Seas the Day

Reflections from a National Geographic-Lindblad Expeditions Alaskan Voyage

by Rebekah Goode
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Kirsten Salonga graduated from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, in 2017 with a Bachelor of Science in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and minor in Secondary Education (VolsTeach).

Through the VolsTeach program, Kirsten was able to earn licensure to teach secondary Science while completing her bachelor’s degree, and today, she is an ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) Environmental Science & Biology teacher at Justice High School in Falls Church, Virginia.

Earlier this spring, National Geographic Society and Lindblad Expeditions selected Kirsten as one of 35 PreK-12 classroom and informal educators from across the continent to be part of their 16th cohort of Grosvenor Teacher Fellows. As a Fellow, she had the opportunity to embark on a Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic voyage, “Exploring Alaska’s Coastal Wilderness,” aboard one of Lindblad Expeditions’ state-of-the-art expedition vessels, National Geographic Quest. Throughout her voyage, Kirsten had hands-on, field-based educational and research opportunities, as well as a once-in-a-lifetime travel experience that she will use to inform her curriculum and inspire her students to become environmental stewards.

Kirsten agreed to document her Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship experience for Accolades readers. Take a peek into her Alaskan adventure diary below!

Day 1

How do you describe that you earned what still feels like sheer luck? As one of the 35 Grosvenor Teacher Fellows, National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions somehow chose me out of all the applicants from the U.S., Canada, and Puerto Rico. While the spring workshop at the National Geographic Society Headquarters tried to stifle our imposter syndrome, being treated as a guest on the vessel feels exceptionally different from daily life.

When you look at the demographics of the guests, it is easy to understand the inquiring, curious faces I’ve received when describing my position as a fellow onboard.

“So you’re working?”

Well, technically no. As a Teacher Fellow, my goal is to have field experiences that I can bring back to my classroom, hopefully gaining more ideas to make learning more engaging for my students. Where each fellow takes their new knowledge is completely up to them.

I was asked what I’m looking forward to the most on this journey, and as a high school science teacher and outdoor enthusiast, my answer is simple: I love glaciated peaks, and I love animals. Anything having to do with glaciers will *melt* my heart, and the more wildlife I see, the better.

Today, I saw more of the latter in Sitka, Alaska. As a pre-boarding excursion, we visited the Alaska Raptor Center, where injured raptors (eagles, falcons, hawks, osprey, etc.) are nursed to health and then released if they are deemed healthy enough. Alaska actually has the highest concentration of bald eagles in the United States (~30,000). While these raptors used to be endangered, the Endangered Species Act increased the population to stability. Nevertheless, these birds are still injured by various means -including humans.

Sometimes I forget that during my time at UT, I used to work at the Knoxville Zoo, where I would watch the massive African Grey Crowned Crane staring back at me from the stage with matched curiosity during the animal shows. Seeing the rehabilitation center (“Flight School”) for the eagles reminded me of the time that I helped to pull a small branch out of a hawk’s wing at Walden’s Puddle, a wildlife rehabilitation center in central Tennessee. I think until you are in those moments, up close and personal, it is easy to forget how you got to where you are now.

And somehow, like the birds staring back at me, I have become the specimen. All but the staff onboard know what the Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship is. I did not know about it until this past December. I’ve met some three times my age, who have traveled all over the world to places I have yet to see, meeting people I can only assume are important. Just like the birds, I look at them with more curiosity than they know.

 

 

Day 2

As we navigated The Narrows this morning, I watched the liquid in my teacup vibrate on the small table attached to the floor. Upon meeting the crew and hearing their stories, I started to wonder what my story really is.

I am fairly certain that I was specifically placed on the Alaska excursion because of the high level of biodiversity surrounding us. We hiked through Tongass National Forest in Sitko Bay (Sit’ku in Tlingit), exploring the intertidal zone which holds true to the saying “when the tides are low, the table is set.” While we did not try the kelp (apparently all kelp is edible), it was obvious that there is a constant taste testing of crabs by the local fauna, based on the amount of carcasses strewn about. As we walked along the shoreline, the sound of crushed barnacles mixed with the popping sound of kelp “floats” beneath our feet (“like bubblewrap”, one guest’s accurate description). We even saw a coastal brown [mama] bear and her two cubs galloping through a meadow in the distance! I emphasize distance, because as our Expedition Leader, James, said they want to “dispel the Disney myth: while not inherently dangerous, bears can be very dangerous.”

“If we have a run-in with [a bear], they will almost certainly be put down, and so will you.”

