Thursday, April 28, 2016

Ecuador Adventure Guest Blog Series 5/8

Sternberg Museum of Natural History Education Director, David Levering, lead a spring break study abroad trip of seven Fort Hays State University undergraduate students to mainland Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands.  The students documented their adventures and explorations during the trip, and these travelogues will be featured here through a series of eight posts (with a finally reflection from David). Enjoy!

Day 5: Snorkeling Trip
Location: Isla San Cristobal, Galapagos Islands
By: Connor Phelan

Today was the day I was dreading this entire trip. We had to take a boat ride from Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz to the island of San Cristobal that would last around two hours. I had come prepared with motion sickness pills, medicated patches for behind my ears, and wristbands in hopes that I wouldn’t become sick from the open waters. Although these items were supposed to keep me from getting sick, they also came with the unlikely but possible side effects of sleepiness, dehydration, and cottonmouth. I somehow hit the jackpot and woke up with an unquenchable thirst. All I could think about was getting through the next few hours.
Leaving Isla Santa Cruz

Early that morning we headed out to the boating dock where we experienced security for the seas. This was extremely interesting to me because I never thought that traveling by boat would require us to have our luggage checked. The islands’ one-of-a-kind wildlife needed to be protected. Another interesting thing was to get to the speedboat, we first boarded a water taxi that took us from the dock to another vessel about 40 feet away. The way the driver manipulated the taxi was impressive because there were so many boats in the bay that one bad turn would result in a costly collision.

We passed the National Geographic Endeavour ship
Once we boarded the speedboat, we were off. At first the boat was fairly still and didn’t move too much, but then we hit open waters and all hell broke loose. People were being smacked around the crowded boat from the waves. You could definitely tell who the tourists were versus the natives because we were not used to being on the water. After an hour or so Jessi, Sammi and Audrey were not doing so well. Surprisingly, I was just fine! My various medications had done their job, and Poseidon granted me with a strong stomach to enjoy the journey. Having been deep sea fishing before, I had previously experienced open ocean. However, I had never been along for a trip of this magnitude. It is a truly humbling experience when you realize just how small you are. After examining the experiences of past explorers such as Darwin, it is almost unfathomable how they could have conquered the oceans without the use of a gas powered engine. We finally reached shore, and we all but sprinted off the boat to find our guide, Tim. He led us to our hotel and informed us that we would have a few hours to rest before heading to lunch.
The view of Isla San Cristobal from the hotel

The first sea turtle of the trip.
After a good two hours of deep sleep, we headed to an outdoor restaurant. Most of our group couldn’t eat due to stomach issues from the boat. I really enjoyed all the different foods on the islands. It seemed fresh and healthier than my usual taco-bell, Wendy’s diet. After lunch we drove a few miles to snorkel at the first beach of the San Cristobal portion of the  trip, and the beauty of the ocean and the sand was indescribable. After a long evening at the beach, we headed back to the hotel and washed up for dinner.

Diamond Stingray
Although today was long, I truly enjoyed snorkeling. The vast and exotic species I had the pleasure of experiencing will not soon fade from my memory. Immediately upon entering the water I observed sea turtles, eagle rays, sting rays, sea urchins, and a plethora of fish that will take time to identify from our photos. Given that we were confined to a small cove, the amount of life one could find in our oceans seems unimaginable. I have always been a fan of wildlife ever since I was little. I had ant farms and a paleontology kit and a general love of nature and wildlife, so I really enjoyed seeing the underwater sea life.
Spinster Wrasse

To continue the adventure, read about Day 6: Snorkling at Kicker Rock.

Watch a video with highlights from the Ecuador/Galapagos adventure!

Monday, April 25, 2016

Ecuador Adventure Guest Blog Series 4/8

Sternberg Museum of Natural History Education Director, David Levering, lead a spring break study abroad trip of seven Fort Hays State University undergraduate students to mainland Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands.  The students documented their adventures and explorations during the trip, and these travelogues will be featured here through a series of eight posts (with a finally reflection from David). Enjoy!

