Brian Monnin & The Galapagos Kids

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Photo courtesy of MTSobek

Some years ago I put together a book, Paths Less Traveled, for which I dispatched well-known authors to adventure destinations and asked them to write of their experience. Tom Robbins reported from Tanzania; Bobbie Ann Mason from New Zealand; Edward Hoagland from Yemen; Roy Blount, Jr. from the Amazon, and on.

For the Galapagos I sent Daniel Boorstin and his wife on a small-ship cruise around the islands, but he never delivered his essay. When he missed the deadlines, I called and asked if the article might be forthwith, and he replied, “No.” His experience had been less than positive, as he had been housed on a small boat with another family with kids, and the children had compromised his experience. I countered that the only restriction on how he wrote his piece was that he be honest with his impressions and feelings, but he still declined, and the book went to press without the Galapagos.

This hole puzzled me, as it always seemed that the great joy of visiting the Galapagos was witnessing the natural world in a sense of child-like wonder and awe, and that that take is only enhanced when tadpoles are there to swim and submerge in the magical realism of these islands.

A few years ago I took my then five-year-old son to the Galapagos, and his eyes grew large at every wildlife encounter; his hands waved with excitement; and his whole being vibrated with marvel and curiosity. And, here’s the cool part, I did as well, fueled by my son’s energy. Yes, the Galapagos is a seminal experience for all ages, but there is something transcendental in the uninhibited response of a child, and it carries upwards all within orbit as well.

A couple months back I was discussing this phenomena with my friends Brian and Janine Monnin, who have two boys, eight and twelve, and they immediately decided to test the notion with a family trip to the Galapagos. They just returned, and Brian sent me this report, picking up where Daniel Boorstin left off.

Dateline: The Equator, Pacific Ocean
Dispatch by Brian Monnin

A mess of marine iguanas | Photo by Brian Monnin

A mess of marine iguanas | Photo by Brian Monnin

Charles Darwin spent only five weeks in 1835 amidst a cluster of 13 volcanic islands resting astride the equator nearly 620 miles off of modern day Ecuador. His time on the Galapagos stood out to Darwin, compared to the other 243 weeks he spent circling the globe on the HMS Beagle, for good reason. Years later, his recollections, notes and observations on evolution would rock the world, challenging mankind’s understanding of the natural world, with the publishing ofOn the Origin of Species. Its hard to fathom after touring the islands, but Darwin’s theories on natural selection are still controversial to some today.

Darwin transformed the study of biology by telling the story of only a few in the diverse display of Galapagos wildlife (mostly mockingbirds and finches). One hundred and eighty years later, I set out with my wife Janine, and our two boys (Duncan 8, and Theo 12), to follow the story of Darwin’s voyage, and see what we might discover about the modern natural world, and maybe even our kids, and ourselves.

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Doing my best to pack light & right thanks to ExOfficio.com. #underwhere

I can’t imagine the logistics involved in circumnavigation in the 1800’s as just finding time in between summer schedules and sports camps is hard enough. Luckily, Mountain Travel Sobek (MTSobek) specializes in family adventures worldwide, and the team behind the Galapagos Wildlife Adventure removed many obstacles getting us from Seattle to Ecuador so we could begin our expedition.

One modern challenge is to simply disconnect. The onslaught of data signals and entertainment on our devices is overwhelming. I am determined to pull up from Seattle and pull away from our iThings. I don’t want any of my family or me to be that guy looking at his phone while a whale breaches a few feet away.

Darwin himself joined the voyage of the Beagle to get away and disconnect in his own way. His father and seminary school were constantly hounding and distracting him from his naturalist and scientific urges. A circumnavigation in 1835 for a 24-year old certainly seemed to hold the potential for a transformative adventure.

A three-hour tour

Life aboard the HMS Beagle was tough on Darwin in the 1830’s. Quarters were cramped, food often scarce and the ship nearly capsized rounding Cape Horn on January 13, 1833. Darwin suffered greatly from seasickness, and as a land surveyor, he was grateful whenever ashore.

