Homeward Bound!

Sunday, September 27th         05:57           02° 9’ 27” S, 79° 53′ 1″ W

 On Board COPA Flight 300 – Guayaquil International Airport

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A final Zodiac ride from The Endeavor yesterday, a short flight to the mainland, and suddenly I am in Guayaquil. There was not much time in the city for anything beyond the obligatory wander through the bustling neighborhood outside the hotel, a simple dinner, and some final visits with the folks whom I’ve been fortunate enough to have shared this adventure with–then it was straight to bed. I am on the plane now, after a brutal 3:00am wake up call and a zombie procession from sleep, to shuttle bus, to terminal, and on through immigration and security. In just under a day, following this flight to Panama City, another to Houston, and a final one to Portland—with marathon layovers in between—I will be home. There will be much to make of this experience in the time to come, and there is much to be grateful for. It’s best to begin with gratitude.

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First and foremost, I am appreciative beyond compare of my wife, Francesca, who has held down the fort and cared for our lovely daughter, Rosalie, while I was MIA—all while launching into her new job too. Many thanks as well goes to the good folks at my school, Catlin Gabel, for allowing me to take the time off for this mind-blowing professional development opportunity. I feel very lucky also to have been paired with a teacher as curious, passionate yet easy-going as Mike Presser. I’m very much looking forward to continued collaborations in the future!

All of the Naturalists (Aura, Celso, Christian, Gilda and Juan Carlos) and the expedition leader (Cindy) were incredible guides and vast storehouses of knowledge, passion, and inspiration. An extra special thanks goes to Aura for her mentorship from our first meeting at National Geographic headquarters in DC this past April throughout each day of the expedition.

Of course, we could not have explored the Galapagos at all if not for Captain Hinojosa, Ship Officers (Javier, Marlon, Andres), and the rest of the NG Endeavor crew. Nor would we have been as well housed and as well fed without Roberto Zambrano and his incredible staff. A shout out must also go to our video chronicler, Brian Christiansen for both his phenomenal skills behind the camera (above and below the waterline) and his one of a kind Galapagos-fauna-inspired dance moves!

This voyage and all the lessons learned would not have been though—at least not for me— without the generous and inspired folks behind the founding, funding and day-to-day operations of the Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship Program.  A huge thanks goes particularly to the GTF Project Manager, Nina Page, of National Geographic and to Amy Berquist of Lindblad Expeditons for their hard work and support. Above and beyond all else, even the loudest THANK YOU only hints at the gratitude I direct to Gil Grosvenor and Sven Lindblad for their partnership in conservation and education and for scheming up, launching, and supporting this teacher fellowship. I am appreciative and humbled beyond compare to to have this opportunity and look forward to sharing my experiences and lessons with my students and greater community when my plane finally lands. I know Mike feels the same.

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On Deck

Friday, September 25th        21:17              0° 53’ 53” S; 89° 37’ 06” W

Wreck Bay, San Cristobal Island

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One week and six hundred miles later, we have arrived at our final destination: Wreck Bay off the Island of San Cristobal. The dim light of the Galapagos capital, Puerto Baquirezo Moreno, dances lazily atop the surface of the sea and the southeast winds curl along the ship’s contours as they follow the Humboldt currents toward San Cristobal. There are Zodiacs at the ready to take us with the wind into town tonight, but Mike and I choose to stay aboard the Endeavor. We will be back on land soon enough. There are notes to take, photo and video files to swap, bags to pack, a blog to update, and lessons to plan. But there is also an open sky and the need for some final moments on deck before we step off the Endeavor for our last time tomorrow. There is a balance to be struck between the busy and the still.

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The Busy- A day on the National Geographic Endeavor

No day has been the same since boarding the Endeavor, yet there are natural rhythms that nudge you toward your own routines. More times than not, I wake at 6:00, rub the sleep from my eyes, organize my things for the day, and grab a cup of coffee on my way to the bridge to take in our new position. Breakfast is available at 7:00 and our first excursion is generally at 8:00 (though occasionally has been as early as 6:30). The mornings have usually been for venturing onto land with naturalists to learn about the ecology, geology, and history of the islands. We have investigated the recent geologic uplift of Urbina Bay on Isabella Island, learned about failed attempts to mine salt on Isla de Santiago, and tracked the efforts to stem the tide of invasive species on the Island of Santa Cruz. Today we climbed to an open ridge on San Cristobal Island called Punta Pitt, a nesting site for all three species of boobies (birds), Blue-footed, Red-footed, and Nazca. On our return to the olivine sand beach below Punta Pitt, we were overcome by the surreal only in Galapagos delight that is swimming with sea lions (something I will never forget or even fully believe).

