Galápagos With Teens: Lessons from a Dead Man

Science doesn't have to be boring. Exploring Darwin's legacy in the Galapagos.

As a single mother, I take every opportunity to introduce my boys to good male role models.

On my last trip (sailing around Cape Horn and the Straits of Magellan), I found one. He was smart, curious, passionate about nature, and well-traveled. I fell in love and decided that the kids should get to know him on our upcoming summer family vacation.

The fact that my guy has been dead for well over a century was not an impediment. Charles Darwin left a trove of journals and writings. A slew of biographers have probed and pronounced on every aspect of his life.

There are movies such as Creation (2009) and even a cartoon-book adaptation of his Origin of the Species, which I found incredibly helpful when I couldn’t get through the original.

I, however, wanted to focus less on the old bearded legend with the revolutionary theory and more on the inquisitive young student who in 1831 at the age of 22 sets sail as an unpaid naturalist (or early intern?) aboard the English ship Beagle as it sailed with its equally youthful captain Robert Fitzroy to chart the coast of South America.

For teens teetering between childhood and adulthood, there is no more inspiring story to move them from interest to passion, from dalliance to calling.

Darwin’s stint on the Beagle turned into a five-year odyssey and he pressed on despite cramped quarters, loneliness, and debilitating seasickness. He took advantage of opportunities he had while in exotic ports to observe and study the natural world. He took copious notes and reflected on everything he saw. What an exemplar for 21st-century kids, many of whom are too coddled and entitled for their own good. After spending three years along the coast of South America, Darwin and the Beagle headed west for a five-week tour of the Galapagos.

Our tour, with outfitter Southern Explorations, would be eight days (plus a side trip to mainland Ecuador). My 16- and 14-year-olds, no fools they, knew that vacations with Mom inevitably also included lessons (life or academic). They could see the pile of books on my bedside table. (Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle is a must, and there are several very good adaptations for children, including What Darwin Saw, from National Geographic Books.) Indeed, my stealth curriculum included scientific inquiry, evolutionary biology, and the human impact on the environment. But the learning had to be masked in an easy-to-swallow form: a snorkeling/hiking/biking extravaganza.

This post was first published on the Intelligent Travel blog on August 10, 2010. It is the first of a series of three; see the second here.

Photo © Norie Quintos