Day 4: Tortuga Bay and Giant Tortoises
Location: Isla Santa Cruz, Galapagos Islands
By: Audrey Baumbach

The trail to Tortuga Bay
On the fourth day of our trip, the group and I got to experience our first true island adventure. After breakfast at the hotel, we were quickly in our swimsuits and headed towards Tortuga Bay. With the prospect of seeing our first marine Iguana or Galapagos shark, the group was in high spirits as we climbed a large, stone stairwell leading to a forest. While it wasn’t as flashy as some of the Gal├ípagos’ other tourist attractions, once one stopped to just look, there were many unique things there as well. Many small, multi-colored lizards skittered across the rock pathways and Galapagos mockingbirds sang in the trees above us. What I found most interesting were the cacti. With tasty, water filled fruits they had evolved to protect themselves from land iguanas by developing thick bark at the base of the plant. It was hard to imagine what Darwin must have thought, in the 1830s, looking at such a plant for the first time.

The trunk of a Galapagos prickly
pear with very thick tree-like bark
A female lava lizard
A male lava lizard

Tortuga Bay beach
Sally Lightfoot crabs
After the small trek through the forest, we arrived at a beach that seemed too perfect to be real. I had never seen sand that white or soft. It felt although it had the consistency of flour. We learned later on this type of sand was the product of Parrotfish poop and makes up a lot of the beaches on the Galapagos. Taking our time and making sure to snap many pictures, the group moved slowly across the beach to get to Tortuga Bay. On the way, we spotted several pelicans both flying, and floating on the water; we also saw orange and black crabs (Sally Lightfoot Crab) of numerous sizes moving across the rocks and tidal pools, and our first marine iguana. It was camouflaged so well into the black lava rock and kept still enough that I would have stepped on it had another group member not pointed it out to me. It was a smaller individual, black as the lava rock with small spines down its back. Further down the beach, large groups of them sat covered in sand next to dunes. Surprisingly, they were even well camouflaged there as well.

A Galapagos marine iguana blending in with
volcanic rocks
It took a while for me to be pulled away from watching the motionless iguanas, but after some prodding we walked past a few trees to finally arrive at Tortuga Bay. The waves were small and the color of turquoise, lapping slowly up onto more white sand.  Several species of finches hopped branch to branch of the nearby trees and left tracks in the sand. More iguanas laid in the shade of trees and bushes, hidden until one was only an inch or two away. It was a paradise we were thankful to have a couple hours in. Quickly, our group was in the water and enjoying the fish and cool water. We explored the surrounding rocks and were lucky enough to spot a marine iguana swimming back to land. Mangroves covered the outer edge of the bay where we all re-grouped. It was here we saw the sharks. It started off fun, spotting several small black tip reef sharks. There were many, more than we thought at first. When one disappeared there would be another quickly arriving in its place. Excitedly, we stood in a circle and watched them swim around us. This lasted for a few minutes, until another member had the privilege of being next to a White-tip reef shark as it swam by. Being a larger, more impressive specimen, we were all eager to catch another glimpse of it but unfortunately it disappeared into the mangroves. After realizing we weren’t sure where the White-tip reef shark had a gone a few of us were eager to swim back to shore.
Tortuga Bay on Isla Santa Cruz

Group photo inside the lava tube
The excitement of the sharks was not outdone for the rest of our time at beach. Some of us went bird spotting, while others dug in the sand and looked for small schools of fish along the shore. It wasn’t too long before we were packing up and saying goodbye to Tortuga Bay. We ate lunch at small restaurant by our hotel, enjoying local favorites such as papaya juice and fried plantains. It was a quick change of clothes and then we were back at it again. The lava tube located near Primicias Ranch was our next stop. I personally was unsure what to expect. While the idea itself sounded fun, I was skeptical. It turns out I was not disappointed. Avoiding spider webs while navigating a deteriorating staircase, we walked nearly straight down into a large hole in the ground. It was surprisingly cool compared to the humid air outside. Moisture dripped from the walls and squished beneath our tennis shoes as we explored the large tube. I tried to picture lava coursing through and bursting from one side to next. The vast amount that could fit in the large tunnel alone was enough to cause quite a bit of damage to the surrounding areas. It made one wonder what would happen to the wildlife and the homes of those close by if it were to happen again. Thankfully, we did not have to survive through a lava flow that day and explored the different patterns on the rock wall and climbed over those in our way. It was a muddy experience, especially because we had to crawl at one point through an opening no more than two feet high, but it was eye opening. I had never realized lava carved such vast tunnels. As soon as we began, we reached the end of the tunnel and turned to face our next adventure for the day.

