Mariano Curiel

Head of Operations & Sustainability, Partner

Born and raised in Argentina, Mariano Curiel is a senior polar guide and expedition leader with a wealth of experience in the execution and management of operations. From a young age, he cultivated a pioneering sense of adventure and a deep respect for the polar regions since he first witnessed Antarctica, just after obtaining a university degree in Communications and Strategic Planning, in Buenos Aires. Following that first visit he never looked back and for over twenty years he has been guiding and leading projects in the Antarctic, Greenland, and Svalbard where he has seen the expedition landscape evolve hugely and has participated in more than two hundred sea, land, and ice-based polar expeditions. As a seasoned expedition veteran, Mariano has sailed pole to pole, becoming the first Argentinian to ski across Greenland 2016.

Guiding in the higher latitudes of the globe for the last twenty years, Mariano has been working with a remarkably respected polar operator since 2010 contributing to the executive management of the operations, specializing in expedition performance, delivery and team development. As well as working with several committees at IAATO (International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators), Mariano is one of the founding members and former vice-President of the Polar Tourism Guides Association (PTGA).

“Having started my career working on smaller boats, I’m excited to get back to my roots and join Secret Atlas in its mission to make polar expeditions low impact, personal and more sustainable. Secret Atlas offers a level of comfort, flexibility, and a true sense of wilderness experience, as well as a human approach that is so important to the conscious modern traveler of today. As a start-up operation Secret Atlas can be nimble to the desires of its guests and respond to making polar expeditions as environmentally efficient as possible, this is an exciting prospect to help shape a brand with exploration and conservation at its core.”

Personal Note

I’m Mariano Curiel, and for the past 20 years, I’ve been living my dream as a polar guide in Antarctica and the Arctic. It all began when I was 22 years old and happened almost by chance. I’ve always had a deep love for nautical sports and maritime history, and one day, while sailing on an old Russian ship to Antarctica, I fell head over heels in love with the polar regions. From that moment on, I knew I couldn’t stop exploring these incredible places.

My first trip to Antarctica began with me at the pier in Ushuaia, holding my sports bag, feeling very excited. I was asking for a guy named Sep at the Lyuvob Olrova. A chef named Marko, who was organizing provisions, came up to me and said, “You must be the new guy. Come aboard!” I followed him onto the ship, and soon we set sail to the south. As I observed the operations and realized my skills in boat driving and expedition management, I took the opportunity to take on more responsibilities and secure a job as a guide. That’s how my journey continued, and I built my career in the expedition side of things. It was Zelfa & Gunar who opened the first door and invited me into the polar world, and from there, I dedicated countless hours to training and developing my skills.

Early days Mariano Curiel driving boats

Prior to my polar adventures, I graduated in Communication Strategies and worked in sports marketing in bustling Buenos Aires. But I eventually grew tired of that life and yearned for travel, which led me to find a job on a ship. It was a turning point for me.

My passion for the polar regions also has roots in my family. My father, a retired captain, would take me sailing on cargo ships along the Argentine coast and even across the ocean. While other kids enjoyed summer vacations, I experienced the thrill of being on a working ship. Both of my grandfathers were also involved in the maritime tradition, with one being a captain and the other a chief engineer. It’s in my blood. Additionally, my mother, a gym teacher, introduced me to camping and a deep connection with nature during my childhood. All of these experiences combined shaped my profound love for the outdoors.

Reflecting on my first Antarctic season in 2003, I recall a time when communication was vastly different from today. We would fly to Ushuaia, known as the End of the World, make a quick phone call before setting sail, and then disappear into the Southern Ocean for 10 to 20 days without any contact. When we returned to port, we would eagerly call our families to share our stories. That season, I spent four months in Antarctica, from November to March, covering the entire season.

