Funded by the Duttenhaver Fund
Earthwatch Institute in Ecuador
Eight students and four adult mentors were the lucky participants in an eleven-day expedition to the cloud forests of Ecuador in July 2009 as part of the Duttenhaver Conservation and Field Study Program generously sponsored by the Duttenhaver Fund. The student-mentor team took part in an Earthwatch Institute research project studying climate change, canopies and wildlife in the Santa Lucia Cloud Forest Reserve in Ecuador.
This is the second consecutive year that the Duttenhaver Fund has sponsored the field study program. The gift was inspired by the donor’s belief in the positive impact of international travel and study and matched the Zoo’s interest in developing field opportunities for students evaluating a future in biological science.
About every two weeks we will be featuring a participant's impression of this amazing opportunity.
Read on to learn about their experiences...
Melissa Cruz, Zoo Magnet School Student
Since the “biolicious team” and I returned from Ecuador, I’ve been asked so many times to describe the experience, or tell the story, or pull out the pictures. The truth is, though, that even after weeks of these experiences, I’m still at a loss as to how to covey exactly what those two weeks in Ecuador were all about. The facts are simple; seven other students, four mentors, numerous scientists, and myself spent two weeks in the Andean Cloud Forest researching the affects of climate on various biota. Usually, this is enough to awe people, but it doesn’t even begin to express the things we felt, saw, tasted, and immersed ourselves in.
Being in Ecuador was like living in another world. Not once had I ever stepped foot in a place with so much greenery, and rain, and diversity, and life! Everyday, it was always surreal to know it was raining underneath us, and everyday it always felt a little surreal to say “shut the door, you’re letting the cloud in!” Santa Lucia was and is one of the few places I’ve been where I was always able to walk around with a sense of wonder and curiosity about the world around me. It didn’t matter how many times we went down the same trails because there was always something new to see, be it a giant worm slipping into the mud or a flower that had bloomed over night. Even the meals were exciting; you never knew what you were going to get! (Chocolate balls…yummmmm!)
Ecuador taught me things in more ways than I could have imagined. In some ways, I think I learned more about myself and about people than I did about wildlife! As superficial as it might seem, I think a really important thing that many of us learned was that it was not only possible to live with out constant American technology, but it was also fun! That fact opened my eyes a lot with regards to how I want to live the rest of my life. Not to say that now I want to be a hermit, but it definitely makes me feel good to know that I’m capable of being happy without constantly needing new gadgets. The experience in Ecuador also made clear what I could handle as a potential future field biologist. I feel confident now that I can go into the field and face long hikes, and extreme conditions, and euthanizations (sometimes). I think the experience has given me a good idea of what’s to come, and I’m thrilled to say that I loved it!
There are probably many more things I could say about Ecuador, but I truly think the best way to describe our trip is simply as “indescribable”. The experiences we had and the emotions they inspired were unlike anything we anticipated, and I know I speak for everyone when I say that I could not be more thankful for such a unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience, and that I’d love to go back to Santa Lucia one day soon!
Rachel Smith-Weinstein, Zoo Magnet School Student
Life in Ecuador was the bee’s knees; it was exploration to its fullest! Everyday we woke to the sounds of the Toucan Barbet, Dusky Tanager and the Spillman Tapulco. We got used to the fact that Toucans would be outside the window, perching in the trees. Ah yes, the sights and sounds of the birds was spectacular. Who knew waking up in the wee hours of the morning would be so delightful, everyday being able to rise with the sun and a mission in mind. Whether it was hiking to check the camera traps, conducting bird surveys, digging trenches to capture reptiles or making our way carefully through the canopies, Ecuador was a place of self determination and dedication. Just imagine your heart’s rhythm going at the speed of light as you encounter slippery slopes of the canopies as well as the treacherous up hill hikes. This is how our life of thrill and excitement was present everyday. We never knew what our trek into the cloud forest would bring.
As I look back through the pages of my journal I recall all of the memories and fun nights I spent writing in it. It is hard for me to fully express all of the experiences my fellow cabana mates and I went through while visiting Santa Lucia. When my team mates and I were checking the camera traps at the farthest site near to the waterfalls we encountered an eroded trail at the top of a hill, it had been destroyed by a fallen tree. As we trekked along the narrow trail, the view down proved to be extremely dangerous. One wrong step and you could roll down three stories. This was an experience that was truly unique and frightening. It was amazing how nature can coexist as an interconnected being.
One of my most favorite and meaningful memories from our trip was the unexpected journey up to the tower. The day started out with us waking up at 3:30 in the morning. Waking up felt like a dream, my eyes were puffy and my mind still sleepy. It was like I had multiple personalities. Little voices in my head kept telling me “No Melissa, go back to sleep, don’t wake up now.” While other ones were giving me motivation to have enough energy to hike all the way up to the highest point. As we were hiking my whole body felt numb, there was one moment where I felt like I was having an out of body experience. As we trekked uphill it was still immensely dark, especially because my glasses kept fogging up from the steam radiating from my body. After spending the following two hours observing birds and writing down the necessary information, my fellow team mate Kevin suggested we head up to the tower. At this point I was extremely tired from going up hill, the thought of hiking another two hours seemed crazy. As we commenced on our new journey upward my body received a jolt of adrenaline, before I knew it I was running up those hills like nothing! The determination and willpower needed to get to that tower was incredible. That hike showed me that if you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything. I will never forget the four hour journey up to that tower, as well as coming back and taking a well deserved nap.
