The Galapagos Islands: The name probably conjures up an image of Darwin and something about finches you learned in a biology class long ago. But where exactly are they? In all truth, I didn’t actually know the answer to this question myself when I signed up for Ecology of the Galapagos last fall. As it turns out the Galapagos is a series of 21 islands off the west coast of Ecuador in South America. And this is where I spent five unforgettable days at the end of winter break this year.
Before the trip, 10 of my classmates and I spent the semester studying the Galapagos. We learned about their geography, geology and ecology, as well as the work biologist and naturalist Charles Darwin did while we he was there. We waited five long months until finally our journey began. Upon our arrival on the islands, all of our belongings were thoroughly searched and disinfected to make sure we were not bringing anything in that could potentially harm the delicate ecology of the island. We met our guide, Christian, and then we were off to our boat, the Aida Maria. Over the next five days we lived on this boat as we traveled from island to island. Each day would walk around the island and go snorkeling off of its shores. It was during these walks that the islands became out classroom, as we witnessed the things Darwin wrote about come to life around us. Christian would tell us about the history of the island, how it was formed, and what species lived there.
This information was supplemented with additional notes and questions by our teachers, Larry Tanner, Ph.D., Jason Luscier, Ph.D., Sherilyn Smith, Ph.D., and Beth Mitchel and David Mitchell. Each professor had an area of expertise, Dr. Tanner with geology, Dr. Luscier with ornithology, Dr. Smith with insects, and the Mitchells, with algae and plants. We were able to learn so much from our guide, as well as from our professors. In one instance, I remember we were hiking in Bartolome, one of the most famous of the islands, and Christian confessed that he didn’t know much about how the island had formed. Dr. Tanner was able to give an impromptu lesson about how all of the sights we saw around us had come to be. It was amazing to be able to learn in such a setting with examples of what was being discussed right before our eyes.
While there was a lot of learning done on this trip, one of my favorite parts of it was being so connected with nature. Every day we saw up close the animals that have made the Galapagos iconic, such as the blue-footed and red-footed boobies, marine iguanas, several species of finch, and mocking birds, fur seals and sea lions. The water was like a whole other exotic world. We were able to snorkel with 5-foot-long sea turtles; white-tip, black-tip, and Galapagos reef sharks getting up to about nine feet in length; manta rays, many unique species of fish; and even a Galapagos penguin. One of my favorite memories of the trip was coming out of the water on Tower Island to find a Galapagos sea lion had made his way up onto the beach and was basking in the warm sun. The Galapagos Islands are home to so many unique creatures and being able to experience life with them is something that I will remember for the rest of my life.
Amanda Klaben ’18 is an environmental sciences major from Ithaca, N.Y. Klaben's trip to the Galapagos Islands was funded in part by The O’Leary International Travel Grants Program, which provides financial awards of up to $2,000 to help offset travel costs for students in Le Moyne’s College of Arts and Sciences participating in study abroad programs. This grant program is administered by the Office of the Dean of Arts and Sciences and funded by a gift from the estate of Dr. Harriet L. O’Leary, professor emerita of Foreign Languages and Literatures.