Year in Review: Galapagos: the trip of a lifetime

Valley teacher Janet Ruest scored the experience of a lifetime and a prestigious award in 2015.

Valley teacher Janet Ruest scored the experience of a lifetime and a prestigious award in 2015.

She was chosen in the spring from among 2,700 North American educators to join a National Geographic expedition to the famed Galapagos Islands in September as a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow on the Lindblad Expeditions ship, National Geographic Endeavour.

For Ruest, an enthusiastic lifelong learner, and now a teacher at Chemainus Secondary School, it was a dream come true.

She always loved Geography as a subject and chose it to accompany the physical education she already knew she wanted to teach.

Her high school social studies teacher made a huge difference in her life.

“She would come back after traveling and tell us stories, really personalize the experience. It made me want to go out and see the world. My goal in high school was to go to every single continent. I have one left now: Antarctica.”

Her school experience also gave her an enquiring mind and her goal in education has always been: “How can we as educators support that? How can we make our students citizens of the 21st century, of the world, not just citizens of Chemainus, or B.C. or even Canada?”

But thinking about how we’re all interconnected brought her right back to the Galapagos, where Victorian scientist Charles Darwin made his amazing discoveries.

“That’s why it’s almost such a perfect place for me. It is kind of full circle, bringing that back not just to my students but trying to get that message of interdependence out to teachers, other schools. And that’s part of my job as Grosvenor Teacher Fellow for the next year or so, to do outreach for different community groups, to go to schools and spread the word about geographic literacy. That’s the whole concept of the teacher fellowships with National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions,” she said.

The teaching fellow program, now nine years old, has grown from when it started as a thank you from Lindblad ownership to honour National Geographic’s Gil Grosvenor for years of educating the world about geography.

Ruest had sent in four essays as part of her application for a fellowship but then, as the weeks ticked by, she’d given up hope of joining an expedition.

“It was amazing when I got the phone call. It was 3 o’clock in the afternoon on Feb. 7, I had just returned from a run. She said, ‘This is Mary from National Geographic. Would this be a good time to talk?’ When I heard I was going to the Galapagos, my reaction was, Wow, they picked me!”

Lindblad runs its trips along the lines of the famous old Jacques Cousteau expeditions, offering excursions on Aodiacs to remote spots, diving, snorkeling, chances to learn from expert naturalists and watch National Geographic photographers and videographers at work.

The people in Ruest’s 2015 group of fellows have been sailing right until December when the last of them, the ones going to Antarctica, took to the waves. Before that, groups visited the arctic, Greenland and the Galapagos Islands.

Ruest’s own trip to the Galapagos Islands was from Sept. 11-20.

She said she loved the idea of being able to learn so much in one trip.

“I’m always taking courses or workshops, trying to change things I do in my classroom to make it more interesting for my students. We’ll have six to eight experts on flora and fauna on our ship, taking us out every day. The intrinsic value is amazing.”

Finally, Ruest was thrilled that her success shows someone can get there, even from a school as small as Chemainus Secondary.

“If you put yourself out there and apply for something as prestigious as the Grosvenor fellowship and make it, it’s inspirational,” she said.

•••

By the time the intrepid adventurer headed out for her adventure in September, excitement was rushing through her veins.

She saw and experienced more than she had dreamed of on her visit to that special part of the globe.

They were welcomed aboard Endeavour by the Galapagos handshake — grabbing the wrists of two crew members to get out of the Zodiac — met their expedition leader and had their first briefing.

The next day they arrived at Espanola Island where they got their first taste of snorkeling, Galapagos style.

“Fabulous colours of fish, sea lions who played around our group and then I spotted a rock that seemed to ‘grow wings’ as I swam overhead. A massive ray revealed himself to our delight,” she reported on her blog of the trip.

Her early tour experiences with the wildlife had already shown Ruest she’s not in Chemainus anymore.

“‘Wild’ animals who stay near humans have usually become habituated and have lost their fear…the opposite process has taken place in the Galapagos. The birds and animals have never had a fear of humans and therefore do not flee. On our walk this afternoon, marine iguanas continued to sun themselves without the slightest worry as we walked within a few feet…Waved albatrosses flew overhead and appeared to be purposely providing fabulous photo opportunities.”

Back aboard ship at sunset, she enjoyed the evening discussion with one of the experts and saw some of the photos taken that day by naturalist Juan Carlos.

Ruest said a highlight of her day was seeing some of Darwin’s famous finches coming right up and “pecking at my runners.”

By Monday, Sept. 14, the expedition had reached Floreana Island.

They circled the Champion Islet preserve by Zodiac, observing how the distinctive flows of lava created provide nesting sites for many birds in a landscape that included many prickly pears. Snorkeling or viewing through a glass-bottom boat showed them a great variety of fish as well.

After lunch, they visited the Pacific’s oldest postal system, Post Office Bay: a barrel set up for postal delivery by British whalers, which involved no postage.

“Whalers would take the post cards from their local area and hand deliver them to the intended recipients. Imagine how the recipients must have felt receiving a post card from the Galapagos years after it had been written,” she said.

Ruest sent a postcard to Chemainus Secondary and continued with an adventure many would envy.

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