When I returned from my expeditions, I gathered with my extended family to show them the photos. As the oldest among my cousins, it was a significant moment for the older generation to see someone from our own family returning to the sea. It meant a lot to them. During one of those gatherings, I had a conversation with my grandmother about the photos, and she mentioned that my grandfather, her husband and my father’s father, had worked in Grytviken in the late 1940s. It was a surprising and intriguing revelation. My grandfather’s first job after Maritime School was on a ship called the Arpon from Compani Argentina de Pesca, the founding company in Grytviken. He played a role in provisioning cargo and participating in the whaling season there. My grandparents were also talented photographers, and my grandmother shared an old photo album filled with their award-winning black and white photos from that time. I even found my grandfather’s diaries, which, although incomplete, provided entertaining insights. It’s interesting to note that despite not enjoying the industry or his time there, my grandfather earned good money and even bought a house for the family after his first working summer. He endured two more seasons in South Georgia before deciding to move on to other ships.

Mariano Curiel grandfather Grytviken
Brandon Harvey, Mariano Curiel, Matt Pope
Jonas Wikander and Mariano Curiel
Mariano Curiel Antarctica

The maritime connection runs deep in my family, with our roots tracing back to Argentina and Europe. It was a revelation for us to discover this shared history. I have some keepsakes from my grandfather, such as sperm whale teeth and crafts from that era, which hold a special place in my heart.

My journey in the polar regions has not only been about the incredible places but also about the amazing people I’ve met along the way. I’ve made lifelong friends and have been inspired by their stories. One memorable moment was a night sailing the Beagle Channel, where I contemplated my life alongside my close friend Christian Geisler on the top deck of the Professor Multanovskiy. It was in that moment that I made the decision to dedicate my life to this path. While boat driving was already one of my skills, I can’t attribute it directly to my father. I learned it over time, as he has more experience with larger ships. I was determined to immerse myself in the expedition world and received tremendous support and guidance from individuals like Jonas Wikander, Martin Enckel, Susan Adie, Frank Todd, Brandon Harvey, Pete and Jen Clement, and many others. In the beginning, I worked on the hotel side but secretly joined the expedition team, disguised in mustang suits and masks so that no one would recognize me. Eventually, I switched departments and applied for a job in the expedition team as a boat driver and guide, Susan Adie pushed me to take the role of historian. To be honest I always tried to understand what they saw in me, it was not the skills but rather I feel that I really showed interest. Later in time while working on the development of guides and teams this sentiment will make sense. A key concept that we were employing was: “You can train a good human to become a good professional, but you can not train a good professional to become a good human”… and that’s how my career started.

It’s true that I have a career in the industry and some recognition in that regard. However, what I’ve noticed in the industry is that it’s becoming increasingly commercial in general. When I came across Secret Atlas, it reminded me of the roots and values that I hold dear. It reminded me of how I fell in love with the polar regions, with Antarctica and the Arctic. Secret Atlas represents small-scale operations with a strong sense of consciousness behind every decision, focused on doing things right without rushing. They strive to offer an exceptional experience to clients while also making a positive impact along the way. For me, it was an opportunity to slow down and go back to doing things the way I believe is best and makes me feel fulfilled. It really takes me back to when I fell in love with Antarctica and the Arctic in those early days.

It has been a transition, to be honest. In my previous job in a high management role and in the recent years, I spent a lot of time in the office, with occasional field visits for specific purposes. I gradually became less present in the field and more focused on achieving different objectives from the office. But I want to and need to be out there. For my position, especially in operations, I strongly believe that I need to be in the field, experiencing things firsthand, working closely with the guides, captains, and being on the front line. I consider it a requirement for the operations position. Moreover, I genuinely enjoy it, and without being in the field, I couldn’t sustain my motivation. It’s about finding a balance, though, as there are also responsibilities on the office side and decision-making that require me to be present there as well. If I want to continue speaking as an equal to my colleagues, the guides and captains, I need to remain active as a guide or expedition leader. If I become solely an office person, the message will be different, coming from the top down in a different way. It won’t carry the same weight. It’s also a matter of respect for their work. When we make decisions together, it’s important that I know what I’m talking about and stay up to date.

