Kerrie... botanising!

Tour Leader Spotlight: Kerrie Porteous

Sara Frost
By Sara Frost
Website & Media Manager
20th January 2021
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For our first tour leader interview of 2021, the spotlight shines back into the Naturetrek HQ where we join Operations Manager, and tour leader, Kerrie Porteous...

When and how did your interest in wildlife begin?

Like so many of our tour leaders, I had a strong interest in wildlife from a young age, though I’d say mine was a much more general interest in the natural world – at school I loved learning about volcanoes and genetics as much as I did about animal behaviour and ecology – rather than specifically in natural history. I applied to study Biochemistry at university, though by the time I’d finished my A-levels and got to the start of the course I’d already decided to change to straight Biology, and it was the alpine ecology field course set in the Austrian Alps during my second year that cemented my love of natural history and opened my eyes to the wonders of alpine botany!

Kerrie, with husband Sam, recceing in the Austrian Alps - October 2019

When and where did you lead your first tour for Naturetrek?

I joined Naturetrek in 2012 and just two weeks later the co-leader for our ‘Realm of the Iberian Lynx’ tour in southern Spain had to pull out at very short notice. Andy (our General Manager) asked if I was up for the challenge, and I absolutely was! I joined a wonderful, enthusiastic group and Byron Palacios who was the tour leader, for 5 days of searching for the Iberian Lynx in Coto Donana and Andalucia, along with some fabulous birding and some delicious Spanish cuisine. Byron still comments on my ‘sizeable’ appetite even now. I was rather thrown in the deep-end, but I loved it, and learnt so much. And, to cap it all off, on our second morning, just after dawn, we managed to spot the Lynx!

What is, or was, your day job?

I’m one of Naturetrek’s Operations Managers, so day to day I’m responsible for organising and running our tours to such diverse countries as Switzerland, Sweden, Madagascar, Ethiopia, The Gambia… and many more. I also lead our sustainability committee (we have all sorts of projects underway), work on our PR, and find myself involved in all manner of projects that do tend to crop up when you work for a thriving independent tour operator! I’ve also led our tours to Madagascar, a country I know really well having spent 3 months there working on a conservation project shortly after I finished university, and over the years have co-led our tours to all sorts of destinations including Sweden, the Maldives (what a gig!), Slovenia and the Seychelles. These days I have more responsibility in the office and a young family at home, so getting out tour leading is a very rare treat for me, but I still manage to travel a fair bit and most recently have enjoyed recceing some new ‘Go Slow’ tours to the likes of Austria and Greece. Essentially, (except when in lockdown…), no two days are ever the same, and I love my busy and diverse role.

What other interests do you have outside of wildlife?

I think a lot of people with small children will recognise something familiar in my answer to this one – there are interests that I had ‘BC’ (before children) that I’d love to get back into, but sadly they just don’t work with life right now! My husband and I love singing and used to be members of our local festival choir… but that bit the dust a few years ago along with my wild swimming, skiing, scuba diving and running careers! I love sewing and have enjoyed a lot of clothes making during the various lockdowns over the last year. I love also music – both playing the piano and listening to music – and going to shows and concerts.

What current conservation projects or issues most concern you?

I’m always worried about Madagascar. It’s a country close to my heart, having spent a good deal of time there, re-visited with Naturetrek and now I operate our tours there each year. There have been some success stories over the years – like the reintroduction of the Madagascar Pochard (read up on it if you don’t know the full story – it’s heart-warming stuff!) – but there’s still a huge amount of habitat destruction occurring and I imagine this has only got worse over the last year. Tourism has played an incredibly important role in conserving the remaining fragments of forest in Madagascar, giving the people that live in and around the national parks and wildlife reserves a livelihood and, most importantly, a real vested interest in protecting the rare, often endemic species that live there. I just hope we are able to return very soon.
Kerrie in Slovenia - June 2013
Kerrie falling in love with a (rescued) Black-and-White Ruffed Lemur in Madagascar, Nov 2012

Do you have a favourite bird, mammal or plant?

Yes to all of those! I have loved Eider Ducks since I was a child! They are beautiful and I love the way they sound like they are gossiping with each other. I’m always happy to see a flock of Eiders. In terms of a favourite mammal, well it has to be a lemur, and my favourite is the Black-and-White Ruffed Lemur which you can find in the eastern rainforest reserves of Madagascar. They look gorgeous, but I also like that they are that bit harder to find than many of the other species (generally staying higher in the trees and deeper in the forest), so it’s all the more exciting when you do spot them. You have to follow the pig-like grunts to track them down! And then in terms of plants, I love the European Alps in the spring time and indulging in some alpine botany. For me, nothing beats wandering slowly down a mountain path high in the Swiss Alps, with the sound of cow bells jingling all around, and the recently-exposed turf dotted with gentians, primulas, ranunculus, pasque flowers and more. Utter bliss.

What is your most memorable wildlife encounter to date?

I’ve always been a keen swimmer, scuba-diver and snorkeller, and I love snorkelling over tropical reefs. One wildlife encounter that really sticks out is when my husband and I were on our honeymoon in the Maldives, and during the briefing ahead of an early morning dive it was casually mentioned that the site had a Manta Ray cleaning station, so seeing Mantas was perhaps a possibility. We were told in such a low-key manner that I didn’t really think we’d see any, but just 5 minutes into the dive our guide was signalling for us to lie quietly on the sand at the bottom of the dive site. Sure enough, seconds later, these incredible, HUGE Manta Rays were suddenly circling over our heads. I remember just grabbing my husband’s hand in excitement… there’s not much more you can do when you are underwater but I definitely got though my air pretty quickly for the next couple of minutes! I was lucky enough to return to the Maldives to co-lead our Naturetrek cruise the following year and visited many more incredible coral reefs, converted most of the group into obsessive fish-spotters, and delighted in watching a Manta Ray barrel-rolling off the back of our boat at night!

What do you enjoy most about leading tours?

I do, of course, love seeing the amazing wildlife that each of our tours has to offer, but as tour leading is a fairly rare treat for me now, it’s also lovely just to be able to spend time with our clients and to get out in the field. Joining a tour as a co-leader is a great opportunity for me to see what’s working well, find out what our clients would like us to organise next, catch up with our local guides, and make sure my own knowledge of the country and the tour in question is bang up to date.

What are you reading at the moment?

During lockdown 1.0 I decided it was the ideal time to read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which I’d started a couple of years earlier but quickly lost the plot on which Thomas was which. With time to give it the attention it requires and deserves, I raced through it and then quickly binge read Bring Up The Bodies too. It was, however, probably a mistake to move straight onto the third in the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, which is a mighty tome of a book. I now find myself stuck a third of the way in. I’ve decided to pause and read a couple of lighter novels, and no doubt by the time I go back to it I will have forgotten which Thomas is which and will have to start again… and again. Oh well – I have time at the moment!

What new destinations would you like to visit next?

I am really desperate to get to Spitsbergen! It’s my dream destination, and I am determined to sneak my way onto our ‘Realm of the Polar Bear’ cruise one day. The stunning icy vistas, the incredible wildlife, 24 hour sunlight and the possibility of a quick polar dip in the sea absolutely appeals to me!