To the Ends of the Earth: The Extraordinary Adventures of Henry Cookson
When we speak to Henry Cookson from his base in Corfu, he’s got a bit of a dilemma on his hands. “Burning Man has just been cancelled,” he tells us. “Now we have a client who wants an alternative, so we’re in the process of recreating the festival somewhere else. Somewhere dry, scenic and impactful, and a place we can cram in a lot of adventure too.”
An obstacle like this is just one of many thrown at the founder of the world’s leading ultra-luxury experiential travel specialists, Cookson Adventures, on a regular basis – “We never have a boring day,” he tells us – but when you’re planning one-of-a-kind adventures to the most remote corners of the globe for the world’s elite, it’s hardly surprising.
A daring adventurer, world-record holder (he was among the first people to reach the exact centre of the Antarctic by foot in 2006) and a passionate environmentalist, Henry uncovers his proudest life moments, his penchant for adventure travel and how it feels to continually make the impossible possible.
Tell us about your background and what led you to found Cookson Adventures...
I developed a love for the ocean from a very young age. My parents owned a travel company in Greece, and I’d spend more time under the water than above it when I used to visit during the summers. There was a bay by their plot of land where lots of big, fancy yachts used to moor, and I’d sit and watch them from a very young age. I specifically remember Lady Moura being there, which back in the day was, and still is, an unbelievable yacht.
While I went into banking after university, the six months prior I spent out in Kenya working as a guide on a horse riding safari was a turning point for me. It started an itch that was too difficult to ignore, so in my mid to late 20s I quit my job and, even though I had no previous experience of extreme weather, ended up forming a team for the Polar Challenge – a 350 nautical mile ski race to the Magnetic North Pole, high up in the Canadian Arctic. Think -30 degrees, dragging your own equipment by sled, polar bear encounters etc – it was the real deal! We even smashed the record by two days, which still stands today.
As my penchant for adventure grew, we set out on even more grueling expeditions, including one to the Pole of Inaccessibility – the most remote point on the continent. We were rewarded with an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records as the first travellers to visit by foot, and while my teammates went back to their normal lives, I was left wanting more.
Henry Cookson Guide was formed following a stint in Alaska, and quickly expanded to African safaris and boating trips in the Med. Now as Cookson Adventures, we’ve got a team of 17 based in London and we provide these experiences all over the world, both on land and at sea.
What was the first expedition you organised when you founded Cookson Adventures?
It was sea kayaking around Glacier Bay in Alaska, where we lived off few supplies, fended off bears and witnessed crashing icebergs falling into the sea. It was here, in the middle of nowhere, that this great big superyacht showed up, MY Laurel, and she was simply dwarfed by the size of nature. It was then that I realised you could take yachts beyond the Med and into new, undiscovered places.
Personally, what is your favourite expedition?
It’s a tossup between Galapagos and Antarctica. When we first went to the Antarctic in 2006, we really changed the perception of how clients should use their yachts. In the past, they would simply see them as glorified cruise ships – guests would arrive, get off the yacht, explore and then get back on. Instead, we were the first people ever to take two submersibles there plus dual helicopters that allowed us to go further inland. That really sets our ethos about how we do things – land-based trips intertwined with superyachts. It gives a whole different perspective and quite frankly, it’s unbeatable.
How do you ensure all your expeditions are environmentally friendly?
Conservation and good practices have been part of Cookson Adventures since the beginning – I truly believe they heighten your experiences. A big part of this is educating our clients – they are the ones who have the resources to make genuine change, so when we open their eyes to the fact that they are so lucky to see these areas that might not be here in the future, that in itself is a conservation push.
We also make sure we always audit trips for their carbon offset. And we don’t just trade with credits – we plant trees, and we’ve even bought land in the Solomon Islands to actively conserve and preserve.
Reducing our plastic consumption is also important, so we bring in named and individual drinking dispensers for all clients, and also get crew to think about how they can use less packaging. The more this is done in the industry, the more it spreads and hopefully, eventually, it will become the norm. Superyachts are at the pinnacle of the travel tree, and I strongly believe they do need to be held to account in having very strict and robust methods of reducing their impact.
Who is the Cookson client?
The Cookson client is extremely diverse and comes from the four corners of the world. While the average age is late-40s to mid-50s, they can be as young as mid-20s, and we also have a 90 year old gentleman we look after. They are multi-generational too, and not everyone is an adrenaline junkie, wildlife fanatic or scuba diver, so we need to ensure we have the ability to offer numerous different experiences.
What is the scope of your services?
Prepare for a long answer here! Of course there’s the technical side of things – the safety, abiding by the local regulations, arranging the permits etc. That goes without saying, and while it can be quite a robust and onerous process, we have been doing them for years and are well adept.
