Polar Adventures in Learning with Ocean Youth Academy's Gaby Pilson
Updated: Mar 2
On today's Adventure in Learning podcast, we meet Gaby Pilson, a guide and outdoor educator with a passion for introducing people to the world’s most beautiful and unique places.
Gaby is also a founder and board secretary of Ocean Youth Academy, a non-profit organization whose mission is to provide a sustainable model of education that connects youth with the ocean and the wonders of our natural world.
Gaby holds undergraduate degrees in Philosophy and Environmental Studies, with a focus on Meteorology and Glaciology, and a master’s degree in Outdoor Education from the University of Edinburgh.
When not working in the polar regions, you can find Gaby working as a mountaineering and climbing guide in Alaska, teaching wilderness medicine, freelance writing, traveling, or leading students on remote wilderness expeditions around the world. She is a keen hiker, climber, paddler, and skier and has travelled extensively in search of the next great adventure.
I was fortunate to meet Gaby on my trip to Antarctica in December. On today's podcast, we talk glaciers, penguins, and taking action on climate change. We also talk about what a day in the life of a guide looks like, what brings her hope, and her next great adventure.
[00:14] Dr. Diane So welcome to the Adventures and Learning podcast. I'm your host, Dr. Diane, and I am so excited to welcome Gaby Pilson to the program today. Gaby, thank you for joining us. You're just back from Antarctica?
[00:28] Gaby: Yeah, thanks for having me.
Describe your adventures in learning.
[00:29] Dr. Diane: First of all, Gaby, what is your adventure in learning? How did you get to do the kinds of things you did? What led you to want to do this sort of work?
[00:38] Gaby: Well, it was actually a pretty interesting and I think, unique journey. I got to get into the work that I do. So I think it started really in high school. I actually went to boarding school for two years to play ice hockey. But then I got a few concussions early in my senior year, and I couldn't play anymore. And I was all sad because everyone else was out at games and practices all the time. But it turns out that one of the teachers at the school is a pretty famous ice climbing and rock climbing guide, at least in the area. And so he took me ice climbing every day. And by the time the spring rolled around, I was hooked, and we went rock climbing every day. And then I was going to graduate. Had no idea what I was going to do for the summer. So I walked myself into town, applied for a job at the local outdoor store. They said, yes, I found an apartment in town, and I spent the whole summer climbing.
And so when I got to college and where I went was Hamilton College. They have a pretty big outdoor education program. So by the time I got there, I had a decent amount of experience outside, was very excited, and I sort of immersed myself into that whole program. So by the time I left college, I had, as an undergrad at least, I had a lot of experience just within the university’s program. But I became a wilderness EMT. I took an outdoor educator course. I started guiding ice climbing up in Alaska in the summers. I was just doing sort of my own adventures by myself. So by the time it came to leave undergrad, I was like, well, what am I going to do next? So I applied for a master's in outdoor education at the University of Edinburgh. And I got into the program. Technically, I just finished it a few years ago, but I did the the top portion in person part 2017 2018. And and that led me to Antarctica in a sort of random way, where one of the professors there also happened to work in the industry. And I said, Pete, I want to go to Antarctica. How do I do this? And so he walked me through what certifications I needed to get and I had most of the skills already. It was just sort of formalizing them. Then I applied and five years later I'm still here, so that's sort of my journey.
[02:55] Dr. Diane: And you've got degrees in meteorology and glaciology, is that correct?
[03:00] Gaby: Well, my undergraduate degree is specifically in philosophy and environmental studies, but most of what I did with environmental studies was geology and sort of natural sciences related. And then, yeah, I have sort of a degree certificate from Penn State in weather forecasting. And my knowledge of glaciology, I think, comes from a mix of what I did, an undergrad, and then my practical and professional experience in the mountains.
[03:28] Dr. Diane: What was the past season in Antarctica like?
[03:30] Gaby: The past season was great. I had three full months down in Antarctica and it was exciting to see how the continent changes over the course of effectively, when we go down in November, it's still spring, and then by the time you get into December and January, it's true summer. So it's fun to see how things change weather wise and just with the animals coming, specifically the penguins coming and creating their colonies again, having their eggs and their chicks. So it's a fun time.
