During fall break, I traveled with thirteen other Notre Dame undergraduate students to the Galápagos Islands as part of a new science course, Practicum in Field Environmental Biology. Under the direction of Biological Science Professors, Gary Lamberti and Malcolm Fraser, we explored the islands and investigated individual research projects, which focused on observation of unique species in the islands.
Throughout the week, our tour guide, Luis, offered insight into the amazing characteristics of the islands and explained how each island’s environment is conducive to the success of unique species. I have never been in a place quite like it, where you have to compete with sea lions for a space to sit on the boardwalk, or where iguanas will walk right in front of you and completely disregard your presence. The Galapagos Islands are the perfect example of nature existing with no fear of humans, and the protection of them and respect for the environment there was unquestionable.
Our excursions around the islands took us to hardened lava flows, the lush highlands, the arid coasts, and even throughout the ocean itself. Snorkeling in the chilling waters surrounding islands provided many of my favorite memories. During our first time out snorkeling, I was suddenly surprised by a green sea turtle staring me in the face as it rose to the surface! We witnessed so many incredible organisms in their natural habitat, like newborn sea lions and frigate birds puffing their chests to vie for attention. Luis made a point to educate us on the delicate balances in place throughout the islands, such as the important cold water currents that made it possible for us to snorkel with a Galapagos penguin.
In addition to hiking and boating, we roamed around Puerto Ayora and embraced the culture. The streets were lined with murals and vendors; there was so much movement! I found the fish market to be very entertaining, as pelicans and sea lions jumped up to be fed and even pushed humans out of the way in their eagerness. On the islands, I tasted octopus for the first time and passion fruit juice became my favorite, as I experienced some of the best food I’ve ever eaten. We would finish some nights by watching the reef sharks swim around the boardwalk after the sunset. It was both surreal and humbling to witness such creatures so close.
In between all of the excitement, we found time to work on our specific research projects. My research included noting the differences between cacti on certain islands, and where they may have evolved according to how large the threat of predation was. Other students examined topics from all ranges, including the attitudes and interaction between sea lions and humans and the pioneer species involved in colonization of volcanic lava flows. Each project reflected personal interest in the subject and used the Galapagos Islands as an incomparable source of observation.
Even in writing this blog, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to describe how thankful I am to have visited and learned from the Galapagos Islands. The trip offered a type of hands-on learning that I believe all Notre Dame students should experience. Our group discovered a deeper appreciation for the natural world and the thriving environment around us invigorated our connection to our studies.
We will discuss our adventures with the children at the Robinson Community Learning Center soon, as a means to inspire their scientific minds. I truly hope that aspiring researchers continue to pursue protection of nature and its impressive creatures. This experience taught me the value of even the smallest organism and highlighted the importance of adapting to our surroundings. My seven days spent on the Islands were truly unforgettable; from studying the evidence of evolution to watching the dives of the blue-footed boobies, the entire trip was extraordinary!
Anna Chang is a junior at the University of Notre Dame, studying Science-Business and Greek & Roman Civilization. She is currently a Intern with the Notre Dame Environmental Change Initiative.
Funding for the engagement portion of this course was provided by ND-GAIN in collaboration with the Center for Social Concerns through a Course Development Grant. Notre Dame International implements this program in partnership with the Biology Department.