Sunday, July 8, 2012

Volcanoes and Sea Turtles

Well, here it is, the final blog.

I've decided to wait to cover our last couple of days in the Islands. On Isabella, we took an entire day to explore.

We woke early, breakfast at 6:30, and set out to climb 9 kilometers (there and back) to the apex of the second largest active volcano in the world. It was cold as we made our way up, wet, and muddy. As we neared the top, however, the clouds gave way and the sun began to come out, and the equatorial heat was back. From the rim, we looked out at the vast expanse of charred nothingness, seemingly endless—we couldn't even see the other side because of the low-hanging clouds over the islands. Toward the top, there was a cadre of horses, and Colleen, our resident cowgirl, gave rides to equestrian newcomers.

The way back down was quicker and even dirtier; Connor got his shoe stuck in the mud. After, we returned to the hotel, changed, and set out for an island filled with marine iguanas, the surface of which looked something like that of the asteroid Bruce Willis attempts to drill in Armageddon.

But the best part was what came next; we took the boats back into the cove, and, as we had many times before, put on our snorkeling gear and dropped into the water. After climbing over a couple rocks, we entered a tidal cove, and saw sea anemonies, penguins, and a huge sea turtle (he or she must have weighed 300 pounds). I swam down under it, around it, and could not believe just how absurd and incredible the entire experience was.

I'm so thankful we had the opportunity to go on this trip—until next time!

Joseph Gruenbaum

Thursday, June 28, 2012

What a Trip

Right now as I type from Floreana, the least populated of the habited Galapagos Islands, I realize just how rare the opportunity I’m enjoying is. Being surrounded by nature like I am now, while taking classes which try to aggregate the problems created by humans, I find myself in a freakish contradiction. For every fantastic story I can tell you about Galapagos, there is an equally depressing fact about the world that I have learned in the course. The mix of vitality from the atmosphere is stopped for about two hours of class while the discussion accentuates my cynicism which had already been growing after a year of college.
The clash that has stereotypically pinned class and the outside world has been especially true on this trip. Down here, when breakfast is at 7, you’re waking up early no questions asked. Since I already consider myself a professional procrastinator, the pristine beauty of this place after dark is detrimental for my habit of working after hours. A great highlight of this beauty was two nights ago. My good pal Phil and I walked up a road outside the town’s lights where the clear sky was only illuminated by the moon and stars. We then walked to the pier where we saw a school of sting ray in attack mode against some guppies. From here, I could notice the life surrounding me in a way that I never got growing up in a city. The moon soon set afterwards, ominous and red. I can’t give justice to how cool that was in words, just trust me. We then went back up the hill where there were now only the stars. Not knowing the next time I could see something like this, I didn’t care that this star gazing was in a gravel road and breakfast was in seven hours.
                Classes are different. Each time that our cohort gathers together for discussion, we tackle a world problem which tends to be insurmountable in terms of being changed. The end message tends to be that if we change our behavior in a few ways, our tragic fate could be avoided. But the complexities of the world and its consistent tendency toward irresponsibility lead us, or at least me, to pessimism. In this course, I’ve become more aware of loopholes that people, corporations, and governments use to disregard the environment. When the message of one of our major readings is that we already lost the fight to save the biodiversity in our planet, it gets to you.
                In this class, we get exposed to the state of the real world in a place where you have to step over sea lions.  Seriously, Nicholson? Oh yeah, not to mention that Lonesome George just died two days after we visited him. Witnessing an extinction in this course was especially intriguing. In the end, I’m grateful for the multi-dimensionality of the course because it shows that perhaps our problems and our dealings with them are not mutually exclusive. 
Sea Lions have become a personal favorite of mine (Conor's Photo)