To get on and off the shore, the staff was careful to guide us on proper zodiac etiquette. There are eight zodiacs total on the National Geographic Quest, and we did the “fantail dance” with success, all using the sailor’s handshake (holding the wrists of the staff for proper support). The staff has been exceptionally supportive and welcoming, and I can only imagine my grandfather doing the same.

Which brings me to the other piece of Alaska that I have not reflected on much until now: since my mother was young, my grandfather worked on a cruise ship in Alaska to send money back to the Philippines, on until he passed in 2017. I can see him working as a bartender, cleaning glass, pouring drinks, and making guests laugh just as ours does. I lost my water bottle (given to us by the staff) within the first 6 hours of being onboard, and our bartender gave me a new one without hesitation. My grandfather treated others with the same kindness.

While there is no possible way that National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions could have known about my family background, I want to thank them for bringing me here. To now. I know that I am learning much about environmental science: how fjords come in a variety of colors; how filter feeders in the intertidal zones have toxins, rendering them unsafe for human consumption; how the forest can look established but is ephemeral with only a few feet of soil underneath. I love all things nature. But I don’t think that they knew I would be learning more deeply about my life, too.

So from both me and my grandfather, thank you.

 

 

Day 3

Fog lifts, and it’s like the heavens emerge.  I knew I would love Glacier Bay National Park, but I did not know just how lucky we would get with a sunny day. And we sure were lucky!

Glacier Bay National Park is part of a World Heritage Site and only allows three ships in Glacier Bay at a time, with a total of 30 vessels per day. I was told by our Excursion Leader that National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions schedules these permits literally years in advance, and I truly do not think that there could be a better way to view tidewater glaciers -and this is coming from a hiking enthusiast. When we were a quarter mile away from the Marjorie glacier, the clouds slowly parted, revealing Mount Turner behind the oxygen-deprived, icy blue and black foreground.

Even our encounters with wildlife (mountain goats on Gloomy Knob; whales, sea lions, and puffins on Marble Island) would not have been possible if we were not idling maritime.

Some areas of the park service were still restricted to all: the Johns Hopkins Glacier had new harbor seal pups, and ships can easily scare the babies, causing them to jump in the icy water. Because harbor seal pups do not have adequate blubber [yet], they can more easily become hypothermic and die. Unfortunately, harbor seals are one of the species most affected by climate change in Glacier Bay due to lack of ice, and all glaciers (except one) in the entirety of Glacier Bay National Park is retreating -one of the most informative indicators of climate change.

I never knew a day restricted onboard could hold the most stunning views and most informative interpretations from both our onboard naturalists and Park Ranger Megan! I was even able to answer a few questions:

“Why aren’t there any hikers on the glacier?”

“Well, they would die. Those crevasses are insane.” Thank you, mountaineering.

As someone who likes to be constantly moving, both in body and mind, being forced to slow down was refreshing. I was even able to delve into the passion of which I usually do not give time during the school year: painting. Watercolor is not my forte, and it is unforgiving, but I actually had time to focus, break to see something amazing outside, re-focus, adjust, and refine a skill I sometimes forget that I have. They even surprised us with some bonus land time exploring the intertidal zone and forest of Bartlett Cove, and I learned that the adventure of exploration is truly up to the Expedition Leader.

One of the naturalists onboard said to me and my co-fellow, “Take it in, and relax. Teachers deserve some time away, too.” And while this should not have been as profound or resonate so surprisingly with me, I felt this to my core. In this time of mass exodus for the field of education, I am grateful that there are others who think we deserve things like this, too.

 

 

Day 4

Today I awoke to the vibrations of either the anchor being released or the kayaks being lowered into the Pacific Ocean. We spent all day at the Inian Islands!

In the morning, I donned my waterproof pants and exceptionally tall boots and joined a group for a zodiac ride through the Inian Islands, where we saw biodiversity in full swing: kittiwakes (seabirds) mobbing to rid their nesting space of an eagle; a sea otter holding its hands in prayer (which I later learned that this motion is for warmth from the cold water due to lack of fur on its paws); and rock fish surging to the surface due to tidal upwelling, only to be eaten by the mammals and birds surrounding. We were even lucky enough to glide next to a group of stellar sea lions feeding, its exceptionally large male taking the lead towards the blanketed mountains!

Our guide let us try some of the kelp (seaweed) leaves straight from the ocean, and I thought it was quite tasty (especially compared to the bull kelp stipe we later tried onboard)!

We have been very lucky with the weather, as it was another uncommonly sunny Alaskan day! After lunch, we boarded the zodiacs again for Granite Beach on St. George Island, where we kayaked and hiked. As my co-fellow and I paddled our double kayak, we saw sea otter in the distance (and lots of kelp that could be easily confused with sea others). With the plethora of kelp forest, it would have been easy to pass by the tiny jellyfish pulsating around one area, but we were lucky to stop and stare for a moment. One might think we were in the tropics if it were not for the crisp, white mountains in the background (and colder temperatures, of course). After a calming walk through the forest to a cannot left during WWII, we boarded the zodiacs for the last time.