Giant tortoises at Primicias Ranc
Practically next door, the tortoises at Primicias Ranch were waiting for us. We had seen giant tortoises before at the Charles Darwin Research Center, but these were closer and in a more natural environment. The sheer enormity is hard to describe in words when you’re only accustomed to seeing Box turtles. Slow and large, it was unexpected when we saw a female dart fairly quickly across a dirt pathway not far from where we were standing. It’s hard to believe these large, slow-blinking creatures could move as they did. It was then that Darwin came to my mind. In a modern world, it was amazing to see these creature. However, in the 1830s when an exotic creature was a colorful bird, one can only imagine what was going through their minds when they came across a five hundred pound tortoise. To view this place from their perspective must have absolutely unbelievable. If I had been in their shoes, I would have been concerned with people back home actually believing the things I saw. The tortoises were definitely one of a kind and it wasn’t hard to see why they were so easily hunted by sailors and whalers for food after they were discovered. I left that day with a new appreciation for the islands. The beauty of the landscape and uniqueness of the creatures I saw in one day was incredible. It left me eager and ready for the adventures to follow.
Galapagos Mockingbird
Group shot with a giant tortoise at Primicias Ranch

To continue the adventure, read about Day 5: Snorkling Trip.

To catch up on the adventure, read about Day 1: Exploring QuitoDay 2: Bike Trip, and Day 3: Heading to the Islands.

Watch a video with highlights from the Ecuador/Galapagos adventure!

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Ecuador Adventure Guest Blog Series 3/8

Sternberg Museum of Natural History Education Director, David Levering, lead a spring break study abroad trip of seven Fort Hays State University undergraduate students to mainland Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands.  The students documented their adventures and explorations during the trip, and these travelogues will be featured here through a series of eight posts (with a finally reflection from David). Enjoy!

Day 3: Heading to the Islands
Location: Museum of the Center of the World and Charles Darwin Research Station
By: Sami Mongomery

The Museum of the Center of the World
Our third day of the trip started out perfectly. We got to sleep in and eat another interestingly delicious breakfast that the family who owned our hostel made. Just the few days we had spent in Ecuador allowed us to have a look into parts of daily life of families like theirs, but today was the day that we left their home and began the next part of our trip. Our guide service picked us up at 9:00 and we started our short drive to the “Valley of the Center of the World”. This is a place where the equator passes through Quito and an entire museum has been built around it. On our drive, Lenin (our Quito guide) gave us a lot of history and important facts about Ecuador and the city of Quito. This included information about how Quito came to be the capital city, which goes all the way back to the Incan empire. He also discussed the geography of Quito. Because Quito is located between two strings of mountains the city can only expand to the North and South, and it suffers from the rain shadow effect. Humidity from the Amazon rainforest gets stuck on one mountain chain and the other side catches the humidity from the Pacific Ocean, therefore Quito is very dry. An important issue he pointed out is that the city currently has a population of around 2.5 million people and it is constantly growing, so they are working to put in an efficient subway system. This growth is due to the fact that Ecuador’s currency is finally stable after switching to the U.S. Dollar, and people are coming to the capital city to find better work.

