I am just returning from a week in the Galapagos Islands. These are the famous islands that Charles Darwin visited when he was in his twenties. I wasn't really going there to learn about evolution or Charles Darwin; I was going to be with my family and see the wildlife up close and personal.
There were 16 people on the boat, and our family made up six of them. Ten total strangers together on a boat. It wasn't a reality television show; it was 16 Americans visiting the Galapagos for Christmas. I took the opportunity at the end of our week to ask my fellow passengers what they learned about life from our travels.
Today's "last Monday of 2012" column is devoted to my shipmates and what they said after their week.
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There was much said about the animals. First, they are not skittish if they are not endangered by people. All the endemic animals in the Galapagos are protected. We got so close to a few Blue Booby nests and were within an arm's reach of the eggs they were incubating. The Boobys did not flinch. They went on as if we were not near, unaware that the human paparazzi were around watching their every move.
Many people on our trip told me they learned so much about the fragile ecosystem. Goats and rats were introduced to the island by landing ships and have eaten everything in sight. It became so bad that they had to round up the goats and destroy them. From an earlier trip to Antarctica this year, we learned what happens when the whales were killed. Their poop feed the krill, and the krill feed the penguins, and the penguins feed the sea lions. Without the valuable whale poop, the cycle of life was endangered. However, before our intervention, the life balance had worked itself out through thousands of years unencumbered by human intervention. It can be a strong ecosystem.
As a group, we learned that family can be strong. We learned this as we observed the sea lions. The sea lion pup waits until the mother comes back from fishing and has enough milk to feed it. They find each other through their acute sense of smell. We were not a group of sea lions, but our group consisted of three families and one couple on a honeymoon. We all spent time with our families on this trip, and we were all aware of how important family is for survival. We saw it in the animals, and we saw it with each other. We observed animal families, and we observed our own. The bonding is strong, and most of us were marveling at how interconnected we all are.
Most of us came away from the Galapagos thinking that we are just visitors – not only to the Galapagos but visitors to our planet. The tortoises and birds and even the sharks we saw while snorkeling were here long before we were. The land and the ecosystem were most likely here millions of years before we were. As we watched the bottlenose dolphins race with our boat and click to each other, doing special dives every time we clapped or said "Ohhhhh," it became clear that this beautiful planet is not ours. It belongs to every creature. Just like a visitor to someone's home makes their bed and helps with the dishes, it is our job to help out and not destroy what is given to us. The more we understand that we are just visitors, the more we can help our fellow creatures and keep the planet we all share healthy and ready for future generations.
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Mostly, we learned what James Freeman Clark wrote in his 19th century book, "Self Culture." Clark wrote: "The buttercup does not envy the rose, nor the prairie vine complain because it is not a Virginia creeper. God has made everything beautiful in its time and place; let it only be contented to unfold into that which it is intended to become."
Freeman Clark wrote these words well over a hundred years ago, but our collective experience this week in the Galapagos makes his words as fresh as if they had been written yesterday.