This and That and Final Reflection

Adaptation, natural selection, diversity of species, evolution were always on our minds. Take the iguanas for example. We saw marine iguanas, Galapagos land iguanas, and the mainland iguanas. Unfortunately we did not see the rare Galapagos pink iguana. It is thought that the Galapagos iguanas had a common ancestor, much like the ones in the Iguana Park in Guayaquil, that floated out to the islands from the South American continent on rafts of vegetation. The divergence between land and marine iguanas has been estimated at 10.5 million years ago. Geneticists estimate that the pink iguana diverged from the other land iguanas approximately 5.7 million years ago. Such a fascinating diversity of a species, yet one can see the similarities! (the pink iguana photo was taken from the Galapagos Conservancy website). We got to observe some of the most remarkable biological phenomena on this trip!

There were so many different surfaces we walked on– white sandy beaches, shelled beaches, a’a and pahoehoe lava, slabs of volcanic rock, black sand, reddish soil. It was fun to keep track of the different surfaces my feet walked on!

Our guides were amazing. Fernando Icaza was our guide in Guayaquil, for both legs of our journey. His soft-spoken gentle, kind, patient demeanor set a relaxing tone for us and the walking tour of Guayaquil, with his interesting commentary, exceeded our expectations. We are so grateful to him for going above and beyond to get our Covid PCR tests arranged and back to us in time (with paper copies) for our flights back to the U.S.

Lourdes Pesante-Aguirre (Lulu) was our guide in Galapagos. From the minute we met her at the airport, we knew we were in good hands! She has a personality larger than life- bubbly, funny, smart, knowledgeable, passionate, spontaneous, joyful- there are way too many adjectives to describe her! She seemed to know everyone in the Galapagos and they all seem to know her! She worked so hard with us and with the crew, made personal connections with each and every person in our group, and was very professional; yet during our down times in the evening, she would have fun with us! She looked out for us, teased us, encouraged reflection, had the best laugh, took underwater photos for us, kept us informed, and shared her personal stories of growing up in the Galapagos. She was a natural teacher and extraordinary guide!

Cruising around the islands on our own yacht with the amazing crew of the Bonita was a fantastic experience. Our cabins were comfortable, attractive, modern- but we really didn’t spend much time in them other than to sleep. The sun deck up top was a nice place to congregate and also to see the stars in the night sky. The lounge was comfortable and the flat screen TV always had our itinerary for the day posted. Lulu and Susan also used the flat screen TV to do slide shows of the photos taken during the day. The bar was well stocked and Steven could make almost any cocktail, including a mean margarita and my South American favorite- the pisco sour! Click here to see the details of the Bonita yacht.

The food was delicious with plenty of variety. We had a fresh fish option every day along with other choices, including vegetarian and vegan. The ceviche appetizers and soups before the meal were excellent. Lunch was always a buffet with several selections and nice fresh salads and fruit and dinner was a plated meal with entree options, usually a fish, chicken, beef, pasta, or vegan/vegetarian. Breakfast had a different main choice every morning. One night we had a seafood fest with shrimp, calamari, octopus, and sea bass. The chef was very creative. In addition to our three meals, we were always met with a cold drink and a nice snack when we returned from the pangas. Needless to say, I never needed to touch the granola bars I brought with me in case I needed a snack!

Pangas! By the time we departed, we were quite nimble in getting in and out of the pangas. Pangas are the zodiacs used for wet and dry landings on the islands, slow cruising up to cliffs and into sea caves, or to drop us off the sides into snorkeling areas. The crew always assisted us in and out of the pangas and sometimes even the captain came down to assist us. Following Galapagos Covid safety requirements, the panga drivers were always face-masked when they were with us in the pangas even though the crew was fully vaccinated. For some of the amazing surprise sightings like the huge flock of diving boobies, the panga drivers were just as thrilled at the sights as we were! We always had 2 pangas each with a crew member as well as Lulu.

The diversity of species on land and underwater exceeded our expectations. After a year and a half of Covid and few visitors to the Galapagos Islands, I think the animals were happy to see us. The sea lions seemed to be our welcoming committee wherever we went! Susan and Joyce kept the species list for us. At the end of the trip, after Joyce transcribed it onto her iPad, the list was five pages!

Galapagos is a photographer’s dream destination! Because you can get so close to the animals, you really don’t need a long lens most of the time. Many of the excellent photos taken by our group were with phones. These are two of my favorite photos- A smiling marine iguana and “blue footed booby love”.

Final Reflections from Page and Joyce:

We have both had the good fortune of leading several outdoor STEM expeditions, and each has brought us a great appreciation for the diversity of life and geological wonders on our planet.  But if we were to list these expeditions in order of their unique opportunities, we would place our Galapagos trip at the top of the list.  Such an array of unique flora and fauna, much of which can’t be seen anywhere else on Earth! Thank you to Holbrook Travel for arranging our trip.

While the Galapagos Islands served as the backdrop for our STEM expedition, it was our group that made this trip such a joy.  All came to genuinely care for one another and help each other during challenging moments, whether it was gaining a footing on the rocks, getting in and out of pangas and wet suits, or taking a difficult shot with a long lens to share with others. Some, including myself (Joyce), were novice snorkelers, and as we entered the waters, we knew our fellow travelers were looking out for us.  With my bad knee (Page), I really appreciated everyone’s help in adjusting my position in the panga. Group leaders may play a role in guiding a group through new experiences, but never underestimate the importance of supportive friends! Thank you to everyone for making this trip such an enjoyable and safe experience for all!

The Bonita crew was instrumental in setting the tone for our time in the Galapagos.  As I think back to moments when we were returning after a panga adventure, the crew was at the stern of the ship, welcoming us back, playing festive music, dancing, and offering us refreshments.  I can only imagine how hard they were working behind the scenes to make this seem so effortless.

Traveling during a pandemic was a bit stressful at first but upon arriving in Ecuador, it was clear that Ecuadorians take Covid safety precautions very seriously. The same was true in Galapagos and on the Bonita. Thankfully we all stayed healthy and safe and being outdoors for most of the time added another layer of safety. Personally, we felt safer in the Galapagos than we would in some of the states in the U.S.!

LuLu’s passion for her “paradise” is so contagious!  We knew there was going to be a sighting of a special animal, just by watching her face.  LuLu would light up, laugh, and say, “oh, wow!” – and then we’d look where she was pointing.  How many people can say they’ve seen a blue-footed booby feeding frenzy, had dolphins play alongside their pangas, or witnessed a mother sea lion give her baby their first bath?  We can, thanks to LuLu.

Our parting words to everyone come from a display at the Darwin Center: “Nature is not a place to visit, it is home” (Gary Snyder). Thank you Lulu, Bonita Crew, and all the animals of the Galapagos for welcoming us into your “home”.

And stay tuned for Galapagos Part 2 when we do another STEM Expedition in 2023!

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