Journey to the Galápagos | Part 3

“I believe it is in our nature to explore, to reach out into the unknown.”

Sir Ernest Shackleton

We all have our version of the unknown; the uncomfortable ignorance that lies just beyond our comfort zones. As kids, most dream of becoming explorers but few dare to take that leap; to reach out to all their wildest questions and in turn learn something about themselves. What would you do if given the chance; the opportunity to live the life of an explorer?

In February of 2018, Kat Golden of the Missouri Botanical Garden’s EarthWays Center was selected as one of 40 Grosvenor Teacher Fellows for 2018. This Fellowship is a two-year professional development program for educators made possible by a powerful partnership between National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions. In November, seven months after finding out she’d been selected for this opportunity, Kat finally set off on the expedition that would take her flying through the canopy of a cloud rainforest, snorkeling with penguins and sea lions, and hiking to the top of a volcano.

Read Part 1 of Kat’s Journey

Rule number one: always grab the elbow. I learned why first-hand as I was yanked back from the edge of the Zodiac. I breathed a sigh of relief; not for myself but my sister’s camera which certainly did not share my affinity for the water. Riding in the back of the black water-craft (rule number three of zodiac travel) I clutched the straps of my life vest tightly, wincing as cold water splashed against my face. Round volcanic rocks jutting of the waters and unused fishing boats were perfect beds for napping sea lions who sunbathed luxuriously. Marine iguanas were almost invisible, blending seamlessly with the grey rocks they warmed themselves on. Life was everywhere, and amid all the chaos I could just see our ship, The National Geographic Endeavour II. It seemed to grow on the horizon. Approaching the ship, the experience felt every bit of the word. Expedition.

The monolithic ship towered over me as I climbed the short metal stairs and stepped inside. The welcoming crew guided us through narrow hallways adorned with images of the wildlife we would encounter over the next nine days. Our cabins would be our homes as the ship traveled to seven islands in the Galapagos archipelago. Once in our rooms, there was no time to even catch a breath before we were quickly jetted off and sent back to the Zodiacs for our first official Galapagos visit—a tour of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno’s coastline. Having caught a glimpse of the island this city, the capital of the Galapagos provinces, in our mad dash from airplane, to bus, to Zodiac, to ship, and now back to Zodiac—it was nice getting a chance to really see the colorful port-city and wildlife along the bay. Buildings painted bright white with blue trim stood out among the coastal architecture, echoes of Grecian design.

Accompaniment by a Naturalist is required by law to travel anywhere in the 97.5% of the islands belonging to the Galapagos National Park, flags on the shoreline marking borders of areas for humans and those we were forbidden from accessing. Our guides, trained Naturalists from the Galapagos Islands, explained the careful regulation and strict rules which would govern our visit to the archipelago. Back on the boat, our ship headed northwest towards Kicker Rock, a remnant of a volcanic cone with a channel worn between two large rocks and home to many sharks, rays, and sea turtles. Our purpose was not however, the sites of these underwater beings but rather a picturesque view of the sun setting between the rocks as our first evening in the islands came to an end.  At a glance, the wildlife seemed to thrive here, and it does, but a closer look revealed the constant vigilance and delicate stewardship that is required to preserve these delicate ecosystems.

Early the next morning, the disembodied voice our expedition leader echoed from the ship’s intercom. It was time to report to breakfast before heading out for the day.  While we slept, the National Geographic Endeavor II had traveled roughly 80 miles south to Espanola Island. Here the white sandy beaches of Gardener Bay greeted us as we stepped off the Zodiac. We squeezed into our fitted wetsuits and flippers for our first snorkeling lesson.  Walking backwards into the sea, I leaned in and let my body float on top of the water. Giddy with excitement, I peered beneath the turquoise blanket of water. Class was interrupted by a playful sea lion who decided to join us as a guest instructor. Back on the beach, I was lucky to observe an Espanola mockingbird, an endemic species to this island and the only one of four that escaped Charles Darwin’s eyes.  The curious bird investigated the belongings of our group—searching eagerly for signs of food and water. Just before leaving the beach, I spotted the impossible. Huge greyish-white bones stuck out from the sand. Instinctively, I thought DINOSAUR before reminding myself that this was a volcanic island; the sedimentary rocks of Montana where I dig for bones in during the summer are much older than anything here. This was no dinosaur, but a whale and nearly all of it too; the gargantuan spine aging in the sun would likely never be a fossil.