Ecuador was a time filled with new discovery and amazing moments that captivated both my mind and soul. Even though most of my fellow team mates are going off to separate colleges in the fall this experience will bond us together forever. This trip pushed me both physically and mentally therefore I am thankful for the sweaty hours and strained muscles for they helped me realize how much I would love to do field research for the rest of my life.
Michelle Kang, Zoo Magnet School Student
One aspect of my recent Earthwatch trip to Ecuador that truly surprised me and caught me off guard (in the best way possible, of course) turned out to be the amazing people that I met there. Going into this expedition, I already knew that I would have the time of my life. I knew that my knowledge of animals, the environment, field research, and my friends would drastically increase. I also knew that I would be meeting some different and interesting people, but I can honestly say that I had no clue that meeting such an amazing variety of people would really be like. In many ways, it has made me reassess my views on the world, people in general, persons as individuals, and myself.
One major theme that I experienced while in Ecuador was the difference of cultures. Growing up in a city that is defined by its array of cultures, I thought I understood cultures and their differences. However, being in another country, took that understanding to new level. I would wake up in the morning to go to eat breakfast while comparing and contrasting British versus American humor with Matt and Bryony, the scientists from the UK. Later that day, I would set out for the day’s adventure with Edison and Miguel, our Ecuadorian plant experts. Between calling out measurements and latin names of the specimens, we discussed how summer vacations work in the US, something they were both fascinated to hear about. All spoken, of course, in Spanish while winding down from an intense trek filled with the plotting and measuring trees. I would then drink tea and listen to Alex, the guy from Spain, talk about “siestas” and what they were all about. In these ways, I experienced many cultures that seemed more real and unique than just reading about them or watching them on television.
Through these encounters, I discovered that people can be varied and eclectic. At the same time, I realized that although we may originate from countries thousands of miles away from each other, this does not define us. It did not take long for me to realize that because of our love for the Earth, animals, and the environment, the eclectic group of people gathered there were actually more similar than not. We were like a box of chocolates, each one different yet ultimately more or less the same. As one observant Earthwatcher put it – “Having one purpose lowers walls.” What better way to experience such a phenomenon then to be up in the cloud forests of the Andes, with compost toilets, endless clouds, organic juices, and the “eh…dusky bush tanager.”
Another concept I learned firsthand has to do with the concept of the individual. Seeing everyone in such a radically different environment than what I was used to made it possible for me to see glimpses of who they really are. It was as though the sudden change in setting caught everyone off-guard, and their carefully guarded exterior faltered, if only for a few brief moments. While hard to explain, I saw this phenomenon happening all around me not only with the people I’d known for years, but even with those I had known for days or even minutes. Through this I was able to realize that each person is fascinatingly and wondrously different. Curiously, I think I ended up observing people as much as I did the plants, birds, animals, or reptiles.
In these ways, Earthwatch was an eye-opening experience for me. My views on field research, science, the word “strenuous”, clouds, animals, and even people were changed. I like to think they were changed for the better as I am now even more enlightened as to what my interests as well as views on the world are. Now, I face the future ready for more adventures, excited to see all the engrossingly fascinating people that I will meet along the way.
Kevin Furlanetto, Zoo Magnet School Student
It still feels like a dream, being up there amongst the clouds and above the world I had previously known. I see it all in my mind and know that it was real, and everything that happened was no figment of my imagination. Our departure in the early morning hours from the bustling Los Angeles International Airport; the flights that left us all fidgeting and squirming, eager to arrive; our arrival at the Mariscal Sucre Airport in Quito and the drive to the Hostel Posada del Maple. All of these events seemed to jet by us as we flew into one of the most unique experiences we could ever meet with. As we met up with Dr. Mika Peck and hiked up that merciless, majestic mountain path together, we knew we were stepping into a world of natural majesty and mysterious beauty.
As I took my last steps off the mountain trail that had left me breathless in more ways than one, I could see the image of a smiling woman handing me an ice cold glass of something tea-like and welcoming me to Santa Lucia. Dripping with what I could not discern from sweat, condensed moisture, or rain droplets, I took off my muddy boots and sat down at a table I would spend a lot of my time with in the days to come. No one said a word. We all just sat panting and gulping down our drinks. Suddenly, there was soup. Like a mirage in a desert, my inner craving appeared before my eyes, but it was real! Words truly cannot describe the unimaginable feeling that soup stirred in me. It warmed my blood, widened my eyes, and woke me up from my zombie-like trance. I had just been formally welcomed into Santa Lucia society.
