Today is our last full day in the Galapagos. It’s a bittersweet feeling and I’m sure Jesse would agree. The daily itineraries have kept us busy from sunrise to sunset and no two days have been the same. We’ve had intimate encounters with an abundance of unique and beautiful creatures—from sea turtles and sharks to giant tortoises and penguins. But I know that we have families that miss us and students that need us.
San Cristobal was the first island that Darwin visited and it’ll be the last one that we see before we disembark in the morning. It’s the perfect sendoff really: the morning allows us a leisurely hike ashore and some time to swim and sun bathe with a half dozen jovial sea lions. It’s nature’s Disneyland and it would trump Walt’s manufactured world of happiness for any kid lucky enough to come here. We’re also able to pull another of the naturalists aside to film a short discussion about sustainable development. The afternoon takes us to Kicker Rock, an islet off the western coast of San Cristobal, where we snorkel with seal lions, sea turtles and well over a dozen Galapagos sharks. It’s a highlight of the expedition.
As the sun starts to descend beneath the horizon Jesse and I climb up one last time into the crow’s nest of the Endeavor to grab the last of our Theta footage and to bid farewell to the Galapagos Islands.
97% of the Galapagos archipelago is protected as a national park land and marine reserve but there are still a few pockets of civilization here—growing pockets too—home to several thousand native-born galapageños and undocumented migrants. Puerto Ayora, on Santa Cruz Island, is home to 18,000 inhabitants and serves as the economic hub of the islands.
On the way to shore I chat with Cindy, our expedition leader, about attempts by the Ecuadorian government to cap migration to the islands as part of conservation efforts. In 1998 a law was passed to limit the resident population of the islands by granting permanent residence cards to all permanent inhabitants of Ecuador who were living on the islands when the law was passed. But many Ecuadorians continue to migrate to the Galapagos undocumented because of economic opportunities in the tourism industry. The idea that Ecuadorians can be illegal immigrants in their own country or the perception that the country’s national treasure is no longer accessible by the people are both intriguing concepts that could be explored as part of a discussion on the challenges of nation building.
Daily Expedition Report
Each day of our voyage is documented in a Daily Expedition Report which the naturalists and crew take turns writing. Jesse and I were asked to complete the Daily Expedition Report for today which follows here:
After plying eastward overnight from Santiago Island, we awoke this morning in Academy Bay offshore from Puerto Ayora on the Island of Santa Cruz. Following our days exploring the unpopulated environments of the Galapagos, the sights and sounds of ship engines, local music, shopkeepers, and Galapagueños carrying on with their everyday lives struck a sharp contrast and led us to focus more closely upon the human story that has unfolded and continues to unfold here on the islands.
Our adventures began as our Zodiac cut through the morning light in route to Puerto Ayora. This is the research and tourism hub of the islands, as well as home to a majority of Galapagos residents--including so many of the wonderful staff of the National Geographic Endeavor. Once on dry land, we ventured to the Charles Darwin Research Station, an organization that has worked tirelessly to advocate for conservation, to combat the perilous spread of invasive species, and to save the iconic giant tortoises from the brink of extinction. A meandering cobblestone walk, a visit to the open-air fish market (ringed with pelicans, iguanas and sea lions) and a highland-bound bus ride later, we arrived at the Tomas de Berlanga School. As this expedition’s two Grosvenor Teacher Fellows, we had been happily anticipating the visit to this conservation-minded school sponsored and supported by Lindblad Expeditions. After a visit with the students and teachers, we left happily convinced that the spirit and ethos of conservation is alive and well in the next generation of Galapagueños.
Fueled by a delicious lunch from the local restaurant, Aquelarre, we struck out through the welcome lush of the highlands into the land of the tortoise. We found these giant reptiles by the dozen spread about in fields and forest like boulders, moving only slightly faster as they plodded along in their seasonal migration. You may hear of the Galapagos giant tortoises or you may watch them in documentaries, but nothing prepares you for the opportunity to lay belly-down in the pasture eye to eye with them as they eat grass, shift their grand bodies, eat some more grass, and remind you to slow down.
