Author: Susy Ellison

While working as a naturalist on an Antarctic cruise ship I was often asked, “What’s your role?”  My reply?  “I am here to help you create connections between your experiences here and your home landscapes.  I am here to make you Polar Literate.”  Although passengers hailed from a wide variety of landscapes and continents, we are all connected to the Antarctic through ocean and atmospheric currents.  What happens in Antarctica definitely does not stay in Antarctica!

How do you get a group of red-parka clad tourists surrounded by 200,000 nesting King Penguins, standing amidst an inquisitive cluster of Gentoo Penguins, or floating in a zodiac raft with breaching Humpback Whales off the port side to put down their cameras (literally and figuratively) and absorb the enormity that is Antarctica?  Harder still, how do you get them to bring those stories home to share with family, friends, and (hopefully) politicians and become a force for insisting that we recognize the critical role Polar Regions play in our climate? It is through a subtle and not-so-subtle weaving of science, geography, and personal experiences that they can return a little more connected to these far-away regions and share the importance of these areas to others.

While on the ship, guests are treated to a variety of informative slide shows.  As a confirmed ‘generalist’ and inveterate storyteller, I chose to share information about the doing of science in both the Antarctic and Arctic and the importance of scientific research in our lives instead of focusing on specific topics such as mammals, birds, or history.  Through stories and data about Weddell Seals at McMurdo Research Station (a project I was involved in as a teacher through TEA-Teachers Experiencing Antarctica and the Arctic), coring White Spruce Trees in northern Alaska for a dendroclimatology study (as a PolarTREC teacher), or working with NOAA scientists mapping the seafloor near Cold Bay, Alaska as a NOAA Teacher at Sea, I was able to highlight connections that these seemingly esoteric projects have to our daily lives.  I included information on ocean and atmospheric currents to show the link between Polar Regions and our homes.  Scientific research and consistent funding for that research was a theme as well.  Disparate puzzle pieces come together only with long-term study.  How can we put together a complete picture if we might be missing that single important piece that could create a whole?

Off-ship during our excursions to shore I exhorted passengers to step away from others, let their cameras dangle from their necks, and sit down amidst the guano-crusted rocks to just take in the landscape in all its glory. Even more difficult is remembering to just ‘be’ when you are sitting in a Zodiac raft surrounded by Humpback Whales surfacing and breaching.  It is, indeed, difficult to put down your camera while you just might get the ultimate breaching whale image!  But how often do we get to sit in silence bobbing on the sea with only the sound of whales breathing? The sights, sounds, smells, and scenery in Antarctica are so overwhelming that it is hard to remember to take a moment and just ‘be’. It is those memories that can be summoned when you return home and be added to the discussion of why these places matter.

While the Polar Cruise industry touches a small subset of our global population those passengers can become much-needed voices for the regions they visit.  Those voices can be amplified when they share their experiences with others and share the connections they have made viscerally and intellectually (and photographically!) between Polar Regions and their homes.  My hope is that these visitors return home with more than just a memory card filled with digital images!

Authors’ Bios:  Susy Ellison is a retired educator who has spent her career focusing on environmental and climate literacy.  She has taught all ages from pre-K to grey in both formal and informal settings.Her ‘classrooms’ range from the four walls of a school building to the outdoors, including mountains, deserts, rivers, and even the Arctic and Antarctic!