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

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Day 7 – Polar Plunge!

Anticipation built as we waited for the call.

“Good Afternoon, Everybody; Good Afternoon.  For those of you who are going to do the Polar Plunge, please make your way to the mudroom and we will begin the event in just a few minutes…”

The moment had arrived.  We nervously left our cabin and proceeded to the mudroom where we encountered quite a party!  Dance music was blaring and people young-in-age and young-at-heart were dancing in swimsuits and bathrobes waiting to be the next to plunge into the icy depths of the Southern Ocean.

Air Temperature:  43 degrees Farenheit

Water Temperature: 33 degrees Farenheit

The four of us – Nina, Jenn, Mariam, and I – locked arms, climbed up to the jump spot, squinted our eyes and leapt into the abyss.

I plunged into the darkness and immediately felt the instinct to find my way back up to the top, the frigid water urging me along the way, showing me that I did not belong there.  I burst through the surface in a spray of salty water and swam toward our saviors.  Someone grabbed my arm and helped me onto the platform back up out of the water.  It’s amazing what the cold does to your neurological system. All the way off the platform, into the zodiac, and up the stairs back to the mudroom my lips trembled and my voice spasmed with sounds I didn’t think I was capable of making. 

We rushed into the mudroom where we were handed towels and a cup of peppermint hot chocolate.  My friends and I looked at each other and laughed. 

We did it!

On the eve of my 35th birthday, the plunge serves as a perfect metaphor for my life.  Symbolically, I see it as an end to old ways of thinking and being – a cleansing, so to speak, and a choice to move in new directions, to advance to new horizons.  The ocean –cold, dark and intimidating to many – is, to me, invigorating and inspiring.  Like the ocean continues to move and refresh itself, we can always be better than we were before.  We can always choose new paths, and with persistence we can always get to where we want to go.

That moment, to me, was the celebration of my personal new year.

The festivities continued with an exquisite dinner prepared by our dedicated kitchen staff and servers.  We were treated to a Swedish Smorgasboard filled with an array of fresh fish, meats, and vegetables complete with a bottle of Chilean Carmenere, courtesy of our new friend, Mary, from Australia. 

The conversation was as wonderful as the meal, and complemented with a few humpback whale sightings out the window on our cruise to the next destination.  I tried making a few images of them, but have learned quickly that sea creatures are elusive while swimming. 

Our nightly ritual of retreating to the library of the ship for journaling and catching up with our blogs, was filled with quiet reflection, some laughter and commentary as we looked through our pictures from the day, and, as always, the majestic view of ocean, mountains, snow, and ice...and a few orcas on the way.

This expedition, this “plunge,” has forever impressed itself on my soul.  It has been an amazing journey—as much a personal quest for knowledge and worldly understanding as a professional endeavor and a way to make these deep concepts meaningful and inspirational for my students.  We cannot teach what we don’t know, right?  Well, now I feel like I actually do know

I am relishing this moment and the next few days of this expedition and I will certainly enjoy bringing this global awareness and interdisciplinary learning to my schools back home.  A voyage such as this is reserved for the privileged few and I intend to bring this voyage home to the many young people who are learning in our schools right now.  

It is exciting to wonder how many young people will be inspired to become global travelers, citizen scientists, environmental stewards, travel writers, or fellow educators as a result of the curriculum and instruction we educators will bring back to our classrooms from this experience.

Into the open waters we shall venture to bring this experience to life for our students!


More Gentoo Penguins

Orcas (killer whales) swimming by our ship

Day 6 – Glaciers, Icebergs, and…More Penguins!

December 23, 2014

Remember my commentary about how time passes in Antarctica?  Well today it must have warped because somehow we managed to pack more activities and learning into a 24 hour cycle than I thought humanly possible!

