As some reading this note will know, the Vancouver Aquarium organizes at least one exploration trip to an interesting part of the world each year. We’ve been to the Antarctic and Canada’s Arctic in the past two years. This year, 10 of us are off to Ecuador to explore both the upper Amazon River area and the Galapagos Islands. Our travellers include a Vancouver area teacher, an architect, some people working in the financial sector and a retired couple. I mention this to make clear that these are not professional biologists or ecologists – just ordinary people … but with a twist. They want to explore.

John Nightingale, president of the Vancouver Aquarium. Photo: JL Gijssen.

That’s why we do these trips – to explore. What we learn while exploring a place such as the Galapagos Islands isn’t as important as the perceptions we acquire. Our perceptions of the natural world almost always turn out to be partially incorrect, or sometimes just plain wrong. How we perceive places like the Amazon jungle is increasingly important because our actions – even living in faraway B.C. – have a far-reaching impact on the changes taking place in remote or protected areas. I’ll come back to that in a moment. The second reason for going exploring is to practise and refine our ability to explore. Living, as we do, mostly in cities and towns, we fall into a bit of a rut. I work hard to raise my eyes to what is going on around me every day. But, as hard as I try, I know I am not seeing much – I am distracted by driving, walking, my smartphone, work … lots of distractions. A trip like the one we are embarking on is an amazing way to open our eyes, soak in what is happening around us and become more observant. As we begin to see more, the discussions become more and more interesting. I know that this change will follow us home and, for at least awhile, we will be more observant and aware of what is happening around us.

A market in Ecuador. Photo: JL Gijssen.

This trip offers a stark contrast. In the upper Amazon, the Rio (river) Napo to be exact (an upper tributary of the Amazon), we will find a subtle and understated environment – at least the nature part. One has to slow down, look slowly, walk slowly, and observe slowly to soak in what a tropical jungle environment is all about. Its ecological processes have evolved over eons, and change slowly. Now, of course, humans are intervening. The Ecuadorian upper Amazon region sits on large oil deposits, most of which are now being mined. The impacts and pressures are changing the region in some less than positive ways. We’ll report on those changes as we explore the area later this week.

The Galapagos Islands, on the other hand, are about as “in your face” as you can get. The islands are recently volcanic in origin and are beautiful in their own right, sometimes starkly so. It is the animals that make this part of the trip amazing. They are unafraid of people, thanks to almost permanent protection since the Islands became known to outsiders. We will have to step over Blue-footed Boobies lying in the trail, will be able to take macro close-up photos of Marine Iguanas, and will be able to stand beside the famous Tortoises. The Islands are protected by Ecuador as a National Park, but that protection has varied in its breadth and control over the past decade. We will look forward to seeing them, and to reporting on what is happening there. We know one issue we will find is the practice of shark-finning – catching and cutting the fins off of sharks for shark-fin soup. There are efforts to end this destructive and ecologically disruptive practice there – some of which have some Canadian and Vancouver roots.

Stay tuned and keep reading. If you are interested in learning about future explorations — and, perhaps, joining us on our next trip — please contact us at [email protected].

Blue-footed Boobies in the Galapagos. Photo: JL Gijssen.

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