Sun bathing Sea Lions greet the students’s arrival

The highlights and experiences of Caitlin’s trip to the Galápagos as part of a Marine Sciences experiential learning summer course can be read in the blog post below:

Caitlin MoffatAs we boarded the plane to the Galápagos, known by locals as the “mosquito” for its small and buzzing nature, I had no idea what to expect from this journey. All I knew was that I’d be living with a host family, taking classes while engaging in marine and atmospheric research, and exploring a new and amazing culture. And I knew I was excited for all of it.

Some of the first things I saw after we arrived were sea lions napping on the pier, a prehistoric-looking marine iguana crossing our path, and crystal clear turquoise water stretching for miles in all directions. I got settled in with my host family who welcomed me with open arms, and then we did some exploring as we made our way to the school for our first day of Marine Science 490—the Marine Ecology of the Galápagos. I had never taken a MASC course before, but I thought, what better place to introduce myself to marine sciences than the Galápagos, where I’ll be surrounded by nothing but the marine environment for two months?

Caitlin Moffat snorkeling with Chancellor Folt

As part of this course, we were able to do our own research project. It was a great way to integrate the natural environment of the islands with concepts from our course. My specific project dealt with investigating the predatory relationship of sea urchins on algae in the subtidal system of the Galápagos, but other projects also included intertidal systems and the organisms inhabiting those zones. While our research was underway, Chancellor Folt happened to be in Ecuador, and decided to make a trip out to the Galápagos. During her visit, we went to Lobería, the site where we’d been doing our research. Despite the cold Pacific waters, we snorkeled with Chancellor Folt for about an hour, swimming with the sea lions and turtles. It was amazing to see how this one place connected us all—those of us within the UNC community, along with our colleagues in the Galápagos, and the unique marine life found there.

In between our lectures on marine management practices, trophic interactions, El Niño phenomena, phytoplankton, and how those are all at play within the marine environment, we traveled to the other islands. Some were day trips,

The Caldera of the Sierra Negra Volcano

but my personal favorite was a four-day adventure to Isabela, one of the more remote islands that was about 4 hours away by boat. There, we saw the Galápagos penguins, sharks, manta rays, whales, sea lions, sea turtles, and blue-footed boobies—all within a span of about 2 hours! We hiked Sierra Negra, a large volcano in the highlands of the island, and along the way we tried guayaba and other exotic fruits from trees that lined the trail. A second excursion we took as a class was to kicker rock—a beautiful, expansive, upright rock in the middle of the ocean where we snorkeled all day. Sharks, an octopus, thousands of fish, and (more) sea turtles were all around the beautiful structure, seeming to not mind our presence.

One day, after visiting the bay where Charles Darwin first landed when he stumbled upon the Galápagos, it hit me that we were in a truly special place. I feel so lucky to have taken a marine sciences course in such a scientifically impactful setting. Every day, we were surrounded by the very themes we were learning in class, and were able to experience the expansive marine world in action all around us. Something that I learned throughout the course of this study abroad experience that has really stuck with me is the concept of interconnectedness. In learning about the different trophic interactions, food webs, and environmental patterns, it hit me that we are all a part of something greater. There are larger processes connecting marine systems to terrestrial ones, integrating biotic factors with abiotic ones, and bridging humanity to our ever-evolving environment.

-by Caitlin Moffatt (UNC-Chapel Hill, 2018 – B.A. Biology, Spanish for the Professions Minor)

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