An Ecologist’s Reason For Travel

Hold onto your seats, everyone. Because somebody (ahem Gordon) had the wild-brained idea of hiring an ecologist-by-training to write travel pieces. And then Wheel and Anchor announced a trip every biologist has dreamed of, to the birthplace of evolution: The Galapagos.

The Galapagos
The Galapagos

We’re all compelled to travel for different reasons, set into motion by a myriad of yearnings contained within our chests. We can all relate to the common reasons; craving newness, a desire to step away from the familiar, experiencing foreign cultures, seeing new landscapes, discovering more about our wide world. 

All of that is true for me, at least. But, in the back of my mind, I also have a darker reason for travel. I have a deep desire to see species before they’re gone. I want to witness creatures that my grandchildren may never see, to tell them what it was like and impress upon them the importance of exploring, loving, and protecting our world. I want to immerse myself in the natural beauty of the world as much as I possibly can in this life.

That powerful longing has taken me on countless adventures. A humpback whale once breached just meters from a zodiac I sat in, enough for us to cut our engine and let the boat rock in stunned silence. Curious sea lions have inspected me, nostrils flaring in deep inhales with dark eyes full and wide. From the thickest jungle I’ve ever hacked a route through, I’ve spied family groups silky sifakas swing through treetops as a friend set up a camera trap to catch evidence of the elusive Fossa. And I’ll never forget the rigid watchfulness of a bull elephant in the plains of Zimbabwe, facing our jeep head-on as he waited for the rest of his herd to safely cross the road.

Books can transport us to remote places and documentaries can give us insight into the smallest insect or make us passionate about the most inconspicuous fungi. But nothing can replace travel as a means to instill a true love for a place and its creatures. Travel, more than anything else, can vividly inspire people to protect them.

Eco-tourism is no easy path to walk. Countries and conservationists have to toe the line of allowing access to these profound and beautiful sites, generating profit to protect the places, while also not allowing them to be stampeded into oblivion. The Galapagos manages this dynamic beautifully. 

Endangered Galapagos hawk
Endangered Galapagos hawk

Accompanied by a naturalist guide from the national park, you will learn more than maybe even I did after years of schooling and Darwinian discussion. And you will see these remote places with the impression of great solitude, with few but the Wheel and Anchor group exploring the landing sites.

Now, though I studied ecology and biodiversity for four years, I won’t feign to be a naturalist or a specialist on the Galapagos specifically. But I can certainly leave you a few little tidbits about Charles Darwin.

For one, he actually rode the giant tortoises. Because it’d be considered highly illegal now, I’d advise against it, but it is funny to hear his account of it.

“I was always amused when overtaking one of these great monsters,” he wrote of the tortoises, “as it was quietly pacing along, to see how suddenly, the instant I passed, it would draw in its head and legs, and uttering a deep hiss fall to the ground with a heavy sound, as if struck dead. I frequently got on their backs, and then giving a few raps on the hinder parts of their shells, they would rise up and walk away; – but I found it very difficult to keep my balance.”

The green sea turtle in the Galapagos
The green sea turtle in the Galapagos

Now, they will probably hiss and react if you try and get close enough to ride them, but the reality of the Galapagos is that almost all of the wildlife is fully unhabituated to humans. Actually making them incredibly unfearful and docile, easy to get near to for a good picture or the occasional semi-spiritual inspection of their splendor.

Because that’s one of the core points of travel for me. Not only connection with other people and cultures, but with the creatures and natural places of the world that are incredible of their own origin, with no interference or “help” from humankind. 

Charles Darwin once wrote, “We cannot fathom the marvelous complexity of an organic being.” He went on to say that each living creature must be looked at as a microcosm. “A little universe,” he wrote, “formed of a host of self-propagating organisms, inconceivably minute and as numerous as the stars in heaven.”

To try to comprehend the majesty of any plant or animal is breathtaking. In our own world’s, it can be easy to overlook. But by stepping into someplace as ecologically fecund and numinous as the Galapagos, we return to our own homes, connected and inspired. And ready to help the planet.

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