by Amy Betz | Staff Writer
This Christmas break, Dr. Michael Rischbieter and Dr. Jim Wetzel led an expedition of 14 PC students on a trip to the Galapagos Islands. The group visited eight islands in total, staying on three of the four inhabited islands in the archipelago: Santa Cruz, Isabela, and Floreana.
“This was a great trip to the Galapagos Islands with a group of students that were totally into the culture, flora and fauna of this magical place,” Rischbieter said. “What I really enjoyed the most was the three days on Floreana Island, with its tiny human population of around 120 inhabitants.”
Described by sophomore Skylar Leopard as “the trip of a lifetime,” the nine-day journey included four flights, many rides in catamarans, speedboats and dinghies, approximately 50 miles of hiking up and down mountains and volcanoes, snorkeling in five different locations, climbing down cave-like lava tunnels, two visits to local farms, and encounters with many different kinds of unique Galapagos wildlife.
Students had many opportunities to snorkel off the coasts of five different islands, and in environments such as reefs and underwater caves. They swam alongside sea turtles, baby sea lions, blacktip sharks, puffer fish, parrotfish, eagle rays, seahorses, and a Galapagos penguin. On land, they visited the famous Galapagos tortoises in captivity in four different locations, including a farm on Santa Cruz and a breeding center on Isabela. Sea lions were numerous on all the islands and were a favorite animal among students. Other animals that the explorers saw were blue-footed boobies, both great and magnificent frigate birds, both marine and land iguanas, and lava lizards. They also visited famous locations such as Pinnacle Rock, Post Office Bay, and the former home of the Baroness of Floreana.
Three of the students, along with Dr. Wetzel, got to go scuba diving along the coast of Isla Tortuga. Having prepared for the dive for months and obtaining their certification, the divers were surrounded by a wide variety of sea life.
“It was the opportunity of a lifetime and the dive of a lifetime,” diver Blake Berry said. “In under an hour [we saw] 4 manta rays, a white tip reef shark, a scalloped hammerhead shark, a very playful sea lion, and a very calm sea turtle, not to mention the beautiful underwater volcanic rock structure and all the beautiful fish that call it home.”
Dr Rischbieter’s favorite part of the trip was the chance to get up close to a small island called Daphne Major. “This is where Peter and Rosemary Grant have been working on the evolution of Darwin’s finches since the early 1970’s, and it’s something I talk about in my Evolution course every year,” Rischbieter said. “You can’t imagine how barren and inhospitable this little speck of land is, but it has provided some of the best examples of how natural selection works in a short, human time frame, not the thousands or millions of years that most people imagine.”
Dr Rischbieter has tentative plans to bring another group of students to the Islands in the spring of 2020, as well as to Australia or New Zealand in May 2021. Dr. Wetzel will be leading a travel study group to Japan this coming May.