Oak Harbor teacher will join Antarctica expedition

An Oak Harbor pastor turned science teacher is preparing to embark on the adventure of a lifetime.

Zac Sawhill will spend Thanksgiving in the promised land of penguins.

Sawhill said one of his greatest passions in life is finding answers to things that inspire wonder in people. Years ago, that passion led to his decision to move on from ministry at Church on the Rock in Oak Harbor and to become a science educator.

Now, after eight years of teaching at Oak Harbor High School, the San Diego native has been selected to join an expedition to Antarctica, where he will observe wildlife alongside experts and document everything he does and learns.

The Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship is a partnership between the National Geographic Society and Lindblad Expeditions, a tour operator that offers trips to Antarctica. This opportunity is only offered to 35 educators who work with youth aged 18 and younger, and candidates must teach in the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia or the Department of Defense Education Activity schools, according to National Geographic.

Though he could have chosen any other place in the world, Sawhill chose Antarctica because he has always dreamed of visiting all of the continents. Now, he gets a chance to experience the only land that isn’t officially owned by any country.

Sawhill will leave on Nov. 19, first flying to Santiago, Chile, where he will stay for a day. Then he will fly to Ushuaia, an Argentinian city at the very end of South America, before embarking on a ship that will sail across the Drake Passage. He will return on Dec. 7.

His lab and temporary home will be the National Geographic Resolution, a cruise ship launched in 2021 that features 71 cabins, motorized landing craft and a lab, among other amenities. The ship will be anchored at Peggotty Bluff, in the island of South Georgia.

As a teacher fellow, Sawhill will follow naturalists to land, write daily expedition reports detailing the activities of that day and what caught his attention. He will be joined by another fellow, a PE and outdoor education teacher.

There are many rules to follow in Antarctica, Sawhill said. For example, visitors are not allowed to get close to wildlife, even when approached by animals, because they would get used to humans.

Sawhill said he is excited to see emperor penguins, leopard seals, whales, sea angels (a whimsical swimming snail) and plankton. He also looks forward to seeing “bergie bits” — tiny icebergs — and experiencing an iceberg calving, an event that occurs when ice chunks break from the edge of a glacier, causing an explosive sound and a big splash.

Many fellows who have returned from their adventures told him the experience will change him in ways he doesn’t expect.

When he returns, Sawhill will share his experience with his students, integrating his first-hand experiences with his lessons. There is a lot we can learn from Antarctica, he said, the first being the effects of climate change.

According to Discovering Antarctica, the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula has been experiencing one of the most rapidly warming temperature changes, leading to glaciers melting and penguin colonies changing distribution, among other things.

Antarctica can also teach about the effects of resource overexploitation. For example, the whole ecosystem relies on krill, which are overharvested to be used as feed additives for aquaculture farms and to make krill oil.

Finally, being the only continent that is not officially owned by anybody, Antarctica can teach a thing or two about shared responsibilities and keeping a place pristine.

“I still can’t wrap my mind around the fact that I’m going, let alone (have) the opportunity to come share it and have my experience be a blessing for students throughout the district,” he said.