Couple turns eco-tours into ticket for travel

Juneau Color

Posted: Friday, February 16, 2001

Theresa Svancara and Jeff Sauer have turned their interests into jobs they love and a unique lifestyle.

The couple works up to eight months a year as naturalists giving lectures on board small, eco-tourism cruise ships all over the world. Their passports have few pages that haven't been stamped.

Don't be fooled by the amount of time they spend aboard ships. It takes a lot of time preparing their lectures and updating information on their numerous subject material, they said. But the reward is traveling to sun-drenched South Pacific islands and the frigid Antarctic and getting paid for it.

Svancara is interested in whales and other marine mammals. After getting hired, it was a natural that those were the subjects of her lectures. Sauer is a lawyer by trade, but always has been an avid bird watcher, he said. This became one of his lecture subjects. Another subject is history, including Arctic and Antarctic explorations and Capt. James Cook.

"I have a tremendous respect for teachers after doing this," Svancara said. Teachers have to come up with something new every day. All she has to do is develop 45-minute presentations on several different topics, which get repeated every few days, she said.

The pair spent years living parallel lives in Alaska before moving to Juneau about 11 years ago and were introduced by a mutual friend about a year later. Six years ago, they wanted to travel to Antarctica.

"I wanted to really experience it," Svancara said, which to her meant seeing the bottom of the world more than once. A job on a small cruise ship seemed the answer, but getting one of those jobs isn't easy.

"It's very competitive," Svancara said. Their first job was for a Canadian company cruising to Greenland. (They were married before they left.) They took the job, thinking rightly that they could work their way to the Antarctic. Svancara and Sauer have since been to Antarctica about 25 times, and to about 60 countries.

"That's nothing compared to some of our passengers," Sauer said. Some passengers belong to the "century club" for people who have visited 100 "countries." Some places, such as Alaska and Hawaii, are counted as countries because of their geographic or ethnic differences from the parent country.

Svancara and Sauer's lifestyle is possible because they don't have any children or animals to care for, they said.

You might think Juneau is far removed from South American embarkation points, but it is an ideal place to have a home base, Theresa said.

"Juneau is a great place to do research from because of a great library system," she said.

And Juneau's winters and rain are conducive to spending time indoors researching subjects.

The couple has become well known to some of the city's librarians.

"When they're in town, they're (at the Douglas Library) a lot," said Carol Race, a librarian who works evenings in Douglas.

"It's just amazing how much information they get together," she said. "They definitely do their homework for their job."

It takes a special type of personality to do the job, she said.

"To be good at this, you kind of need to be an entertainer," Svancara said.

You also have to enjoy people because passengers stop you on board to ask questions all the time, they said.

While on ship, life is busy. On the Antarctica trips, it's a two-day journey from the southern end of South America to the tip of Antarctica. Sauer gives several lectures on sea birds, penguins and exploration history. Svancara lectures on marine mammals and plants, she says jokingly. The plant lecture is short there are only two flowering plants on the continent.

Once there, they run passengers back and forth on small boats to different landing spots, then act as guides and naturalists while on shore.

The pay isn't much, Sauer said, but it is relatively easy to keep their costs down. Food is paid for on their trips, and their on-board cabin provides a roof over their heads. "They even do your laundry," Sauer said.

The employer pays for travel to and from the embarkation point. They rent out their house while gone. That works well since they are gone most summers and normally during the legislative session, two times when it is relatively easy to rent their small downtown Douglas home, Sauer said. And they don't pay for vacations. All they have to do is go to an assignment early or stay after to go backpacking, kayaking, or some other activity.

"Our vacation is to be home," Sauer said.

The couple is giving a presentation on a recent 19-week around-the-world trip at 7 tonight at the Douglas Public Library. Jeff Sauer is scheduled to give a presentation on penguins 7 p.m. Feb. 27 at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School.

Mike Hinman can be reached at

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