guests on sea ice expedition holidays svalbard
Guests on fast ice in the fjords of Svalbard photo tour
Hike on a glacier in Antarctica
Guiding on Captain Khlebnikov Mariano Curiel
Antarctica Air-Cruise Zodiac Glacier

I have several achievements that I’m proud of. I think my career can be divided into three significant phases: field guiding and operational management. From the field side, my greatest achievement was being recognized as a good guide by my peers and colleagues whom I respected. It took a lot of hard work and effort to earn my place, and that meant a lot to me. I believe it happened around 2008 or 2009, or maybe a bit later. If I have to bullet-point it will be when I made it to the Kaptain Khlebnikov Weddell Sea and the Ross Sea team in 2007/08 and 2008/09, something that for me felt like joining the elite of the fleet at that time. Those were the days working with my friend and mentor Jonas Wikander, from whom I learned most of what I had to offer in my early days as expedition leader.

A similar progression happened as an expedition leader, starting in the role in the Arctic in 2010. Besides the fact that to be there, we must be on a very solid level, there is always a path to follow. Leading teams in the field is a different game, and I feel that around 2014/15 when I reached my best and it was matched by the support from the teams on board Ocean Nova and Hebridean Sky, and perhaps a bit of wider industry recognition.

In regard to the operational management phase, I was fortunate to have been part of the team at Antarctica21, and I take immense pride in what we achieved together. Working alongside incredible individuals like Ben Jackson, Sandra Walser, Pernille Soegaard, Mike Hann, Loli Figueroa and many others, we built a strong team and fostered a remarkable culture. It fills me with honour to have contributed to something significant that continues to thrive and will endure for years to come.

From a personal perspective, there’s no single aspect that defines my love for this industry. It’s the opportunity to explore unique and uncharted places, often untouched by humans, that resonates deeply with me. Accessing these remote areas reminds me of the importance of respecting and preserving our environments. The extremes I encounter on a daily basis, from moments of pure joy to the toughest challenges, create a profound and transformative experience. It requires technical expertise, knowledge of the area, and above all, respect. And there’s an indescribable joy in sharing these discoveries with others. This constant sense of newness and unpredictability keeps my passion alive. Even after years in the industry, there are still moments that reignite my love for it all over again.

And now, perhaps entering a fourth phase, part owner of a company that is ready to shoot for the moon, however, with the feet on the ground, and able to add from the early stages to build something amazing.

The polar regions hold a special place in my heart, but it’s challenging to convey their essence to others. I remember struggling to capture my experiences through photos and videos when I returned from my first trips, realizing that the true magic could only be fully grasped by being there in person.

Indeed, the impact of these regions goes beyond the physical. It sparks a profound internal change within you. Transitioning back to civilization can be difficult because you see the world with a different perspective. This transformation affects people of all ages. As my grandfather, a captain, used to say, one day at sea is equivalent to three months at home when I was a child.

It’s an extraordinary and inexplicable experience that leaves a lasting impact. So much happens during that time, and you return as a different person, forever changed by the journey.

Marty Garwood, Mia Lundqvist, Mariano Curiel
Bear Eye lock Mariano Curiel

There have been so many incredible experiences, especially when it comes to wildlife encounters. I’ve had moments where I felt a deep connection with animals and experienced a profound sense of awe in the environment. One particular memory that stands out is when I had eye contact with a whale. It was a powerful and profound experience, as if we were communicating on a deeper level. Another memorable incident was when a penguin jumped onto a friend’s boat while being chased by orcas in Antarctica. It was a comical and exciting moment. In the Arctic, I had remarkable connections with birds and even locked eyes with a polar bear for a significant amount of time. The bear approached our ship and locked eyes with me for a long time. It was both extraordinary and intimidating. These encounters leave a lasting impact and remind me of the beauty and wonder of the natural world.