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Beautiful Floreana

Floreana was amazing. It’s what you picture when you think of a small beach town in the middle of nowhere. And in fact, that’s exactly what it was, a small beach town on an island with only 128 people. I can’t imagine a more peaceful place. It was perfect. I will always think of that island as paradise. The first day we saw giant land tortoises, rode on the top of a van, took a hike, and watched the sun set on a black sand beach. I couldn’t have asked for more out of that day. Our second day on Floreana was equally full and enjoyable.
            We started our second day on Floreana by going to the school. When we got there it was recess time so we joined the kids in their games. We played soccer and volleyball. And I played on a seesaw with a little girl. Then a couple of the other girls joined me playing on a piece of play equipment that was similar in concept to the merry-go-rounds that some people sat on while others ran to spin them. Unfortunately, before long, recess was over and it was time to go to class. I still think that recess is the best part of any school day. I miss recess.
            The children split into their three classes that were determined by age group. We divided into our three project groups who had all developed lesson plans for the students. My group made a lesson plan about water, it’s importance, and how the water cycle works. We tailored our lesson plan differently towards the different age groups. With the younger kids we did some interactive activities that allowed them to move around while learning about the different forms that water comes in. With the middle aged kids we had a more straight forward and basic lesson about the water cycle. And with the older kids we had an interactive conversation in which we discussed the water situation on the islands. After talking to all of the age groups we left them to continue the regular studies and challenged them to a soccer game later that evening.
            After lunch and a class with our professor we were on to our next adventure: snorkeling. We had to walk about one kilometer to get to the cove that was a good place to begin snorkeling from. It was a really rocky beach, but we weren’t there to sunbathe so it didn’t matter. While snorkeling we saw a lot of fish (a few that looked like Dorey) and a good number of sea turtles. A couple of people and I followed a sea turtle relatively far into the ocean. It was a tough swim back, but following the turtle was mesmerizing and entirely worth it. Once we were back to shore there were three sea lions playing in the cove that we were swimming out of. It was breathtaking how close they got to us.
            By the time that we were done swimming it was time for our soccer match with the school kids. It was all of us against the kids, aged about 5 to 16. Everyone got super into the game. And it was neat because a handful of people from the town came to watch us play. The game was close, and for a while it looked like we were going to win. Ultimately the kids beat us, by a lot. It was not for a lack of effort on our part.
            We separated from the kids to go to dinner, but we invited some of the older kids to join us for our bonfire that evening. After dinner we went back to the black sand beach where we went on our first night to watch the sun set, but this time it was to make a bonfire. There was initially some difficulty getting the fire started, but Phil saved the day and got the fire going. While the bonfire burned, we took the time to look at the stars. It was amazing how many of them that we could see. Whitman pointed out a number of the constellations that we can’t see from the northern hemisphere. Santos, a guy who lives on Floreana, told me that we were only seeing a portion of the number of stars that we would otherwise get to see, because the moon was so bright. We should have been waiting for the sun to set. As the night was coming to a close some of the Global Scholars took a starlight swim. The local boys who came to the bonfire called them “crazy” because the water was so cold, since it is winter in the Galapagos. Those who swam didn’t seem to mind and had a good time.
            It was an incredible day.
(Expect an update with photos)

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Follow the Food Trail

This morning started off with a water taxi ride around the harbor and an eventual stop at another point on the island. From there, we began our journey on foot over more rocks than I have seen in a while in order to find our snorkel location. It felt like we would never reach our destination, as most of us were wearing flip flops and attempting to do some hiking. After about twenty minutes, we reached the top of a rocky cliff and when we looked down, we saw our snorkeling venue. The giant walls of rock had created a perfect corridor that could fit a number of snorkelers through at once. The water was a bit murky, though still blue, but we were still able to see some big fish swimming around below us.
After a morning of snorkeling and a quick ceviche for lunch, Professor Nicholson began our lesson on commodity chains and a short history of agriculture. For starters, society has changed from a system of hunters and gatherers to industrial farming, which uses advanced tools and genetically modified seeds and organisms. Also, the process by which our food becomes available to us leaves a large carbon footprint when the factors of transportation, farming and cooking are considered. To help us understand these commodity chains, Professor Nicholson divided the class into four groups and assigned each group one meal that we had eaten previously on Santa Cruz. We then had to trace the origins of each ingredient until we could not go further back. My group was charged with finding the origins of a hamburger that was previously served to us. The ingredients that we traced were the meat, a slice of ham, the bun, lettuce, tomato, cheese, potatoes, bananas and chocolate sauce, which were part of dessert that day.
The first thing we did was visit the restaurant where we had eaten the hamburgers. We talked to the owner of El Chocolate and asked her where the produce and meat had come from. She told us that the meat, lettuce, tomato, banana, some potatoes, eggs and cream were from the highlands of Santa Cruz. Other ingredients, like the ham, some potatoes and oil were imported from the mainland. We were told that the ham was from Guayaquil, Ecuador and were given the names of the farms that supplied the restaurant with ingredients.
After taking a short gelato break to regroup, we decided to try to calculate the carbon footprint of eating this hamburger. Little did we know that a lot more goes into eating a simple hamburger. First, we had to take into account the transportation used to get the ingredients to the restaurant. The transportation can include trucks, ships or planes, and the amount of carbon dioxide released depends on the weight of the items being shipped plus the distance between the start and end points. In general, 10 grams of CO2 are produced for every one ton carried over one kilometer. A number of ingredients came from Guayaquil, so the distance from Guayaquil to the restaurant in Puerto Ayora is about 1167 kilometers.
Also, we had to calculate the transportation we used to get to the restaurant, though it does not just stop at walking. Instead, we calculated our carbon footprint coming from the United States to the Galapagos Islands. We started in Miami, where many people had connecting flights to San José, and included our stops in San José, Quito, Guayaquil and finally, Puerto Ayora. Overall, the Global Scholars had traveled 4250 kilometers by airplane, but the calculations did not stop there. We had also taken a number of boats and taxis to get to shore and to our hotels, which also count. Due to the complex nature of making this calculation, our group decided to give our best shot at calculating a rough carbon footprint and ended up with 106.22 kilograms of CO2 released in order to get the ingredients and the people to the restaurant, never mind the amount of gas used for the restaurant stove or the amount of fuel used in farming machines or slaughterhouses.
Following the commodity chain and calculating a carbon footprint is no easy task, as witnessed by the vast amount of factors taken into account. However, the lesson we can learn from this is that even the smallest actions, like eating a banana or sending an email, can have a tremendous impact on the environment through the release of carbon dioxide.     

