Charlie Reed surveyed the marine life surrounding him as he snorkeled off the coast of the Galapagos Islands. Suddenly, two black, glassy eyes gazed back at him.
He stared face-to-face at a 200-pound female sea lion.
“At first, it was a little scary,” the University of Mary Washington senior said. “Then you realize they are just trying to play.”
The Galapagos Islands, the site of a UMW faculty-led Spring Break trip, are known for their biological diversity – and for wildlife that haven’t been conditioned to be afraid of humans.
Reed and his 23 fellow UMW students experienced that firsthand during their nine-day trip, a joint effort by Andrew Dolby, professor of biology, and Melanie Szulczewski, assistant professor of environmental science. The trip was one of five faculty-led study abroad experiences over Spring Break, including in Quebec, Guatemala, Austria and India.
“What makes this course unique is that it is holistic,” Dolby said. Students will receive credit in either biology or environmental science after completing the class at the end of the semester.
“We are looking at the Galapagos as a microcosm of the world’s conservation challenges,” Dolby said. “It is a good case study.”
Although the Galapagos Islands are perhaps best known as the site of Charles Darwin’s discoveries about evolution and natural selection, students expanded their view of the Ecuadorian islands with discussions of sustainability, eco-tourism, and government policy.
“In my opinion, every biologist has to go there at least once,” said Reed, who has hopes of becoming a National Park Service ranger after graduation. “It is the foundation of our thought processes and beliefs. That’s where Darwin’s inspiration was. To be able to see where the theory of natural selection developed is really cool. We are seeing evolution as close to ‘in action’ as possible.”
During the trip, students stayed in local hotels and hostels in small towns, allowing them to experience the culture and talk to residents. They toured the Charles Darwin Research Station and a Galapagos giant tortoise conservation center; went hiking on the second largest active volcano in the world; and spotted bottlenose dolphins, marine iguanas, and blue-footed boobies during excursions.
The students also helped to remove invasive guava trees and plant native scalesia trees on reclaimed Galapagos National Park land as part of a reforestation service learning project.
“That’s one of the tenets of being an eco-tourist,” said Szulczewski. “It makes you an environmental scientist, since environmental scientists are looking at the human connection to ecosystems. We are humans visiting that place and it is very important that we are contributing to the place that we are enjoying, as well as helping make it a better place for the people who live there.”
While seeing exotic animals and wildlife, students also witnessed the conservation efforts of the 30,000 Ecuadorians who call the Galapagos Islands home.
“I think the fact that [the students] saw how invested Ecuador is in conserving the Galapagos actually surprised them,” Szulczewski said. “The efforts to educate both the tourists and the local residents were some of the best I have ever seen.”
There, sustainability reminders in the form of informational signs are everywhere, from billboards to bathrooms. Even some of the graffiti had an eco-friendly theme, Szulczewski said.
“It’s not just about getting tourists to be more eco-minded, but showing the people who live there how important it is to conserve this special place,” she said.
For senior biology major Sarah Cantarella, the symbiotic relationship between the humans and wildlife was evident throughout the trip.
“Sustaining the economy and the wildlife go hand in hand in the Galapagos, which is definitely unique,” she said. “The wildlife drives the economy by bringing eco-tourists [to the islands], and the only thing that prevents the wildlife from being destroyed is the dedication and work of the people.”