Skagit Valley College professor aims to take students to Galapagos

November 25, 2018
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A blue-footed booby perches on a rock in the Galapagos.

MOUNT VERNON — Skagit Valley College professor Claus Svendsen describes the Galapagos Islands as the Hawaii of Ecuador.

Svendsen, chair of the college’s environmental conservation program, wants to take a group of students to see for themselves the tropical islands that teem with wildlife.

He said his plan is to take students in the college’s conservation biology class on a weeklong research trip in spring 2020 if the college and the students can raise enough money to make it happen.

Svendsen and his wife visited the islands off the west coast of South America this summer to get a sense of the on-the-ground experience and costs of a trip.

“Taking students to the Galapagos would be an absolutely perfect fit for that class, so I wanted to do a case study to see how that would work logistically,” Svendsen said.

During his trip, he saw turtles on beaches and in breeding programs at various research centers, a variety of birds and successful restoration where invasive rats have been eradicated.

“How do we do conservation right in terms of human pressures?” Svendsen said, explaining that he thinks the Galapagos and other islands grappling with sustainability are poised to answer that question. “It would be good I think for students to come out and see the conservation measures and also another culture.”

In a place such as the Galapagos, he said boat traffic can impact nearshore habitat, expansion of urban areas can impact wildlife and the introduction of pets can harm native populations.

“I would like our students to have more of a global perspective,” Svendsen said.

The Galapagos, located generally at the equator, are also deeply influenced by differences between El Niño and La Niña.

During La Niña, the marine ecosystem around the islands is rich with nutrients and wildlife, Svendsen said. During El Niño, warmer waters cause the system to shift and species that rely on fish decline or disappear, while land-based species fare better.

“It’s good to see those forces at work — how the terrestrial and marine ecosystems work back and forth,” Svendsen said.

He said also making the Galapagos an attractive international research opportunity is that visas are not required and the country uses the American dollar.

The idea is to take students to stay on a boat, visit several islands and participate in research.

“We will be counting birds and taking all sorts of other ecological measurements,” Svendsen said.

With an abundance of bird species, from the world’s smallest penguin to the recently arrived American flamingo, he said the Galapagos are a great place to do that.

“I think it’s amazing,” said student Milo Heiret, who is working toward a Bachelor of Applied Science in environmental conservation. “We spend all this time learning about Darwin and about how species evolved, and being able to go an area with some of the highest biodiversity ... to actually go and experience it would be amazing.”

He said it could also provide some insight into the effects of climate change, which are being felt more intensely near the equator than in the Pacific Northwest.

“We would kind of see how some of these organisms are getting affected and what we could expect to see in our area moving forward as we see some of these changes happening around here,” Heiret said.

Through 2019, Svendsen said he’ll be seeking grants and donations to help get the about 14-student class to the islands.

“I think it would be great for four-year students to have an international experience ... getting them out of the valley,” he said. “I think going abroad is really enriching and has lifelong value.”

Svendsen said he knows how life-changing it can be to study abroad.

When he was a graduate student at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, he did work for his master’s thesis in Fairbanks, Alaska. It was there that he met his wife, and that experience led him to settle in the Skagit Valley.

Skagit Valley College President Tom Keegan said Svendsen’s goal to get students to the Galapagos fits with part of the college’s strategic plan, which is to promote global citizenship.

He said the college strives to bring students and faculty to the college from throughout the world, as well as provide opportunities for students and faculty to study abroad.

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