As part of our fellowship Jesse and I were given a Teacher Toolkit with camera and video equipment to help us document and share our experience with our students and communities back home. We call it the big pink suitcase because well, that’s what it is! One of the devices in the toolkit is a Ricoh Theta camera that captures spherical images via two fish eye lenses. There are actually two of them—one captures still images and the other video. I started the expedition with quite a bit of camera equipment already in tow and so I didn’t give much thought to the Theta. I didn’t see much application in them and spending time to learn how to use them effectively would eat up valuable time I didn’t have and they might even keep me from using the equipment I did have—and was familiar with—to fully capture my experience. That said, we took them out a few times and grabbed a couple of photos and video. So that was that - until it wasn’t.
Lying awake last night, talking about all that we saw and bouncing ideas off of each other, we began to realize the potential of using the Thetas as digital storytelling devices that could be used to create interactive lessons, virtual scavenger hunts, and virtual field-trips. Unlike a photograph that has been framed and composed, the Theta allows users to maneuver within a landscape or scene. In the hands of a student, the student would have the ability to explore the surroundings of a place by panning right and left and up and down or by zooming in and out on things that interest them.
And so with a primitive grasp of the technology but big ideas in mind we set out to Buccaneer Cove, on Santiago Island, for some late morning snorkeling. Thetas in hand, we decided it might be a cool thing to capture some video of the two of us introducing Buccaneer Cove and interviewing Juan Carlos—the naturalist on board—about some of the things we might see beneath the sea line. We used the Thetas throughout the much of the rest of the day to introduce other landscapes and the wildlife within them. The project is definitely a work in progress but it has promise and we are excited about to see where it takes us!
Geographers constantly read the landscape for clues about a place. It is a learned skill that develops over time. As a cultural geography teacher it is the built landscape or the cultural characteristics of a place that my students and I pay particular attention to—housing styles and building materials, land use patterns and place names—but there is a story to be told in every natural landscape too.
On board the National Geographic Endeavor landscape interpretation comes easy to me. I know that I don’t need to lock my cabin door at night and that if I leave my camera equipment in the lounge it will be fine. I’ve read the landscape and the messages are clear that we are safe and so are our belongings. But when I am onshore the messages are more difficult to recognize. There is little built landscape here and while there are a significant number of clues in the natural landscape I don’t always know them when I see them! In that way, I quickly go from teacher to student learning from the naturalists what to pay attention to and how to find meaning in the clues we do discover.
Celso Montalvo, one of the onboard naturalists, points out a series of pathways that undercut the brush along the trail where we are hiking this morning on Isabella Island—I would not have noticed them if he had not pointed them out. And that is what I mean—I don’t always know what to look for or, in some cases, what I may be looking at. “These pathways were carved out by giant tortoises,” he explains, “and if you keep a close eye out and follow the pathways back through the overgrowth you may be able to see one.”
Later, he kneels down to identify and explain the characteristics of the tracks left by a land iguana: “Land iguanas are much bigger than marine iguanas and they drag their feet and their body when they move,” he says. “Were these the tracks of a marine iguana we would see only the imprint of a tail.” He explains that there is a pattern to the way that the wind will erode the tracks of a land iguana and that through careful observation we can see that these tracks are still fresh. He’s slowly teaching me to see to—and to read.
I encourage my students to be mindful of their surroundings and to pay closer attention to the physical and cultural clues around them. I tell them it will strengthen the relationship they have with their environment and help them to develop a stronger sense of place. I think it will help them to recognize problems in the environment too and to think about solutions. Through my observations in the Galapagos I have seen the human impact on the animal and plant life of the islands. I've encountered several of the invasive species that were brought by humans and that continue to wreak havoc on the flora and fauna and, in turn, I've come to learn about conservation efforts and management techniques that are helping to sustain the environment as we move forward.
It can’t get any better. And then it does. We sailed through the night to Fernandina crossing over the equator at 5:30 am or so. I arrive on the bridge just a bit too late to see the coordinates on the display read 0 degrees latitude. Javier, the chief officer on the bridge, tells me that it reads that way for only three seconds. I ask him how he came to be here and he tells me that he worked on a container ship before joining the Endeavor. It’s a brief conversation but one that I’d like to pick up again later—my students get excited when I talk about travel and I like being able to share career opportunities with them that could allow them to work and travel at the same time. I’d love to have my students Skype with Javier so that they could ask him what questions they have.
