Galápagos with Teens: Weird Science

Land before time: Although it looks as if we're right on top of this giant land tortoise, we're really a healthy distance away. (It's important not to interfere with the natural activities of wildlife.)

Land before time: Although it looks as if we're right on top of this giant land tortoise, we're really a healthy distance away. (It's important not to interfere with the natural activities of wildlife.)

As a mom who likes to sneak Good Things into her kids (a splash of carrot juice in the morning o.j., grated zucchini in a chocolate cake, a cautionary newspaper article left next to the comics), I never go on vacation without hatching a secret curriculum/lesson plan.

The Galápagos, however, turned out to be less science lab and more field trip. And, happily for all, I was less lecturing professor and more do-nothing chaperone.

Here are the lessons we learned (all without me having to lift a finger): 

Real life beats virtual life. Not to knock HD cable nature channels, including our own Nat Geo Wild, but there’s nothing like being there. The Galápagos Islands engaged all our senses, not just the visual and auditory, and that makes jaded teens sit up and pay attention. The acrid aroma of bird guano; the screams of a Galápagos hawk; the warm stubble of lava rock; and the meaty bite of locally sourced and sustainable wahoo. And the sight of the iconic blue-footed booby was arresting enough to make me wonder whether there was a universal hue control I should dial down. Perhaps the most sensual experience was being in the ocean with a sea lion that effortlessly bobbed and weaved, and rushed headlong at us like a missile only to veer off at the last possible second. My play-it-cool teens were giddy as toddlers to be part of the underwater Cirque de Soleil. 

Evolution is No Big Deal: Here in these islands, the word evolution isn’t one loaded with political or religious overtones. It’s the most reasonable explanation for why tortoises on one island have a saddle back and those on another have a dome back. Or why finches on different islands, so similar otherwise, have starkly varying beaks perfectly suited to the vegetation of that island. Over thousands of years, living things adapted to varying environments. The animals or plants with the beneficial variations thrived and in time created new species. This is the backbone of evolutionary theory. It’s simple, really, and on the Galápagos, quite obvious.


These crazy creatures deserve protection. Birds with fluorescent blue feet. Tortoises as big as a love seat.  Black iguanas that swim. Penguins that live on the Equator. Electric-orange crabs. These islands host a mind-boggling array of unique wildlife whose continued existence depends on humanity’s uncertain ability to protect it. Difficult problems persist. The tramp of tourists’ feet risks the introduction of non-native species onto the fragile ecosystems even as it expands global awareness and brings in needed money. In August 2010, A United Nations committee took the Galápagos off the list of world heritage sites in danger. While recognizing the conservation strides made, many environmental groups consider the move premature. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), “threats from tourism, invasive species and overfishing are still factors and the situation in the Galápagos remains critical.” As the inheritors of this planet, our children, including my sons, have to solve these thorny issues. But first they have to care. And in order to care, it helps to see.

Life is a mystery. Throughout our travels, we were faced with questions that don’t have easy answers. Such staggering beauty all around us. Was there a divinity behind it all? We watched a booby chick kick a smaller sibling out of the nest and its mother ignore it. It would surely die. The evolutionary reasoning was that these birds lay two eggs but only have the resources to raise one. The second chick is the insurance the birds need to carry on the line if something happens to the first one. Why is suffering and death such an integral part of life? I certainly didn’t have all the answers for my sons, but the questions made for great conversations around the dinner table. And anything that gets a teen to talk is a good thing indeed.

It only takes a spark. A recent study suggests teens with passions and interests, or “sparks,” do better in school, work, and life. Travel in general is a veritable conflagration of sparks. My 14-year-old has the unique ability to locate wildlife; he also has an eye for what makes a good picture. He appointed himself the family’s official wildlife spotter and nature photographer on our trip. The 16-year-old appears to have an engineer’s mind. The varied terrain of the Galápagos–rocky to sandy–inspired him to design an all-terrain land rover.

Education takes time. It’s easy to forget that Charles Darwin let the lessons he learned in his travels cook in his brain for years before they became the theories we know today. When he joined the crew of the Beagle at the age of 23 he was untested, unformed, and uncommitted (not unlike most teens). He emerged after five years as a man with clarity and a vision of his way forward. A final lesson for the kids and the ages.


Our trip was organized by Southern Explorations. This piece was first published in November 2010 on National Geographic's Intelligent Travel website. It is the second in a series of three; see the first here and the last here

Photos © Norie Quintos.