National Geographic Polar Explorations

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Course No. 3502
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Gain a deeper appreciation for each of the poles, how they're connected, and what makes them unique.
  • numbers Explore the native people and animals found in each location, including their social structures and migration patterns.
  • numbers Follow current scientific expeditions, and learn what previous journeys have already taught us.
  • numbers Take photos alongside a master photographer, learning how to handle difficult landscapes and unusual lighting.

Course Overview

Enchanting and otherworldly in their beauty, the polar regions are some of the most isolated and least understood places on Earth. Until relatively recently, few non-indigenous people had experienced their immense majesty. And yet, while remote, these extreme environments are endlessly fascinating, and eminently worthy of witnessing firsthand, especially if you are prepared to understand what you are seeing.

Now, Polar Explorations, a one-of-a-kind educational journey created in collaboration with National Geographic, provides you a 360-degree view of the Arctic and Antarctica in 22 visually stunning lectures plus bonus video: Unforgettable Moments from National Geographic's Polar Trips. A travelogue, science class, and history lesson rolled into one comprehensive course, Polar Explorations provides you with the context necessary to fully appreciate the splendor of the poles, including insights into:

  • geology,
  • astronomy,
  • zoology,
  • oceanography,
  • history,
  • culture, and
  • photographing unique subjects.

Whether you’ve always dreamed of an expedition to these incredible ice-bound worlds or you’re simply curious about the wonders they hold, this course transports you to some of the most intriguing and alien places on the planet. Through powerful, rare images and extensive video, these lectures offer you a captivating, in-depth look at what makes these places so exceptional and why they beg to be studied. This spectacular footage, shot on location during voyages with National Geographic Expeditions—the travel program of the National Geographic Society—provides you with an immersive experience unmatched by anything short of actually journeying to the ends of the Earth.

Take this opportunity to venture to the polar regions and you’ll witness breathtaking sights unparalleled on our planet, including:

  • Antarctic ice sheets covering an area one-and-a-half times the size of the United States and up to three miles deep (representing 90% of the world’s ice and 70% of its fresh water);
  • magnificent blue icebergs and massive calving glaciers;
  • periods when the sun and the moon are continuously visible and never set;
  • astonishing seabirds, from penguins and puffins to skuas and petrels;
  • bizarre sea-based life-forms such as diatoms and sea butterflies; and
  • other remarkable wildlife in action, including polar bears, Arctic foxes, walruses, narwhals, seals, and orcas (also known as killer whales).

An Educational Adventure Led by Five Noted Authorities

Not only does this unforgettable educational journey feature spectacular National Geographic footage but also it presents a multidisciplinary team of renowned instructors hand-picked by National Geographic and The Great Courses, who share their expert insights on these ever-changing places.

You’ll begin with Pulitzer-Prize nominated journalist and National Geographic magazine contributing writer Fen Montaigne on the question of why people journey to the poles—from intrepid 19th-century explorers like Ernest Shackleton to today’s leading scientists—and discover an answer more complicated than you might imagine.

Directing your attention skyward to explore the regions’ unique relationship with the heavens is Edward Murphy, Associate Professor of Astronomy at the University of Virginia. Adopting an astronomer’s-eye view of the poles, you’ll investigate:

  • why the sun behaves differently at the North Pole, rising and setting only once each year;
  • how Antarctica has changed throughout history, with evidence showing it was once a jungle-covered landscape;
  • why Antarctica is the world’s best place to conduct certain kinds of astronomical research;
  • what causes seasons and how they’re experienced at the poles; and
  • spectacular auroras and other unique polar phenomena.

Next, Michael Wysession, Associate Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, reveals the fascinating geology and geography of the poles, from how they were formed to how they continue to evolve. You’ll come to understand the differences between the Arctic and Antarctic environments—the former a vast frozen ocean surrounded by diverse landscapes, the latter an icy desert continent—as well as their many similarities. Professor Wysession also illuminates how conditions in each location drive the global conveyor belt of ocean currents and winds that heat and cool the earth.

