Kneeling on the white sandy shore of San Cristobal Island with camera in hand, I must have snapped a dozen pictures of the newborn Galapagos sea lion pup as it waddled over to sniff my knee, decided I wasn’t its mother, and moved on. Where is the pup’s mother? Out fishing, most likely. Since there are no land predators larger than the Galapagos hawk here on the islands, she is free to leave her pup alone for awhile without fearing that it will be snatched up as a meal.
I’ve been home from my Lindblad Expedition to the Galapagos for a month now and I am still reeling with wonder as I recall the beauty of the islands and the amazing wildlife we encountered. The Galapagos is a very special place and has given rise to a unique diversity of wildlife, many species of which are endemic to the islands (found nowhere else in the world). I am honored to have been selected as a 2015 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow with National Geographic, which provided me with this hands-on professional development opportunity to learn about the Galapagos Islands from direct experience.
Over the course of the week aboard the National Geographic Endeavour, we explored a handful of the western islands, all of which offered incredible opportunities for hiking, kayaking, snorkeling and, of course, photography.
You see, in the Galapagos, the animals have evolved little to no fear of people. They accept our presence just as they would that of any other creature, and it’s a surreal feeling. People are a part of the natural world, and I felt that more in the Galapagos than anywhere else I’ve been. At home, wildlife is much more wary of people, and for good reason. We are just as much of a threat, if not more, to wildlife than their natural predators.
Yet even though we can have negative impacts on wildlife and our environment, we also have the ability to solve the problems we cause. Conservation is not so much about managing wildlife as it is about managing people. In the Galapagos, it was clear that the way to preserve its unique biodiversity was not to exclude people entirely, but to regulate our actions to ensure sustainability. People are only allowed to visit certain islands at certain times of the year in a limited number of groups of a limited number of people, always with a trained naturalist and only to specific designated visitor sites. You must stay on the trails and leave no trace – and I mean nothing; if you have to go to the bathroom, you go back to the ship. While visiting, you may not approach wildlife any closer than six feet (though sometimes they approached you). In essence, wildlife has the right of way.
What if we showed that level of pride in and respect towards our wildlife and environment here at home? It would take a huge cultural shift, but I think it’s doable. In fact, I think we are making progress. People, in general, seem more aware of the issues and the impact of their actions now than they did when I started working at the Zoo 16 years ago. The sustainable living trend continues to gain traction. We are starting to realize that conservation is more than just saving any one species in particular; it’s about maintaining whole ecosystems and considering our place in them.
I am recharged and even more motivated than before to continue my work here at the Zoo. I plan to use the Galapagos as a model for how people and wildlife can coexist, specifically at our Galapagos tortoise exhibit. My goal is for guests to recognize that they are part of the natural world and have an important role to play in it both locally and globally.
I am extremely grateful to National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions for providing me with the opportunity to advance geographic literacy by engaging in this field-based experience and incorporating it into my work at the Zoo through the Grosvenor Teacher Fellow program.