Global Studies teacher Andrew McLean asks his students to write 4 wow moments, 3 learning moments, 2 mind-changing moments, and 1 moment worth learning more about.
I find myself here, reflecting. As ongoing bursts of sharp wind bite and whip at our hair with a Great White’s ferocity and the ocean makes haste to greet the light sand and wash over the black rocks, a sea lion begins to snore.
Our task, they say, is to have an adventure. We are in the Galapagos Islands, for heaven’s sake! We set out, the four of us, with the childish spirit that is rare among sluggish, hormonal teenagers, but a common occurrence with us TGS-ers. To have an adventure is to surpass the normal, take the wrong path and led the Fates guide you to whatever mischief and excitement you may find. And so we did. Past GAIAS, El Universidad, past the usual beach we flock on, and down a dirt road.
It catches my eye before we’ve even gone through all the lush greens and stepped off the stone mosaic path.
No, hair stay!
Whining and bawling, my brother would be dragged into the barber’s shop, once a month. He would pull his black locks and dig his heels into the ground defiantly. ‘Temper tantrum’ would be the understatement of the century. Seeing those steel stems of scissors near his beloved hair, he would open his mouth and scream. Wide-eyed, a five-year old Hannah would watch in awe, standing beside a metal pole with streamers of red and white encircling it. She would stare, hypnotized, until the scarlet and pearl tones would whirl and blend into one.
I blinked out of my trance, startled at the memory. We start towards the tower, wincing as the sharp rocks provoke our bare feet. Slowly we stop, bumping into each other as we laugh nervously. Lying at the doorstep is a large lump of blubber, a massive sea lion. Clutching our packs, our hands busy, tangled with a puzzle of Havainas and sandals, we tiptoe towards the beast.
Once safely inside and running up the creaking stairs, we look at each other and begin to laugh. Despite the peeling paint, the cracks and graffiti, we are happy. We put our hands together in a pact, the cheesy kind you may often find at summer camps. But we pour our hearts into this promise, a vow to never forget this day, always treasure the memory of these weeks and to forever remain friends.
Altogether in this lighthouse, a picturesque scene straight off a Pixar film, we sit, laugh and maybe even cry. Gawa makes a face, Becca throws her head back and roars with hearty laughter. Maya smiles wide, showing off her two fangs. And I stop to think, ‘Wow. Here I am, with three girls I’ve known for three weeks and love like three sisters. How lucky am I!’ Our hair, musky with the oceans’s scent, blends together, the effervescent blend of ebony and ivory, Snow White and Rapunzel.
As we make our way back home, we notice a sign. This shore is Punta Carola, or Love Beach.
Wow, I could actually be standing in the exact place where Darwin stood like a bajillion years ago!
Or a pirate. And a keg of rum.
I’m in a Dora the Explorer mood. While the others sunbathe and draw faces in the sand, Jared, Monique and I turn away and disappear into the dry leaves and shrubbery. After a brief photo-shoot with a gorgeous pelican, perched on his high and mighty branch, the three of us scamper off in search of ‘something cool’.
We have been snorkeling all day at Kicker Rock, consuming to exhaustion the wondrous wildlife, a whole other world that lay undiscovered beneath the crystal surface. Our suits stick close and clammy to our sandy bodies, our arms and legs ache (we suspect they may fall off soon), but our minds and hearts are happy and stuffed to the absolute brim with sightings of rays, sharks, even a sand dollar! We are content, with a feeling akin to one after a hot, fresh dinner following a strenuous work day.
Just as our buzzing pocket of energy is beginning to wear off, Jared beckons us over. It is covered entirely with small spikes, the kinds you might find at a screamo Metallica concert, and is the shade of bleached white that puts Barbie’s hair to shame. At one end, the specimen widened out into what looked scarily similar to a joint of a leg. We crow over the remains of this leg, and a shard of a spine bone with an inside mosaic pattern alike to that of a bee’s hive.
Looking across the land of untouched history and life, its almost frightening. We could explore here for days, maybe even years and still uncover some new, incredible phenomenon every single day. Holding a fossil is like connecting yourself past any boundary of time or space. It precedes that. It is in a sense, a hope that some form of life will not remain forgotten.
Being here is like being smack straight in the middle of life’s cycle. It hides nothing. You may see every gruesome, painful, and beautiful aspect of the natural world we were once a part of. All in a week’s work, we managed to find ourselves witness to not only a sea lion’s stillbirth, but also a live and successful one as well.
The girls “aw” and croon over a small, dark lump in the sand. He is still wrapped in what we think may be the amniotic sac, huddled in the fetal position, as if bracing an attack. A mature sea lion trudges over, and we scatter. After a quick glance and sniff, the beast belts a pained bark and flops down on the sand, next to the stillborn. We are angry. We don’t want birds, bugs, and other decomposers reaching the precious child, but we are told, naturally, that this is life – c’est la vie – and it mustn’t be disturbed.
A few days later, there’s a commotion. A sea lion had been making an enormous racket, bawling and whining. She had been giving birth. We gather, at a distance, as we watch the mother carefully tugging the placenta off the new baby by her teeth. When any one of us took an idle, unconscious step forward, she would bring us stumbling back with a single sharp shout.
We watched in wonder as the newborn stumbles forward, taking his first steps. This, right here, is life.
