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Walking in Darwin's Footsteps: LearningLife short course reveals the secrets of the Galápagos

Galapagos.JPG"Ask a historian, a biology buff, and an avid traveler to make a "bucket list," and chances are all three will share a common destination: the Galápagos Islands.

Situated on the equator, about 620 miles west of Guayaquil, Ecuador, the islands and their unique flora and fauna gained widespread public notoriety after being described by Charles Darwin in his 1839 book, The Voyage of the Beagle.

The archipelago is young, geologically speaking; it also is distinctive in that it is one of the few places in the world without an indigenous human population. Those attributes, coupled with the multitudes of endemic species found there, have made it a wonderland of information for biologists, historians, geologists, and others.

Barco Xpedition 117.jpgThe islands are so valuable that Ecuador has set aside virtually the entire archipelago as a national park and UNESCO made the Galápagos its first World Heritage Site.

Says Randy Moore, U professor of biology and LearningLife short-course instructor for Galápagos! Walking in Darwin's Footsteps, "words cannot fully describe the richness of the place. It's hard to take it all in. Discovering new places, new things, new animals and plants, exploration...that stuff isn't ancient history--it's right there in Galápagos.

Galapagos Tortoise.JPG"Everywhere you look when you're down there, you see nature. On most islands of the archipelago, you see no signs of civilization, not a one. The animals are oblivious to humans. You might as well be a rock or a wave for all they're concerned. The diversity of life, the microcosms found on each island is astounding--the sand alone is amazing! White sand, red, green, black, dirty, fine, pebbly...each island you go to, it's something new and exciting. Ditto for the plants and animals."

For the past five years, Moore, along with fellow biology professor Sehoya Cotner, has taken U of M students to see the wonders of the islands in the full-semester course Biology of the Galápagos, offered through the College of Biological Science. It's an extremely popular course - each year, Moore and Cotner turn students away.

Prior to taking the trip, students spend two weeks in the classroom, preparing--learning about the biodiversity and biogeography of the area, the conservation and research done at the Charles Darwin Research Station, and the plants, birds, and other animals of the islands. They also learn the ins and outs of travelling to the area, including what to pack, what the travel and permit restrictions are, and where to go and what to see in Ecuador prior to going to the islands (visitors are required to stay overnight in Ecuador before entering and after departing the Galápagos).

Moore compares the Galápagos course to some of the commercial trips available to the area--but with your own built-in knowledge base. "If someone were to go on a trip through a cruise company or through an adventure tour company, yes--you'd see the same things on the islands, but at almost double the price. Where you can go on the islands and what you can do on them, that's carefully restricted. But you wouldn't get any of the preparation at all ahead of time. And that means that you're not going to get quite the money's worth."

Adds Cotner, "No one from the travel company is going to sit down with you face-to-face ahead of time and prepare you for what kinds of things you will see or, for example, tell you why the albatross found on one island is special. You won't get the learning experience prior to going. You won't know what kind of questions you want answered when you get there,"

Taking the class, says Moore, "adds so much to the experience. You're getting twice your money's worth...for a fraction of the price" he adds with a laugh. (Moore and Cotner's connections in Galápagos mean the University can offer a discounted inclusive trip rate for their groups)

Popular since its inception five years ago, Biology of the Galápagos has a waiting list of interested applicants every year. But until now, it has only been available for University undergraduate students.

This fall, Moore will be teaching the short course, Galápagos! Walking in Darwin's Footsteps, for LearningLife. The five-session evening class, open to the public, will be much like the in-class portion of the credit course. Participants will learn about the history, importance, and diversity of the islands, and discuss what the Galápagos can teach us about conservation, green living, and evolution.

The course also will include information about when and how to visit the islands, and travel, planning, and packing tips.

If enough participants are interested, says Moore, he will also help organize and lead an actual trip to the islands--just like he does with the U students. That trip would be available at the highly discounted rate the students receive, as well.

Scenic.JPG"If you're interested in going there 'someday,'" he says, "or you're seriously considering going soon, or you've thought about doing it, but don't know what's involved or what you'll see...or maybe if you want to go, but are overwhelmed at where to start...all of those are great reasons to take this class. Even if you're just interested in learning about the islands--come take it the course. Then, of course, you'll want to plan a trip after you're done."

Moore and Cotner stress repeatedly how much the Galápagos mean to them, not just as a scientific research site, but also as a personal experience. "When I first went there, 20 years ago," says Cotner, "I was amazed...it's like no other place in the world. It's a true immersion experience. It's not a place that WAS important to science, to history. It still IS important. You know, people talk about 'green living' here...we aren't green. The Galápagos, THAT is green. Science is still evolving there. It shows us that no, we haven't figured it all out yet."

Moore agrees, "Students come back from this trip telling us it changed their lives. And they're sincere. You come away from there with a different outlook on life, as well on conservation. It's something I love sharing with people, love preparing them for. It's the most incredible place I've ever seen. I've been many, many times, and still don't quite have words for it."

Galápagos! Walking in Darwin's Footsteps begins October 5. The five-session course costs $195 and will meet on Tuesday evenings from 7-9 p.m. Space is limited.

All photos: Randy Moore. See more of Moore's breathtaking photos through the LearningLife facebook page.

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