Monday, December 29, 2014

Day 12 – Land Ahead!

The morning sun glistened on the deep blue waters of the Chilean coast.  In the distance, Cape Horn rose up out of the sea silently observing our navigation.  For the first time in days, we were able to take to the deck and enjoy the scenery, pausing to make images of the hovering albatross and the stoic mountains in the distance.

Reflection in this moment is unavoidable and I begin to wonder how this experience has changed me as a person.  My reasons for coming on this voyage seem as distant as the land itself, and I am profoundly aware of a new motivation for being here.  Slowly I realize that the lessons Antarctica taught me were less about science, nature, facts and figures, and more about the communication of ideas and information.  

On this voyage, we have experienced many forms of communication.  Penguins, whales, and seals communicate with each other through body language and vocalizations.  Naturalists communicate with each other using technical language that gives specific information about the various components of ecosystems.  Glaciers, icebergs, and mountains communicate with us through our interpretation of their multiple layers  and unique features.  Photographers communicate time and place through the images they make.  Guests aboard the ship use language to make conversation and process the events of each day.  

Communication is all around us.

As teachers, our job is to take these grandiose concepts, these foreign concepts, and find ways to communicate our experience to our students.  Through community outreach, we will also have opportunities to convey information to a wider range of people in the field of education—administrators, professors, pre-service teachers, and community leaders.  The challenge becomes one of effectively using language to bring this experience to life for people who are so far removed from it that it seems impossible to understand.

How can we use language to pique the interest of our students and other community members so that they feel connected to the natural world around us and invested in the future of our planet?  How can the art of language help us paint pictures in people’s minds so that they authentically care about our environment?  What role does rhetoric and persuasive language play in convincing policy makers and entrepreneurs to consider ecological sustainability in their decision-making processes?

These questions, and more, begin to rise like mountains out of the ocean.

Seemingly insurmountable, the complications of personal agendas, economic decision-making, political tides, and the rigidity of traditional ways of thinking and being, are the next mountains to climb.  The culture where I live is generally oriented toward the safety and comfort of routine and linear thinking.  We tend to approach life in a conventional way; from birth to death, we spend our lifetimes functioning in the unnatural predictability of societal expectations. 

While all of these cultural norms are fine and good--even, in some respects, profound and life-changing--they can be very distracting from the purity of living a human existence.  Of connecting with the world around us, with nature, with our own selves, of growing from discomfort and welcoming change as a way to revitalize and rejuvenate.

Upon returning, I know I will be asked the question, “So what did you take away from your experience in Antarctica?” 

The answer:  It’s not what I “took away” from the experience; it is what I decided to leave behind.

I left behind conventional ways of approaching academic topics.

I left behind notions of disconnect between the arts and the sciences.

I left behind the fear of divergent thinking.

And I left behind the illusion of comfort in predictability and routine.

As with any profound travel experience, Antarctica has challenged me to learn and grow in ways I never thought possible.  It has pushed me beyond my comfort zone, away from the warmth of home and my daily life, relocating me to the furthest reaches of the earth.  In this isolation, I discovered a deep personal connection to the land of Antarctica, to the wildlife that calls this place home, and to the greater ecosystem that operates locally and globally.

The memories of this adventure will last a lifetime, and I anticipate that the friendships forged aboard this ship will also endure that long.  It is my hope that somehow you, as well, have been changed; inspired perhaps to be your best self, discover new horizons, or seek out avenues for creativity and innovation in your own locale.

The trip may be over, but the journey is never done.  With Antarctica behind me, my gaze shifts ahead, in search of the next big adventure, the next challenge, and the next horizon.

Thank you for accompanying me on this expedition.  I look forward to our continued conversations about life, nature, and the human experience.

Until our paths serendipitously cross again…enjoy the journey!
Cape Horn, Chile
Photo by: Rodolfo Werner

Sei Whale Underwater - Approximately 40 Feet Long
A Rare Sighting of a Group of Sei Whales!