Silence. The quiet is loud; it encircles my arms and binds my feet. The deafening silence consumes my mind. Then I spiral upwards and break through the surface. Muffled voices are amplified, and my state of meditative insanity is broken.
I shimmy into my wetsuit and tug on black rubber fins. We clean the foggy lenses of our masks with spit gathered in the corners of our mouths. Playfully, we push each other off the deck of the boat and chortle as the victim emerges, groaning and giggling, with the occasional shiver.
I gurgle underwater, and gag as the salty sea rushes into my snorkel. The ray lifts his tail, and gold clouds collect at the ocean floor. I search, my eyes sweeping across this blue oblivion. I sense movement and swirl around, careful not to provoke the creature. My heart pounds, and I gape at the massive sting ray. His moves are fluid, while a thick layer of dark smooth skin shimmers. From head to tail, the beast is perhaps six feet long, floating silently and stealthily down below.
Trembling from the cold, we recount our findings, like little boys and girls telling an agonizingly long tale of our newest discovery.
They dart back and forth, moving together in absolute harmony. Scales shimmer as they drift. They remain painfully aware and with the slightest sliver of danger, they vanish, far out and away. Following our first snorkel session at Kicker Rock, I had become fascinated with schools of fish. Incredibly uniform and synchronized, they were like disciplined army seals, always at attention. I wondered:
How? How and where did their coordination come from? Why do they swim in schools, anyway?
Safety comes in numbers. A fish alone wouldn’t stand a chance against a hungry predator, but in groups, flashing and flying about could confuse their enemy and perhaps, provide the half second needed to escape. But how, then, do they travel together, in such perfect unison? Although they use their vision, fish also sense water displacement. Tiny, ultra-sensitive hairs called neuromasts cover their heads and bodies, bending at even the slimmest changes in pressure. The fish sense the movement, and immediately react. Each act is precise, intentional – nature’s most beautiful dance.
Often given horrid names like Fluffy or Rainbow, often cuddly, often soft, our adored house pets could be putting many Galapageño species at risk. Ring around the rosy, pockets full of posies. Ashes, ashes… Remember this cute, taunting children’s song? Despite it’s merry tune, this is actually a song of the Black Plague, which was spread all through Europe with the help of infectious rats on traveling boats.
In this same way, as Galapageños bring their pups and cats over from the mainland, they are also bringing diseases that sea lions must fight. They’ve also become a danger to the tortoises, by eating their young and eggs, as well as tortoise food. The goats that were recently almost entirely eradicated had been threatening many species of plants and animals, with their incessant eating.
We’ve all heard the popular and widely debated question: who came first, the chicken or the egg? But during our trip, we raised another inquiry:
Who came first, the land iguana or the marine iguana?
The answers were long and varied, but after a talk from Jeff, our tour guide, those land iguana believers could not ignore the facts. According to extensive research and carbon dating, scientists have managed to determine the age of the island, and how long the iguanas have roamed this Earth. To our utmost shock, we were told that the Galapagos Islands were actually a few million years younger than the iguanas! It seems that the marine iguanas had swum over to the Islands from the mainland and once they had seen the available food and habitat, some had adapted to be land iguanas, while others remained faithful to the sea.
CHANGED THOUGHTS #1
Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. We’ve heard it all before. The chants and ‘what’s right’ has engrained in our minds, however, very few of us actually made the conscious effort to be more environmentally aware. Not many people will take the few extra steps from a trash can to a recycling bin, and for the longest time, I was one of those people.
Stink. A reeking stench, the perfume of a valley of skunks, reflects off the piles and piles of garbage and waste, stacked high from the dirt ground. We have arrived here at the main compost/recycling center of San Cristóbal. The guides explain, the resources are limited here, and they must conserve and be as thrifty as possible to minimize their waste.
Stop, and think.
How many plastic water bottles do you throw in the trash, not the recycling bin? How long are your showers? How many unnecessary plastic bags do you take from the supermarket? How much do you waste?
Previously, lectures on recycling, to me, were a waste of time. I thought, Yeah, yeah, yeah. Whatever. But now, after seeing how much we waste we accumulate and how tweaking the smallest aspects of our life could make a difference, I’m ready to make that change.
CHANGED THOUGHTS #2
My view of the Galapagos has changed entirely, after having the incredible opportunity of going myself. As a friend of mine succintly puts it:
I’ve only ever heard of that in textbooks.
For most of the world, this wondrous place really is something that will only exist in textbooks. This trip is exactly what makes TGS special. It’s not the technology, though that itself is pretty awesome, but it’s the real experiences. We studied Darwin at the Charles Darwin Research Center, and the theory of evolution in the very place where this idea began to form all those many years ago.
TELL ME MORE
According to our very open tour guide and native Galapageño, Jeff, the Galapagos Islands have not been very well treated or recognized by the government of mainland Ecuador. Though to many people, these islands are treasured as a ‘prized possession’, they have not been treated accordingly. I would really like to know more of how we can help fund conservation in the Galapagos, but with the absolute knowledge that the money will go straight to where it is most needed, instead of being stuck in the government’s treasury and on a waiting list for months. This is a problem in many corrupt governments. As Jeff puts it:
We never know where the money goes. There may be a government official with a new Mercedes, while the tortoises suffer.