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Catawba Students and Faculty Travel in the Footsteps of Darwin in the Galapagos

June 25, 2004

Category: Academics, Students


A small group of students and faculty members from Catawba College followed the footsteps of Charles Darwin and Russell Crowe when they traveled in May to the Galapagos, a Ecuadorian national park located 600 miles off the coast of that country. The trip was a capstone experience for the students, all members of an honors class, “Birds:Evolution and Imaginations,” team-taught by Drs. Janice Fuller and Steve Coggin.

The Galapagos were in the news during the 19th century after Darwin visited them and later published his “Origin of Species” (Theory of Evolution), based in part on his findings there. The archipelago made headlines of a less scientific nature again during the 21st century as the location for the filming of the historical film, “Master and Commander,” starring actor Russell Crowe.

Trip participants, in addition to Drs. Fuller and Coggin, included students Kate Nielson of Tolland, Ct., Antonia Bowden ’04 of Burlington, Michelle Haynes of Rockwell, Joy Brandli ’04 of Bonifay, Fla., David Loudermilk of Richmond, Va., Amy Gunther of Asheville, and Ellen Hindman of Spartanburg, S.C., along with Dr. Joe Poston, a Catawba biology professor, and his wife.

Trip Preparations Start in Class

Preparations for the Galapagos trip began in the classroom, long before suitcases and cameras were packed. Student chose a bird, most found in the Galapagos, that they were interested in and focused their independent research efforts on it.

Michelle Haynes chose the owl and its symbolic meaning in literature, while Kate Nielson selected the blue-footed boobie. It was the penguin that Joy Brandli researched, investigating “why the bird is given comical characteristics and why people in general just get excited about them.” Antonia Bowden chose flamingos for their “exaggerated features,” and Amy Gunther sought information about “the misinterpreted since Medieval times” pelican.

By focusing their research on these birds and their places in literature, the class became “not so teacher-taught, but a class where we learn from each other,” explained Michelle. “It brings a lot more meaning,” added Kate. “We actually know what’s going on in the Galapagos,” said Amy.

“They (the students) surprised us again and again,” noted Dr. Fuller. “They made connections between the texts we studied and every class day was exhilarating.”

“The course work for the professors was significant, but we could appreciate it because the students were doing it too,” said Dr. Coggin. “It was definitely challenging, and then to be able to go to this place that has been so important in science and literature and to have the birds be the thing that would seal all of our class work together. It was amazing.”

First Stop, Quito

The Catawba group flew from Charlotte to Miami and then caught another plane that carried them to Quito, Ecuador, the country’s capital city located at 10,000 feet in the Andes. They spent only one day there, but managed to capture the flavor of the place, according to Coggin.

Using a minibus to get around, they toured the Indian market, Otavalo, where indigenous people from that country gather weekly to sell their wares. Mainly textiles are sold there, for which the area is “justifiably famous,” Coggin said, along with musical instruments, woodcarvings, and paintings. The group also visited an artisan’s house (the great Juan) where he and his whole family create musical instruments, and visited a weaver’s house (Jose’s) where again an entire family is involved in the cottage industry.

One thing Coggin noticed was how the high altitude in Quito affected him. That effect came in the form of a headache and instead of ibuprofen, Coggin said, he took what he called “the cure,” a cup of coca leaf tea. And almost as soon as he drank it, he said, his headache was gone.

With all the vegetarians on the trip, Coggin joked that they did not seek out the local specialty – cuy or guinea pig. “We did see guinea pigs in people’s houses,” he explained. “They just ran around on the floor and the folks would throw them a scrap of vegetable such as cabbage.”
Next Stop, The Galapagos

After one night in Quito, the group boarded another plane that carried them to the Galapagos, landing on the island of Baltra (where one of two airports in the islands is located.) “We went directly from the plane to our boat, the 65-foot Floreana. For the next seven days, that was the home base where the 11 people in our group, along with six crew members and a guide, lived.”

“We ate a lot of fish – tuna, mackerel, Mahi, and lots of fresh fruit, potatoes and rice,” Coggin continued. Potatoes, he noted, are a staple part of the Ecuadorian diet. Potatoes evolved in the Andes and were domesticated there and even today at the Quito market, he said, there are sellers hawking several dozen varieties of them.