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Day 11 - Storytelling Aboard the Ship

Today was a day at sea; it was also a day for storytelling on the ship.  With the Drake Passage again unnaturally calm, we were able to sit fairly comfortably in the lounge as our naturalists used their photographs, videos, and sound recordings to tell us about their lifes’ adventures.

The ship doctor, Dean, began the day with the story of his adventures on the continental mainland studying Emperor penguins and being attacked by a leopard seal.  He showed us breathtaking images of these giant birds as they marched single file to the sea to go foraging for food.  Typical of penguins, the lead penguin usually scopes out the scene looking for potential threats in the water.  Sometimes they are the first to take the plunge, and sometimes, they trick their fellow penguins into jumping first so they can see if it really is safe.  In the video Dean showed us, the lead penguin did just that—looked around, went to jump in, reconsidered the decision, and slid off to the side to let the others go first.  Later in the expedition, the doctor learned first-hand just how dangerous it is to stand close to an opening in the ice as a leopard seal leapt out and attacked him while he was standing on the ice.  Fortunately, he lived to tell the tale, but frightening, nonetheless.

The next person to share his adventures was Eric.  Nicknamed the “Ice Man” (or “Snowflake,” depending on who’s introducing him), Eric spends a lot of his time investigating glaciers and caves found under the ice.  His video showed us his hiking and camping in Refugio del Viento in Argentina exploring ice caves and making beautiful images of light in the ice.  He says, “The history, the story of ice, is a pretty intriguing one.”

At dinner, Alberto shared his stories of traveling through the Amazon leading an expedition of English-speaking tourists into an indigenous town where he was able to make arrangements with the women of the area, who are not accustomed to feeling empowered or valued, to teach the tourists how to make handmade textiles.  His bilingual and multicultural skills, he says, were imperative to being able to facilitate this experience of cultural exchange between the two groups of people.  Later, he kindly retold the story as I recorded an interview with him to show my students about the power of being bilingual.

Next up was Gabriela, who taught us about the First Nations people of Tierra del Fuego – the Yahgan people.  Referred to locally as the Yamana people (Yamana meaning “I am alive/I am a human being”), these people evolved from nomadic people around 9000 years ago and were discovered in the mid-1800’s when the explorer Magellan found the area now known as the Strait of Magellan.  The Yahgan people were native to the area of Ushuaia, and traveled around via canoe in search of seals to eat and places to stay.  Afraid of the peoples living further inland, the Yahgan would build wigwams on the shores relocating frequently.  The captivating fact about these people’s lifestyle is that they wore very little clothing.  This is amazing mainly because the weather in Ushuaia can be variable and often cold.  The chose to do this, however, as a means of self-protection—so that they wouldn’t drown if they fell in the water and so that they could avoid being chilled by water splashing up in the canoes and soaking into their clothing  In the absence of modern water-proof outerwear, being naked was the only alternative.

The presentations ended with Andy, who has spent the past several years investigating humpback whales in Alaska.  Through images and sound recordings, he painted a picture in our minds about the unique cultural attributes of these immense sea creatures.  His research involves learning more about these behaviors as well as the feeding and migratory patterns of whales.  The Alaska Whale Foundation, his non-profit organization, is charged with analyzing and providing input on how we can create systems for maintaining a healthy balance of whales in our ecosystem.

The night ended with a viewing of the show “Chasing Shackleton,” documenting the adventures of a group of British men who attempted to recreate the famous Shackleton expedition and survival.

Tomorrow we are scheduled to dock in Ushuaia, visit a museum and tour the town.  If we are lucky, we will have some time for socializing at the local establishments there!

Unfortunately, I have no pictures to share today.  Saving the best for last, I guess!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Day 10 – Our Final Day in Antarctica

As fate would have it, the four of us ended up in our own zodiac for the ride out to our last landing at Jougla Point in the Melchior Islands this morning.  The feeling was bittersweet knowing that this would be the last time we would set foot in Antarctica, and we chatted about how quickly time seems to have gone by.