Surviving in a Frigid World

In addition to the marvelous footage of ice, snow, and ocean you’ll witness in these lectures, Polar Explorations shines a spotlight on the many amazing forms of life that call the polar regions home. Some of the wildlife you encounter will be familiar, such as the polar bears of the Arctic and Antarctica’s many penguin species. Others may be somewhat foreign, from the microscopic creatures that live beneath the surface of the sea ice to the amazing Arctic tern—a bird that makes pole-to-pole migrations of 40,000 miles a year or more. You’ll also take a deep dive into marine ecosystems with National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and marine conservationist Sylvia Earle, who explains the central importance of sea ice to virtually every living thing in polar waters—from the tiniest phytoplankton to the largest whales.

You’ll come to understand the interdependence these creatures have with each other—and with the ice—in these delicate ecosystems, as well as the history of human-wildlife interactions. Particularly eye-opening are lectures on the native peoples of the Arctic, including the Inuit of North America and Sami of Eurasia, who have made their home in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Russia, and the Nordic countries for millennia. Equally thought-provoking are the findings in zoology, oceanography, physics, and climatology emerging from research stations at both poles. This research, as you’ll discover through riveting stories of triumph and tragedy, wouldn’t be possible without the efforts of American and European explorers of the 19th and 20th centuries who risked their lives to map the unknown reaches of both poles, opening these frontiers to science.

A Photographer’s Dream Come to Life

For those who plan to visit the polar regions, learning how to take compelling photographs in these unusual environments will aid in capturing memories of the abundant wildlife and stunning panoramas. For this reason, the course concludes with a pair of lessons on polar photography presented by Ralph Lee Hopkins, the founder and director of the onboard photography program for the National Geographic-Lindblad Expeditions fleet. These lectures provide special insight into the unique opportunities and unexpected trials of photography at the ends of the earth.

Hopkins, who has two decades of Antarctic and Arctic experience, addresses not only the basics of preparation and gear, but also offers advice on overcoming the creative challenges of shooting at the poles, such as white-on-white vistas and animals in action. With these expert tips and tricks added to your repertoire, you’ll find yourself better prepared to take stunning photographs that capture the true majesty of these frozen worlds.

Journey to Awe-Inspiring Environments

Our unique partnership with National Geographic affords us the rare opportunity to bring lifelong learners and prospective travelers a truly cross-disciplinary lecture series that taps into the life experiences and expertise of top professionals and professors in their fields. The course is lavishly illustrated with rare and unique footage from National Geographic trips and scientific explorations, custom-made animations, and historical photos and film. Maps, charts, diagrams, and studio demonstrations are also employed throughout these lessons to enhance your comprehension.

Polar Explorations is a veritable feast for the eyes, but this comprehensive course does so much more than showcase the beauty of these remarkable locales. It gives you the scientific and cultural context necessary to understand their unique nature and irreplaceable value—not only to the people and wildlife that inhabit them, but to all humanity.