[04:01] Dr. Diane: When I saw you, they were all sitting on their nests, lots of Gentoo and Chinstraps and the Adelies. How did that change between December and January?
[04:11] Gaby: Well, it's actually a very interesting year. So when we started in November, there was so much snow and it was so cold and so wet, and the penguins are a bit delayed. When you came down, they were still on their eggs. And when I left, even in some of the northernmost parts of the peninsula where we go, they were still on eggs, which is surprising. They really should have had chicks by then. Some of the colonies had chicks, specifically up in the South Shetland Islands, some pretty big chicks. But then there are other places where they didn't even have chicks yet. So it was an interesting season. And I wonder if the cold temperatures are ironically going to negatively affect the colonies this year. I think a one-off issue, though, isn't going to destroy a colony, but it's interesting to see how smaller scale weather patterns are affecting the penguins.
[05:04] Dr. Diane: And I want to definitely get into that in more detail, because as you were talking, I sort of found myself wondering, is this delay in hatching, is that going to impact them as fall and winter show up in terms of the health of the colonies?
[05:19] Gaby: Yeah, for sure. It's an interesting issue and there are so many different facets to it. Is it going to be a negative impact? Well, maybe this year, but is it going to hurt them in the long run? We don't know. And it's sort of a bigger question for sure.
[05:33] Dr. Diane: What drew you to wanting to work in Antarctica?
[05:36] Gaby: I'm not really sure. I think it was after working in Alaska and getting very obsessed with glaciers. I was like, Well, I want to see more glaciers, and of course, I want to see penguins, and so where can I go to do that? And the best answer was Antarctica. And I think I've always been fascinated by the place, and once I got there, I knew it was my favorite place on the planet.
[05:59] Dr. Diane: I agree. I'm still dreaming in penguin.
[06:03] Gaby: Aren't we all?
A quick lesson in glaciers -- what they are and why they matter even if you leave nowhere near a glacier.
[06:04] Dr. Diane: Seriously, I wanted to ask you about glaciers, actually, because for me, that was the surprising thing from the trip, was how much I wound up loving the glaciers and sort of the way the icebergs almost breathe in the water. And you've seen them both in the Arctic and in the Antarctic, and I'm sort of wondering, can you explain to the listeners what glaciers are and sort of why they're important for us?
[06:28] Gaby: Sure. So I think the best way to conceptualize a glacier is as a massive river of ice. And that doesn't mean that a glacier is a frozen river. They form in quite different ways. Glaciers basically form over the courses of thousands of years due to the accumulation of huge amounts of snow that eventually turns into ice because of pressure and then because of gravity, they start flowing downhill. So that's, I guess, the simplest way to describe what a glacier is.
But I think what's interesting about them is how important they are to the world, even though most of us live nowhere near one. So the majority of the population doesn't live anywhere near a glacier. But the melting of glaciers and how they're changing will impact every single one of us. I think the most concrete way that's going to happen is through sea level rise, because the water that's trapped in glaciers is freshwater, and that freshwater is frozen on land. And as it enters the ocean because of melt, it contributes to the overall volume of the oceans and then subsequently the sea level rise. So I think that's a concrete, easy to visualize way that the changes in glaciers are going to impact everyone on the planet, even if you don't live near them. There's, of course, other ways that they'll impact people beyond sea level rise, but I think that's one of the clearest ways.
What has changed in Antarctica over the last five years?
[07:49] Dr. Diane: And over the last five years in Antarctica, have you noticed a difference in terms of the amount of icebergs every year, or have you seen changes taking place over time?
[08:00] Gaby: I don't think we've necessarily seen a large difference in the number of icebergs that we see, because you would get those anyway. But there are, for sure, clear examples of the ice retreating very quickly. For example, we were at a place called Brown Bluff up in the northern part of the peninsula. And just five years ago, the glacier was at least a few hundred meters closer to us than when it was when we came there, and I think it was January. We were able to walk so much closer to it than we used to. And that's just, you know, that's a very concrete example of how we've seen it change even in five years. But I think there's more research on this up in Alaska, in the Arctic, where we have a lot of historic photos of glaciers, and you can compare them to where they are now, and so you can see that change over time. Perhaps it would be a good project for someone to look at historic photos of Antarctica and compare that now, but, yeah, there's definitely been a change.