Most days, the group traveled by dinghy to make a landing on one of the islands – 13 large ones, aptly called islands, 13 small ones, labeled islets, and rocks. “There were two types of landings,” Coggin recalled, “wet ones and dry ones. And dry landings are considerably more exciting than wet ones.”

The temperature was really moderate, he said, with highs in the 80s, lows in the 60s. “Even though we were on the equator, the Humboldt current brings cold water from Antarctica. That’s why there are penguins living on the equator, but they tend to be uncommon where we were,” Coggin explained. “I saw four or five the week we were there. They live on the western side of the archipelago because the water is much colder there. The western side is also where the whales are found.”

On each island, islet or rock, the group hiked for two or three hours, investigating various features. They studied nesting sites for blue-footed boobies, flamingos, fur seals, giant tortoises, and land iguanas. “We’d spend a couple of hours observing the creatures and we’d usually do some snorkeling,” Coggin said. However, the water was very cold this year, and most in the group wore wetsuits.

This year’s water temperature in the Galapagos was in stark contrast to what Coggin had found during his 1998 visit there. 1998 was an El Nino year and the water temperature was much warmer. In that El Nino year, the food chain in the Galapagos was disrupted and all the marine life suffered, Coggin recalled. There were dead sea lions on the beach – victims of starvation - fish were rare, there were very few sea turtles, and the marine iguanas were starving too.

Coggin said the animals in the Galapagos are very tame. “Mockingbirds would land on your head, sea lions would come up and sniff your leg, or come face-to-face with you in the water. Human visitors, however, are not allowed to initiate contact like the animals can, according to Ecuadorian National Park rules. Our first morning there, we walked into a colony of blue-footed boobies and we got within a foot of their nests. They were actually nesting on the trail we were walking in on.”

The crew on the Floreana provided for the Catawba group. They cooked meals, shuttled them to and from the boat to the islands on a dinghy, and sailed the boat to make the crossings between the islands. Because their basic needs were provided for, the Catawba group was able to concentrate on their studies, Coggin said.

Darwin’s Finches

The Galapagos’ scientific significance really began with the visit of Charles Darwin in 1835, Coggin explained. There, Darwin discovered islands that were virtually identical in size, climate and features and many were in sight of each other, but they contained and supported different related species.

When the Catawba group was there, Coggin said, the students could see the islands and birds that had so heavily influenced Darwin’s theory of evolution and became the source of inspiration for many writers, including Herman Melville, David Quammen, and Annie Dillard.

One of the Catawba group’s emphases was to study Darwin’s finches, of which 13 are documented. “We were able to find eight of the thirteen species and their differences which were both subtle and dramatic. It takes a lot of energy for a small bird like that to travel between the islands, but when one does it could create the possibility of a new species evolving.”

Post Office Bay

Starting in the early 1800s, sailors passing through the Galapagos would leave personal letters in a barrel located in Post Office Bay on the island of Floreana. Tradition was, and still is, that the next ship passing through would pick up those letters left by the previous sailors and deliver the mail when they made port. The Catawba group helped perpetuate that tradition, Coggin said. Each person in the group not only left a postcard, but also took a postcard from the barrel and brought it back to the States to be mailed.

Coggin said two days after he got back home and “was still washing his dirty clothes,” a woman from Charlotte pulled up in his driveway to deliver the post card he had written to his family and left behind in the barrel on Post Office Bay. In delivering the postcard to his home, that woman beat the postal service of at least two countries (Ecuador and U.S.) by two weeks, he explained.

Six Years Make A Difference

Coggin noticed the impact the 70,000+ visitors each year to the Galapagos had made between his 1998 trip and his 2004 visit. “The little town of Puerto Ayora is growing and expanding up into the hills. There were more visitor boats and more people on the islands than in my previous visit,” he said.

There had even been a government-sanctioned resort constructed on the island of Santa Cruz since Coggin’s last trip there. But despite the fact that an increase in tourism threatens the future of those unique species in the Galapagos, Coggin was told by Ecuadorians that their government plans to continue its courtship of foreign visitors to the archipelago.