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22 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    A Passion for the Poles
    What draws people to the poles again and again? What significance do these regions hold for the planet? Begin to answer these questions with Fen Montaigne, a journalist who has traveled extensively in the polar regions, as you delve into the awe-inspiring story of Ernest Shackleton's struggles in Antarctica, as well as Montaigne's own experiences. x
  • 2
    Seasons at the Poles
    In the latitudes where most of us live, it's easy to take the sun and its relationship with the Earth for granted. For us, the sun comes up and goes down reliably every day, yet the poles experience six months each of continuous night and constant day. What causes the seemingly strange behavior of the sun at the poles? What causes seasons? Find out in this lecture presented by astronomy professor Edward Murphy. x
  • 3
    Connections between the Poles
    The North and South Poles share a history that is unique and unlike any other place on Earth. Join Professor Michael Wysession as he lays the groundwork for understanding the polar regions with a discussion of their geology, dominated by ice, ocean, climate, and even nearby outer space, as well as their similarities and differences. x
  • 4
    The Saga of Arctic Exploration
    Over the centuries, hundreds of people have perished trying to find their way through the Northwest Passage and to the North Pole, while hundreds more have spent months or years trapped on ships in Arctic sea ice. Discover how explorers such as Henry Hudson, Sir John Franklin, and Roald Amundsen opened up this polar region to the world. x
  • 5
    The Icy Heart of Polar Seas
    Virtually every living thing in polar waters, from single-celled phytoplankton to whales, has evolved in a world dominated by sea ice. Study how Arctic and Antarctic marine ecosystems work, and consider what happens to a sea ice-dependent marine ecosystem when the sea ice begins to disappear. x
  • 6
    Geology of the Arctic Circle
    Zoom in for a closer look at the unique geologic characteristics of the North Pole and surrounding Arctic Circle. First, take a brief geologic tour of the Arctic regions, then examine how the ocean, atmosphere, and surface geology all interact, and how this region has changed geologically over time. x
  • 7
    Science and Spirits of the Arctic Sky
    Constellations were vital to the early Inuits' survival, as they used the daily, monthly, and annual motions of the stars for timekeeping, navigation, and tracking the seasons. Explore this tradition and how it differs from Western astronomy, then investigate what causes the breathtaking aurora borealis. x
  • 8
    Indigenous Peoples of the Arctic
    Although fewer than a half-million in number, Arctic dwellers are comprised of approximately 40 different ethnic groups. Learn how the Nenets of Russia, the Inuit of North America, and other communities survive, and how industrialization and other factors are altering traditional ways of life. x
  • 9
    Greenland and Arctic Islands
    Delve into the past, present, and future of three of the most notable islands in the Arctic and sub-Arctic: Iceland, one of the world's most geologically active areas; Greenland, which dwarfs all other Arctic islands in size; and the Svalbard archipelago, home to The Global Seed Vault. x
  • 10
    Terrestrial Mammals in the Changing Arctic
    Now that Arctic sea ice is retreating, what will become of the polar bear? Will it survive and, if so, in what numbers? Learn how changes to the ecosystem are affecting the polar bears and the other remarkable animals that call the Arctic home, from the lemming to the Arctic fox. x
  • 11
    Seabirds of the Arctic and Antarctic
    Discover the astonishing array of avian life, primarily consisting of seabirds, that live in, breed in, and migrate to the planet's polar regions, including the albatross, the skua, the giant petrel, and the extraordinary Arctic tern, which carries out the longest annual migration of any living thing. x
  • 12
    Marine Mammals, from Whales to Walruses