What is the Ocean Youth Academy?
[09:04] Dr. Diane: You are a member of the Ocean Youth Academy. You're one of the founders. Can you describe a little bit about what that is and how that contributes to educating people?
[09:14] Gaby: Sure. So, Ocean Youth Academy is a nonprofit organization that my friends Amanda, Phil, and I started at the beginning of the Pandemic because we were working in Antarctica. The Pandemic started, and then travel basically was nonexistent, and so we didn't have work in the polar regions to do. But Amanda came up with this idea of, well, why don't we create a nonprofit to help educate kids around the planet about the world's oceans? And I said, that's a great idea. And then we were trying to figure out sort of what our initial niche could be in that field, because ocean education is quite a big field now. And I said, well, the one thing we all have expertise in that most people don't is the polar oceans. And so we created a ten part online course called the Polar Oceans, and the goal of it is to introduce younger people to the various aspects of the polar regions and how we're all connected to them through the oceans. So the course includes information, everything from the marine life and the oceans to pollution and climate change, to glaciology and history and things like that. That's the focus of what we're doing right now. But we're hoping to expand in a few years to offer more in-person education and to hopefully one day very soon get students to actually come with us on Antarctic and Arctic expeditions after they take the course, which would be pretty cool.
[10:44] Dr. Diane: Wow, that would be exciting. And what age range do you guys typically reach out to?
[10:50] Gaby: Right now, we're focusing on middle school, mostly the 7th, 8th grade curriculum. And we've we've aligned it, at least in the US, to the NGSS, the national, the Next Gen Science Standards. And we're working with some schools and organizations around the world to align it with their standards as well. And hopefully, once we get a good breadth there, we can start expanding, making courses for younger students and in high school and college as well.
[11:16] Dr. Diane: That sounds super exciting. And have you drawn in teachers? What's the response you've gotten from teachers and students?
[11:25] Gaby: It's been pretty cool. The first school district that we worked with is, ironically, the biggest in the US, the Los Angeles Unified School District. And that was a sort of a one off summertime program where we provided some educational content. It wasn't specifically the Polar Oceans course, but it was the same similar content, and the students and the teachers really loved it. I think what's cool about the course is that it teaches you the same sort of basic science principles that you can get in another format, but in a way that's engaging and talks about a topic that most students never get to hear about. And so we've been working with a lot of homeschooling students reaching out more independent schools just because they seem to be less restricted on state based curriculum requirements. But people have been pretty excited about it. And we're working with some organizations in Eastern Africa right now and hoping to expand to reach thousands of students there as well, which would be cool.
[12:27] Dr. Diane: That is really cool.
[12:35] Sponsor Ad
Polar Bears, Climate Change, And Taking Positive Actions
[13:54] Dr. Diane: I don't know if you've seen this book, but have you seen Candace Fleming's Polar Bear?
[14:00] Gaby: No, but it looks great.
[14:02] Dr. Diane: It's nonfiction, and it's all about sort of how the retreating sea ice is impacting the polar bear's ability to hunt and defeat her cubs and sort of how she knows where she's supposed to go instinctually. But time is working against her. And I'm sort of wondering, is that something you all enter into when you're talking to the kids about climate change and its impacts?
[14:27] Gaby: Yeah, what we're trying to do, it's hard to talk to kids about climate change and put it in a light that's not very negative, because we don't want kids to think that there's no hope, that there's nothing they can do about it. And so what we do is we actually ask at the end of the Polar Oceans course, we ask kids to do something. It's sort of a project of their own choice, but it's something that has to have an impact on their community based on what they've learned in the course. And so we've had kids writing to local representatives and to their local councils and coming up with ideas for projects that they can do in their home area, just based on the concepts that they've learned in the course. And so I think encouraging them to take action, even small action, helps them not take such a negative light toward climate change. Obviously, it's a negative thing that's happening, but making sure they're not losing hope, because that's a big issue, I think, with teaching about climate change to younger people.