We landed and walked around the Gentoo penguin colony there, stopping to observe the highlight of the location—a giant whale skeleton on shore.  A few of us were also able to catch sight of a few baby blue-eyed shags on this site.

Back into the zodiac we went for our trip around the island to our official final stop, Port Lockroy.  This British research facility has been in operation since the 1950’s, when it was originally created as a military surveillance area.  The staff in this outpost spend their summers here maintaining the area, reapplying coats of weather-resistant paint and cleaning up the space, as well as collecting data about penguins.  We toured the museum on-site, learning about how the original visitors to this area lived during their stay here.  It also serves as the southernmost gift/souvenir shop in the world, and a drop off point for mailing postcards from Antarctica.

The highlight of this location was the baby penguins, which was such a cute way to end this part of the trip!

In the afternoon we took a cruise around the Gerlache Strait looking for whales.  Out in the sparkling blue waters, we discovered a family of three humpback whales playing and diving along the surface.  Without a large camera lens it is difficult to catch them in action, and so I made a few images of their tails flipping in the water.

We also spent some time working with some middle school student on board the ship.  Lindblad Expeditions has hired staff for this expedition to serve as naturalists and as teachers in the “Young Explorers” program here.  Since many students are being pulled out of school for this extended holiday, their schools often will excuse their absences if they can provide evidence of their learning.  We led an activity that involved identifying all of the marine mammals we had seen on our expedition and gave the students time to reflect and journal about their experience here in Antarctica.

Working with these students helped me visualize what learning will look like in my own classroom when I return.  Having been a participant, myself, in this learning experience has reinforced my assertion that integrated, field-based education is the most powerful form of education, and I am envisioning the unit I will create from this experience. 

In my classroom, I envision recreating this entire expedition, to the extent possible.  I want to use videos, interviews, photos, and various kinds of text to take students to Antarctica. 

My first thought is to create a unit in which students are sent out “on assignment” to a natural environment in our own neighborhood to collect data, make observations, and design research questions that involve making a connection between an aspect of our environment at home and the Antarctic polar ecosystem.  

My goal is to get student thinking globally about how our world is interconnected and that there are unifying themes between local ecosystem issues and the polar ecosystem.  They will then act as investigative journalists who have to present their findings for an audience that is not necessarily familiar with their topics.  The challenge of making complicated issues comprehensible to the average person is an assessment of how well the students understand the concepts.

Just like our naturalists give presentations in “The Circle of Truth”, a round presentation station in the middle of the ship’s lounge, my students will have to investigate a topic, collect observations and data, synthesize information, and draw conclusions that they will then present to a larger audience.  This would serve as an authentic way to evaluate their learning.

The unit is far from written, but the boat has begun to rock, the shore has disappeared, and I must retire to my cabin for some much-needed rest while we once again cross the Drake Passage.  The long trip back will provide me plenty of time to further design the curriculum I am beginning to envision.

At Port Lockroy -- With a penguin on my head!
Photo by: Nina Page


Humpback Whale Watching

Friday, December 26, 2014

Day 9 - It's Snowing!

Hard to believe but the continent of Antarctica is actually classified as a desert.  Although it is home to the world’s largest fresh water reservoir--trapped inside glaciers and icebergs--Antarctica gets very little actual precipitation.  Today, for the first time, however, it actually snowed at our landing in Dorian Bay--and not just any little light snow, either, we had fluffy, wet snowflakes…perfect for building snowmen!

Dorian Bay used to serve as a British and Argentine outposts complete with a runway area for aircraft, but it has been long-abandoned as the area no longer serves as a refuge for explorers.  We toured a small cabin that was refurbished to illustrate what life was like for researchers who lived here.  Close quarters for a small group of people!