    The waters of the Arctic and Antarctica teem with a remarkable number of marine mammals. Get an overview of the mammalian wildlife that inhabits or migrates to polar waters, including white beluga whales, leopard seals, crabeater seals, and walruses. Examine the sophisticated social structure of orcas, also known as killer whales, and why it makes them such effective predators. x
  • 13
    The Race for the South Pole
    Meet some of the towering figures of Antarctica's heroic era," explorers and scientists in the early 20th century who vastly expanded our knowledge of the southernmost continent. Learn what drove these adventurers despite extreme hardship, and witness the treacherous race to the South Pole between Norwegian Roald Amundsen and Brit Robert Falcon Scott." x
  • 14
    Geological Features of Antarctica
    The ice in Antarctica may be more than a mile thick and millions of years old, but at times in its history the continent has been covered with jungles. Investigate the unusual geologic processes occurring in Antarctica and discover what features may be buried under all that ice. x
  • 15
    Antarctica's Window on the Universe
    Above Antarctica is a cap of stars and constellations hidden from view in the Northern Hemisphere and containing some of the most beautiful sights in the night sky. Survey the region's astronomical highlights and learn why, at the South Pole itself, astronomers and other scientists enjoy research conditions unrivaled anywhere else on Earth. x
  • 16
    Diving under Polar Ice
    How do humans get beneath the surface of Arctic ice or the Antarctic Ocean? Join marine conservationist Sylvia Earle, a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, as she explains the technologies scientists use to dive safely beneath the sea ice in an effort to expand our knowledge of marine ecosystems at both poles. x
  • 17
    Resource Development in Polar Seas
    Humans are extracting krill and other marine life at unprecedented levels. Burning fossil fuels is causing ocean acidification. What will happen if we change the temperature or chemistry of the ocean? Consider such questions in this lecture on the delicate ecosystems of Earth's oceans and the consequences of treating oceanic wildlife as commodities. x
  • 18
    South Georgia and Macquarie
    Among the least inhabited places on Earth, the sub-Antarctic islands feature a spectacular array of wildlife despite a history of wanton exploitation beginning in the 18th century. Learn how seal, whale, and penguin populations were devastated on and around two of the sub-Antarctic's most significant islands, South Georgia and Macquarie, and how each population has largely recovered. x
  • 19
    Living among the Penguins
    Legendary Antarctic adventurer Apsley Cherry-Garrard said all the world loves a penguin" and in this lecture, you'll understand why. Get acquainted with Adelie, emperor, and chinstrap penguins by exploring how each evolved into the fat, flightless swimmer it is today. Explore the history of their interaction with humans and their remarkable cycles of reproduction and survival. " x
  • 20
    Antarctica: A Continent for Science
    Survey the discoveries made and hardships suffered during centuries of scientific exploration in Antarctica, including a research expedition that sought viable emperor penguin eggs in an attempt to unlock an evolutionary mystery. See how Antarctic research helped create the modern sciences of oceanography, climatology, and glaciology, and is still driving scientific progress. x
  • 21
    Basics of Polar Photography
    Picture being in the Arctic when a polar bear approaches your ship. What kind of camera should you use to capture the moment? What settings should you choose? Here, National Geographic photographer Ralph Lee Hopkins explains how to navigate the unique challenges of polar photography, from dealing with a white world" to shooting atop a moving platform." x
  • 22
    Photographing Polar Landscapes
    Photography is a blend of the creative and the technical and, in this lecture, you'll focus on the creative side of the equation. Learn how to use lighting, composition, and moment to your advantage in the Arctic and Antarctica through techniques such as changing perspective, incorporating people into your shots, and using negative space. x

