Undergrads explore the Galapagos

The Galapagos Islands are perhaps most well known for their role in Charles Darwin’s five-year voyage aboard The Beagle, where Darwin performed ground-breaking research, exploring the archipelago’s exceptional biodiversity by collecting data that established the foundation for modern evolutionary theory.

This spring, 11 undergraduates from UM’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science (RSMAS) took advantage of the newly implemented “UGalapagos” study abroad program designed to provide students with a hands-on learning experience.

Although students involved in the program sat through morning lectures on topics like species evolution, conservation biology and sustainable management in marine and terrestrial ecosystems, afternoon excursions allowed the undergraduates majoring in marine affairs and marine science to truly take advantage of the wonders of the Galapagos.

“UGalapagos offers students an incredible opportunity to study in one of the most unique and pristine natural environments on the face of the earth,” said Larry Peterson, associate dean of academic affairs and a professor at RSMAS.

In addition to snorkeling with species like sea lions, penguins and sea turtles, students also performed fieldwork under the supervision of UM faculty members as well as experts from the Isabela Oceanographic Institute (IOI), located in the Galapagos.

“It was an amazing academic experience both in and out of the classroom. You learn more about yourself and  it just made me enjoy my major a lot more again because we were out in the field and we were able to see exactly what job opportunities were available,” said junior Katharine Woodard, a marine biology major and trip participant.

According to Peterson, students enjoyed the “living laboratory.”

During their trip, the undergraduates stayed with host families in Puerto Villamil on Isabela Island, providing the students with the opportunity to immerse themselves into the local culture and improve their Spanish language skills.

The students also received a taste of the local seismic activity when, following the 8.8 magnitude earthquake that struck Chile on Feb. 27, the Galapagos were put under tsunami warning and students were forced to flee to the IOI’s second floor classrooms.

There was even a four-foot drop in water level.

“Our group saw the small tsunami, after which the area quickly refilled,” UM professor Michael Schmale said. “We also saw several smaller surges follow over the next 30-60 minutes.”

According to Schmale there was never any danger to persons or structures on land.

“They had the whole adventure,” RSMAS communications director Barbara Gonzalez said.

Although the first semester of UGalapagos was geared toward RSMAS students, this fall UM plans to extend the program to target students majoring in a wider variety of subjects. Students will take classes like geology and anthropology in order to fulfill general education requirements.

“For students interested in the natural world, I can’t imagine a better place to spend a semester,” Peterson said.

Sarah Harting may be contacted at sharting@themiamihurricane.com.