Hiking up to the Gentoo penguin colonies in this area was more difficult than the other sites due to the fresh snow.  In our attempt to create “People Highways,” many of us found ourselves stuck knee-deep in the powder (a situation called “post-holeing”).  We were instructed to cover our post-holes as much as possible so that the penguins did not get stuck in them and so we could leave the continent as pristine as we could for other visitors.

As if watching people struggle through snow isn’t entertaining enough, have you ever seen a penguin trying to walk up a hill in fresh snow?  It’s actually kind of comical…and for those of us penguin-lovers, it kind of makes you feel bad for the little guys.  Their legs are so short that they waddle as well as they can with their flippers stretched out and held back, occasionally tumbling beak-first into the snow.  Undaunted, they pick themselves up, shake off the snow, and continue on their journey.  When they get really tired, they plop down on their bellies and either scuttle across the snow using their wings as flippers, or they just lie there waiting for another burst of energy. 

After observing the little Gentoos for a good hour as the snow came blowing in sideways, thick and white,  we returned to the ship and attended a presentation about Ernest Shackleton and his adventures here in Antarctica.  The bravery of our early explorers is respectable, and I am interested in studying him even more now that I have been here myself.  Our expedition vessel is equipped with all the amenities—including INTERNET!  With minimal equipment, he and his people pioneered explorations of this great continent.

Speaking of the continent, I forgot to mention that earlier today we finally walked on the continental mainland at our landing in Neko Harbour!  Up to this point, we had only toured the waterways and hiked on various islands, and so this was it! 

On this landing in Neko  Harbour, one of our naturalists did some maintenance on a camera that he and some other naturalists have placed there as part of a project in which they are surveying a glacier in the harbour.  The camera is fixed to take pictures of the same glacier every hour of every day and has been running since January of this year.  He put the images into a time-lapse video and we were able to see how the glacier flows and changes throughout the season.  Similar to how lava flows from a volcano, this glacier, ever so slowly, had snow crumble and avalanche, extending one side into the water of the Harbour during the winter months and retreating back during the summer months as snow melted, calved off of the glacier, and dropped into the ocean to become icebergs.

The way that water cycles and flows here is a phenomenon that I would like to study further.  Having learned about glaciers from books in elementary school, I have a rudimentary understanding of them.  Without the context, without actually seeing them, hearing them rumble and calve off (sounds like thunder), and without being able to analyze the layers first-hand or look at the beautiful colors and crevasses in these immense sheets of snow and ice, I had nothing to pique my interest in the topic.  In many ways, I’m sure my students feel the same way.

A major component of this professional development that I will take back to my classroom is the first-hand experience of having been introduced to glaciology (and several other areas) by people who are passionate experts about the topic.  Because of their enthusiasm and knowledge, I now feel prepared to dig deeper into this area of study.  I especially think that not having a strong background in environmental sciences helped me approach this study from a na├»ve perspective, which led me to ask the basic questions students might ask.  I was truly a student of the teachers on this expedition.

It seems simple, but this experience has caused me to consider the most important aspects of teaching and learning. 

I was able to learn from this opportunity because I know HOW to learn.  I know how to ask questions and wonder about the world around me.  Because I am curious and because I have the ability to make connections from this “foreign” topic to "familiar" topics (eg. connections between science and social studies or math and the arts—think back to the “scaling” conversation from yesterday’s blog), I am able to process and synthesize all of this information.  This reinforces the belief that teaching largely involves helping students learn how to learn and inspiring them to become lifelong learners so that they can continue on their journeys seeking information on their own. 

My skills in language arts are also helping me retain all of this information as I maintain this blog—partly to inform readers, partly to remind myself, and mostly to model for my students the power of journaling.  When I return to my classroom, this blog will become a text that students will use as a model for writing about learning and for writing about experience.

Let’s be honest.  This blog is also my way of writing for pleasure as well.   Being able to put creative spins or touches on the serious topics we are investigating is the highlight of my day. 