Learning about the process of chocolate production
A fermented, roasted cocao bean ready to be
ground into powder
After a bit of a lesson on Quito’s history, we arrived at the museum. I personally expected to see a line on the ground and have someone tell us “that is the equator”, but it was so much more than that! This day was incredibly educational for the entire group. Our guide for the museum did in fact take us to a line, but then began telling us a myriad of information about the placement, significance, and uniqueness of this line. She then had us participate in some activities to back up what she was saying. It was fascinating! When we were done checking out the actual equator, we went to a little hut where we learned a lot about the shrunken heads that indigenous tribes used to create in memory of important figures. Lastly, we were lead into heaven as Lenin called it. It was another hut that had a great amount of information about the process and significance of Ecuadorian chocolate. Let me tell you, it was delicious! Our guide showed us the process from when the cocoa is picked to when the bean is crushed into the actual product. We then got to buy some and get our passport stamped. We were all very pleased with the museum.
Sparkling Violetear (Colibri coruscans) at the
Museum of the Center of the World

Seeing the Galapagos Islands for the first time
Short boat ride from Baltra Island to Isla Santa Cruz
The museum concluded our time in Ecuador and we were off to the airport. We had a short plane ride to the islands and we landed on Baltra. The only word to describe how I felt when we landed was shock. The island was a very barren, arid landscape. This allowed me to appreciate the incredible amount of diversity that the islands had to offer. After getting through airport checkpoints our instructor informed us that we were going to be taking a boat to our first island, Santa Cruz. When we got to the channel the water was beautiful! It was a five-minute boat ride to the other side and then we took a much longer bus ride, through the national park part of the island, to get to the small town we would be staying. Our bus stopped in front of our hotel and again I was so shocked it was almost scary. This hotel was gorgeous and nothing like I had ever seen before. There were four floors with a very unique layout. There was no roof on most of the main lobby area and there was a beautiful pool on the roof of the top floor.

The Red Booby Hotel in Puerto Ayora
in Isla Santa Cruz
Group shot at the Charles Darwin Research Station
Galapagos land iguana
After we got settled, we began our walk to the Charles Darwin Research Station. This time allowed us to see more of the culture and scenery of the exceptional area we were blessed to be in. When we arrived at the station it was all outside exhibits and our tour guide Leo talked a lot about the animals and their history. It was very informative and this was our first sighting of the animals that most people refer to when talking about the Galapagos Islands. This included a land iguana, some bird life, and the giant tortoises. Although they were in cages it was still unbelievable. After spending a bit of time there we headed back to our hotel and got to kind of wind down from the day full of travel. Later, we got to explore around the town and find some dinner. The owner of our guide service, Tim, suggested that we eat at a restaurant on the main street that turns into a huge event at night for the tourists and people of the town. All of the restaurants fill up the street with tables and the entire street is filled with people by the end of the night. It was a very different and inspiring environment that really showed how close the people there were. Our food was delicious and when we were done we went down to a pier where there was a small park and another really great atmosphere. We walked out on some of the docks and got to see different marine life, such as sea lions, stingrays, and pelicans. After being there for a while we all decided to head back to the hotel and end our first night on the islands with a roof top swim!
Southern Yellow Grosbeak (Pheucticus chrysogaster) at
the Museum of the Center of the World
Eagle rays below the Puerto Ayora pier on Isla Santa Cruz

To catch up on the adventure, read about Day 1: Exploring Quito and Day 2: Bike Trip.

To continue the adventure, read about Day 4: Tortuga Bay and Galapagos Tortoises

Watch a video with highlights from the Ecuador/Galapagos adventure!

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Ecuador Adventure Guest Blog Series 2/8

Sternberg Museum of Natural History Education Director, David Levering, lead a spring break study abroad trip of seven Fort Hays State University undergraduate students to mainland Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands.  The students documented their adventures and explorations during the trip, and these travelogues will be featured here through a series of eight posts (with a finally reflection from David). Enjoy!