Our day began bright and early with breakfast at 7:30 followed by our first activity – a zodiac tour around Cierva Cove.  We made our way through the pristine water, the crisp air blowing in our faces, our zodiacs plunging through the “bergie bits” scattered throughout the water.  Their parents, the larger icebergs, towered overhead all around the cove, radiant in the morning sun.  Across the way, we visited a grandfather iceberg patterned with deep blues and greens.  

Icebergs and glaciers contain compacted water that is so tightly compressed in many places it squeezes all air out of the water.  This causes our eyes to perceive a blue hue, when looking at the snow and ice.  Cierva Cove was full of massive snow and ice structures streaked with bright blue tint.  Listening closely all around us we could hear the snap, crackle, and pop of air being compressed out of ice:  a reminder that although they appear frozen and immobile, these mammoth structures are constantly flowing and changing.

About halfway through our tour we were approached by another Lindblad zodiac flying a flag that read “Hot Choco.”  We were delighted to receive a cup of hot chocolate from these fine gentlemen and took a few moments to indulge in the scenery and the warmth of our beverage. 

We continued on and discovered a leopard seal basking on an iceberg.  He eyed us lazily and then yawned, displaying a large mouthful of tricuspid teeth—perfect for munching on krill, fish, or (gasp!) the occasional penguin (hey, everybody’s got to eat’s all part of the ecosystem).

Trading the liquid mirror of Cierva Cove for the much choppier waters of the Enterprise Islands, we again took the zodiacs out for a cruise around the area.  There, we saw the ruins of some old shipwrecks and more glaciers, mountains, and icebergs.  This ride was much colder with frigid seaspray in our faces; nevertheless, it was a small price to pay for the memorable experience.

During lunch we began our journey toward Danco Island.  A few of us ate in the Observation Lounge atop the ship and enjoyed a stunning view of the ride.   Snow-covered mountains in the distance created the perfect Antarctic backdrop for the scenes in the water: whitecaps blowing against icebergs, occasionally causing them to flip on their sides, and hitch-hiking penguins taking a ride on the icebergs.

En route to Danco Island we had several staff give presentations to further enhance our experience.  We learned more details about glaciers and ice as well as leopard seals.  Our National Geographic photographer also showed us a presentation of her photography work in Alaska and described how she uses her photography to tell stories of the complexities of oil drilling and the Alyeska Pipeline.

After this, we were pleasantly surprised to hear that weather conditions were perfect for a late night hike up to a large Gentoo penguin colony in Danco Island.  We donned our gear and took a 9:45 p.m. zodiac to the shore where we proceeded to hike nearly 800 feet up a steep incline to observe the Gentoos. 

Similar to the Chinstrap colony we saw yesterday, Gentoos were also nesting.  These particular Gentoos seemed a little more feisty than the Chinstraps (even though I hear they tend to have a calmer disposition than Chinstraps), and I laughed to myself as I watched various troublemakers sneak around trying to pick rocks from others' nests.  Security was pretty tight and it didn’t take long for nest-defending Gentoos to peck at, and even knock over, the would-be burglars. Defeated, but still resilient, the pests would pick themselves up, dust themselves off and carry on wandering from home to home looking for goodies.

This colony also had a very defined penguin highway between the water below and the nests high above. I sat silently watching lines of penguins with clean white chests, freshly washed by days of swimming in the sea, make the steep climb to their partners and their eggs.  The birds coming down from the nests, their chests dirty from a week of sitting on eggs, looked eager to jump into the water and feast on the krill buffet their partners had recently left behind.

The penguins made going down the steep incline look easy.  Taking a few lessons from the penguins, we, too, retreated down the peak using a combination of walking, hopping, and sliding.  I relived the childhood exhilaration of sliding down the steep hill right on my snowpants with a snow-covered mountain view and a midnight sun glistening on the water below. 

It was the perfect end to the perfect day!

Halfway through the climb at Danco Island - the time is around 10:00 p.m.

Gentoo Penguin at Danco Island

Gentoo Penguins at Danco Island - Trekking up the penguin highway

Ice Bridge at Cierva Cove

Monday, December 22, 2014

Day 5 - Penguins!