A group presenting their findings.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Equinox at the Equator

Spending the summer solstice on the equator is not an everyday occurrence, but it is even more special to be spending it in the Galapagos Islands, where some of the world’s most interesting species can be found.  

The day started off like any other day we’ve had in the islands: a morning visit to the Charles Darwin Center, the Ministry of Tourism office, and then a day at Tortuga Beach.

While at the Charles Darwin Center, we learned about very similar things to what we had heard before about tourism and the Galapagos Islands.  The biggest threat to the islands is invasive species such as goats, rats, and ants, which were brought over by ships over the various years.  Although many of the eradication programs have been successful – especially the goat eradication program – there are still many invasive species on the islands today.

After our discussion at the Charles Darwin Center, we went to see Lonesome George, the last existing tortoise of his species.  Lonesome George is an internationally known tortoise, so seeing him was a truly extraordinary opportunity!  Although efforts have been made to have him mate with other tortoises, he initially refused to mate with them.  When he was finally willing to mate with a tortoise at the ripe age of 90, none of the eggs were sterile. Ever since then, he has not mated with any other tortoise, making him very lonesome indeed.

Lonesome George

Later in the morning, we went to visit the Ministry of Tourism, where we learned about tourism plans in Ecuador and the Galapagos.  Some of the plans for eco-tourism to help make the Galapagos Islands more attractive through better regulations and higher standards make this place seem like even more of a paradise to visit, especially since the target length of a visit is expected to become longer!

The delicious bread at El Chocolate
After a delicious lunch of homemade bread and chicken and rice at El Chocolate, we were headed off to Tortuga beach for some beach time!  Except this wasn’t just an ordinary beach – it was a calm hidden beach through a pathway behind the main beach after a 40 minute walk on a beautiful path through the natural flora and fauna of the island.  On the way, we saw dozens of iguanas soaking up the sun in the sand!

The pathway to the beach
Some of the iguanas laying in the sand!

After walking through some trees, the path opened up to a beautiful beach that was secluded and calm.  It made for some relaxing swimming and laying in the sun!

The tranquil beach at Tortuga Bay

All in all, although it was an overcast day, realizing that it was the summer solstice while sitting on the beach made me realize what a special experience I was having to be able to spend it in paradise.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Trip to Santa Cruz, Turtles, and Tuna on the Rocks

Leaving San Cristobal was very sad -  I'll miss the sea lions laying on the playground equipment, sidewalks, benches, rafts, and well everywhere.
Under the house are about three sea lions 
The actual act of leaving was the interesting part.
Starting my day at 2:43am waking up to a cricket on my face should have been a sign for things to come. By the time I finished liberating all the crickets from my room and packing, I made sure to double check all the closets - I was lucky in Quito and did not want to try it again.
It was definitely a new experience having your luggage looked through for anything organic - I was half afraid they'd find a cricket and think I was smuggling them to the mainland...... The part that was somewhat surprising was when the lady checking was bit by a baby sea lion who thought it should sleep under the checking station. How can something so cute be so violent?
When we finally got on the boat and left the dock it looked to be a great time to relax. Somehow mother nature and bad balancing placed me right in front of a continuous spray of water. By the end of the boat trip I looked like I dove into the ocean with my clothes on and took my sunglasses, ipod, and shoes with me. The dock was beautiful and the water was clear - it was the epitome of paradise in my book. I felt like I should be looking for a band playing on drums and dancing the salsa.