Day 2: Bike Trip
Location: Outside Quito, Ecuador
By: Aaron Janiec

Getting picked up by the mountain bike guides
at the hostel in Quito
One of the things the group was looking forward to the most was the bike trip. We had to be up and ready to go by 7:00 AM. The bike tour service came and picked us up to take us to back side of Pichincha, where the tour would start. Pichincha is an active stratovolcano that is covered by forest. When looking at the different peaks, it was hard to differentiate between other mountains and the volcano because of the cloud forest surrounding it. If I was not told Pichincha is a volcano, I would have just thought it was just another mountain, because of all the forest around it. As we were driving to the drop-off point, we drove through an area that was definitely poorer
Overlooking Quito on our way to the top
of the bike trail

than the inner city of Quito. The people were living in small concrete block-shaped buildings, which made up shops and homes. The day before we walked around the entire city of Quito and saw the city life. As soon as we get outside of the city, on the eastern slope towards Mindo away from Quito, the demographics definitely changed. This reminded me of my trip to Chimbote, Peru where everyone was living in makeshift buildings made from woven plant material and posts. It was a definite culture shock. One thing I noticed after we started the tour was trash had been thrown down the hillside like it was a dumpster. I also noticed that it looked like most of the locals made a living through agriculture. As we rode around, we saw a considerable amount of domestic animals, mostly dogs. Along the trail we also saw some farm animals, including chickens and horses in some sections, and cows which were grazing cleared out pasture areas. 

A waterfall we found up in the
cloud forest
The first 10 kilometers were mostly downhill on pavement and the view was breathtaking. We were able to look out and see the mountains and cloud forest. It was amazing to look down the hill and see what we were about to ride our bikes through. Sometimes it would be wide open and clear, other times it would be a thick forest. We made it to a town called Nono before we had a two kilometer uphill climb. Even though the climb was only two kilometers, it was a very rocky and physically demanding. The lack of oxygen took a toll on my physical ability. We were about 10,000 feet up, a definite change from Kansas. The last 25 kilometers was mostly downhill on a road through the cloud forest. This portion was more diverse than the first 10 kilometers. This part of our bike ride had a lot more plant life from small flowers to big trees. This was a forest for sure but we had not reached the cloud forest yet. The road was very muddy and rocky. I felt like I was actually mountain biking for the first time. We were all splattered with mud head to toe. Everywhere you looked was either forest, waterfall, or rock features. When I looked at these different parts of the forest, it is amazing to see something naturally made over time.

Our guide pointing out features in the landscape

Along the trail we passed a religious building called Virgen del Camino. The tour guide
A place of worship we passed on our way
through the mountains
informed us that at certain points of the year many locals will come to this building to worship. Along the trail there are several waterfalls and geologic features such as dormant basalt flows. As a geology student, I thought seeing these dormant basalt flows surrounded by an active volcano was very interesting. I get to see pictures of different geologic features from around the world in class. But you can never really get a full grasp until you see it in person. (Last year, I went on the study abroad to France. Before the trip I came across pictures of a place called Etretat, France. This place looked amazing, it was in Normandy and was on the coast. Etretat had two large cliffs and one had some erosion happen to it, creating a n-shaped cliff. The pictures on the internet do not do it justice.)

Silver trees, visible in the center of the photo,
look like metal from a distance
As we continued down through the mountain valleys we saw a great variety of plant and animal life. In the cloud forest we got to see some really cool trees called silver trees. These trees were different because when you look down on them they look silver but the closer you get, the greener they are. This was very interesting to see because they looks like a metal tree from a distance. It is also something we do not get to see back home. We also saw a great variety of hummingbirds in the hummingbird reserve at the end of our ride. These hummingbirds were very colorful and stood out like color on a blank canvas. All of the hummingbirds we saw are indigenous to the cloud forest region of Ecuador. There were also animals we did not get to see because they stay away from the roads, including bears, wild pigs, monkeys, pumas, jaguars. We then had lunch in Condiapa outside of a small convenience store. To really understand where we were, this convenience store was on the side of the road amidst a fortress of surrounding mountain peaks. That road probably does not get a lot of traffic. 

A booted racketttail, one of the 13 species of hummingbird we saw in Ecuador

In the end, it is an experience that we will never forget. Getting to see a great variety of plant and animal life while mountain biking down a volcano through a forest makes for a great day. That was a day to remember, and a trip of a lifetime.