Greenland holds a special place in my heart. When I first visited in 2004, it opened my eyes to a completely different way of life. Over the years, I witnessed the transformation of the country and the embrace of its unique culture. I had profound conversations with locals, discussing topics like economy, nature, and the relationship between our societies. One memorable interaction was a three-hour conversation I had with a girl in Sisimiut. We sat on the street and delved into various subjects. These interactions enriched my understanding of the world and left a lasting impression.

Crossing Greenland was always a dream of mine, inspired by the history of exploration and figures like Nansen. I never thought it would be within reach, but as I prepared for my job as an expedition guide, I trained extensively in various terrains. During a polar training course on the east coast of Greenland, I had the opportunity to ski, camp, and navigate glaciers and sea ice. The conditions and mileage covered during that course made me realize that crossing the Greenland ice cap was more attainable than I initially thought.

The idea of crossing Greenland became more concrete when my friend David Berg obtained a permit for the crossing. We trained rigorously, and I even had to gain weight to endure the journey. The expedition itself was filled with challenges, including windstorms, cold temperatures, crevasses, and a significant amount of meltwater. We had to adapt and navigate through streams, open water, and rivers. Despite the obstacles, we persevered and completed the crossing in 26 and a half days. Looking back, it was an incredible journey filled with unforgettable moments and intense experiences.

Iceberg in Disko Bay by Chase Teron

When we encountered whiteouts, it was like walking in a foggy cloud with no visibility or depth perception. It was disorienting and challenging, as we couldn’t even see the ground beneath us. We had to be cautious with each step. It was mentally and physically demanding. Maintaining a positive mindset was crucial to prevent accidents or injuries. Personally, I developed strategies to stay engaged and avoid negative thoughts during those moments. Walking for long hours in such conditions took a toll on both the mind and body. Fatigue set in, but we understood the importance of the mind-body connection and staying focused to ensure our safety. Communication was limited while walking, as it required complete concentration. We walked in single file, with designated leaders guiding the way. It was a coordinated effort to stay on the right path.

My wife and I actually met while working on a ship. It’s quite a funny story. We were celebrating the end of the season on Ocean Nova after delivering a marathon in Antarctica, with some friends (Brandon, Tyler, Jill and Rob). Brandon actually filmed the first time I spoke to my now-wife, Loli, who was working as a chief purser on board the MV Minerva. The next day, when I went to the ship for embarking, she turned out to be the person who had to sign my contracts. She wouldn’t talk to me much at first, but then we connected during a stormy night when the ship lost engines and was making ice. Finally we talked, and after some minutes I told her that we were going to get married someday. She laughed. We now live in Patagonia, Argentina. It’s a beautiful wilderness area with mountains, lakes, and abundant wildlife. It’s also close to Antarctica, which was a significant factor for us when we were active on ships. We considered settling in places like Longyearbyen in Svalbard or Greenland, but ultimately decided to make Patagonia our home. We love it here.

We have two kids, our son just turned six today, and our daughter will be four in a couple of weeks. They’re our little adventurers, although we haven’t taken them to Antarctica yet. They’ve experienced other places and enjoyed seeing wildlife in Peninsula Valdes and other places. They’re already comfortable driving boats and kayaking for fun since we live near a lake. But bringing them on board ships while I’m working is challenging. Maybe one day they’ll follow in our footsteps and become guides themselves… or not, who knows. Justo wants to be a space-paleontogist and Maite a veterinarian.

Loli and Mariano in Antarctica
Loli and Mariano
Patagonia Mariano Curiel

If you join us on an expedition, I have one tip for you: Let the experience happen naturally. Don’t go with a strict bucket list or expectations. The polar regions will surprise you and give you a new perspective on life, society, and everything you thought you knew. Embrace the journey and let it unfold.

Meet Mariano

For a more personal connection and to stay updated with Mariano’s latest adventures, conservation efforts, and photographic endeavors, we encourage you to connect with him on Facebook or LinkedIn.

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