Thank you for providing an audience for whom I can write.  Knowing that you are reading this motivates me to keep going and to write clearly and concisely—to translate this intense experience into words that convey important ideas and bring you along on this journey.

Tomorrow marks our final landing here in Antarctica.  I am looking forward to one more opportunity to take you with me on this adventure before we return to the open waters of the Drake Passage.


Weddell seal and Gentoo penguins at Neko Harbour
Photo by: Nina Page

Weddell seal and Gentoo penguins at Neko Harbour

Gentoo penguin and Skua at Dorian Bay

Kicking back snow at Dorian Bay

Day 8 – As Far South as We Can Go

December 25, 2014

Today our expedition took us as far south as we could go; farther, in fact, than any other ship this season!  To get there, we sailed through the very narrow Lemaire Channel.  Judging by the scenery on the horizon, I could not believe that we would even fit through the channel, but as we approached it, a gap appeared seemingly out of nowhere. 

Understanding scale is one of many keys to navigating this area.  Mountain ranges here are so high and the sea so expansive, it is challenging to comprehend just how massive these landforms are.  

To help us make images that adequately represent what we are witnessing visually, we have learned a few tricks from the photographers involving the use of scale.  When showing how high a mountain is, we have tried to include the ship in the picture because seeing the relative size (the ship to the mountain) helps paint a picture for people who have never seen a place to get a sense of what it was like.  Often, we have used the kayaks, zodiacs, penguins, or rocks in images as another way of showing scale.  It also helps to use the right photographic lenses to highlight the foreground or background depending on the image being created.

The practical application of scaling gave me a conceptual understanding of the intersection of math and geography.  Estimating length (length of hiking trails, distance between objects, or, in our case, the width of the opening to a channel) and height (incline to a mountain peak, distance to a lookout, height of an iceberg) are skills that explorers use to better understand their environment.  Out in the wilderness there are no mile markers, no buildings, and no standard measurement tools.  Figuring out ways to help our students think flexibly and spatially about our environment will give them strategic skills that they can apply to any situation around them.  In addition to the technical skill of surveying an area, it also has implications for art, such as photography, to help students incorporate scale to make their images come alive for viewers.

After traversing the channel, we paused for a visit to another penguin colony on Booth Island.  Surrounded by mountains and ocean, the Gentoo and Adelie penguins were nesting on lookout points.  We were excited to see that one of the Gentoos was warming two fuzzy grey babies!  As these little chicks grow, they will need a lot of food as well as protection from the predatory skuas that are hovering above in search of a meal.
In addition to the Gentoo babies we were intrigued by the story of the Adelie penguins.  As the climate changes and Antarctica warms up (it is the fastest warming continent on the planet), these polar birds are being pushed to the mainland of the continent.  As a result, they will likely become extinct in the peninsular area that we are currently exploring.  Incidentally, the mainland of Antarctica is also where the massive Emperor penguins live, which, unfortunately, means that we will not be able to visit them on this expedition.

We departed Booth and took off in search of sea ice in the Penola Strait.  Standing on the bow of the ship, we cheered as we plowed our way through the icebergs bursting them into smaller pieces of ice.  In the distance a large mountain range formed the background for tabular icebergs that were likely a mile or longer in length.  Tides gently lifted the sea of ice rippling through the entire strait and gently rocked our ship.

Along the way, we caught glimpses of Weddell and Crabeater seals lounging on icebergs.  (The name “Crabeater” is actually misleading; these seals don’t eat crab at all!)  They snaked their torpedo-shaped heads to observe us as we passed by, curious about our intrusion into their secluded world. 

We celebrated our journey to the furthest southern region of this voyage with a toast to the great Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton and his crew. 

Our trip South had officially ended and we began the arduous journey back home.

As close to cuddling Gentoo penguins as one can get

Adelie penguin

Leopard seal

Crabeater seals