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Galápagos Guest Impressions: An Environmental Scientist Heads to the Islands

This past summer I had a chance to explore the Galápagos Islands for the first (and hopefully not the last!) time. My family traveled aboard the National Geographic Islander along with an eclectic group of people from around the world—some young, some more mature, school teachers, an Olympian, newlyweds, and at least one humbled environmental scientist, that's me.


Mike Zikel Galapagos.jpg

As part of my job, I study and learn about the marine environment with a particular focus on marine mammals. This fabulous trip gave me the opportunity to meet some of these animals—like the endemic Galápagos sea lion—where they live, instead of simply reading about them. I say we "met them," because there was no need to creep up quietly to catch a glimpse of a penguin or a red-footed booby like I have to do back home as I'm desperately trying to focus my binoculars on a flitting warbler. We kept our distance of six feet, naturally, and observed them watching us. Well, sometimes they slept, completely uninterested in the gawkers taking selfies, but other times they were curious and even playful. One of those more memorable moments was when some young sea lions started up a game of tag with us as we waited on the beach for the Zodiacs to fetch us back to the ship.  


After returning home and reflecting on this once-in-a-lifetime trip, it occurred to me that we, the humans, were really the ones on display, watched by these curious animals as we tried to navigate their habitat. We don’t really belong there, and that’s the way it should be. 

What Was Your Favorite WIldlife Encounter?

All of them were amazing because you could get close without disturbing the animals, but my favorite was snorkeling with a penguin that was as curious about all of us as we were about it. I spent several minutes following this one penguin as it swam around and between us, and then suddenly it turned and popped up right in front of me. In that moment, I felt like I was a welcome visitor in the natural habitat of these animals and not an invader, who despite the best of intentions, in other parts of the world ends up disturbing wildlife and driving them away. I saw species in the Galápagos that I probably will never see again. That’s memorable on its own, but it was the closeness that I will always remember, particularly that inquisitive little penguin. 

A Galápagos penguin swims towards the camera

What is the One Moment You'll Remember Years From Now?

My youngest son Jon, who is 13, saw a guest jumping off the ship into the water in a promotional video. He immediately decided he wanted to do that, but when the time came to walk the plank, which is what basically you had to do to jump off, he was having second thoughts. The crowd gathering around was encouraging him, but he was still hesitant. Then Emma Ridley, one of the naturalists on board, hopped up and jumped in fully clothed. That did it! He was the next one in and several others followed, including me. That will always make me smile. 

Several of the species we encountered are not only endemic to the Galápagos, they are endemic to specific islands in the Galápagos.

Mike Zickel, on one surprising fact he learned

Was There Anything You Saw That You Weren't Expecting?

I was not expecting to walk across a relatively new lava field. The experience was otherworldly, but, of course, the environment is very much a part of our world, just a part I had never seen before. The landscape appeared desolate, but a closer look showed that life was breaking through. Several very specialized plant and animal species were finding a home in a lava field and thriving. The hike, the heat (we were walking on black glass), and discovering niche species was just one of several experiences that makes a trip to the Galápagos unique.

Did You Experience Anything for the First Time?

The food was an unexpected and somewhat indulgent experience that I looked forward to at every mealtime. Always different and always excellent, I can’t count the number of dishes I tried for the very first time and loved. The ceviche sticks out in my memory. On the first day I might have declined a seafood soup served cold, but by the third day (after everything else I had tried was delicious), I made a point of never saying no. It was excellent, and although we’ve tried to reproduce it at home with some success, we have not yet matched the chef on the National Geographic Islander. 

Make your own memories on an exhilarating Galápagos expedition.