The guests all rushed to the bow of the ship just in time to watch groups of penguins swimming in the cerulean waters next to us.  Everywhere we looked we spotted their little tuxedos hopping through the water in search of krill or other sustenance that would fill their bellies and prepare them to go back to their nests and take over egg incubation duty.

We anchored near Half Moon Island around noon today.  Just before lunch we had our mandatory shore briefing in which we learned about all of the precautions we must take before setting foot on the continent.  To ensure that we would not accidentally introduce any invasive or non-native species to the ecosystem by way of our boots, outerwear, or backpacks, we would have to disinfect our gear before boarding the zodiacs (motorized inflatable boats used to taxi us to and from the ship). 

Giddy with anticipation, Jenn, Mariam, Nina (our Grosvenor Teacher Fellow program manager), and I rushed to our rooms donning layer upon layer of artic winter wear.  For our first landing we would have the option of taking a four mile hike up to a penguin colony or the shorter route of less than a mile directly to the colony.  They opted for the hike, and I chose to spend my entire time watching penguins.  We disinfected our gear, boarded the zodiacs, and we were off!

Half Moon Island is home to a large chinstrap penguin colony.  The name gives away their unmistakable feature – a thin black line that runs side to side across their faces below their beaks.  One look and I was hooked on these little guys. 

Right now penguins are laying eggs and hatching chicks.  I sat for hours watching groups of penguins sitting on their eggs, building nests and rotating their eggs, courting each other, warning each other of approaching predators (the skua is  always hunting for penguin eggs), and playing on the penguin highways on this hill.

Penguins are monogamous birds as it takes two to raise their chicks.  Males court females by attracting their attention through dance and flamboyant pursuit.  Females select males carefully based on the male’s ability to help build a safe and clean nest for their chicks.  I recorded some great footage of a male bringing a female various rocks – one at a time – while the female sat on the egg, tucking the rocks around her to keep their egg safe and warm.  Often, the penguins would throw their heads back and let out loud calls when one of them saw a predator, to alert the colony to be ready to defend their eggs should a skua decide to dive into the colony.

While their partner is sitting on the eggs, the other partner goes out to sea to feast on krill and fish.  Their bellies full, they come back and trade places, letting the partner go out to sea to feast.  This continues until the chicks hatch and grow big enough to be on their own, at which time the parents disappear back at sea and do not return until breeding season starts again.

The experience of observing penguins in their natural environment was captivating.  Everywhere I looked, I saw penguins coming and going, often hopping through the snow or sliding along their bellies to get where they wanted to go.  We had been instructed to maintain at least a 15 foot distance from them and to stay out of their way as they meandered around.  We were not allowed to interfere in any possible way with their natural behavior.  As I sat very still, I watched them walk right by me en route to their mates or to the penguin highway.

The penguin highway is the path that is left when penguins continue on the same course day in and day out.  Highways were all over coming up the hill from the beach toward the various sites of colonies and nests.  It was really fun to watch penguins slide down the hills on their bellies toward the sea.

After our visit to the penguin colony, we attended the Captain’s Reception and then dinner celebrating our official first landing in Antarctica.  There we learned that the weather was permitting us to enter into the caldera of Deception Island. 

Deception Island is actually an active sunken volcano.  It is shaped like a “c” with an opening about a mile across.  The ring of mountains reaches upwards of 1,500 feet and the interior is about six miles across.  The floor is so deep we were able to bring the ship very close to the interior shore where we watched penguins roam about an abandoned whaling station. 

Having spent a little time at Deception Island, we retreated and are on our way to our next destination.  Weather-permitting, we might get to kayak tomorrow.  Everything depends on the weather here since it is very unpredictable. 

Since I have been burning the candle at both ends these days, I am off to get a good night’s sleep so I can be up bright and early again tomorrow morning.