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After lunch, I’ve been attending photography or biological illustration workshops, or occasionally setting out on a sea kayak to look for sea lions and sea birds along the rocky shoals rimming the islands. Nearly everyday the late afternoon has meant deep-water snorkeling, which, for someone who has very little experience with the sea, has been eye opening and otherworldly. Yesterday we explored a dark grotto filled with fish, sea lions and a handful of sleeping (harmless) reef sharks. Today while snorkeling along the steep cliffs of Kicker Rock, we encountered something truly astonishing: a teeming school of black striped selemas packed tightly in an undulating orb nearly one hundred feet in diameter. Around this mass of fish swam half a dozen sea lions and over a dozen sharks each of whom took their turn slicing through the shimmering fish ball in hopes of picking off a less synchronized selema for their supper. We watched this feeding frenzy for nearly an hour before returning to the ship for our own evening meal…ever aware of how nice it is that we neither had to hunt for our dinner or fear becoming the dinner of someone else.

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Before eating, we all gather together to share stories and photos from the day and to discusses plans for tomorrow’s adventures. Following dinner there is usually a relevant Galapagos-based lecture or a film. More times than not Mike and I have stayed up late into the night either in our cabin or in the ship’s library debriefing the day, organizing our photos and videos and recharging and sorting the ridiculous amount of camera and video gear that we either brought with us or had provided for us by National Geographic.

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The primary mission of our work is to develop meaningful ways to share the experiences we’ve had and lessons we’ve learned during our expedition with our students and with more far-reaching educational communities. In these final days of the expeditions, we have been busy interviewing naturalists, creating our own “narrative spheres” (using the Ricoh Theta), putting together a presentation for the guests on board the ship, and making plans on how we can work together in the months to come. Our goal is to develop curriculum that we and other teachers can use to communicate the power of geographic perspective, the value of conservation, and the connection that all people, regardless of locale and ability to travel, can have to a place as unique and significant as the Galapagos.

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The Still – Finding Calm in the Restless Sea

Last night, just before 2:00am, I found myself at the bow of the ship—the only one on deck aside from the crewman watching over the bridge. I had been so lost in the flow of writing and in the novel business of photo editing that I had not realized the time. Neither had I fully realized the motion of the ship until, on standing up, I was pressed back by the swells into my seat. Amusingly, I rose and wobbled from my cabin on the waterline up to the deck, the whole time leaning against the changing power of the sea. Once I found my place at the bow, I held on to the rails and peered over the edge as the ship crested and fell into the rolling waters. The waxing gibbous moon lit the froth of the waves. Three swallow-tailed gulls, with their eyes faintly ringed with bright red, surfed the winds just beyond my reach. There was symmetry between the smooth rhythms of the ship as it cut through the sea and in the gliding of the gulls drifting unbothered in the fluid air above. It was a moment that I will not soon forget and one that I will carry as a lesson on the power of calm in the face of uncertainty. Equanimity is the word and is a worthy goal on this adventure and in all to come.

Peopled and Unpeopled Lands

Thursday, September 24th- 23:55

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Life has been full aboard (and off board) the Endeavor…so busy in fact that it has been difficult to find the time to write. From the young volcanic islands of Fernandina and Isabella we have sailed east to Santiago then on to the island of Santa Cruz. We have left the cold waters, which paradoxically, and amazingly, are shared by penguins and green sea turtles, and we are now back into warmer seas. Days have been spent exploring the islands immersed in conversations with naturalists, embarking on deep-sea snorkeling excursions to better understand the marine ecology, and collaborating with the other NG Grosvenor Teacher Fellow (Mike Presser) on a very exciting digital story telling project we’ve come up with using the spherical video camera, the Ricoh Theta in tandem with Google mapping software to share our lessons from the Galapagos with our classes and the world. Stay tuned to see what becomes of this:)

There is a growing list of topics, themes, ideas, relationships etc. that I’ve been mulling over and processing –all as new experiences and information are shuffled into the mix. Many of these morsels will hopefully get a little more digesting and will, at some point, find their way here. In the meantime, there was a piece of writing that I just put together with Mike as one of our fellowship contributions to the expedition that I wanted to share.  Check out the Daily Expedition Report (DER) we wrote up for Thursday, September 25th. Check HERE for a link that has past DERs (dates 9/21-27)

*Note: If you read my last blog post (from 9/22) with the picture of me on the equator were you able to identify what was so unique? Could you explain what causes this? Hint: Look at the shadows.    Stay tuned on this, I’ve been working with the National Geographic video chronicler on a video clip about this, which I’ll post here.