We finished in the afternoon, with a three hour hike across the island to observe some iconic Galápagos species including blue footed boobies, sally lightfooted crabs, and marine iguanas. Frequently our hike was interrupted by the crossing of a booby bird making its way across the path or a few sea lion pups that made the decision to rest on the stone pathway.  To some the ecology of the island may seem fearless, others may consider it naive; either way it was clear the island belonged to the wildlife and we were the visitors.

With a dull ache in my legs, a SIM card full of hundreds of photos, I returned to the Zodiac for the trip back to the ship and an evening of Ecuadorian food and scientific lecture. For those of us still up after dinner, a showing of the documentary The Galápagos Affair (a tale of mystery, eccentricity, and murder) prepared us for the journey to Floreana Island the next day. Originally a penal colony, Floreana is the site where the first European settlers to the Galápagos Islands made their lasting mark. We had our first wet-landing, as we prepared to jump into the shallow waters of the ocean and walk up the beach made of pulverized coral to shore. In that “Golden Hour” as the sun began to rise, we traveled to the famous flamingo lagoon, where Galapagos Flamingos stood together in small colonies feeding on shrimp through brackish water.

While hiking the small trails further inland, what we saw was not the same wildlife that used to call the island home. No Floreana tortoises crossed our paths, having been pushed to extinction upon the arrival of Europeans and the invasive species that traveled with them. Even the Floreana mockingbird has been pushed from the island it was once named after, now only found at Gardiner and Champion islands nearby.  Relics of past settlements stood frozen in time on this strange island; one is now spotlighted as a tourist must-do- Post Office Bay.  An old barrel stood as the island’s first post-office and a pathway to connect all who’d traveled here before and would travel next. Once a main feature of communications during the age of whalers and exploration, today postcards are left in the wooden box waiting to be picked up by travelers and hand delivered to their final destinations.

The next day, our expedition traveled to Santa Cruz, where the story of people became an even bigger part of the journey. Puerto Aueyro, the capital of Santa Cruz, is the most urban city in the islands. The island also features smaller villages centered around agricultural enterprises such as cattle and coffee. Our morning on this island was spent touring the Charles Darwin Research Center. Touring the different areas, the story of the Giant Tortoises came to life. From Lonesome George, a deceased tortoise of fame, to Super Diego these creatures’ stories made it clear; here science isn’t just research but conservation and the first line of defense in protecting these islands for future generations.

On islands, extinctions aren’t usually caused by catastrophes like the one that killed the dinosaurs. Learning of all the work here at the Research center with invasives I was reminded of my arrival 4 days ago, 20,000 feet over San Cristobal Island. Confused, I had watched as the flight attendants moved down the aisle of our plane, stopping to spray each luggage compartment with what smelled like orange perfume. I later learned this was an insecticide, as all Galápagos planes are sterilized upon entry. I now know the reason is invasives like Philornis downsi, a fly whose larvae feed on the eggs of Galápagos birds, could spell devastating consequences for endemic wildlife, all of which evolved in isolation. It seemed counter-intuitive that a place with such robust biodiversity could potentially be humbled by something as small as an insect hitching a ride on a traveler’s shoe but now the vulnerability of the Galápagos ecosystem was drawn into stark focus.