“For a moment, our position was critical but, like a cask, she rolled back again, though with some feet of water over the whole deck,” Charles Darwin wrote to his sister Caroline describing a close call during the voyage of the HMS Beagle.
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Galaxy | Photo by Brian Monnin

Galaxy | Photo by Brian Monnin

Fortunately, neither the Monnin family, nor any other MTSobek guest, had any such maritime challenges in 2015. The 100-foot Galaxy is large enough to find solitude and comfort for all fourteen passengers, and small enough to crab into remote bays and coves. Aside from a couple nights of rolling waves, we experience none of the hardships Darwin endured on the Beagle.

Galapagos Land Iguana | Photo by Brian Monnin

Galapagos Land Iguana | Photo by Brian Monnin

With hearty fare and comfortable cabins, we are free to focus on the details awaiting with each day’s adventure. Two three-hour outings punctuated by wonderfully prepared feasts become the norm. Often we begin with an early-morning hike on rugged volcanic terrain with trails shared by scores of reptiles, mammals, invertebrates, birds and plants listed in our materials and field guides. Our afternoons are spent mostly underwater snorkeling with fish, mammals and reptiles too numerous to count. Our guide reminds us daily that there are “no guarantees,” but slowly he loses credibility as close encounters with Giant tortoises, Marine Iguanas, Galapagos Land Iguanas, Wild Pink Flamingos, Black-tipped Reef Sharks and Blue-Footed Boobies become common place.

Finches man, finches

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Galapagos Finch drawings studied by Darwin

These islands provide naturalists and scientists unique and contained environments to study. For the study of birds in particular, the Galapagos have allowed a peek at how species developed special characteristics particular to the differing island environments.

Tree Finch | Photo by Brian Monnin

Tree Finch | Photo by Brian Monnin

My wife and I are not ornithologists, and certainly not “competitive birders” as some on our trip point out is really a thing. However, once you start paying attention to birds in the Galapagos, the marvel of flight and the nuance of survival becomes immediately fascinating. It’s no wonder Darwin focused on mockingbirds and finches.

Unsatisfied with one of the explanations a fellow-guest made during our walk and out of earshot of our expert guide, I attempt to summarize it for my kids. “Some finches made it from the mainland of South America to the Galapagos long ago. Some settled; others continued on to the other islands, where the conditions (weather, predators, food and water sources) differed, requiring the finches in each new locale to change, to adapt in order to survive.” Duncan nods quietly. It is my best stab at pointing out the evidence of mutation seen in the Ground Finch, the longer beaked Large Tree Finch, and the sharp beaked “Vampire” Finch.

“Mutants rule!” says Duncan, referring more to his Marvel comic favorites, but making exactly the right reference.

Finches that forged favorable mutations for their surroundings survived. Now take this underlying principle and apply it to all living things, including humans, and you are reminded of how revolutionary this discovery was in the mid 1800’s, and how it remains important today.

Juvenile Galapagos Hawk | Photo by Brian Monnin

Juvenile Galapagos Hawk | Photo by Brian Monnin

Our family, and fellow guests, begin searching for the fourteen varieties of finches, and the dazzling array of other birds. We watch flamingos in the wild, flightless cormorants, Galapagos penguins, lava herons, magnificent frigates and the one and only Blue-Footed Booby, to name but a few. Back home in Seattle, we are lucky to have the Raptor Center at the Woodland Park Zoo. We’ve visited the exhibit several times, but I can’t say we were paying anywhere near as close attention as we do now. Here in the Galapagos, the wild things are fearless of humans, and let us quietly observe as though we are neighbors.

Naturalists spend weeks, months, even years in the field watching, studying, analyzing and hopefully contributing to the scientific process. In this age of devices and constant contact, adventure travel may be one of the best ways to give your kids a crash course in paying close attention and being present.