One of the many, many brilliantly colored flowers we saw on our bike trip

To catch up on the adventure, read about Day 1: Exploring Quito.
To continue the adventure, read about Day 3: The Museum of the Center of the World and Charles Darwin Research Station
Watch a video with highlights from the Ecuador/Galapagos adventure!

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Ecuador Adventure Guest Blog Series 1/8

Sternberg Museum of Natural History Education Director, David Levering, lead a spring break study abroad trip of seven Fort Hays State University undergraduate students to mainland Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands.  The students documented their adventures and explorations during the trip, and these travelogues will be featured here through a series of eight posts (with a finally reflection from David). Enjoy!

Day 1: Exploring Quito
Location: Quito, Ecuador
By: Jessica Johnson

This morning all was quiet in our hostel. We were all exhausted from the full day of driving and flying, but the excitement for our upcoming journey was in the air. Personally, it still hadn’t hit me that I was in a foreign country thousands of miles away from home. I mean I’m only 19 years old! I’m practically still a child, and I was exploring places grown adults only dream about.

Breakfast at the Quito hostel.

After my morning prepping routine, I meandered down to the breakfast nook to meet up with the rest of our group to eat breakfast. A few unique things happened: we were introduced to the cultural cuisine of eggs, toast, coffee, hot chocolate, and a fruit blend drink which was personally prepared and served to us by the owner of the hostel, and we finally interacted with native Ecuadorian people that spoke no English. I could tell that the language barrier was going to effect me greatly, and I was going to have to use my communication major skills. After our group was showered, rested, and reenergized we took off to explore the city of Quito.  

The first place that we walked to was a formal park in the middle of the city. It seemed like this park was more for the natives of Quito because there were no other people walking around with cameras and fanny packs. It was exciting to see something that was so authentic to the people from Quito. I was worried that all we’d get to see was the glamorous parts of the city and not what Ecuador was really about. During our visit to this park, we also got our first glimpses of Quito’s plant and animal life.

The first stop and first park of our day exploring Quito.
The next spot we walked towards was De Voto Nacional, a cathedral of grand architecture that
The inside of De Voto National. 
allowed us a look at Catholicism in Quito. This. Was. Phenomenal. It was humbling to see one of the only places in Quito where tourism was not the main focus. Although this church was thousands of miles away from my home, their customs still mirrored the Catholic Church that I attended in my small, western hometown. This was special to me because even though our cultures and living styles were so different, we still have something in common.

De Voto National from the outside.

Pulled into the park comedy show. 
By this time of the day we were tired and hungry, so we stopped for some Ecuadorian fast food, then made our way to another park. I was not expecting to be pulled into the comedy show that was entertaining a group of around 30 natives, but Connor, Sami, and I were pulled into the spotlight. THAT. WAS. CRAZY.

The two comedians were throwing props at us speaking in fast Spanish to the crowd. Although I was completely clueless, Connor could pick out a few broken Spanish phrases that still left us confused, a little uncomfortable, and out of our comfort zone. Apparently we were pretty funny though because the crowd was cackling and doubling over in laughter.

Although it was all in good fun, this made an impact on me, being a communication major, because I have never been unable to understand what was being said. I felt awkward and nervous trying to read body language and trying to remember some of the theories that I had learned in my numerous communication classes. I never realized just how important my major was and what I did was so useful. I decided right then and there that I wanted to learn Spanish.
The group in the second park. 

After our standup comedy fun, we spent a good portion of the afternoon looking at trinkets and admiring some of the work that the locals made. It was incredible that so many people’s livelihood depended on selling their crafts and wares. I ended up buying a turquoise wrapped ring for my sister and a black and green stone bracelet for my boyfriend’s mother. After our shopping, we were ready to head back to the hostel and to grab some food. I was exhausted and still in disbelief that I was in Ecuador.
Exploring Quito on Day 1

To continue the adventure, read about Day 2: Bike Trip
Watch a video with highlights from the Ecuador/Galapagos adventure!