[15:28] Dr. Diane: Now, I love the idea of focusing on hope and on personal impact. I've been using the example of being a disruptor that when we talk about science fiction, we often talk about, you're not supposed to mess up the timeline. You go back in time, you're not supposed to talk to somebody or mess it up. But what if we were the ones who messed up the timeline, but we did it in a positive way? You make a choice today that ultimately has a positive impact down the road, and you may not ever see that impact, but by going vegetarian, you make an impact in terms of consuming less. By writing to your representative, you make an impact. And you may not see that directly, but somebody will. So I love the fact you're doing that.
[16:11] Gaby: Yeah, exactly. And I think it also speaks to this concept of choice. Not making a choice is also a choice, and doing nothing is also a choice. And so can you make a choice, even a small one, that will have some sort of impact? Of course, no one of us is going to be able to solve the issues of climate change. It will take a lot more people, but the more people you can get to make positive choices, the more hope that we have.
What's it like being a guide in the Polar Regions?
[16:34] Dr. Diane: I really like that. So I want to, again, spin and switch gears just a little bit. You've been working as a guide in Antarctica and I'm assuming in the Arctic region as well, for the last five years or so.
[16:49] Gaby: Yeah, same regions.
[16:52] Dr. Diane: What is a day in the life of a guide, like when you're on one of these ships?
[16:58] Gaby: Well, it's pretty similar in both the Arctic and the Antarctic. I would say the sea days are perhaps less exciting, but they're filled with a lot of educational content. So if we're at sea, for example, to get from one place to another, we'll wake up, have breakfast, and then, depending on the day, I might be giving a lecture, I might be helping host some sort of entertainment type thing, like bingo, answering questions, hanging out, talking to people. And I think being out on deck looking for birds and whales and whatnot. And so it's not particularly the most active day, but I think that's when people feel more comfortable asking questions and you can be out there with the people who are already out on deck and point out stuff that maybe they haven't noticed.
But I guess the majority of the action comes when we are doing landings. Let's go with Antarctica. Let's say we arrive at our landing site in the morning and so all of us guys, we'd be up relatively early. Six, seven ish. Breakfast and then we'd get ready to lower Zodiacs, which are our rigid inflatable boats. And they're the boats that we use to get from the ship to landing sites and just for cruising around, because that's fun, too. We lower the Zodiacs, send a scout team over to the landing site to make sure that it's ice free, the conditions are good and that we can start sending our guests over to experience it as well. Once that happens, we'd be out for maybe three or four hours depending on how much time we have before we have to get to our next site. And during that time, especially in Antarctica, we're often at penguin colonies. But if it's not a penguin colony per se, we're maybe at a historic site or something else that's similar. And so if we're on shore, you're around, you're talking to people, pointing stuff out, interpreting the landscape. So it's quite educational too.
And during these landings, if the conditions allow, we also try to offer a Zodiac cruise because we can only have 100 people on shore at a time. That's an IAATO — that’s an International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators rule, and it's enforced throughout the industry. So let's say we have 160 guests on the ship. We'd split them in groups of about 80, and 80 would be on shore at a time and 80 would hopefully go Zodiac cruising and looking for icebergs, whales, penguins, seals, whatever you can find. And sometimes the Zodiac cruise, oftentimes they're just as exciting as being on land. So it's just a different perspective.
Then once that's done, we go back on the ship for lunch. The ship will almost always reposition to a new site and then we basically repeat what we did in the morning again, but at a new site for the afternoon. Once that's all done, usually we come back on the ship and we do we call it a recap and a briefing. So we have little nuggets of information, little presentations about things that we've seen during the last couple of days, go over the plan for tomorrow, then we have dinner often, some evening entertainment, but we're just hanging out. A lot of times people go outside in the evening, catch the evening light. In Antarctica, specifically early season, you can often see the sunset if you're out late enough. But yeah, it's a fun little routine to get into, and it gives you a lot of opportunities to learn and be outside, which is cool.