NG Endeavor Daily Expedition Report

Thursday, September 24th, 2015                              Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island

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After plying eastward overnight from Santiago Island, we awoke this morning in Academy Bay offshore from Puerto Ayora on the Island of Santa Cruz. Following our days exploring the unpopulated environments of the Galapagos, the sights and sounds of ship engines, local music, shopkeepers, and Galapaguenos carrying on with their everyday lives struck a sharp contrast and led us to focus more closely upon the human story that has unfolded and continues to unfold here on the islands.

Our adventures began as our Zodiac cut through the morning light en route to Puerto Ayora. This is the research and tourism hub of the islands as well as home to a majority of Galapagos residents–including so many of the wonderful staff of the NG Endeavor. Once on dry land, we ventured to the Charles Darwin Research Station, an organization that has worked tirelessly advocating for conservation, combating the perilous spread of invasive species, and saving the iconic giant tortoises from the brink of extinction. A meandering cobblestone walk, a visit to the open-air fish market ringed with pelicans, iguanas and sea lions and a highlands-bound bus ride later we arrived at the Tomas de Berlanga School. As this expedition’s two Grosvenor Teacher Fellows, we had been happily anticipating the visit to this conservation-minded school sponsored and supported by Lindblad Expeditions. After a visit with the students and teachers, we left happily convinced that the spirit and ethos of conservation is alive and well in the next generation of Galapaguenos.

Fueled by a delicious lunch from the local restaurant, Aqualerre, we struck out through the welcome lush of the highlands into the land of the tortoise. We found these giant reptiles by the dozen spread about in fields and forest like boulders, moving only slightly faster as they plodded along in their seasonal migration. You may hear of the Galapagos giant tortoises or you may watch them in documentaries, but nothing prepares you for the opportunity to lay belly-down in the pasture eye to eye with them as they eat grass, shift their grand bodies, eat some more grass, and remind you to slow down.

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The View From the Center of the World

Monday, September 21st, 2015              18:17              Lat: 0° 0’ 0”   Long: 91° 37’ 61” W

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No matter where you are, you stand in the center. Our perspective marks the focus of our unique personal sphere stretching from horizon to horizon and arcing above and below in all directions. Yet, in a world that is itself a sphere, there must be a place on its surface, which is more central than others regardless of where you stand. There must be a bisecting line that will split a sphere into two symmetrical bowls whose rims, on meeting, re-form an edge-less orb. On Earth, we call this line the equator. Today we crossed this line.

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The distinctiveness of the equator has been recognized by the cultures who have lived along its contour well before we had developed world maps, globes, or satellites, and certainly before we came upon the concept of those other traveling spheres called planets. Yet, in the absence of all these tools–and through nothing more than careful observation of daily, seasonal and yearly cycles–we have and we can continue to discover the equator. Even more remarkable, through observation and reasoning, we can glimpse the nature of our planet and its place and motion in the cosmos.

To begin, consider the significance of the single observation that sunlight is not evenly spread across the Earth. At some times and in some locations we are flooded with light, while in others we are dealt nothing but darkness. There is a narrative to be read in this unequal distribution and in the patterns that separate light from dark. Pay attention and you can begin to see the world from a single point wherever you are. Shadows tell the story of the sun’s path, the points of sunrise and sunset identify the seasons, mindful stargazing reveals the distance separating you from the equator. You can experience all this in your own life if you look closely. Pay attention to the sun as it rises and falls along its daily journey and you’ll notice morning’s long shadows shorten until the sun reaches its noonday zenith then grow again as evening comes. Trace the shifting points of sunrise, zenith and sunset throughout the seasons and you’ll notice that the they all appear to migrate along the horizon like Canada geese— traveling further south in the winter, and north in the summer. Measure the angle between horizon and the North Star, Polaris, (or, if you are in the south, the Megallanic Cloud of the Southern Cross) and you will have determined your latitude.

Weave all of these clues together and you can begin to see the underlying cause-and-effect relationships which reveal the secrets of Earth’s position and motion in space: The sun’s daily journey is a clue to planetary rotation. The position of sunrise zenith and sunset point to the tilt of the Earth’s axis and hint also to one’s latitude, which can be pinned down more fully by looking at those special points in space lying directly above the poles.