After touring the Center, I took the opportunity to visit the Tomas de Berlanga School, a nearby school with a special focus on education as a tool for creating a more sustainable future for the Galápagos Islands. This open-air school, built in the middle of a cloud rainforest, features a delicate blend between construction and wild. The curriculum focuses heavily on exploration of place, the islands, and conservation. Being an educator, this experience provided a special opportunity to connect the work I do in St. Louis and at the Missouri Botanical Garden to my expedition. As I stood documenting playful students running through the dense leaves of cloud rainforest, the connections between place and learning were never more clear. Through their time both in the cloud rainforest and at school, these students were learning crucial elements in developing a sense of stewardship and responsibility. It was hard to not leave the school without a feeling of hope for the future of the Islands with these future explorers leading the way. Following the school, our group took one more trip to see Giant Tortoises in the wild and explore a bit of local geological features as we hiked through a farm that lay in the middle of the Tortoises migratory path and above Lava Tunnel, a relic of the islands past.

The final few days of the expedition flew by. We hiked, snorkeled, and explored the islands of Cerro Dragon and Daphne Major where we were treated to special show put on by a school of bottlenose dolphins in the waters below our ship and witnessed the rare moment a school of tuna fish rushed to swim away from nearby predators. Cassiopeia hung upside down forming the shape of the letter “M.” At night, anchored between the northern and southern hemisphere the night sky looked both familiar and foreign. Lights on the ship’s hull illuminated more than twenty white tipped reef sharks that now surrounded our ship.

We spent the next day at Bartholomew Island where we hiked to the summit and learned even more about the birth of the islands. Galápagos lava cacti grew on the new lava fields that made up the Island landscapes. Home to the famous Pinnacle Rock, a volcanic cone formed when an underwater volcano exploded, and the main site of the Galápagos penguins. Every explorer has their own list of treasures to be seen, and this moment was mine. A chance to see Galapagos penguins in the wild. I was not disappointed. During our first adventure into the water for the day, as I let the ocean current slowly pull me along our planned route, I was surprised to find myself rather alone in the waters. Calm seas and clear water meant that I could see out into the great blue, and before I knew it right as I was getting ready to turn in for the afternoon, a penguin raced by chasing after a school of fish in the waters. Zipping with such speeds and swift movements, I watched as this little magnificent creature, the thing I’d been looking forward to my whole trip, was right there before my eyes for my to take in, to watch, and to study. The expedition had already led me to so many new discoveries, experiences, and encounters beyond anything in my wildest dreams, but in this one moment of pure awe and wonder I knew my life as an explorer would never be the same. 

The island of Genovesa would be the last island our expedition would get to explore. This shield volcano, sometimes referred to as “Bird Island,” hosts an incredible number of bird colonies and the largest population of red-foot boobies—home to nearly 230,000 individuals! The rocky island was full of juveniles practicing their flying and fishing skills. We even got a chance to see a short-eared owl find its prey. During the afternoon we took our last dive into the deep waters, and it was here that I experience probably the most humorous moment of the expedition—a live bird was dropped on my head. In the middle of a battle between a frigate bird and a red-billed tropic bird, a demonstration of kelptopartisim that ended as the frigate dropped the red-billed tropic bird into the water – onto my head. My new hat wasn’t happy as such and quickly flew away, desperate to escape the claws of the frigate once more.

With this close encounter of a bird kind, my time in the Galápagos had come to an end. I carried with me a newly message of hope as I boarded a plane in Guayaquil and began the long journey home.  With the many cautionary tales of ecological fragility that are ever more present in our lives, the Galápagos Islands offers a glimpse of hope that the human and natural world can exist within balance of one another. Through stewardship, exploration, and science we have all the power and tools we need. I returned home full of my own tales to tell, but also a sense of pride in the Missouri Botanical Garden’s role as global explorers and stewards of the local lands. Fueled by my newly discovered spirit of exploration, I have set off into the unknown territory of the future and charted course for the opportunity to share this experience with students, educators, and the St. Louis community.

Kat Golden
EarthWays Center Sustainability Education Manager

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