Interview: Hayley Shepherd

New Zealand born expedition paddler Hayley Shepherd was set to embark on a record setting solo expedition around South Georgia in early January. Due to various circumstances she was forced to postpone the expedition until 2010, we took the opportunity to catch up with her and find out about her paddling history and what the expedition is all about.

CM – You’re relatively unknown back here in New Zealand, can you outline your paddling history in New Zealand?

HS – I started river kayaking as a 14 year old at the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre. I was hooked from that moment onwards. When teaching in Taupo I spent the odd weekend paddling the rivers throughout that region, improving my skills whilst kayaking with Bruce Webber. We started the Kiwi Kids Kayak Club, introducing kids to the fun and adventure of kayaking. Also, while I was a teacher at Taupo Intermediate school I ran a kayaking program for 11-13 year olds. Eventually I was introduced to sea kayaking and loved the idea of being able to carry everything with me; to travel, eat and live rather comfortably meant that I could be completely self sufficient. Most of my sea kayaking took place overseas but the handful of trips I did in New Zealand were spectacular. The first circumnavigation I did was of Lake Taupo. I paddled sections of the East and West coast of the Coromandel Peninsula. As well I spent some time kayaking in Stewart Island and around the Kaikoura region, absolutely spectacular.

CM – Sea Kayak Guiding has been the focus of your career, where in the world have you ended up working?

HS -When I discovered that I could make a living doing something I absolutely love, my life was changed. The first experience I had kayaking in Canada was in the northern region of Vancouver Island along the Inside Passage. Dense cedar forests line the emerald green waters where resident killer whales travel in their tightly bonded family groups, feasting on the seasonal salmon runs. This is where I fine-tuned my skills as a kayak guide. From there I ventured out to Baja, Mexico and guided 6 day trips amongst the tropical islands in the Sea of Cortez. A few trips consisted of paddling over on the Pacific Side where mating and calving Grey whales spend their winter in the warm waters of the mangrove lagoons. I had been working in Antarctica on Russian ice strengthened ships as a zodiac driver and naturalist, and soon enough after assisting with the set up of a kayak program on board the ship, I found myself leading kayak excursions amongst the icebergs, glaciers and penguin riddled bergy bits along the Antarctic Peninsula. This was truly the bees knees. The Canadian High Arctic, Greenland and the Galapagos are also areas I have ventured as a kayak guide. It truly is one of the best ways to explore and experience a watery destination.

CM – What has been so appealing about the kayaking lifestyle to you? Have you felt the urge to fall back on your teaching degree and live the “normal life”?

HS – Right from a young age I knew that I was drawn to spending as much time in the outdoors, going on adventures and experiencing new places as possible. As an adult, the more I traveled, the more beautiful, rich and wild places I realised there were to see. My job, although busy and at times stressful with the many responsibilities I have, is taking people to the most gorgeous and dramatic places on the planet for their holiday. Teaching them new skills, sharing local knowledge, introducing them to environmental concepts and simply giving them a fun, safe and informative time ultimately offers me rewards in return.

As I got involved with more guiding contracts, working for a number of companies, I was spending a lot of time away, working full time as an Expedition Leader or guide. Every day for months at a time I have to be on 24:7 – happy, professional, responsible, organised, and a good communicator. At times I have felt burnt out and had the desire to be at home more often, living the normal life but those feelings don’t linger very long. I would like to work with children again but I would prefer to be working with them in a wilderness environment, rather than in a classroom. I truly believe that nature and the wilderness is a perfect classroom, one where less and less teachers and education institutions are allowing kids to venture.

CM – Guiding led you into longer more expedition style trips, tell us about those trips and what you have learnt from them.

HS – After spending most of my time on the water guiding other people, it was a four day kayaking trip alone where I discovered the profound intimacy of having no other distractions apart from nature itself. My first long sea kayaking journey was in 1999 when I kayaked solo around the 1200km Vancouver Island. Being ultimately alone in the wilderness for a long period of time makes you gradually become in tune with the ways of nature, as you adapt to the weather, currents, tides and wildlife. I also realized how simply I could live, using very few resources and having little impact on the planet but at the same time as being well fed, comfortably sheltered and traveling in an efficient manner. The Queen Charlotte Islands offered a number of new experiences and challenges. I am definitely drawn towards enforced self reliance and I realise that this is one of the reasons why I chose to go alone. This particular journey made me discover just how I deal with stress and extreme fear. I learnt of my weaknesses, my strengths – physical, emotional and intellectual. Amongst all these lessons, what stands out for me the most with both journeys is the simple recognition that we, as a culture fill our lives with so many material items which we hope will give us happiness and contentment. Really though, we could live with so much less and still be comfortable and happy at the same time having a lesser impact on our planet. Further more, if we could spend just a moment, alone in nature, re-connecting with the natural world, it would bring us back to the understanding of what really matters.