Theo taking it in as a Galapagos Hawk comes to rest just a few feet away. | Photo by Brian Monnin

Theo taking it in as a Galapagos Hawk comes to rest just a few feet away. | Photo by Brian Monnin

Great Egret | Photo by Brian Monnin

Great Egret | Photo by Brian Monnin

I doubt Theo would have drawn this sketch if I hadn’t asked him to, but he did it. He choose the moment to reflect on his aviary subject, and in the peak of summer vacation, he put pencil to paper. Where it will go is uncertain, but perhaps an artistic seed was planted, a naturalist’s ability nurtured, or the curiosity to connect scientific dots has been piqued.To be continued…

Photo by Brian Monnin

Photo by Brian Monnin

Darwin didn’t snorkel

There wasn’t much time for swimming in the 1830’s, and so we can only wonder how Darwin’s observations would have altered if he swam with Green Sea Turtles, Galapagos Sea Lions, White-tipped Reef Sharks, schools of tropical fish, Manta Rays and the other-worldly Marine Iguanas like we did.

Darwin did make notes on the Marine Iguana, and theorized they must eat below the water, which we observed first-hand. Duncan was thrilled to learn that these alien-looking creatures were the inspiration for Godzilla. Theo is on a daily quest for a shark encounter, for which I feign support as we put on our masks and fins.

Photo Courtesy of MTSobek

Photo Courtesy of MTSobek

Jumping in the cool waters is a daily joy. The confluence of the cooler Peruvian, Cromwell current colliding with the warmer Panama currents contributes to the bounty of sea life here. Wet suits are needed, but with our hearts racing around each rocky bend we are never cold. Our guide tells us that the seals will play with us, but we kind of don’t believe him.

So, our guide says we should perform underwater summersaults and a seal will follow suit. “No guarantees though,” he hedges. Theo follows the advice and spins head over heel, and sure enough a seal pup darts over and playfully mimics, doing his own acrobatics in return.

Photo by Brian Monnin

Photo by Brian Monnin

The kids are on their own to explore the shore, grottos, coves and the brilliant undersea life. Yes, we’re nearby, but really it’s their own swimming strength buoyed by fins that makes this type of adventure doable. It’s a highlight amongst highlights exploring undersea gardens in mostly quiet waters, broken only by a few uncontrollable and snorkel-muffled yells of “look, look, look..!”.

“Play is how children learn to take control of their lives.” -Peter Gray. Photo by Brian Monnin

“Play is how children learn to take control of their lives.” -Peter Gray. Photo by Brian Monnin

Theo & Duncan on a scorpion hunt | Photo by Brian Monnin

Theo & Duncan on a scorpion hunt | Photo by Brian Monnin

All that makes adventure travel adventurous is exactly what our kids need to thrive in school and beyond. Independence, creative thinking, boldness, humor, patience and a passion for learning are in abundance on this geography of wonder, and will no doubt positively impact Theo and Duncan for years to come.

Getting to the Galapagos takes both time and money. Even Darwin was from the wealthy elite, but I truly believe it’s absolutely worth the investment. The Galapagos are not the only place to engage in an adventurous education for our kids. Our neighborhoods, schools, our parks and camps can offer a version of adventure, and can inspire our children for a moment to think and play on their own. But there is nothing that catapults kids into the realm of wonder and independent action and thought like a journey through these enchanted isles.

Photo by Brian Monnin

Photo by Brian Monnin

As parents we make a conscious choice to let our kids be self-reliant on this trip. We let them get in the boat on their own, and even jump off the high deck, so they are better prepared to adapt and become the mutants they were meant to be.

Photo by Brian Monnin

Photo by Brian Monnin

Whether jumping off a 30-ft boat, or the funny-one-on-one conversations with other guests, or the tireless Q&A with our outstanding guide and naturalist Greg Estes, I know this experience will serve my boys well. But as Darwin took years to formulate his best theories, it’s important to remember that the recall or the impact may not be immediate. But however subtle, it colors in some internal map, and contours the future.

Blue-Footed Booby | Photo by Brian Monnin

Blue-Footed Booby | Photo by Brian Monnin

For Theo & Duncan, The Galapagos Kids as I came to call them, will now have access to sights, sounds, feelings and knowledge that will persist and shape their unfolding lives. The Galapagos is a profound lens into our collective past, but it is also a scope that points us towards a more evolved tomorrow.

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