Education Lab

Fresno science teacher awed by Galapagos

Scott Hatfield, a Bullard High School science teacher and Christian, stepped into the world of Charles Darwin this summer with a visit to the Galapagos Islands.

Charles Darwin's visit to just four islands in five weeks in the 1830s had a resounding impact on his writings as the basis for the modern understanding of evolution.

Hatfield traveled to the islands, which are in the Pacific Ocean on the equator, with a group of 16 people, including Fresno City College science instructors, a psychologist and graduate students. The group traveled 500 miles in a boat with national parks officials and took eight plane rides over 10 days.

He plans to give talks in the classroom and in the community about his experience.

Hatfield says making the trip was important because he wanted to gather information to use in his teaching to inspire students to choose careers in science. He says he's struck by how many students who live in Fresno still haven't visited the area's national parks.

"To see the Galapagos -- it's impressive on its own," he says. "It's fresh; it's isolated. Isolation is like a natural laboratory for doing science."

Hatfield says he was able to connect experiences in the Galapagos that Valley students and fellow science instructors can observe locally.

Here are 10 things he learned about the Galapagos that inspired him:

The sheer physical scale -- The archipelago is very, very large, Hatfield says, and is very, very exhaustive to navigate.

He found that many of the anecdotal things he has heard about the Galapagos have more to do with the individual species, such as the marine iguanas, tortoises or finches, rather than the place's dimensions.

The feeling of a world before time -- Words such as "prehistoric" or "ancient" don't do the Galapagos justice, Hatfield says.

"When you see the iguanas clustered in large groups over black lava shorelines, with no vegetation in sight, you can easily imagine you are in a primeval world, at the center of creation," he says.

Approachability of wildlife -- There is probably no other place on Earth, he says, where you can get right next to so many different creatures.

He swam with sharks.

The volcanoes -- Hundreds of volcanoes, including a handful still active, make the Galapagos a geological wonderland, he says.

Some are shield volcanoes. Some are cinder cones. Others are a mixture of materials.

The birds -- It's a bird-lover's paradise, he says. One of the islands, Genovesa, is about a fourth the size of Clovis, yet home to more than a million birds of various species.

The blue-footed Booby stands out. Hatfield says he saw them plunge-dive to steal fish from pelican's mouths.

The marine iguanas -- The only ocean-going lizards in the world, they are well-adapted to the Galapagos, he says.

On some islands, there are so many that Hatfield couldn't even step onto black lava where they congregate. "They opened their mouths and I didn't see any teeth," he says.

The equal fluidity of land and sea -- Hatfield remembers waking up one morning on a ship that was floating in a bay formed from the collapse of a volcano: land.

The next morning, he hiked a recently formed lava flow that connected islands previously separated: ocean.

"It was an epiphany moment," Hatfield says.

The giant tortoise -- The breeding program in the Galapagos is a success, he says. It produces hundreds of hatchlings each year. It also has placed more than 3,000 adults back into the wild on various islands in the past 20 years.

The giant tortoise weighs more than 500 pounds and has a bluish shell. It also didn't care for Hatfield getting too close. "They hiss," he says.

The sea lions and pups -- Hatfield says he watched a female interact with her newborn, an estimated two days old.

"The placenta was right by it on the beach," says Hatfield, who captured the moment on video. "This was the money clip."

The world in transition -- Hatfield says mangrove forests along the lava cliffs on some islands blur the distinction between land and ocean.

"Pelicans and boobies nest in the mangrove branches, sea lions nap below the tap roots at low tide and sharks and rays glide through the narrow inlets," he says.

His final thought: The Galapagos is a wonder.