Mason Students Take a South Polar Plunge with Study Abroad Trip
By Tara Laskowski
Kneeling on Antarctic soil with a large camera, trying to get a good shot of the beautiful landscape, George Mason University graduate student Samantha Oester didn’t realize she had a visitor right behind her.
Perched less than two feet away, a curious gentoo penguin had come to check out the strange human in his habitat.
“We had many opportunities to see animals up close, sometimes closer than you’d want to be,” says Oester about the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that she and three other George Mason students recently had during a field course to Antarctica. “They would hop in our boats, swim close, and we just had to let them be, to figure out how and when to leave.”
Led by Mason environmental science and policy professor Chris Parsons, the students spent three weeks traveling the coast of Antarctica, crossing Drake’s Passage, and landing on such areas as Deception Island—an active volcano site—and Neumeyer Channel—which has a British Antarctic Survey maritime museum—and seeing penguins, whales, and seals in their natural habitats.
“The first day I must’ve taken 800 pictures,” says Oester. “The penguins, the icebergs, everything was amazing. Now that I’m back, I appreciate even more the opportunity we had to see these things that most people will never get to see in their lives.”
Parsons and the four students—graduate students Oester and Whitney Denham and two undergraduate students—traveled on and lived aboard the research vessel Ortelius, observing and sometimes aiding the research group Oceanities with their work surveying penguin populations.
“Students were able to witness firsthand some of the changes in the environment and animal populations due to climate change,” says Parsons. “There are major changes in the distribution and numbers of various penguin species. It is no longer cold enough for the cooler-climate penguins, and researchers are seeing fewer of them.”
While on board, the students heard lectures about various aspects of climate change, Antarctic landscape, and ecology and history. They were also required to keep journals of their experiences and give a research presentation and write a paper on a topic of their choice.
This was the first time that Parsons—who jokingly admits he usually does research in warm climates—traveled to Antarctica as well, so he felt like he was learning along with the students. “We were fortunate to have pretty good weather while there, so we got to hike places we might not otherwise have been able to go,” he says.
“My favorite experience with the animals was definitely being in a Zodiac [inflatable boat] and having an up-close experience with a mother humpback whale and her calf,” says Denham. “They came so close, even bumped the boat, and were not scared but rather curious of us. I’ve never experienced anything like that before, and if the water wasn’t so cold I would have loved to jump in and see them underwater.”
The students spent much of their time on land, hiking across the terrain, and visiting penguin colonies. Because it was early summer there, the temperature ranged from 20 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit (similar to weather at a ski resort) and one day was even “warm” enough for all of them to take the “South Polar plunge.”
“It was cold!” Oester says. “We lasted only a few seconds. Later, the scientists on the trip told us it wasn’t official unless you stuck your head under the water.”
Beyond the connections made with nature, Denham also met a passenger on board the ship who works with polar bears. Her connection with that passenger has led to a partnership. Denham is now planning on pursuing her master’s work with the polar bear expert in Canada on a project looking at tourist and local resident attitudes toward polar bears.
“It’s just interesting how so many people you never thought you would meet come together and you are able to develop lasting relationships because of it,” Denham says.
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