CM – Obviously your focus is now your South Georgia trip. The sheer scale of organizing this trip is mind-boggling, where did you start in your preparation/planning?

HS – It is a huge undertaking hence why it has taken over two years to organise and prepare for, in addition to leading a normal working life. The most important thing I needed to arrange first of all was the application process I was required to go through with the British Government. This entailed the writing of an extensive risk management plan, environmental plan, a detailed itinerary and a safety report. As well, it was mandatory that I have a support vessel attached to the expedition, solely for search and rescue purposes. The expedition is to be completely self sufficient where we are relying on no outside sources. To charter a vessel and crew for a two month period requires a fair amount of money. And so the next priority was the writing of proposals for grants and sponsorship. I have spent numerous months at my computer writing to gear manufacturers, foundations and organisations who may be interested in supporting such a project. It takes so many attempts and hours of work as each company wants to hear about different aspects of the South Georgia project.

There is also an awful lot of equipment required, including a well built, solid, reinforced sea kayak. Camera equipment and a way to mount it securely was needed in order for me to make the documentary film. Media was another important aspect in the preparation of the expedition; therefore my website was established in the early days of preparation.

CM – Obviously sponsorship and fundraising is crucial to this trip, and has seen the postponement of the original date. How and where have you found support for this trip.

HS – I have gained generous support from North American equipment manufacturers, for example Necky kayaks and Kokatat. I attempted to find support with New Zealand companies as I believe some of the gear produced in NZ is of the highest quality. My one success was with Rasdex, who have built me a bombproof spray deck. As well, previous passengers who have traveled with me in the Arctic and Antarctic have made generous donations through my website. I feel absolutely moved by their interest, support and generosity. Some people, including my friends have very little to give yet they do not hesitate. As for applying with the bigger companies like National Geographic, Patagonia and Gortex, where the competition for funding is huge, I have definitely learned to take rejection with a brave smile and not lose hope.

CM – The whole purpose of the trip is to shed light on the ‘Plight of the Albatross’. Can you tell us about your experiences with these massive sea-birds, and what the future holds for them?

HS – When traveling by ship in the middle of open sea, you often experience huge seas and strong winds, you end up wondering what the heck you’re doing out there. Then looking beyond the stern utilizing the powerful winds is the Albatross, they fly thousands of miles in search of food for themselves and their awaiting chick, touching land so infrequently makes one realise how unique these large flying birds are. I had the privilege of witnessing the largest flying bird; The Wandering Albatross nesting on an island adjacent to the South Georgia mainland. I Observed a courting pair who had recently been reunited, their 12ft wings stretched far and wide and their elegant necks curved looking seductive as any bird could was absolutely mesmerizing. The thousands of Black Browed Albatross perched on their mud and tussock grass mounds along the rugged coast of the Falkland Islands. And finally the absolutely gorgeously grey frosted feathers belonging to the Grey headed Albatross nesting right at Cape Horn.

Currently of the 21 Albatross species recognized by the ICUN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), 19 are threatened and two are critically endangered. Commercial long line fishing is the greatest threat as albatrosses are attracted to their baited hooks that are strung along a massive line where the birds become hooked and drown. An estimated 100,000 Albatross per year are killed in this fashion. Illegal fisheries exacerbate the problem.
Because a chick takes a year to fledge, both parents are locked into the routine of taking huge foraging flights. It is crucial the chick has both parents to raise it, therefore if a parent perishes at sea, the chick eventually dies also. Some species that exist are few in population numbers, for example the Chatham Island Albatross have just under 500 nesting pairs. This species could easily become extinct due to the limited population number.

There is one fishing industry that has proven that the use of new improved fishing techniques can reduce and even stop the unnecessary seabird by-catch. That is the small but active South Georgia fishing industry. Money is being used to research and implement new ways to long line fish and South Georgia’s fishing industry has proven that these new techniques works. If funding can continue to put researchers on vessels, conservation officers on the water and continue implementing new fishing techniques; the Albatross may have a chance.

CM – So with an extra year to sort out logistics and source promotional opportunities what do you have in mind for 2009?

HS – The goals I have this year are to focus on spreading the word around, telling more people about the intended journey, introducing them to the spectacular island of South Georgia, the majestic Albatross and their very vulnerable situation through public presentations. This extra time will allow me to establish magazine article contracts and put in place a broadcaster for the documentary film. Obviously I need to continue fundraising in order to pay for the mandatory support vessel. The owners have supported me with the postponement and have agreed to continue being fully committed to this expedition. I will be attending kayak symposiums and boat shows, informing the related public about the South Georgia project and will keep regular updates published on my website. This extra time is giving me an opportunity to really test my expedition gear, and do a number of shake down trips so when I am actually paddling around the challenging coast of South Georgia, there won’t be any surprises.

CM – Thanks, and we look forward to hearing your progress along the way.