Breigh Rhodes knew she was embarking on the trip of a lifetime when she left Louisiana on Dec. 26 to go to Antarctica as part of a fellowship.
But Rhodes, an elementary gifted resource teacher in the Zachary Community School District, wasn’t counting on having a front-row seat for a rare event that stunned scientists — and that made for an interesting lesson for her pre-K and kindergarten students after she returned home a couple of weeks later.
Rhodes and others in the Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Program were on a ship when they spotted a pod of killer whales surrounding a crabeater seal perched on a small raft of ice. The huge animals, also known as orcas, were swimming in a hunting formation to make waves and wash the seal into the water.
The seal — named Kevin by those on the ship — seemed determined to avoid becoming the whales’ next meal.
“Every time he gets knocked off, we think the story’s over,” Rhodes said during a presentation to the school board on March 13. “But we watched this for two and half hours."
Scientists accompanying the fellows had never seen killer whales pursue a seal that long, Rhodes said — usually, they can easily capture one within minutes. Kevin, however, escaped after being knocked into the water and jumping back onto the ice 35 times — a dramatic episode captured in a video that's been viewed more than 20,000 times online.
“Being a teacher of very young elementary students, I was very happy to be able to come back and tell them about Kevin and that Kevin survived," Rhodes said.
The unique lesson on prey and predators is just one of many adventures Rhodes' students have been able to relive since she got back from her trip.
She was one of 35 teachers from across North America selected for the 2017 class of Grosvenor fellows. The National Geographic Society and Lindblad Expeditions sponsor the program, which is named for former National Geographic leader Gilbert Grosvenor.
National Geographic, despite goals to make our world a smaller place, can’t send all the Zachary school children to the utmost corners or the …
Some fellows traveled to Antarctica, while the rest went to other destinations, including Iceland and the Galápagos Islands.
“We were tasked with going on these expeditions, learning all that we can and, of course, bringing that back to our communities, our students, our colleagues,” Rhodes said.
Antarctica offered an ideal environment for that type of exploration. Most people on the continent — which has no government of its own and is instead governed through an international treaty — are there to conduct research, Rhodes said.
“The whole point is to keep Antarctica a place for peace and a place for science,” she said.
She and the other teachers were ferried to several locations during their stay on the White Continent. They spent their days hiking, kayaking and observing wildlife. Experts guided the group around the icy terrain, gave talks on scientific topics and offered photography pointers.
Rhodes took dozens of photos and videos. Among them are shots of herself and other teachers bundled in heavy coats; towering blue-hued ice formations; penguins, seals and other animals; and the ship and its equipment.
The images all serve an educational purpose now. Her kindergartners, for example, consulted her videos to design robots that look and act like penguins in a recent activity.
Rhodes sent the students periodic updates while she was away, and some responded with questions. She also mailed the children postcards, which just recently began arriving in Zachary, while visiting the “penguin post office” in Port Lockroy.
Rhodes said one goal of the trip was to inspire curiosity in her students. She wants them to understand that even adults like herself — as well as scientists, who are now studying Kevin the seal’s unusual encounter with the killer whales — still learn new things every day.
The trip “was so much more than just an award or an honor," Rhodes said. "It was really an opportunity for me to go learn. ... Eleven years ago when I started teaching in Zachary, when I was trying to teach my students about Antarctica through the pages of a book, I never would have guessed that I would have had the chance to go there.”