Burns takes trip of a lifetime to the Galapagos Islands
A lifelong dream of traveling to the Galapagos Islands became real life for Pocahontas County High School science teacher Mary Sue Burns this past fall.
ﾓThe Galapagos Islands have always been a fantasy,ﾔ Burns said. ﾓAs a science teacher, you always hear about the exotic animals and the volcanic activity and all of that has been fascinating to me for years.ﾔ
The journey began in the spring when Burns was encouraged to apply for the Toyota International Teacher Program, which sends educators on journeys to ﾓadvance environmental stewardship and global connectedness in U.S. schools and communities through creative, interdisciplinary and solution-based teaching methods.ﾔ The 2010 trip was to the Galapagos Islands.
By July, Burns was contacted with good news. She was selected as one of 24 teachers out of 851 applicants to participate in the trip.
ﾓI was very excited, definitely,ﾔ she said. ﾓExcited about the opportunity to learn and the adventures.ﾔ
After a day of orientation in the Everglades in Florida, the group flew to Ecuador, South America, and on to the Galapagos Islands.
ﾓI think it was really pure euphoria because we stepped out of the plane right onto a little air strip and it was hot, sunny and breezy and you could see volcanoes everywhere and rocks sticking out of the ocean,ﾔ Burns said.
The programﾒs emphasis is on environmental and conservation issues.
ﾓTheir [Toyotaﾒs] philanthropy is kind of focused on three areas, education, environment and safety, so this was a combination of education and environment by promoting environmental awareness with teachers that can hopefully take that back to their students and community,ﾔ Burns said.
ﾓSo that was definitely a major emphasis, but along with that, I have to say there are kind of two strands to the project,ﾔ she added.
The two ﾓstrandsﾔ included discovery of the biodiversity of the Islands themselves and the interaction with the natives of the Islands.
ﾓThe Galapagos Islands are really famous for the nature aspect, the biodiversity, the species of animals that live only on one island and vary from island to island and itﾒs probably one of the most volcanically active places in the world, too, so those aspects were really extremely interesting to me as a science teacher,ﾔ Burns said.
The majority of people who travel to the Galapagos Islands experience the biodiversity and immerse themselves in the nature and animals, but they miss out on a huge part of the islands.
Of the 18 islands, only five are inhabited by people.
ﾓWhat a lot of tourists do is they fly into that airport, go directly off the plane and onto a cruise ship and take a cruise around the islands and the cruise brings them back to the airport and they leave,ﾔ Burns said.
ﾓThe airport is on a little island where nobody lives,ﾔ she continued. ﾓThe air strip was built by the United States and it was used in World War II as a naval and air force base as kind of a protection for the Panama Canal.ﾔ
Through this program, Burns not only met Galapagoans, she interacted with the students and presented a project to a class.
ﾓI underestimated the impact presenting a lesson in a school would have on me and that was probably an equally exciting experience because it was so different and interesting,ﾔ she said.
Burns worked with a group of four teachers, including a Galapagoan, and presented a project on environmental science.
Working in a classroom with a language barrier can be daunting, but Burns said the lesson went well.
ﾓPeople that travel to places people commonly go, tend to say thereﾒs always someone that speaks English. Not true,ﾔ she said. ﾓMost people did not speak English. School children in particular did not speak English. So we did have to do the lesson in Spanish.ﾔ
Luckily for Burns, she had a native teacher, as well as a bilingual teacher in her group.
ﾓWe learned the minimum that we needed for the directions for our activity and we understood the activity,ﾔ she explained. ﾓWe were able to contribute and the kids were very understanding. I think they kind of laughed at us, but our meaning got across.ﾔ
Being in a small island town, the school was more primitive than Burns expected and that renewed her appreciation for what students have in the United States.
ﾓThe school my group went to really had very little,ﾔ she recalled. ﾓIt made me really appreciate Pocahontas County High School because they had these basketball hoops with no baskets and they did not have any basketballs. They didnﾒt have any supplies, if you looked at the classrooms, they were very stark. I didnﾒt see any technology. Their bell was two bare wires they would push together to make a little siren go off.ﾔ
Burns and her group decided to give back to the students and bought them five basketballs and markers and paper for class.