The rest of the day consisted of talks from the naturalists onboard and watercolor painting. Among the many science facts and images that I can easily use within my classroom, one of the naturalists, Keyvon, spoke enthusiastically about specifically kelp forests. When I teach about the kingdoms of classification, protists are one of the most difficult to describe. Kelp provides the perfect example of something many students have seen, but may not know much about. Now, having first-hand experience with this weird organism, I can only hope that I show just as much enthusiasm when teaching classification!

 

 

Day 5

I would like to preface today’s reflection by saying that when I had a bit of down time before our afternoon recap talk, I wrote, “Today was a significantly calmer day!”

It was not a calmer day.

I was floored.

I actually screamed.

I will talk about Petersburg, the port city where we spent most of the day, a bit in a different reflection. The words I feel pouring out of my throat are all about killer whales.

Orcas.

I had just presented about my story and the story of my classroom in the “Circle of Truth”, a circular presentation center that our Tlingit speaker had said he “needed a lazy susan to see everyone.” Somehow the timing was perfect: after listening to an underwater exploration talk, our Expedition Leader pointed out that there were orcas near the bow.

We all raced out the door, and right as I crossed the threshold, I audibly gasped at an orca popping its head out a few feet away from the starboard side of the vessel. In the same second, it descended in a ripple.

With snowcapped mountains in the background, we watched them slowly ascend and descend, coming up for air more frequently than orcas, with sharp dorsal fins moving in a slower, more ominous rhythm. It started raining. People started moving inside. I let my puffy jacket soak all the rain: nothing would make me miss this.

After a while, the speakers called us to dinner, but I stayed out in amazement, mentally prepared to freeze just like yesterday and eat snacks for dinner in order to see more orcas. Soon I found myself and one other person, Gregory, as the only people still on the bow who were not the crew.

Gregory asked me about teaching and told me that he was trying a camera he had rented from the ship that morning. I like to think that he saw me with my phone, saw that everyone else left on the bow had professional cameras, and took pity on me. Regardless, he asked me if I wanted to try the camera, to which I promptly said, “thank you but honestly I will drop it.” He put the neck strap over me, told me to open both eyes to better scan the horizon while still zoomed into a section of water, and I took a couple (very low-quality) pictures of waves.

I scanned the horizon once more, and suddenly, everyone started to gasp. I found myself in that split second looking only through the eyepiece of the camera and shooting what I have considered one of my luckiest moments to date: an orca, close up, full body, breaching the water! Perfect positioning, white belly to the side, but you can still see the dorsal fin!

Unbelievable.

I have had many breathtaking experiences, but I think I would equate my feeling after getting the best shot of the orca as if your favorite team had won finals. Gregory and I screamed. We high-fived. Every person on the bow was congratulating me, and I basically exploded back into the sunroom while Gregory and I showed everyone the photo.

Truly, utterly, astoundingly remarkable.

There are days when I feel like I have already done so much -that nothing will ever match my initial excitement of summitting

Mount Hood, my first mountaineering experience.

Today, I was again, very wrong, but in the absolute best way possible.

 

 

Day 6

Blue. Glacier blue. 

Pale blue water rippled around our zodiac as we approached Sawyer Glacier, scale becoming more clear as we passed large icebergs which were once tiny white clouds in the distance. Glacial movement is “like a deck of cards being pushed forward from the top,” as Eric, one of our naturalists, had previously stated. White snow squeezed into blue ice at the edge of the Tracy Arm Fjord. 

The air became progressively more crisp as each crevasse was revealed, the glacier growing larger before our eyes. We quietly passed harbor seal parents and pups laying on floating faraway masses. Harbor seals are one of the organisms most affected by climate change: they need ice to raise their pups. Less ice means a lower survival rate.

“There are more seals ahead,” our guide Kayvon said as we pushed forward. I used my binoculars to observe tiny brown specks lining the surface ice closer to the glacial wall. You truly do not realize how small you are until you think about how large harbor seals can become (285 pounds!). Next to this behemoth of ice, the harbor seals looked like the smallest dots you can make with the smallest paintbrush. I felt miniscule.

As we returned to our vessel, I could only marvel at how impossible it would be to have these experiences on land. Even our ship was the perfect size for me: not too small to be uncomfortable for days on end, but not as large as the few massive cruise ships we have passed in our journey. The Quest was perfectly framed between icebergs as we passed. Kayvon even pulled a small[er] piece of ice onto the zodiac, and it was cold in our hands and crystal clear due to the lack of oxygen within. 

