From Pittsburgh to the Galapagos Islands

Community College of Allegheny students gather for a photo with one of the famed giant tortoises on the Galapagos Islands. (Photo: CCAC)

Last month, a group of biology students from Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC) took the journey of a lifetime when they spent nine days exploring the Galapagos Islands, a volcanic archipelago about 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador.

In one of the world’s foremost destinations for wildlife-viewing, 11 students and two faculty members from the Pennsylvania college studied animals not found anywhere else in the world. They also retraced some of the steps of Charles Darwin, whose observation of the islands’ species in 1835 inspired his theory of evolution.

During the excursion, the students got up close and personal with giant tortoises that can grow up to 500 pounds, viewing them in the wild as well as at breeding facilities that are trying to preserve the endangered creatures. They also got to see playful sea lions, Galapagos penguins, blue-footed boobies, multiple species of finches and marine iguanas—the only aquatic lizard in the wild. In the waters surrounding an uninhabited island, the group snorkeled among tropical fish, sea turtles, colorful coral and three-foot reef sharks.

“We were seeing animals you couldn’t see anywhere else in the world; the students were absolutely enchanted,” said Adam Davis, an associate professor of biology. He led the trip with associate biology professor Heather Klenovich so the students could broaden their understanding of the discipline.

“There’s a kind of learning you can only do in the field where you get to see all of the parts of an ecosystem interacting with each other,” Davis said. “They came away with a better understanding of how delicate our ecosystem is, how endangered these animals are and how vital it is for us to protect ecosystems like this.”

Local ecology, culture

The students had many questions for their guide, a naturalist with the educational travel tour group Explorica, as well as their professors. Student Colin Abell, who has traveled extensively, including to Tanzania and Thailand, considers the excursion to the Galapagos his favorite trip. The group dynamic was “amazing,” the country was “absolutely beautiful” and Davis knew so much about the wildlife that he was like a “walking encyclopedia,” Abell said.

“I learned a lot about the islands, the culture, and even a little bit about myself,” said Abell, who plans to go into the medical field.

CCAC biology students take a group photo at the Charles Darwin Research Center.

The group also saw a field of cooled lava and walk around the crater of Sierra Negra, an active volcano that last erupted in 2005. Upon returning to the mainland, the students experienced Latin American culture in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, where they stood on the equator, visited historic sites and shopped for souvenirs in the marketplace. The trip was a transformative experience for all.

“I think I learned as much as they did,” said Davis, who is planning another excursion for the winter of 2020. “I feel very privileged I got to realize my dream of visiting the Galapagos while also introducing students to this extraordinary environment. None of us wanted to come home.”

About the Author

Margaret Anderson
is a promotions writer for the Community College of Allegheny County in Pennsylvania.