Along with working with students, the teachers participated in some service projects in the communities.
ﾓThere is an organization called Galapagos ICE which is a non-profit organization,ﾔ Burns said. ﾓICE is an acronym for Immerse, Connect, Evolve and their premise is, if you donﾒt help people in the areas of health and education, then youﾒre probably not going to have much success in the areas of environmental protection and conservation. So they feel that the basis for taking care of the environment is to start with health and education.ﾔ
Through Galapagos ICE, the group went to an elementary school in the highlands and cleared some land for an organic garden and greenhouse. They also worked with an organization which creates a sustainable agriculture model for coffee farmers.
ﾓThe coffee they grow there has to be grown in the shade, so the trees that offer the shade can either be native species that get along great with the coffee or they can introduce things that may become invasive and kind of crowd out the coffee and not work so well,ﾔ Burns explained. ﾓThe organization is trying to get farmers to, if they were starting a new farm, start the native trees first and then plant the coffee under them, or, if they already established a farm, take out the invasive trees and replace them with native trees.ﾔ
Of course, the trip wasnﾒt all work. There was plenty of room for fun with the terrain and exotic wildlife.
Because the islands are mostly national park, most of the creatures of the islands have not made contact with humans. Therefore, they arenﾒt afraid of people and instead are curious about these new ﾓcreaturesﾔ that visit the islands.
ﾓNinety-eight percent of the islands are national park and they have very strict rules,ﾔ Burns said. ﾓOne of their rules is you are not allowed to touch the animals. Now, the animals donﾒt know that rule, so they should have a rule that the animals are not allowed to touch you because they will come right up to you.
ﾓThey have never learned to be afraid of people so itﾒs a really weird experience,ﾔ she continued. ﾓIf they are on land, they donﾒt run or crawl away. If youﾒre snorkeling, they wonﾒt swim away, in fact, they may come up and check you out. We swam with penguins, sharks, baby sea lions and sea turtles and you really had to work to stay out of the way of the sea turtles. They would come up to you and they were huge.ﾔ
The animals were more curious, than aggressive. The guide did warn the group about the bull sea lions, however.
ﾓThe only thing you had to be wary about as far as danger were the bull sea lions because they protect their territory, so you had to stay out of their way,ﾔ Burns said. ﾓThey were out in the water barking and carrying on but they didnﾒt seem to be aggressive and neither did the sharks. It kind of unnerved me the first time I swam right over top of a shark but I kind of got used to it. They didnﾒt seem aggressive to me, but I donﾒt know if I would wave a hand full of beef in front of one.ﾔ
The guide even joked with the group, telling them, ﾓnot to worry about the sharks, these are vegetarian sharks. They only eat vegetarians.ﾔ
The wildlife is so unique that visitors to the islands cannot carry anything with them from one island to the next because of the risk of contamination.
ﾓOur feet and legs were sprayed down before we were allowed to go from island to island,ﾔ Burns said. ﾓThey didnﾒt want anything, not even the sand, to be carried over from one place to the next.ﾔ
The individual islands are so different that they each have their own version of some of the species, including the marine iguanas, lava lizards and turtles.
Along with the infamous wildlife, the Galapagos Islands are known for their active volcanoes, a favorite of Burns.
ﾓI didnﾒt see any volcanoes erupting, but the rock is very young, so they could erupt,ﾔ she explained. ﾓThose islands formed over a hot spot like Hawaii did. The western side, those volcanoes are still active while the ones on the eastern side are pretty much dormant because the plate has moved over the hot spot.ﾔ
Although she didnﾒt experience a volcano on the islands, Burns said a volcano erupted a little over two hours after her plane left Ecuador.
After the 15 day trip, on the sunny islands just below the equator, Burns returned home to West Virginia in the snow.
Now that her dream has become a reality, Burns is using her experience to educate her students about the differences between the environments of the Galapagos Islands and West Virginia and perhaps prepare them for a trip in the future.