This was by far the most stunning background I have ever had during lunch. Eating my tofu pad thai in the dining room, I could not keep my eyes from the tidewater glacier getting smaller and smaller. 

I laughed with my tablemates as the glacier disappeared in the distance.

After lunch, our ship stalled next to a gushing waterfall and icy blue and white berg. Whispers traveled through the vessel. This is the moment we’ve been waiting for: the polar plunge! 

Swimsuits on, life jackets strapped, zodiacs boarded for the last time. We shivered in anticipation, the cold, or both. A brave volunteer stepped forward first without hesitation. We cheered as she dove in, spectators calling from the bow as we each took turns.  We could barely hear them, but all of my senses exploded once I broke the surface. I can still taste the salt as I write. 

After jumping in, each person swam to the next zodiac a few feet away. Somehow, breaking the surface was not the coldest part: climbing the ladder and stepping back into the chilly air was worse for me. I sat shivering in my towel, next to the iceberg, as I watched my co-fellow jump in, adrenaline still pumping.

Maybe it was the warmth of the sun or our bodies now being colder than the air, but the ride back to our home for the past week felt that much better.

We could not think of a better last day.

 

 

Day 7

On the airplane headed home, I have time for one final reflection about my experience as a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow in Alaska. 

There are ~32,500 people in Juneau, with ~17,000 being those of Tlingit descent. My university had around ~27,000 students total at the time I graduated. 

Yesterday, we docked in Juneau, the third largest city in Alaska and the centerpiece for my grandfather’s work in Alaskan cruise lines. As we waited to leave the vessel in our respective waves (dependent on flight times), I said goodbye to many of the older couples who had laughed with me along the way. In talking to my co-fellow the night prior, I realized just how much I had enjoyed the company of many guests whom I thought would be radically different from me. Although we did not have the same background, we shared a love of adventure and respect for one another that was as refreshing as it was inspiring. Sometimes I feel like my love of meeting new people has died down -that I will never have the spark that I had in 2016 and 2017, constantly solo traveling and forming such strong bonds between strangers abroad.

Again, I was completely wrong. 

For the next few days after my talk about my work and students, many of the guests would come up to me and thank me for what I do as a teacher. As we stood watching the orcas on Friday, an older couple (two lawyers) from Nashville even told me that “if [they] had had me as a teacher, [they] would have changed majors to science.” I love sharing my passion for my students and how much they have taught me. “It shows,” they said.

I realized that I still love stories. One of my favorite things to do is get to know people, to ask the older couples about their lives: how they got here, what they love, what is the is the secret to their years of success as a couple. One of the couples was using this expedition as their 30th wedding anniversary; she had asked him to marry her and never looked back. Another couple had been married for 56 years! When I asked them about their secret to a long and happy marriage, they said that they would get back to me (haha).

The next morning in the sunroom, they pulled me aside and said “I have an answer!” 

I had already forgotten the question. 

“When things are hard, work harder. When things are easy, love harder.” How much the faces of all the older couples would beam and glow when talking about one another, the love I could feel just by sitting near them, the laughs I shared with so many of them, I will never forget. 

I have the phone number of the couple from Nashville; we plan to have dinner when I visit my family in December. Bob (the sweet widower I sat next to for 90% of meals onboard) and I are going to have dinner when I am in Chicago in two weeks. Carol (whom I went with to see the Mendenhall Glacier post-expedition) and her husband live in Bethesda, Maryland. I will drop off sourdough starter and meet their dog sometime in the fall. 

As much as I love seeing the sites while traveling, I am reminded of what I truly adore: the people sharing these experiences.

As I said goodbye to the naturalists when boarding the bus to our last tour, Glacier Gardens, I quickly exchanged information with them, too, and told them that they were always welcome in the D.C. area. “I’m going to miss you guys,” the onboard doctor said to me and my co-fellow. “You lit up the room.” 

I can go on and on about the science I learned in Glacier Gardens. I learned that the Sitka Spruce can be deceptive: some of the spruce tips that we consider to be young and therefore edible are actually lighter green simply because they have not had enough water. Even the moss becomes yellow and dried due to climate change, leading to an increase in forest fires because of their flammability. 

But I think the most applicable thing that our guide said was that “shallow rooted trees only grow so high because they spend all of their time holding onto each other growing up. Old trees are still growing because young trees share their roots.”

With that, I end my journey. And just like Will had said before he left our ship, there is no goodbye in Tlingit language, just “until we meet again.”

 

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