Galapagos with Teens: Lessons from a Dead Man

Senior editor Norie Quintos, who edits the annual Tours of a Lifetime package in the magazine, just returned from a trip to the Galapagos and mainland Ecuador with her teen sons. This is the first posting of a four-part series. 

As a single mother, I take every opportunity to introduce my boys to good male role models.

On my last trip (sailing around Cape Horn and the Straits of Magellan), I found one. He was smart, curious, passionate about nature, and well-traveled. I fell in love and decided that the kids should get to know him on our upcoming summer family vacation.

The fact that my guy has been dead for well over a century was not an impediment. Charles Darwin left a trove of journals and writings. A slew of biographers have probed and pronounced on every aspect of his life.

There are movies such as the recent Creation and even a cartoon-book adaptation of his Origin of the Species, which I found incredibly helpful when I couldn’t get through the original.

I, however, wanted to focus less on the old bearded legend with the revolutionary theory and more on the inquisitive young student who in 1831 at the age of 22 sets sail as an unpaid naturalist (or early intern?) aboard the English ship Beagle as it sailed with its equally youthful captain Robert Fitzroy to chart the coast of South America.

For teens teetering between childhood and adulthood, there is no more inspiring story to move them from interest to passion, from dalliance to calling.

Darwin’s stint on the Beagle turned into a five-year odyssey and he pressed on despite cramped quarters, loneliness, and debilitating seasickness. He took advantage of opportunities he had while in exotic ports to observe and study the natural world. He took copious notes and reflected on everything he saw. What an exemplar for 21st-century kids, many of whom are too coddled and entitled for their own good. After spending three years along the coast of South America, Darwin and the Beagle headed west for a five-week tour of the Galapagos.

Our tour would be eight days (plus a sidetrip to mainland Ecuador). My 16- and 14-year-olds, no fools they, knew that vacations with Mom inevitably also included lessons (life or academic). They could see the pile of books on my bedside table. (Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle is a must, and there are several very good adaptations for children, including What Darwin Saw, from National Geographic Books.) Indeed, my stealth curriculum included scientific inquiry, evolutionary biology, and the human impact on the environment. But the learning had to be masked in an easy-to-swallow form: a snorkeling/hiking/biking extravaganza.

In the next posting Norie plans her Galapagos trip and answers a key question: boat-based or land-based? 

How much do you know about Charles Darwin? Take the National Geographic quiz and find out. 

Photo: James L. Stanfield