‘Til then!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Day 4 - A Peaceful Summer Solstice

It could be said that in Antarctica, time does not exist.  Weather patterns, life cycles, sunrise/sunset, those exist, yes; but actual time as we know it – the passage of seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years – feels suspended, trapped in the ice of the frozen landscape.  In fact, standard time, literally, does not exist here because in Antarctica there is no officially recognized time zone.  The time zone by which we are operating is the same as they use in our city of departure, Ushuaia, Argentina.  Same goes for other ships traveling to this area – they recognize the time zone of the location from which they depart. 

Having spent the past 28 hours sailing in the open water, the gentle waves of the “Drake Lake” lulling us into perpetual drowsiness (we got incredibly lucky on this passage),  and the fact that the sun still has not completely set by now (it is 11:30 p.m.), I am losing track of time.    In some respects, this is the most liberating experience thus far. Removing the constraints of linear time has allowed for me to absorb more information, have more meaningful conversations, and enjoy this experience in a profound way.
Our daily agendas are printed basically on a daily basis.  We have general items that are standard – meals and time slots for various activities – but we are not on a specific schedule.  This allows us the flexibility to adjust to whatever amazing experiences might appear out here in the southern ocean.  For now, we are on track to cross 60° South Latitude – marking our arrival into the area of Antarctica – sometime within the next hour or so.  Tomorrow morning we are anticipating a visit to a chinstrap penguin colony, and I am getting very excited!

Today’s agenda included an overview of the Antarctic Treaty, a lecture on krill and sustainability of resources and ecosystem conservation in Antarctica, and a refresher course on how to use our cameras to create optimum images.

Some notes on each of the topics include:
  •    If we change the language of photography, it changes the way we approach it.  Instead of saying we are “taking photos,” we could say “making images.”  This shift in language causes us to pause and thoughtfully consider how to use our cameras to create beautiful images that tell stories, versus aggressively or disconnectedly “capturing” a subject.  Photos are all about perspective and composition and can be thought of as “the art of painting with light.”
  •     Krill.  There is a lot to say about the disruptions that are happening with the krill population as a result of climate change and fishing enterprises.  Depletion in the krill population disrupts the balance in this polar ecosystem because they are the food that penguins, and other animals, eat.  Less food means fewer babies and, without the proper regulations or sustainability mindset, this could have disastrous consequences for penguin populations…to the extreme case of endangerment.
  •     Antarctica belongs to nobody and everybody all at once.  The Antarctic Treaty has defined Antarctica as a place for global peace and scientific exploration.  Policies are influenced by several Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s).  The Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Living Resources was created as a part of the Antarctic Treaty, and is charged with meeting annually to discuss issues related to the continent.  The scientific committee is instrumental in conducting research and writing papers to advise this group, and support them in determining courses of action.  The end results of this range, from creating public campaigns, advising political leaders, and educating the world about how to approach our interactions with the environment through a focus on ecosystems and precaution.

Throughout the course of the day, there were constant reminders of the need for an interdisciplinary approach to educational studies.  If our young people are going to be properly prepared for a sustainable future, and to be the innovative problem-solvers the world desperately needs, we have a responsibility to help them see connections all around them.  It is an intellectual challenge to be a little out of my area of expertise (science), and I am relishing every bit of knowledge I can gain. 

I hope that you are learning a lot as well as a result of this blog!  Please post any questions you have and I can do my best to get them answered.
A glance at my watch tells me that it is “officially” 12:30 a.m. and so I must get some sleep.  There is still a small glow on the horizon, and our daily report tells us that the sun will be back up around 3:30 a.m.

Happy Solstice!

Relaxing for the night in the Reception area.  This was taken around 10:30 p.m.

Photos from the stern - trying to capture the sunset

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Day 3 - Bon Voyage!

The time is 10 p.m.   The sky is hazy from a sun that is still an hour from setting and Jenn and I are writing from the ship’s library, located in the uppermost deck of the vessel.  As we sail through the Beagle Channel, I am mesmerized by the mist floating down over the southernmost part of the Andes Mountains juxtaposed against the ripples of waves sent out by our ship.