We then have our expedition services where we bring in that added edge of creativity. The people who work for us come from all different backgrounds – some have rowed the Atlantic, others have been in the military, we have event planners and people who have worked in the BBC production teams. They look at a country or place and say: “This is what everyone else does, so how can we do it differently?”
No one expedition is the same. One day we might be planning a round the world sabbatical for a family who are taking their children out of school, so we help with the tutors, arrange educational programmes with the locals and explore conservation initiatives. The next we will be helping a group of young philanthropists with family foundations inspecting grass route conservation organisations all around the world. We manage a seven-man submersible for a family and we’ve helped a client who wanted to ride around the world on a horse.
Elsewhere we curate bespoke cruising guides and host all our yachting trips, acting as chief explorers to make sure the clients are being catered to the highest standards, while also feeding them interesting information about their destination. You name it, we do it. You never know what’s coming through the door.
Where do you get your best ideas from?
We are a hub of creativity at Cookson, and lucky that most of our clients have a thirst for adventure and want to get off the beaten track. Yet while most have been to amazing places, they haven’t necessarily explored them in a way we would deem suitable – that’s when we can get brainstorming and come up with ideas depending on their preferences and dates. We don’t generally have specific destination requests, so we draw a circle on the map and work our magic. We then build our trips through discussion with teammates and the clients. We’re constantly looking for new ideas.
Can you talk us through some of your ‘world first’ experiences?
Sure! Aside from the submersibles in the Antarctic, we arranged a very notable trip to the Galapagos where we got access to areas that hadn’t previously been granted before. It involved a very long multi-year negotiation which was routed in a conservation project, assets and funding, but we were able to give an experience to the client that was second to none.
We’ve organised submersible dives that led to the discovery of a Roman shipwreck and coral species thought to be extinct in southern Italy, organised funding for rhino rehabilitation in one of Kenya’s most important conservancies, Ol Jogi Conservancy, and became the first travel company to manage a rare seven-seater submersible and, with that, launched our partnership with Seabed 2030 which aims to have all of the ocean floor mapped by the end of the decade. Watch this space for more to come!
Which region is most popular with your clients?
While Antarctica is highly requested, we’re seeing a lot more interest in Greenland and Svalbard. We’ve also done some really world-class trips to The Solomon Islands, as well as the east coast of Africa. Patagonia is always one that people love too – it’s got a mystique and romance to it that’s hard to find elsewhere, and has really great cruising grounds. If funds allow, it’s a place you need the capability to strike in land too, as it has so much to give.
How popular are your Educational Journeys proving?
They are getting more and more popular as we see a marked increase of people wanting to go on family sabbaticals. Of course, the education aspect is extremely important, and it’s not necessarily things you can learn in a classroom. On a family yacht trip to the Antarctic, we funded research into killer whales and ended up discovering an unidentified type of killer whale. It was thanks to the family’s kind and generous donation we were able to identify a previously unknown three-ton mammal, taking education to a whole new level.
How do you manage your client expectations?
Well I have been known to do a few rain dances in the past! Jokes aside, these days the weather is far more unpredictable and it’s something you have to open every conversation with. Climate crisis is real and it is here. I’ve seen it by revisiting the Antarctic and Alaska – glaciers that were once robust have now virtually disappeared in less than 12 years. That’s our biggest concern when trip planning, but luckily we have a robust framework that allows for contingencies, and we have funds put aside so we can react to unexpected changes if needs be.
And while it’s also hard to guarantee wildlife behaviour, we work with scientists and experts and try to pre-plan. Remember there are always options, too – if the jaguar isn’t coming out to hunt its prey, we can go and see the giant river otters instead.
What expedition trends do you predict to be popular going forward?
We’re definitely seeing a massive increase in the popularity of remote destinations. I’ve been banging my drum for years now – the Caribbean will be there whenever you want it, but it’s a vast world out there. These remote places are getting busier too, so there’s no time like the present. Post Covid, seeing our precious world is more of a priority, and we already have a few families looking to do sabbaticals, including two or three year trips for which we will be planning exciting itineraries. At the end of the day, yachts are built for the experiences they can offer – it’s what’s outside and around you that makes or breaks your trip, and the yacht is just the bubble you retreat back to.
Is there anywhere left on your personal bucket list?
Plenty of places, but the Marshall Islands are at the top. The area is so pristine and remote, and the marine life is second to none, but it's a huge commitment to a client as getting a yacht in there is difficult. It’s safe now, but it’s actually where they did nuclear testing back in the sixties. We have researched and planned a trip there in the past, but in the end our client couldn’t commit the time.
What’s in the pipeline going forward for Cookson Adventures?
We’re busy. Covid means we still have to be flexible and we have a lot of clients who are on pause but everything is ready to go. It’s a really exciting time for us though - we’ve just employed three more people and are looking to bring in another two in the next month or so. We’re definitely growing!