Expedition to Galapagos

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Carole's Early Influences

When I was four, my father would throw me into the waves of the South Carolina surf. I would come out screaming "do it again, Dad!" But I think maybe my heart stayed in the sea.

Then, I only knew that the ocean is fun. Later I began to discover her treasures. I would search for sea shells and shark’s teeth in the sand, and poke jellyfish that washed onto the beach (this was done of course with a big stick as I never could get up the nerve to investigate just how long a jellyfish can sting after beaching!). I would marvel at ghost crabs, mole crabs, fiddler crabs, cancer crabs, spider crabs, horseshoe crabs, and blue crabs. And I would search for sand dollars in the water with my feet, fearful that each new step might plant my foot on or within easy reach of the claws of a crab, but overwhelmingly captivated by discovering a perfect sand dollar and lifting it out of the water to study the hundreds of tiny "feet" moving on its underside. I never realized until I started capturing them myself that living sand dollars are green and fuzzy, not white and smooth as they are when dried up on the beach. In fact, figuring out that all of the shells on the beach were the hard remains of previously living marine organisms was a startling revelation.

Once, when I was nine, I saw dolphins frolicking offshore. I grabbed my sister and we paddled a raft out to join them, mindless of any danger that could befall two children on a small inflatable raft a half mile out to sea, mindful only of the urge to be there. That was many years ago, but my recollection is that I felt very much at home in the midst of those powerful but graceful cetaceans and was mesmerized by their antics and thrilled at achieving such close proximity to them.

When I was fourteen, a cousin and I sailed the family sunfish at low tide out to a sandbar a couple miles off the South Carolina shore. He then returned to the beach to begin picking up others who wanted to come out. I was so moved by the experience of being alone on an ephemeral piece of sand in the "middle" of the ocean. I wrote a poem about it and gave it to an English teacher. But I don’t think she could relate to the experience. Few could I imagine.

So what does a girl with a strong curiosity about and love for the sea do when she grows up? I turned this passion into a career. My mission as a marine biologist has become to explore and help piece together the enormous puzzle of life in seas that cover about 70% of our planet. My journey already has taken me to the crystal blue waters of the Caribbean and tropical South Pacific, to the enchanting kelp forests off California, and to museums all over the world to study organisms collected and preserved by those who journeyed before me.

And now I begin a journey to the Galapagos Archipelago, the group of islands in the equatorial eastern Pacific made famous by Charles Darwin’s voyage there on the HMS Beagle in 1835 and subsequently in his theory of natural selection and evolution published in On the Origin of Species in 1859 (exactly 100 years before my birth). Oceanic islands such as the Galapagos are so important to those of us who study evolutionary biology: All of the life that occurs in areas so remote from any continental land mass either arrived there from someplace else (by swimming, drifting, flying, or being transported in some other fashion) or evolved from something that arrived there. By comparing what occurs in the Galapagos with what occurs in neighboring areas, we can identify species that are unique (endemic) there. Darwin found that when a population of organisms is isolated from the rest of its species, such as what might occur when a population of organisms arrives at the Galapagos from mainland South America, the colonizing population may change dramatically in form from its mainland relatives, and new forms that take advantage of a multitude of untapped niches in the new environment may arise from the colonizing form. As Darwin pointed out, a vast array of new land forms has evolved in the Galapagos – tortoises, marine iguanas, finches, flightless cormorants, etc. But the forces of evolution are at work in the marine realm as well. In Galapagos fishes, for example, the rate of endemism is estimated to be about 10%; that is, 10% of the fish species that occur in the Galapagos appear to have evolved there! But so little of the marine habitat of the Galapagos has been explored – especially below about 50 meters – and more new species are certain to be found, especially in deep water, an area that this expedition will allow us to explore. As I embark on this journey, I am excited about the potential for discovery of new life forms, and I am greatly (albeit hesitantly) anticipating plunging into the darkness of the deep. If someone had told that little girl on the South Carolina beach that one day she’d be probing the depths of the sea in a high-tech submarine for four, she wouldn’t have believed it. But she’d probably have thought about it curiously every day thereafter – just as I have since learning of being selected for this great adventure. So, let the journey begin!

 

 


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