SNC students Kate Casey, Nicole Bader, Kyle Bastable and Patrick Bier with sea lions at Gardner Bay.

SNC students Kate Casey, Nicole Bader, Kyle Bastable and Patrick Bier with sea lions at Gardner Bay.

St. Norbert Times 2/9/2009

Sailing Through Time

J-Term in the Galapagos

By: Samantha Christian

Feb. 12, 2009 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin as well as the 150th year of the publication of his influential book, “The Origin of Species.” Over J-term, a group of St. Norbert College students had the opportunity to retrace the steps and record the observations that Darwin made in his travels to the Galapagos Islands. In celebration of the Year of Darwin, experience this trip firsthand through my eyes as a non-science major. Sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.

“Geology trip, eh?” my father asked me skeptically. “I thought you were into English and photography. What are you going to do there?” Accustomed to his nonchalance, I humored him. “We’ll probably just look at rocks and stuff.” Little did I know that by the end of the course my answer would encompass myriad activities and a mesmerizing wealth of information.

Rather than drifting off into boredom after the holidays, I spent much of my winter break inhaling roughly a thousand pages of text in preparation for a two-week J-Term class on location. In collaboration with two students and two faculty members from Macalester College in Minnesota, 10 students from St. Norbert College embarked on an international natural history field course led by geology professor, Dr. Tim Flood, and his wife, Sally (a veterinarian and medical guru), to Ecuador and its famous Galapagos Islands.

After reading Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species,” David Quammen’s “The Song of the Dodo” and packets of heavily-stapled doctor’s notes, this handful of geology and biology students felt confident enough to regurgitate facts about natural selection, extinction, the possible side effects of the typhoid shot, and the coca-tea remedy for common foreign ailments such as soroche – altitude sickness.

If you are not familiar with the Galapagos, they are made up of 13 volcanic islands and a few smaller islets that are located 600 miles to the west of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean. Cait Randerson ’10, geology major and trip participant, described it as a “volcanic Disneyland.” Each of the islands is living proof of Darwin’s theory of natural selection and the ever-present threat of extinction that many endemic species (those exclusive to the Galapagos) of plants, reptiles, birds and fish continually face.

As we left frigid blizzard conditions in the Midwest, we arrived in Ecuador in a state of disarray, shocked by the unusual mid-60s breeze of nighttime as well as the relatively deserted cobblestone streets. The evening we spent walking in foggy Quito in search of an internet cafe couldn’t have seemed more dream-like, almost as if we were in a scene from Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

The next morning we awoke with the sun from our five-star hotel beds at the Mercure to our exuberant travel guide, Tania, who hurriedly drove us to the airport for our flight to the Galapagos with a short stop in nearby Guayaquil. As we flew over the Pacific with no land in sight, my stomach dropped, and I wondered where there could possibly be a landing strip. All of a sudden, we broke through the wisps of clouds and down onto a barren cliff that looked like it could be no longer than the runway itself. While gazing through the foggy airplane window I thought to myself, “I was right about one thing – there are definitely rocks here.”

After a tense landing, each of us were smitten by the heat. Some of us enjoyed the change while others found themselves slaves to SPF 80 sunscreen. At the one terminal airport, we met our guide, Greg Estes, and we were soon scooted off onto the Daphne yacht where we would spend the next seven days.

The Daphne crew spoke very little English, but where we had trouble connecting through language, we found a common interest in the amazing three-course meals that the crew cooked for us as well as the laughter and inside jokes aboard the smaller boats called pangas. The sweet fragrance of fresh juice, fruit, and buffet-style breakfast filled the yacht and made the 5 a.m. wake up calls more tolerable. However, the promise of a new personal discovery – walking in the footsteps of Darwin just under two centuries ago – was enough to get us out of bed every day.

With Greg Estes as our guide, son-in-law of Peter and Rosemary Grant (famous for their decades of research on the Galapagos and for writing the Pulitzer prize book “The Beak of The Finch,” we were shown the ins and outs of island biogeography in a way that no other naturalist could top. His calm demeanor swirled with unparalleled experience and genuine excitement for his more than 20 years of work (or passion, rather) in the Galapagos paints a portrait of our “fearless leader” as we affectionately called him.

At the request of Dr. Flood, we kept a field book of every island, lava tube, or bay that we visited and recorded every species and tidbit of information that Greg orated to us. Prickly pear cactus, a red plant called scalesia, each of Darwin’s finches, mockingbirds, marine and land iguanas, lava lizards, tortoises reaching 500 pounds and 200 years old, sea lions and the beach-master, blue-footed boobies, frigate birds with their inflated red pouches, dolphins, hammerhead and white-tipped reef sharks, manta rays, an array of colorful sea stars and tropical fish, penguins, a rare sight of a young albatross waiting to take flight, innumerable swarms of stars, and glorious sunrises and sunsets that melt to and from the horizon. We saw it all – and more.

I quickly observed how unique the islands really were, and that the ground beneath my feet contained more than just dirt. A porous chunk of rock, a solidified flow of lava, and an olivine grain of sand each give a time, a place and characteristics that construct a story of the island from which they are found.

If the mountainous geography of the islands and of mainland Ecuador wasn’t impressive enough, the living biology that crawled, flew, swam, and grew from every corner of my vision ignited my senses like never before. Each snorkel and hike took me to greater depths and heights and I became enthralled with these enchanted islands.

Every piece of the nature around me became stitched into a panoramic view in my mind that could not be captured by any camera. But, truth be told, the Galapagos are a photographer’s heaven – nowhere else in the world can you get as close to wildlife as you can on these islands. The wildlife has little to no fear of humans, and you can approach any animal that, in return, gives only a quizzical look on their face.

We also spent a whole day in Puerto Ayora on the island of Santa Cruz to relax, shop and visit the Charles Darwin Research Center to see Lonesome George – the last tortoise from Pinta Island. Even more thrilling was a day trip from the center of the world in Quito to a market in Otavalo where we were immersed in Ecuadorian music, food and culture.

The knowledge that we gained from this course could not be found in a textbook. It was experienced through all five senses. We saw the lush and winding Andes Mountains, tasted exotic fruits and ate shrimp ceviche, heard the bark of the sea lions, smelled the salty ocean air and felt the sand slip between our toes and brush up against the pounding waves. Placing yourself in the context of what you want to learn is the best way – and I feel, the only way – to truly grasp and understand a subject.

As a lone English major amidst a pack of science enthusiasts, I was tossed into a rare opportunity of a lifetime. I wrote about everything I saw and took more than 4,000 pictures of the islands, animals, plants, and – to my surprise – even rocks. I never knew that I would be so interested in a science class of this magnitude, and I can truthfully say that I transcended the alleged boundaries between the realms of science, English, history and art. This course lives up to, if not exceeds, any description, and I would recommend it to anyone. Without intending to sound too much like a MasterCard commercial, the memories that I have (and I know that others have) from this life-changing experience are, in fact, endless. Now my only thought is, “When can I come back?”