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Wherever you are there is a compelling geographic story to be read within the elements of the everyday. Yet, there are special times (in special places) when you may experience the exceptional—if you take the time to look. Today was one of those times.

Across the Earth, the sun reaches its zenith (its highest point) at noon because the planet’s rotation has presented that locale—and all others of similar longitude—directly to the sun. The wandering nature of sunrise and sunset that you observe exists due to the Earth’s tilted axis, a twenty-three and a half degree bow that it makes to the sun or to space depending upon the season. Twice in the Earth’s yearly revolution around the sun its tilt is perfectly perpendicular to the sun’s rays and light is cast directly upon the equator. These are the autumnal and vernal equinoxes (also known as the first day of fall and the first day of spring respectively). If you are on the equator, and it is the equinox, and it is noon. This is what you get*:

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What is special—and peculiar—about this photo (besides how funny I look of course)? Look closely. Read the clues. Can you tell?

*Minor caveat: the perfect alignment of date, time and position to allow me to be exactly on the equator at noon exactly at the equinox (this year, falling on September 23rd at 2:22am Galapagos time) was impossible given our journey. This picture was taken at noon (exactly) thirteen nautical miles south of the equator 37.5 hours prior to the precise equinox. With all this said, I’d say this is both incredibly close and surely close enough 🙂

Alien Lands: Here I am

Sunday, September 20th, 2015     22:32    Position: 0deg 24’ 36’’ S, 90deg 33’ 28” W

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The early Galapagos: A distant world, slowly grows beneath the surface. In the depths volcanoes belch magma, basalt rises and cools from mantle to sky. This world, first empty, brims with potential—waiting. Settlers will come eventually, propelled by great rains, riding on rafts of plants and soil flushed out to sea and forsaken. Still some castaways will find salvation—an act of provenance, or random chance— through their unlikely convergence with these new specks of land in a sea of empty. In this way the petri dish is inoculated and the Galapagos experiment begins. These colonizers will sculpt a life from lava and wind, from cool nutrient-rich currents and equatorial rain to form an environment like none seen elsewhere before or since.

Los Encantanadas was the first name given to this improbable land, home to even more improbably creatures. We have not yet been here for two full days, and already I am enchanted. My mouth is agape and head spinning with the curiosities and wonders that surround me. It does not matter how many books you read or how many films you watch, on arriving in the Galapagos, you enter into a surreal dream, which cannot fully be imagined or told. This is a place where you can crouch eye-to-eye with marine iguanas as they scribe an unabashed line directly past you in the sand, where you may be surrounded by boisterous frigate birds whose throats inflate red like birthday balloons in proud yet comic display, and where you can even rest your head for a moment with your underrepresented fellow mammal, the Galapagos sea lion.

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In the day and a half since arriving, we have ventured onto three islands (Baltra, Santa Cruz and North Seymour). Along our path, we have threaded our way through cacophonous frigate bird and blue footed boobie colonies, contemplated the life of land iguanas whose long lost relatives washed from the mainland on early floods tens of thousands of years ago, and even spied a lone flamingo poised one-legged in a shallow lagoon picking through the memory of the last high tide. We have snorkeled alongside pacific green sea turtles, surgeonfish, and manta rays in the deep waters off of Rabida Island. Amid all of this, I have jumped into a crash course on biological illustration, vowed to learn at least the basics of digital SLR photography, met a diversity of interesting people from around the world, and have even managed to sleep just a little bit in between.

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Tonight we sail across the equator back into the northern hemisphere and around the seahorse head of Isla Isabella to Fernandina, the youngest island and most recent magma column belched from sea to sky only half a million years ago. This is where the deep Cromwell current upwells from the depths of the Pacific feeding the diverse marine life with energy rich phytoplankton. It is a place where Galapagos penguins share waters with green sea turtles, a stretch of waters visited and valued by Darwin, and a place I am very excited to see.

Go! Go! Wait…

     

– 9:30pm Panama City Airport

In and out of sleep from Portland to Houston then onward through a frenzied lightening storm to my second layover in Panama City, I have now found some calm. This break from the flight sequence of the day is unexpected— a delay no doubt due to the electrical currents running through the sky above. So here I sit, peering through the thin curtains of my own fuzzy eyes upon an airport that could be any airport. Aside from the intermittent Spanish flight announcements and the slightly nuanced variation on the carpeting here, I could convince myself I am still in Portland. But, a great distance has been covered. It is remarkable, though, how little I have worked, how little I have contributed, to hop from my corner of the world to this new vantage. We take it for granted that, most of all, travel requires periods of waiting and strategic hibernation, often no decisions being made en route from point A to point B aside from contemplation of the second cup of coffee. How much things have changed since the advent of jet fuel, globalism, and online ticketing.

