Science teacher travels to Antarctica

January 28, 2010 — by Grishma Athavale and Karen Yang
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Science teacher Lisa Cochrum spent a lot of time with animals in her three-week trip.

After dreaming of going to Antarctica for 20 years, planning for five years and getting ready for three years, science teacher Lisa Cochrum finally turned her dream into a reality when she embarked on a 21-day trip to Antarctica starting on Dec. 17.

Cochrum traveled on a boat to the Falkland Islands, the South Georgia islands, the South Shetland Islands, the South Orkney Islands and the main peninsula with professors, historians and scientists from across the nation. Because winter is the only time when Antarctica is available to tourists, Cochrum spent her entire Christmas vacation as well as one extra week of school to complete the full voyage to these islands and the main peninsula.

For Cochrum, who teaches earth science and biology, the main purpose of the expedition was to learn about the Antarctic ecosystem.

“[The district] agreed with me that it was a great trip for a biologist to do. There was all this stuff that I learned that I never necessarily would have expected to learn,” said Cochrum. “I’ve learned more by doing than by reading; I’m a doer, not a reader.”

This trip marked Cochrum’s visit to her 70th country and seventh continent, and she has now seen all of the major ecosystems of the earth. Each day at sea, she attended lectures on the food webs, the feathers and layers of penguins and the reproduction of the animals; whenever the boat docked, she went ashore to examine Antarctic wildlife.

“I really thought I’d be bored, but there was no down time,” said Cochrum. “All I was doing was running from lecture to boat to meal to bed to lecture to shore trip to kayak; it was constant— hardly any downtime.”

Her one-on-one interactions with the animals—the penguins, seals, whales and birds—left Cochrum with a deep connection that she was able to share with her students.

“I would spend my entire life in one-on-one encounters with animals if you gave me my choice, but if I can get those animal experiences and bring them back to the classroom, it’s kind of like a consolation prize for me. Nothing beats it. There’s just a joy and delight in it. Seeing a volcano, then being able to come back and talk about it is so stupidly fun.”

After spending three weeks in Antarctica on her dream trip, Cochrum found it hard to leave the icy continent where she had encountered a baby King penguin that had nibbled on her neoprene glove looking for food, witnessed the rare event of a fur seal ripping apart and eating a tiny Rockhopper penguin from two feet away and escaped from a collapsing iceberg arch.

“Those are the moments; nothing compares for me compared to those moments. It is when heaven and earth meet, and I am at my happiest,” said Cochrum. “I just felt so incredibly blessed and privileged to have the opportunity to see it, and then to talk about it over dinner with this wildlife biologist; that was such an enjoyable experience for me.”

As she left the continent, sailing away to the chirping of the penguins, Cochrum felt a sad nostalgia for the memories and adventures she had during the past 21 days after dreaming of this exact trip for 20 years.

“I finally get there, I spend my three weeks, and the last day I’m like, it’s over, it’s over. This is the biggest trip I’ve ever planned for, saved for, or enjoyed, and it’s over,” said Cochrum. “I burst into tears, and once I started, I could not stop. I could hardly believe that it was over. But I would go back in a heartbeat.”

Cochrum ranks her voyage to Antarctica as one of her top four favorite trips among with her trips to the safari, the Galapagos and the rain forest.

“[The trip was] one of the best experiences of my entire life,” said Cochrum. “Intellectually, it’s stimulating, but on an emotional level, when I burst into tears, I thought, ‘Wow, it really is what I think it has been. It has been one of the greatest moments.’”