarctic Research of the USSR Academy of Sciences. She spent nearly 30 years conducting research about the Polar regions. Her career in marine geology took off in 1925, when she began her research in the Arctic, in the Barents Sea, Novaya Zemlya, Spitsbergen, and Franz Josef Land. In the late 1940s, she turned her sights to the extreme south and in 1956, Maria set out to map uncharted areas of the Antarctic coast. Her contributions helped to produce the first Antarctic atlas. 

Fun Fact: 4 in 8 Expedition Leaders with Quark are women!

Science in Antarctica has provided great insights into some aspects of the natural world, including (but not limited to) the ozone layer and historic concentrations of carbon dioxide in the air. Antarctic science was also the catalyst for one of the most impressive international treaties; The Antarctic Treaty.

This month, I visited Palmer Station, the US Scientific Base on Anvers Island, where I met their impressive Station Manager, Rebecca Shoop. She led with kindness to her team and a passion for science; she clearly has a sharp analytical mind and superior logistics, administrative and communication skills. I was inspired to meet Rebecca and her team of scientists (male and female), and to see the impressive work they are doing in Antarctica to help us understand how to protect and conserve this wilderness and the oceans beyond.”

—Alison Kirk-Lauritsen, Quark Expeditions Leader & Quark Academy Trainer

Ann Chapman, First Female Antarctic Expedition Leader

In 1971, New Zealand Limnologist Ann Chapman lead a three-week biological survey of the frozen lakes in the Taylor Valley, making her the first woman to lead an Antarctic expedition. Lake Chapman, in Antarctica's Ross Sea Dependency, bears her name.

Photo by Acacia Johnson

I count myself incredibly privileged to be working in a time where women are not only accepted but sometimes even operate as a majority of the expedition staff. We stand in that position because of the women who pushed their way in and fought for the right to be included in polar exploration.

While we recognize and feel grateful for that effort, we also acknowledge that the journey is not over yet. A majority of the female staff experience a cultural subconscious—or conscious!—gender bias regarding our roles. For example, we still find many people that are surprised that women are driving zodiacs, and sometimes attempt to refuse to ride with us, or don't believe we are capable of fixing the engine or problems. Yet every time we drive, every dinner conversation we have, every time we and our male counterparts demonstrate the even distribution of work, we are changing people’s minds.

We are not only creating Antarctic ambassadors but shifting viewpoints on gender and what women are capable of.

—Aven King, Quark Expeditions Guide & Astrophysicist 

Check out the #WomenofAntarctica photo series on Instagram


Felicity Aston, First Woman to Cross Antarctica Solo

Felicity Aston knew she was at risk of becoming hypothermic when she smelled fish and chips on the stark, frozen Antarctica. The realization that she’d begun hallucinating motivated Aston to keep pushing, and she did—all the way across the 7th continent. In 2012, she became the first woman to cross Antarctica alone, and the first person to do it using only her own muscle power. Earlier, between 2000 to 2003, she served as a senior meteorologist on Adelaide Island, at the Rothera Research Station operated by the British Antarctic Survey. 

Inspirational Women Who've Explored the Arctic

At the other end of the planet, across the Arctic’s many islands and the far northern regions of Canada and Russia, Thule and Inuit roamed. Unlike completely uninhabited Antarctica, the inhospitable Arctic somehow supported tenacious Inuit for thousands of years. Generations of women raised their families, built homes, hunted and charted the migratory paths of Arctic animals long before the first Europeans set their sights on the far north. 

Over the last several hundreds of years, courageous explorers have set out to investigate, document and experience the Arctic's sprawling, wild landscapes. These adventurous women couldn’t resist the Arctic’s allure.

Louise Arner Boyd, First Woman to Fly Over the North Pole

Journalists in the 1920s called her ‘The Girl Who Tamed the Arctic,’ thanks to her escapades in the far north aboard the Hobby, previously sailed by famed explorer Roald Amundsen. Throughout the 1930s, Boyd explored the rugged, wild east and north coasts of Greenland, studying their fascinating culture and wildlife en route. Though her accomplishments and accolades were many, Louise is perhaps best known as the first woman to fly over the North Pole—a feat she achieved in 1955.

Fun Fact: Today, women make up 50% of Quark’s Expedition Team!

The communities of women aboard our ships are full of remarkable, diverse, inspiring role-models of all ages and backgrounds. Being part of this community, united by our love for the Polar Regions and by working in the field, I feel at home with who I am and what I do—and wholly equal with our male colleagues, as well, who must not go unmentioned for their boundless support and camaraderie.

—Acacia Johnson, Quark Expeditions Guide & Photographer

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Caroline Hamilton, Organizer of the First All-Women North Pole Expedition

After listening to her boyfriend describe what it had been like skiing to the North Pole, UK Film Financier Caroline Hamilton decided that anything he could do, she could do, too. In order to drum up the funds for her expedition, Caroline organized the first all-female North Pole expedition. Over 200 women responded to an ad she had placed in the newspaper; 60 faced physical tryouts, and 20 amateur adventurers eventually joined her history-making expedition in 1997.


Jaymie MacAulay, Quark Expeditions Coordinator, has guided on over 40 expeditions in the polar regions (Acacia Johnson Instagram).


Check out the #WomenofAntarctica photo series on Instagram

Celebrate International Women’s Day, 2020

You can participate in the conversations around International Women’s Day 2020 on the #EachforEqual & #IWD2020  hashtag on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. There are many different ways you can take action to support gender equality, from celebrating women’s achievements to becoming a role model for inclusivity in all that you do. For more information, visit the International Women’s Day website.

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Meet Quark Expeditions Photography Guide Acacia Johnson
Meet Quark Expeditions Photography Guide Acacia Johnson

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