My daydreaming pauses with the sounds of our Jewish shipmates lighting a menorah and singing a Chanukkah song.  In a land so foreign and so far from home, I am warmly reminded of the holidays.  I feel a deep connection to my family and friends and smile as I think of them busily making preparations for their celebrations.  This year we will celebrate both Christmas and my birthday across thousands of miles and three time zones – I, from the most remote place on Earth. 

For a moment I become lost in thought about my upcoming birthday and my life’s path.  Could this all be real?  What sequence of events led me to this point?  And where will I go from here?

Travel will do that to you.  Good travel, mind-opening travel, gives you deep glimpses into the infinite possibilities that surround us at any moment.  When given the freedom to simply BE and to experience life outside of our daily routines, we are capable of dreaming big dreams -- dreams that may someday become our realities.

My dream is to travel the world and learn everything that I can about our lives on this planet we call Earth.  I want to take these experiences and use them to teach others, to inspire people to be their best selves and to live life to the fullest, to help them find balance and live in harmony with our natural world. 

What better place to study balance with our natural world than a trip to Patagonia, and the Tierra del Fuego National Park?  Upon landing here in Ushuaia, we boarded a bus that took us through the park to admire the landscape and learn about the flora and fauna of this unique region. 

Due to the chilly, but stable, climate in Patagonia (Patagonia refers to this region of the world, Tierra del Fuego is the province, and Ushuaia is the city where the park is located), there is low bacterial growth in the soil.  This means that when trees fall, their decomposition is slow.  Slow decomposition means that the nutrients in the soil are recycled very slowly, which affects tree growth and sustainability.  We noticed evidence of this in several downed trees and few saplings.

Fortunately, for the forest ecosystem, a parasitic mushroom has taken to growing on trees, which aids in the decomposition.  Our guide noted that these mushrooms are edible but that they lack flavor.

Not only do the mushrooms feast on the trees, beavers take their toll on them as well.  Originally introduced so that people could use their pelts for wear and trading, the beavers quickly became an invasive species.  Their fur did not grow as thick as it did on beavers living in more extreme climates, which rendered them useless to people.  Then, with no natural predators in this environment, the beaver population grew quickly, which led to some challenges in the ecosystem as large families of beavers cut down trees and create dams to destroy the forest and reroute rivers and streams.  Government officials have looked for innovative ways to solve this problem, but it persists.

After the park tour, we had a scenic lunch aboard a catamaran cruise of the Beagle Channel.  We conversed about the naturalist Charles Darwin’s survey work all over this region and how his studies in the Galapagos Islands continue to be relevant today.  Again, we were reminded of the power of global studies, as this quest for knowledge through scientific investigations led Darwin to develop the theory of evolution.

From there, we finally boarded the National Geographic Explorer!  Climbing the steps to board the ship was so exciting and the best way to describe the experience thus far is “surreal.”   Jenn, Mariam, and I are beyond thrilled to have been selected to represent educators aboard this expedition.  Everywhere we go, we are greeted with a friendly, “Hello, Teacher!” by the staff, and we are enjoying our conversations with guests on the ship.  Everyone is interested in hearing more about our fellowship and we are looking forward to introducing ourselves to the whole group tomorrow morning in the commons area.

Speaking of tomorrow, we are scheduled to enter the Drake Passage around 1 a.m.  All signs point to very fair travel – something called the “Drake Lake,” as the waves, so far, are very low.  Perhaps we will celebrate the summer solstice with smooth sailing through the Drake Passage!

For now, we are off to our cabins to get some sleep.  Tomorrow we wake up to completely open water and no sign of shore. 

Bon voyage! 

Tierra del Fuego National Park

View of the Beagle Channel from Tierra del Fuego National Park

We saw an entire island of sea lions!  View from the catamaran tour.