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A midwinter’s whirlwind ecotour with FLC SEEDS

A midwinter’s whirlwind ecotour with FLC SEEDS

Image shows beached jellyfish.
A beached jellyfish in Puerto Peñasco, Mexico

With flippers clumsily moving through the cold water and a snorkel mask snug around her face, Maeve Wilder tried to keep her mouth from gaping open. A group of sea lions, including a 600-pound male, swirled around her, showing off their aquatic skills, staying just out of reach. Wilder, a senior majoring in Environmental Science, surfaced smiling and laughing as she climbed back on the boat to recap the unforgettable encounter with her classmates, who were also snorkeling around Isla de San Jorge in the Sea of Cortez. 

“I didn’t realize how big these guys were going to be,” Wilder said of the synchronized swimming creatures. “Even the females were as long as I am and probably heavier.” 

Members of Fort Lewis College’s Strategies for Ecological Education, Diversity & Sustainability Club, or SEEDS, Wilder and nine other students spent January 8-12, 2023, driving 11 hours from Durango to Puerto Peñasco, Mexico. The student-led study abroad experience shed light on the ecological diversity of a destination typically known for its pineapple drinks and banana boats. But the SEEDS students weren’t there to party; rather, they wanted to better understand local sustainability issues and enjoy a behind-the-scenes look at the wonders unfolding where the desert meets the sea. 

During their three-day stay in Puerto Peñasco, the students lodged, ate, and studied with El Centro Intercultural para el Estudio de Desiertos y Océanos, or CEDO. On a previous trip to Puerto Peñasco, SEEDS president Matt Young connected with CEDO, a nonprofit focused on community education and sustainability efforts, and a proud local host for ecotours and school trips. Alan Lafón, CEDO’s academic services coordinator, and Paloma Jiménez, education and liaison manager, guided the students on excursions to the region’s natural treasures, including one of the few remaining intact estuaries. 

“Most of the estuaries have been dredged, filled, and turned into marinas, hotels, and tourist spots,” Young explained. 

"Most of the estuaries have been dredged, filled, and turned into marinas, hotels, and tourist spots."

— Matt Young

As the students hiked and kayaked around the estuary with one of CEDO’s biologists, osprey, oystercatchers, willets, plovers, blue heron, and the endangered red heron soared, darted, and dove overhead. The students learned about oyster farming as an economic generator and a means of sustainable food production, while lunching on fresh oysters at El Barco, a women-run, tide-to-table restaurant. 

The following day, the group joined CEDO for a trip to El Pinacate Biosphere Reserve, a preserve in the Sonoran Desert. They wandered around the extinct volcanoes and lava flows, investigating the craters’ geology and Seussical cacti. Back at CEDO’s headquarters that evening at low tide, they poked around tidepools in search of octopus, sea slugs, and other invertebrates that feed at night. 

The trip culminated with a boat trip to Isla de San Jorge, also called Bird Island, named after the host of pelicans, cormorants, and boobies swooping around the rocky outpost. As the boat got closer to the island, a raft of sea birds came bobbing into view, with dolphins swarming among them, eating the bait ball of fish congregating below the waves. The future scientists donned wet suits, snorkels, masks, and fins, and slid into the chilly waters. The curious sea lions poked around the ungainly aliens. 

Image shows students on beach.
Listening to a lecture from Alan Lafon (center with hand raised) CEDO’s academic coordinator, at Cerro Colorado Crater in El Pinacate Biosphere Reserve, Sonora, Mexico.

“They were so playful and seemed to be gloating about how graceful they were in their element while I was floundering in my gear,” Wilder said. “Usually, I see animals from a secure place. But I was not comfortable. It was freezing. I was breathing through a snorkel. There was such a powerful connection being in their environment. I wanted to talk to them.”

Young shared in Wilder’s delight of the special moment and said it was the cherry on top of a darn near perfect school trip. In the early fall of 2022, Young pitched the idea of the study abroad experience to his faculty advisor, Kathy Hilimire, associate professor of Environment & Sustainability. While Hilimire signed off on the logistics, Young spearheaded the effort, ironing out details, addressing safety and academic concerns, and procuring grants. Because SEEDS is a Registered Student Organization, Young received $2,000 for travel funds from Associated Students of FLC, while the national SEEDS organization awarded Young $1,000 for the academic experience in return for a written report of the trip. 

“I think the final out-of-pocket cost was $80 per participant,” Young said. “We just wanted to make it affordable for anyone who wanted to go.” 

Image shows students and teachers on cliff.
Listening to a lecture from Alan Lafon at Cerro Colorado Crater, El Pinacate Biosphere Reserve, Sonora, Mexico. From left to right: Gina Bodnar (Biology, 22’), Ashley Jorgenson (Biology, 22’), Ian Crews (behind Ashley. Junior, Biology), Matt Young (Senior, Biology), (foreground) Kathy Hilimire (associate professor of Environment & Sustainability), Alan Lafon (CEDO Academic Coordinator), Savana Carroll (Senior, Biology), Morgan Liebmann (Junior, Environmental Science)

The 10 students ranged from 20 to 36 years old and were either Biology or Environmental Science majors. Everyone had varying degrees of travel experience, with a couple of students who had never left the United States before. All considered, the trip was a hit, Young said, highlighting the power of a well-rounded, liberal arts education that inspires students to build scientific skills while pushing them to explore the other elements that round out their roles as global citizens.

“It was the smoothest group trip I’ve ever been on,” Wilder agreed. “I spoke the most Spanish out of the group and my only frustration was that I don’t know Spanish better. This trip relit that vigor to learn it. I’m determined to be fluent one day.”

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