The Not So Peaceful Pacific
Fernandina is supposed to be a desolate place—an imposing volcano, “its flanks streaked with innumerable fresh lava flows, most of them still black and lifeless” reads the daily program that was delivered to our cabin. But, when we step upon the island it is alive and well, teeming with life. Marine iguanas lie stacked atop one another, fighting to recharge their batteries in the midday sun while sally light-foot crabs stumble across their backs picking at the dead skin. Elsewhere, baby fur seals roll around in the shallow waters along the coast—one nips at the tail of a marine iguana like a teething child.
Within a few hours we are back aboard the Endeavor gearing up in our wetsuits for some early afternoon snorkeling along the cliffs of Isabella Island. The waters are choppy here—our zodiac smashes violently against the waves as we push shoreward. Jesse—my fellow Fellow— remarks that it feels a little like we’re storming the beaches of Normandy. We reach our drop site and are welcomed by a sea lion. She raises one of her flippers as if to wave and then she barrel rolls past our zodiac like a torpedo. It is the perfect welcoming—the one I have been hoping for. We’re not long in the water before we spot giant sea turtles. They hover beneath us, stacked like double-parked cars in a parking lot, casually surfacing for a breath of air every few minutes. Further along the coast we spot penguins—some of them people watch beside their pelican companions from atop the black lava rock while others swim amongst the orchestra of divers, snorkelers, and sea creatures.
It can’t get any better.
The BBC produced a great documentary that chronicles the life of Galapagos Islands. Their story is very much a story of life and death—our voyage aboard the Endeavor very much like sailing through time. The Galapagos were born from the sea millions of years ago—so the story begins—the result of geologic forces and volcanic activity in a region that is still very active today. The younger islands lie to the west, the oldest in the east. Fernandina is the youngest of them all—perhaps only 20,000 years old— showing little life in her youth. Santa Cruz—middle aged and mature—is covered in plants and rich with life. Furthest east is Hispaniola, the oldest of them all, withering away, fracturing and sinking. “One day she will descend beneath sea from which she rose,” says the narrator. “All the other islands will meet the same fate just like countless islands before them,” she says. It is a beautiful story of creation. And like all creatures, and all the creatures here in the Galapagos, each island is unique.
What Iguana? —I Only Got the Picture of You
Our story begins its second day. It picks up on North Seymour, a small island just north of Santa Cruz. It is an island of blue-footed boobies who honk and whistle and dance—if the chemistry is right. Everybody loves the boobies. The iridescent blue of their feet is mesmerizing; their mating practices—pure entertainment. It is an island of frigate birds too. Not to be outdone, male frigates have developed their own theatrical display and to attract a mate they will pump air into a bright-red, sack-like throat that will inflate like a party balloon.
The island tells its own story of adaptation. A careful examination of the terrain reveals a world of land iguanas perfectly blended in to the desert landscape. (I sent my wife a picture of myself with a land iguana in the foreground—she replied that she only got the picture of me). These guys and gals don’t swim like their marine counterparts and instead of foraging for ocean algae they will feed off of the fruit of low-lying cacti. They’re stout too, growing up to 30 pounds or so—maybe a few ocean laps would do them some good. Anyway, the prickly pear cacti of North Seymour have shed themselves of their mostly shrub like characteristics and adapted, to protect themselves, by growing upward, beyond the reach of predators below.
A World Beneath Us
A few hours west of North Seymour is Rabida where we anchor for a bit for some snorkeling. We launch off the sides of the zodiacs into somewhat chilly water—it’s relative of course, but it’s certainly warmer than the ocean water just off the coast of California. We travel with an aggregate of parrotfish and yellow razorbacks for a while until we spot a sea turtle and alter our course. An aggregate—by the way—is when more than one type of fish is travelling together. I’m learning here. Anyway, we follow the sea turtle into deeper and darker waters until it all but disappears. Deeper and darker still are the silhouettes of a dozen or more eagle rays below us. It is too much for one day and more than enough for any vacation. And with that we go back to the Endeavor, our home away home.