After steeping in the history and lore of the Galapagos over these past months, I am reminded that Darwin had sailed for over three years (carried away with repeated surveying expeditions to map South America) before arriving in the Galapagos. It is silly to be bothered by a few added hours of travel (or by the subsequent subtraction of sleep).

The Galapagos of the now  is a world teeming with human visitors by the thousands—all of whom strategically descend upon its remote islands guided by global positioning systems, air traffic control, Lonely planet Guidebooks, or by the vast room in the storehouse of the internet devoted to finding, seeing, and “doing” the Galapagos. Yet, it is worth remembering that the Galapagos Islands were discovered entirely by accident.

The Bishop of Panama, Fray Tomas de Berlanga, came across the Galapagos much as you might come across a foreign piece of furniture in a dark and unknown room. The story goes that he was sailing to Peru in 1535, when unexpected currents blew him and the crew of his ship westward on the equatorial current into supposedly landless waters. It is here where he stumbled upon the Galapagos and was later marooned without a breath of wind. Berlanga had no kind words to say of this new world. In his journal he wrote that the land was, “dross, worthless, because it has not the power of raising a little grass, but only some thistles.” Little would he know, but such an unassuming place would catalyze within the human mind the keystone of biological understanding…but this would not happen till Charles Darwin landed exactly 300 years later and began putting the clues together. And now, 180 years after that, I will descend, from the sky, one visitor of thousands, guided by satellites and flying in a hunk of metal neither Berlanga or Darwin would have imagined possible. I will have done little along the way in my journey but watch the clouds, look at my eyelids and type away on a computer. Yet I will arrive.

But, for now, here I sit in Panama. In one very small way I am like Berlanga who at one point also waited on this same thin bridge of land awaiting the mysteries of his Galapagos surprise.

Destination: Galapagos

The date September 18th, now known also as tomorrow, has occupied a well traveled and much anticipated spot in my awareness over these past months. Ever since a fateful day in February when I got the call from the National Geographic Society saying that I’d been selected as a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow and would be joining an expedition to the Galapagos Islands, this date, the date of my departure, has been a marker which I’ve watched rush forward from the distant horizon to its spot, now, right beneath my nose.

After a training at National Geographic headquarters in Washington DC last spring, and a run of successive raids on all the Galapagos themed books from the Multnomah County public library, my excitement and anticipation has grown. Now there is little to do but go.

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In just under twelve hours I will roll out of bed and into a yellow cab which will deliver me to the first of five airports en route to Baltra airport off of Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos. Here I will join another Teacher Fellow as well as a group of National Geographic naturalists and photographers  aboard the science and ecotourism vessel, the NG Endeavor.

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Source: Expeditions.com

Over the next eight days I will be exploring the islands on foot and by boat. I will be snorkeling, attending lectures, developing lessons, carrying out research projects and learning as much as I can about the unique and curious land (and waters) that are the Galapagos. My head is spinning with ideas and even more with gratitude for this opportunity.

I will be writing about my experience while aboard the Endeavor and am hoping to share daily stories, pictures, and videos from the expedition if satellite internet allows. But, for now, with my feet planted firmly in Oregon soil for mere hours, the to-do lists pleads more loudly for my attention than the anticipatory musings on departure…and the bags must be packed. So, for now it’s time to go.

Launch!

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I do not relish time spent in front of a computer. Fresh air, the smooth rush of a bike over pavement, snow squeaking beneath skis, adventures with students, dancing with my daughter and smiling at my wife. These are the ways I choose to live. Yet, somehow along the way, I have chosen also to live here. The screen, the keyboard, and the great web beyond has crept into my life, much like the stray cat that, over time, has come to sleep at the foot of my bed.

So here I am, on the banks of a great ocean that is the internet about to cast a pebble, to dip a toe, to huck a cannon ball, or to launch a raft (I am not sure which). I do not think for a moment that this seemingly infinite ocean needs more of anything. But, you can only stare at it and scratch your head for so long before you jump in.

If this is a vessel, its goals are to explore, to experiment with new perspectives, to look closely, to record life’s marvels, and–above all else–to draw gratitude and wonder from the world and people around us. From where I sit, this seems like a worthy reason to begin.