Once we got settled in, our guide, Whitman brought us to a group of sink holes that were roughly 100 meters deep. The craters were caused by the lava flow. A short bus ride later and we were at a lava tunnel. Previously he mentioned a bit about others collapsing, but I didn't really put two and two together until we were inside it and he said this one is collapsing too....... The tunnel reminded me of a natural version of the metro - size-wise and kind of the shaping. It was interesting, but I definitely maintained a sense of direction to where the exit was and took careful steps. 
Next we saw the tortoises. Unfortunately my camera died and my video of the big guy eating is on my phone which is being very annoying when I tried to hook it up to the computer. However the pictures I have are enough to show the size of these guys. The downside, their "natural habitat" was more like a turtle farm or zoo and not "the wild." Then again what can we expect, shipping a bunch of tourists off into the wild? That's a law suit waiting to happen.  It doesn't detract from the chance we had to see them in a semi-natural habitat.

Dinner was a first, first time I've heard of Yellow Fin on the rocks and first time I ate off of a Lava rock. Unfortunately, my camera died and I don't have any pictures to show. I tried snagging a photo, but the internet access is not helping at all. Hopefully I can update this later with a picture. 

The funniest part of the day was when we were locked out of the bus. Took a few people to open it, but we did. :D

Only qualm: the need for fast internet connection seems to be something entirely American, even in Costa Rica the internet was iffy. However, I'll take the beaches and these experiences over quick internet.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Last Day in San Cristóbal

June 19, 2012

Kathy presenting the CDF office
Today started the same as any other day on the islands.  I fought the good fight and lost to my alarm clock before hurrying down to breakfast with my friends (today's battle took longer than normal, so I didn't have time to shower).  Once we arrived for breakfast, we ate the usual: a plate of fruit, two pieces of toast, scrambled eggs, and a glass of juice.  We briefly talked with other members of our group before going to our respective rooms to pack our stuff for today's adventures.  

Our first stop of the day was the Charles Darwin Foundation's office on the island.  It was about a 10 minute walk to the station on this rather hot day, but I was excited to hear about what the organization had to say.  Once we seated ourselves in the tiny wooden building, we started our discussion.  During our brief stay at the station, we talked about how the organization started, what projects it performed, and what its future goals on the island were.  We also targeted some questions to try and give us some more feedback on our final projects (my group is focusing on biodiversity and tourism).

Once we finished our talk at the CDF, we trekked back to Whitman's (our guide's) house where we had a class period.  The first thing we did was break into our groups so as to discuss what we had learned yesterday during our interviews.  After finishing our group discussions, we shared our topics with the rest of the class (my group is looking into tourism's effect on biodiversity on the islands and how it can be improved so as to minimize the negative effects).  After finishing this, we had a discussion about the different theories behind human-environment interactions, and then we broke into our groups to try and branch out the key actors of our topics.  Finally, we ended class by having a brief discussion on energy and climate change.

Sea lions sleeping on the beach

Class being over, the Stephs and I decided that we needed some time to relax after our busy morning and fast-paced interview day.  To reward ourselves, we went back to our rooms, packed up our gear, and headed to La Playaman--an amazing beach.  Once we arrived, we met up with other members from our group and enjoyed ourselves with sun, waves, and soda.

Although we were greatly enjoying ourselves, we had to head back to town to go on an adventure in the highlands that evening.  After cleaning ourselves up and grabbing our travel gear, we headed back to Whitman's house where a bus waited to take us to his land.

Joe standing in front of the
In the highlands, we first stopped by a tree house built to entertain small children.  A bridge connected the main level to the actual tree house which contained a bathroom and two beds.  Within the tree, a small ladder went below ground and brought us to another bedroom.  We concluded that this was a wonderland for children, and then we traveled to Whitman's land.  While there, Whitman showed us various plants--mosses, trees, bushes, grasses, etc.--located on his property.  Finally, we found a nice flat location and watched the sun set.   We ended the evening by travelling to a nearby restaurant where we dined on some delicious food.  Once we finished, we bused back to our hotel where I promptly fell right asleep to prepare myself for tomorrow's journey to Santa Cruz.

Me standing in the sunset