Charles Darwin came to the Galapagos over 180 years ago—he was in his mid-twenties with no stomach for the open seas. It was a different voyage then. His ship—the HMS Beagle—was made of wood and illuminated at night by oil lanterns and candles. The crewmen slept on hammocks with pillows and the officers slept on mattresses—all crammed together in a ship less than the length of two shipping containers. It was a far cry from the National Geographic Endeavor, devoid of Internet and big screen TVs and without kayaks, zodiacs, and glass bottom boats. The Beagle was a research vessel but it was not the floating classroom that the Endeavor is and it was certainly no cruise ship. But as I fly out over the blue abyss of the Pacific Ocean I can’t help but imagine that I am somehow reliving Darwin’s experience or, at least, retracing some of his steps. And so it is that I make my descent down into the world of the Galapagos.
Isolation and Adaptation
They are the strangest of places. There is nothing like them in the world. Any life that has settled here came from some place else, the product of one catastrophe or another, swept out at sea, pulled by the currents from either ends of the Pacific. There are sea lions here—descendents of their neighbors to the north in California. There are penguins too and iguanas that swim beneath the ocean. They’ve all evolved here in isolation and with various adaptations and they all coexist in a bizarre world where none belong.
I think about the power of isolation—we talk about it frequently in AP Human Geography. It explains how the Amish have survived as America’s last true folk culture and why the Basques are indebted to the Pyrenees mountains in Europe. It explains why Icelandic has changed less than any other Germanic language over the last thousand years and why Hoi Toider is a thing in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I think about the power of isolation and adaptation, about how different environments and different experiences led the English language to develop differently in America and Britain. Physical or cultural, the geographic concepts are much the same.
We begin our journey along the northeastern coast of Santa Cruz on a white sand beach called Las Bachas--formed over millennia from finely ground coral, digested and excreted by parrot fish and others. It explains why a lot of beaches look the way they do. The waters are shallow here and so we have to anchor off the coast and take the zodiacs to reach the shore. The abundance of wildlife is immediately apparent. Sally light foot crabs scurry about the black lava rock where the sea meets the land, their shells a satin red with a soft blue undercarriage—blue as the sky above. A Great Blue Heron sits perched on a rock, her eyes comb the pot-marked landscape left by the footprints of hatchling turtles.
The beachfront is busy, the sand a heavily trafficked thoroughfare. We all become trackers. A steady line in the sand tells of a nearby iguana. We follow the tracks of his tail and we find him basking in the setting sun down by a nearby lagoon. He is our first marine dragon and in those first few moments he is a star as we molest him with our telephoto and macros lenses. Back on the other side of the beach we sit in silence and admire two Caribbean Flamingos as they wade through the water atop legs of asparagus—two of maybe 500 or so throughout the archipelago.
I fought to get here. It started with a power outage at Ontario International Airport. Computers were down, counter staff was processing orders on their cell phones, and boarding passes were handwritten. What little electricity there was came from backup generators and extension cords. So we were told. I handed my passport to the airline representative at the exact instant that the terminal was evacuated. Because many of the airport security services were inoperable, K-9 units were being used to screen passenger luggage. Someone’s suitcase smelled suspicious and so everyone was corralled to a patch of grass adjacent to the terminal. There was no sense of urgency—it was too early in the morning to move with any urgency. By the time we were allowed back into the airport and I had cleared the screening process, it was about the time my originally scheduled flight should have been landing in Dallas. But that was ok—I didn’t even mind that my name was wrong on the handwritten manifest. I purchased a few rations from the foldable triage table and I was happy to be on my way. But I would not be on my way. The manifest was too wrong. People were in the wrong seats—some on the wrong plane even—and, of course, my name was spelled wrong. But a poorly prepared manifest is not what kept us. Other technology kept us. American Airlines grounded all flights at Dallas/Forth Worth and in Chicago O’Hare and Miami International due to a technological glitch in their computer system. We were connecting in Dallas en route to Miami and so we were grounded. I would end up leaving Ontario International Airport five hours after my originally scheduled departure and seven hours after I had first arrived. It was an improbable day. But all days must end and eventually my day ended in Miami as it was supposed to. It’s worth noting that the news reported few delays and no cancellations at Ontario International.
We would never learn what was in the suspicious luggage.