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Women Explorers: Heidi Norling

Don’t regret the opportunities you didn’t take—at least try. No dream is too big and you can do so much more than you think!

Heidi Norling, Captain, National Geographic Orion

A series of firsts

Heidi is the first woman to captain a Lindblad Expeditions’ ship. Her CV is a series of firsts, including her first encounter with Lindblad Expeditions. While working to get her Master’s Certificate in 2005, she served aboard National Geographic Endeavour for six weeks, cruising the British Isles and the Norwegian coast. She “absolutely loved” being close to wild and remote nature, and she was entranced with the idea that the ship anchored while the guests were shuttled ashore in Zodiacs.

Heidi’s connection to the sea began in the Stockholm archipelago, where, as a young teenager, she sailed a 25-ft. boat with her father. She studied the charts. Her father told her it wasn’t necessary since they were in familiar home waters. And then they ran aground. When her father subsequently attended an evening course for basic navigation (good role-modeling of humility, Heidi’s Dad!!), Heidi joined too.


Heidi trained at the Merchant Marine Academy in Kalmar, 400 km south of Stockholm, where she lives today. Her first four years were as a cadet aboard Swedish cargo ships sailing to the Great Lakes, the North Sea, the Baltic, the Mediterranean, and the Mexican Gulf. Short time in the ports offered bits of opportunities to go ashore, discover, and feed her desire to explore more.


Heidi's first opportunity to be Captain was on a ferry charter in the Northern Baltic Sea between Sweden and Finland. The charter afforded challenges like navigating in ice, since none of the harbours had any ice-breaker assistance—clearly essential for her eventual polar exploring. And when she discovered the joys of cruising after being a guest on a small sailing ship in French Polynesia, the transition to expedition-style travel was inevitable.


She worked on the Hanse Explorer for three years in cold waters, then transitioned to warm waters aboard the cruise ship Tere Moana, where she got to transit the Panama Canal 22 times. Between engagements, she consistently returned to Gotland—where one day she saw National Geographic Orion at the dock in Visby. She thought: that’s my dream ship.


As evidence that dreams do come true, Heidi received a call from Captain Martin Graser a few months later asking if she would be interested in a short contract as Staff Captain/Chief officer, sailing from Bordeaux to Lisbon, and then repositioning the ship down to Punta Arenas for a few cruises to Antarctica.


That contract, another in the South Pacific—and now, Heidi is scoring a big first: as the proud, and very capable, captain of National Geographic Orion.


What she’s looking forward to most is unknown waters: the discoveries she’ll make navigating National Geographic Orion into Alaska and the Russian Far East, among other destinations. It should be fun for the lucky guests who are booked on these sold-out voyages!

We asked Heidi Norling:

Why do you explore?

I never travelled much as a child, just sailing with a childhood friend in the Stockholm archipelago in the summers. When studying to be a navigational officer, I loved visiting different countries, meeting other people and cultures, seeing different landscapes, hearing other languages, eating other foods! And still do! It’s fascinating and exciting! And the more you see, the more there is to discover...


What is your favorite Lindblad destination?

Antarctica. For the bright nights, stunning ice formations and amazing wildlife. The ever-changing ice and weather conditions always makes this place exciting.


What is the dream exploration you haven’t done…yet? 

As much as I love the sea, my dream exploration is a safari in Africa. The wild animals fascinate me and I would love to see them at a closer distance.


What’s your advice for the next generation of women explorers?

Go for it! If you have a chance to follow your dream— do it! Don’t regret the opportunities you didn’t take—at least try. No dream is too big and you can do so much more than you think!