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A break in the Galapagos

A group of FIU students spent spring break helping restore the unique ecosystem of the Galapagos Islands.

By Rodolfo Roman
Special to The Miami Herald
What started off as a joke turned out to be a life-changing adventure over spring break for a group of Florida International University students.

Eleven members of Alternative Breaks, a FIU student organization, spent more than 10 days on the Galapagos Islands, in the Pacific Ocean 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, removing invasive species.

“Visiting the islands was something I had always wanted to do, but had never really looked into actually getting there,” said Ana Martinez, 25, a site leader for the Environmental Concerns trip to the Galapagos island of San Cristobal.

Martinez joined 10 other students last month as they arrived at a nonprofit station called “Jatun Sacha,” which is a Quechua Ecuadorian Indian phrase meaning Big Forest. Students removed exotic fruits like the Andean Blackberry Mora, guava and passion fruit and replaced it with native vegetation like Scalesia, a tree, to help the ecosystem return to how it once was.

Originally, the group had its eye on traveling to Tennessee for a domestic environmental trip, but the site was overbooked for the week of spring break. In search for a new spot, student Danny Cueva, a biology major, joked around by suggesting flying to the Galapagos Islands.

“We laughed it off, like that would never happen, but then we looked up airfare and prices, and thought it was achievable,” he wrote in an e-mail. “It would be a difficult long journey, but we thought we could pull it off. In actuality, this was the furthest site for Alternative Breaks ever, and the largest budget ever —$16,000.”

Thanks to fundraising by working concession stands at Sun Life Stadium, car washes, bake sales and private donations, the trip was possible. Best Buy of Aventura also donated an iPad and a Toshiba notebook, which were raffled off to raise money. Panorama Travel also gave the group a discounted group airfare. Participants only had to pay $400 per person.

Cueva, 24, helped plant Manzanillo, a fruit tree, which is toxic to humans, but vital for one of the reptiles living on the island, the giant tortoise.

“This species is in peril due to habitat destruction and introduced invasive species such as pigs and rats, which eat the turtle eggs,” wrote Cueva in an e-mail.

Alternative Breaks can be found at universities across the country are part of the nationwide organization Breakaway. The FIU group has helped in Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Atlanta. The group also has service trips during Thanksgiving and winter breaks.

On their visit, they worked in various locations including the Galapaguera, where the national park service raises the tortoises for release, and the Galapagos National Park at Puerto Grande, which is a popular tourist destination.

There was much work for the students as an 8-foot wave hit Puerto Grande the same day Japan was struck by a devastating tsunami and earthquake, March 11. The wave reached 400 feet inland, eroding the sand from the beach and scattering branches and cacti, said Cueva.

“We found dead Galapagos sharks 100 feet inland,” Cueva wrote in an e-mail “Our efforts were removing the branches, cactus and debris from the beach.”

The Galapagos Islands, an archipelago of volcanic islands, is famed for the large number of endemic species studied by Charles Darwin.

For Martinez, the visit was unforgettable.

“The islands have their own unique beauty and charm, and it is not in the least bit strange to be sitting on a bench by the port and having sea lions laying on the bench immediately next to you,” she wrote in an e-mail. “The experience as a whole is definitely something that has touched me and will stay with me forever.”

Before setting off for the Galapagos, students participated in a pre-service project at FIU’s nature preserve removing invasive species of plants hazardous to South Florida. During the trip, members came together and reflect the experience.

The trip to the island was more than a break from school, said Cueva, whose father is Ecuadorean.

“Visiting the Galapagos Islands is the dream of every biology major,” he said. “I had always dreamt of seeing the marine iguanas, the only marine lizard in the world, and the giant tortoises, the largest in the world.”

Read more: http://www.miamiherald.com/2011/04/07/2155783/fiu-students-visit-galapagos.html#ixzz1JB3ByqiR

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