[20:22] Dr. Diane: And do you ever get used to the Drake Passage?
[20:26] Gaby: I think you do get used to the Drake Passage. I have only been seasick once in my entire life, and that was on the first day of this most recent contract, and I was seasick for about ten minutes and it was done. But, yeah, I think a lot of it is physiological, but a lot of it is mental as well. And if you just tell yourself you're going to be fine, you know how to take care of yourself. People have been sailing on ships for many centuries before we invented seasickness tablets, so I think you do get used to it. Over the course of one trip, maybe not, but over the course of a few seasons, definitely.
[21:03] Dr. Diane: I was just thinking about you guys landing in Ushuaia, and then turning around and heading back out. And I know there were folks on our ship who were definitely ill for both sets of the Drake Passage, and I actually thought we had Drake Lake compared to Drake Shake when we were out, but I just was kind of wondering how it went for you guys. Coming in, going out, coming in, going out.
[21:27] Gaby: Yeah, I mean, there are definitely guides who still get seasick even after working in the industry for quite a while, but I think everyone just finds a different way to cope. And definitely if it gets really bad, even guides who typically don't get seasick will start to feel kind of icky. But, yeah, I think you do get used to it after a while, and it's just exposure in your brain understanding that it's okay.
[21:51] Dr. Diane: So are there adventures you haven't done yet that you hope to do?
[21:57] Gaby: Well, I guess specifically in the polar regions I've always wanted to do, there's a trip you can do, not all companies offer it, but you go from UWA, you go to the Antarctic Peninsula, which is where most of our activities happen because it's so accessible, relatively speaking, of course. And then from there you head down into the Ross Sea, and then you go from there over to the New Zealand sub Antarctic Islands, like Macari Island, and then you end in New Zealand. And so that's to see a part of Antarctica that well, actually, I say very few people. But the Ross Sea is where McMurdo Station is, and it is the largest station by a sizable margin, but in terms of total numbers of tourists, very few people ever get to see it. So I think that's one adventure I'm still hoping to go on, and hopefully it will very soon.
[22:47] Dr. Diane: That sounds very exciting. Where do you see yourself in 5-10 years?
[22:54] Gaby: I don't know. I think I'll keep doing Antarctic and Arctic expeditions for as long as it interests me. I think I also want to branch out into the non polar regions as well. I love being in the polar regions, but they are kind of cold sometimes, getting to see other places. It's funny because if I apply for jobs and I say, here are the things I can lecture on, as soon as I say Glaciology, everyone's like, oh, well, you should work and we need you in Antarctica. And I'm like, of course, but Glaciology and geology are relevant anywhere that you go, and you can talk about the glacial history of places that don't have glaciers anymore. And so I think maybe branching out a bit more into some of the other regions of the world would be it's probably my next step. But definitely I'll keep coming back to the polar regions. They're special and it'd be hard to be away from them.
[23:49] Dr. Diane: Absolutely. So when you were a little girl, did you have any idea that you were going to go into a STEM field like this?
[23:58] Gaby: I think it's funny because when I was in high school, I was very committed to the fact that I wanted to study biology, and I even applied for premed at some places. And then my first I remember my first day of undergrad, I went to the biology department to ask the head of the department if I could take an advanced class instead of the intro class for I don't know why I thought that was a good idea. And he's like, no, I can't let you do it. But we talked for like 3 hours and he said, well, actually, you should really just take one of these introductory philosophy classes with this one professor. And so it turns out that I took one class and then I became a philosophy major. And I think that more than my STEM specific education is actually what's helped me develop sort of a love of learning and my interests in all these things, because it teaches you how to think critically. Not that a traditional STEM education doesn't, but I think we often overlook the importance of being able to read, write, think and discuss critically, specifically, especially now in the world that we live in, with a lot of misleading information and with just the diversity that you find of information on the Internet. Having those skills is as important as being able to run an experiment.