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DVD Includes:
  • 22 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • 176-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

Video DVD
Course Guidebook Details:
  • 176-page printed course guidebook
  • Photos & illustrations
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider

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Your professors

Michael E. Wysession Edward M. Murphy Sylvia A. 	 Earle Ralph Lee Hopkins Fen Montaigne

Professor 1 of 5

Michael E. Wysession, Ph.D.
Washington University in St. Louis

Professor 2 of 5

Edward M. Murphy, Ph.D.
University of Virginia

Professor 3 of 5

Sylvia A. Earle, Ph. D.
National Geographic

Professor 4 of 5

Ralph Lee Hopkins, Professional Photographer
National Geographic

Professor 5 of 5

Fen Montaigne, Journalist
National Geographic
Dr. Michael E. Wysession is the Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. Professor Wysession earned his Sc.B. in Geophysics from Brown University and his Ph.D. from Northwestern University. An established leader in seismology and geophysical education, Professor Wysession is noted for his development of a new way to create three-dimensional images of Earth's interior from seismic...
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Dr. Edward M. Murphy is Associate Professor, General Faculty at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. He earned his bachelor's degree in Astronomy from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and his Ph.D. in Astronomy from the University of Virginia in 1996. Professor Murphy was a postdoctoral fellow and an associate research scientist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he worked on NASA's Far...
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National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and Marine Conservationist National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Dr. Sylvia A. Earle is an oceanographer, explorer, author, and lecturer. She earned her bachelor’s from Florida State University and holds an M.S. and a Ph.D. from Duke University, as well as 26 honorary degrees. Formerly chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Dr. Earle is...
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Photographer Ralph Lee Hopkins is the founder and director of the onboard photography program for the National Geographic-Lindblad Expeditions fleet. For more than 20 years, he has photographed expeditions from the Arctic to the Antarctic and points in between. Mr. Hopkins completed his master’s degree in Geology at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, where he studied rocks along the rim of the Grand Canyon. He...
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A veteran journalist, author, and editor, Fen Montaigne worked as a Moscow correspondent during the collapse of the Soviet Union, reported for National Geographic magazine from six continents, earned a Guggenheim Fellowship, and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Mr. Montaigne has authored or coauthored five books and helped launch and edit the award-winning online magazine Yale Environment 360. Mr. Montaigne graduated from...
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National Geographic Polar Explorations is rated 4.3 out of 5 by 34.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Courses-swift delivery Very prompt delivery. Can not evaluate course, it is a Christmas gift for a family member
Date published: 2020-11-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fantastic course! As you would expect bringing the Great Courses and National Geographics together results in an awesome course. The mix of instructors was great and their passion was uplifting. Fascinating content presented in a way that that captured your attention and kept you wanting more. Fantastic!!
Date published: 2020-08-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Colorful and Thorough Course This is an excellent, well-rounded course that explores the Arctic and Antarctica from several vantage points: expedition history, geography, geology, oceanography, astronomy, fauna and flora, and polar photography. There are five lecturers, the best and principal presenter being journalist and antarctic field investigator Fen Montaigne. Color photos of the polar landscape, penguins, and marine mammals abound. This course is both interesting and informative.
Date published: 2020-08-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Overview of the Arctic and Antarctic Really like this course, very comprehensive and in depth discussions about the poles, its history, the explorers and their methods, the animals, the peoples, the geography, and the ships, etc.
Date published: 2020-05-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Polar Explorations I enjoyed this course and was able to get my husband to watch quite a few of the lectures as well. I never realized how extensively both poles were developed and internationally explored. Excellent information by various professors of particular specialty enhanced the study and I learned so much. Amazing photography and the life experience of the primary professors made all so much more enjoyable as well as informative. This is a wonderful course which I highly recommend. Young students should find this fascinating not only adults. I will definately watch this course again too.
Date published: 2020-03-17
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Could have been much better This course isn’t bad but it isn’t good. It seems to be a course looking for a subject. It could have been so much more. First it is mislabeled. Most of the course isn’t about Polar exploration. A better title would have been Polar regions explored. The ecological, geographical, geological and oceanographic lectures were fine if not great. The Dr. Earle lectures were great but not extensive enough. Maybe I’m a tech geek but I would have liked far more coverage of how the deep diving equipment worked. In fact a few more lectures on Prof. Earle’s explorations and equipment would have been welcome. The astronomical lectures were interesting but a bit far afield. The photographic lectures were so far afield that they were almost on another planet, and not in a complimentary way. If I wanted a course on photography The Great Courses has several. What good are lectures on arctic photography when I don’t know what an ISO is? A better lecture on climate change could have been given by Dr. Wolfson or Dr. Hazen both in the Great Courses’ collection of excellent lecturers. Any course by either of these Professors is well worth the viewer’s time and money. I was also bothered by the lecturer’s light dismissal of the slaughter of tens of thousands of reindeer rabbits and cats ( I can live with the rat extermination) to return areas into their pre human contact condition. What makes an arctic bird worth more than a rabbit or reindeer or cat?? Likewise there is the moral conflict of condemning (implicitly) the Japanese for still whaling while approving Inuit hunting. Neither group has to eat Whale in the modern world and once upon a time all of mankind was completely dependent on slaughtering and eating our fellow creatures. I am going to listen to the good parts of this course again, selectively, but I can’t recommend the course in its present form.
Date published: 2019-07-31
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Great Opportunity Comes Up Short I ordered this course shortly after my wife and I had returned from an expedition cruise to the Antarctic Peninsula. The trip closed the circle on our seventh continent and was genuinely spectacular. It is for this reason that I had extremely high hopes that this series of lectures would not only be highly evocative but equally spectacular in its own way. It was an unrealistic and unfair expectation. Still, I have given it four stars for its effort at scientific authenticity and for the attempts by the course's presenters to convey their commitment to open these polar regions to us and, more importantly, to preserve them. The presenters are surely well-schooled in their crafts but, with a few exceptions, are not comfortable communicators. I choose not to specify which I found least capable, but they were so tethered to their teleprompters that, without them, they would have slipped beneath the polar ice. Production values, in particular the faux realistic "polar" sets, were simply a distraction. I found that most potentially great teaching moments went begging. If you never have the opportunity actually to visit these areas, the course will open your eyes. Once you've been there, particularly in the company of a good ship and professional botanists, ornithologists and geologists, I fear you'll find that the course cannot really deliver. I recommend it for its earnest attempt to educate.
Date published: 2019-04-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very interesting and through I bought it for my husband and he loves it! He said it was very well done and informative. Much better than some of the other Great Courses we have purchased.
Date published: 2019-04-08
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