[25:16] Dr. Diane A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to Holden Thorp, who's the editor in chief of Science Magazine, and he sounds exactly like you do. He was saying that one of the things we failed in terms of science education is encouraging those in STEM to really understand history and philosophy and to be able to put things in context and to be able to understand how the public is going to perceive the things that are coming out. And so I think you've hit on something that's really important as we think about how do we convey the science to people in a way that they understand it.
[25:51] Gaby: Yeah, it's funny because every time I tell people, oh, I have a degree in philosophy, they're like, oh, well, that's useless. And I'm like, it's actually probably the most useful aspect of my education thus far. And I think we think that knowing hard science is the way of the future. And for sure, we do need a lot of people who are very well educated and are in the nuances of these things that are able to produce high quality studies. But a high quality study isn't going to be worth anything if you don't have people critically analyzing it. That's part of the peer review process anyway. And it's also not going to be worth anything if you can't communicate to the public and to the people who don't have expertise in this, why it's important. And so finding that balance, no one person can do all of those things. But encouraging people to study a wide range of subjects, I think is important.
[26:41] Dr. Diane: And that actually dovetails beautifully into the question I was going to ask you, which is, if you were talking to kids right now and they wanted to do the kinds of things that you do, that Phil does, that Amanda does, how would they prepare in their academic career now to be able to have a life of exploration and discovery?
[27:00] Gaby: I think to me, the biggest thing is to take classes in as many different subjects and fields that you can, and that interest you. It's the school. I did my undergraduate at, Hamilton. What really drew me to the school was that it has an open curriculum. There's really no requirements besides what you need to complete for your major. And I think I took classes in 30 departments or something with some are cross listed, but you have a bit of knowledge about so many different things, for sure. I'm not an expert in economics to any degree, but I can talk about the basic concepts of it. And I think having both breadth and depth is important for kids, especially in this industry. People think, oh, well, to work in Antarctica, you must have a background in marine biology or history or whatever it is. But if you're just really interested in it and some of the best ornithologists I know don't even have a bachelor's degree, they're just so into it. And so finding something that you're passionate about that's relevant is, I think, the goal and doing as much of your own work as you can to educate yourself and to seek out those learning opportunities, even if they're not formal. Even if you don't have a bachelor's degree, you don't need to go to college to be well educated. You need to find the ways of learning that work best for you.
What brings you hope?
[28:23] Dr. Diane: Wonderful. So a couple more questions for you. What brings you hope these days?
[28:29] Gaby: I think what brings me hope is seeing how many more people are getting outside. In recent years. It's funny, I think before the pandemic, your average person was so excited to just stay home and be inside all day, and then as soon as the pandemic hits and you're not allowed to go anywhere, everyone's like, I need to go outside. And I think that trend is continuing, which is awesome. It comes with its own potential impacts. We're having more people outside and we don't have the infrastructure to support them. But I think that we should always be encouraging people to get outside because the more they get outside, the more they're going to care about the planet and realize that we depend on it. So that's what gives me hope.
[29:12] Dr. Diane: And then if we wanted to support or contact you about the Ocean Youth Academy, how would we do that?
[29:19] Gaby: If you're interested in Ocean Youth Academy, you can head over to our website, oceanyouthacademy.com, and just check us out. You can send us a message on the website. You can learn more about what we do, and you can even check out our Polar Oceans course through our online learning platform, which is all linked on our website.
[29:40] Dr. Diane: Thank you so much, Gaby. So what's your next trip?
[29:43] Gaby: My next trip? I've got some personal travel coming up, just all over the planet, really. Just getting around, seeing the world, but heading up to the Arctic in mid May and going to have a full season up there. So I'm pretty excited about that.
[29:57] Dr. Diane: Well, thank you so much for being on the Adventures in Learning podcast today. It has been a delight to catch up with you.
[30:03] Gaby: Yeah, thank you so much for having me. This has been great.
[30:07] Dr. Diane: You've been listening to the Adventures in Learning podcast with your host, Dr. Diane. If you like what you're hearing, please subscribe, download and let us know what you think, and please tell a friend. If you want the full show notes and the pictures, please go to drdianadventures.com. We look forward to you joining us on our next adventure.