We found our little cabañas to be an entirely different level of luxury than we had been expecting. Just the look and feel of the wooden cabin warmed our souls and provided us with a comfort rivaling that of home. With everything unpacked and set on my shelves, I truly felt like I had found a new place to call my own. After our delicious dinner back at the central lodge, we were told by Mika to sign up for our working days. Our choices were exciting just to read. We were allowed to participate in the camera trapping project set up by Matthew Brown as part of his university project. Also among the choices was a bird survey, reptile and amphibian study, and canopy monitoring. Throughout our stay, each of us participated in all of these studies.
My first duty in Santa Lucia was to assist in camera trapping with Matt and my teammates Melissa and Judy. Together, we all ventured down some paths deeper into the mountain to find several camera traps that were set up to catch pictures of the mammals of the mountain. Unfortunately, every camera we were involved in checking had malfunctioned and taken blank white pictures. Our job was to replace these cameras with the older model cameras that actually worked better than the newer ones. For the two days we did this, we had to endure a lot of hiking. This hiking consisted both of dangerous, slanted, slippery downhill slopes and the energy-draining opposite on the way back. On the second day, a tree-fall had wiped out one of the paths entirely, forcing us to create a new, loose path that had us gripping onto hanging roots for support across the treacherous path. In all, the camera trapping introduced me to some of the most vigorous hiking Santa Lucia had to offer.
Next on our to-do list was canopy monitoring, which we did alongside a group of Ecuadorian girls (who were ridiculously good at everything). In the study, I measured the diameter of growing bushes and reported them back to Melissa to record them. We also measured the bushes for things like height and crown diameter in both directions. Another part of the study was counting and recording fallen logs and true trees. The terrain was the most difficult aspect of this work. Working on near-vertical slopes with a tape measure in hand and thorny plants at every turn proved to be a difficult thing to juggle. In the end, we had performed our task and had a great time with it all.
Our third task was bird watching. We woke up in the middle of the night to hike, half-asleep, up and around the mountain. We would arrive at the monitoring spot just as the sun was rising. We woke up from our drowsy trances with the chirping and trilling of the canopy’s newly-awakened birds. Our job was to record the birds we saw and heard with the help of our experts Noe and Hugolino. The job involved a tough, long hike all the way to the monitoring location, but, on the second day, we decided to push for the limits and hike all the way to the Santa Lucia tower. It was about 6 km away across harsh terrain, but we made it and accomplished something great.
Our final outing was the reptile and amphibian study. Though other groups had been very successful in the study, we were not doing very well in locating and catching much of anything. However, on one of our returns, we located a beautiful red lizard that seemed to be a rare species. That sole moment made it all worthwhile. Though I discovered that reptile hunting was not for me, I still had fun doing it.
Santa Lucia provided us with a myriad of unique opportunities we would otherwise be left without. This tremendous gift has allowed me to gain something unique that I will be able to share for the rest of my life. That lush, tropic land was one of the most difficult things I have ever had to leave behind. This Earthwatch trip has created one of the defining points of my entire life.
Judy Chung, Zoo Magnet School Student
Nothing is quite as surreal as hiking up the last bit of the trail to the Santa Lucia lodge. I climb alone through a thick entanglement of trees whose branches and leaves keep off most of the drizzling rain. Then suddenly the trees clear away, leaving only the path on the hill snaking up into a thick mist. Honestly I almost thought I had somehow died along the way and made it to another place entirely. But sure enough when I topped the hill, I sighted the lodge, which like the clearing appeared quite abruptly. From then on I only half believed what I saw and touched, until the following day when I looked out over the mountains and watched the clouds creep forward to blanket the forests below. I think it was the stillness of that moment that allowed me to finally let it sink in, “I am in Ecuador.”
I was bombarded with experiences, sights, and information once I realized where I had traveled. I witnessed the complex interactions of different organisms, from plants competing for sunlight, to a wasp carrying off a tarantula the size of a golf ball. It is certainly one thing to read about such sights and another stumble on such wonders in person.
This experience has certainly fortified my resolve to be a field biologist. At Santa Lucia I learned what strength there is in conviction. I was able to push my body harder than I thought it could withstand. Whether it was a camera trap or reptile pit trap that needed to be checked, a bird survey location that we needed to reach on time, or a plot of trees that needed to be assessed, I wanted to get there no matter how tired I felt. In fact I was getting better at pacing myself and my muscles grew to adjust to my new circumstances. It was another wonder I discovered; the sheer flexibility of the human body once the mind is willing.
The activity I enjoyed the most and coincidentally was the one we were occupied with for a good part of each day was hiking. It was lovely letting my work boots take me through muddy ditches and twisted trails cut from the contours of roots. A couple of times, we hiked in the pre dawn dark (4:00 am) to reach the bird survey point at 6 am. Our headlamps just illuminated the path ahead of us to prevent an unfortunate stumble. Looking out into the darkness reminded me of footage I once saw of a submarine diving deep to explore a shipwreck. Our headlamps made the dust in the air light up just like the flotsam in dark ocean waters. We explored a completely different forest at night. Time moved differently. The oddest part of that hike was on the way back to the lodge when the sun was out and we could see the sheer distance we covered and sharp angles we climbed only hours prior in darkness. I could not for the life of me remember the way up being that hard and long as the way back.
My time up at Santa Lucia was magical and I was very sad I had to leave. When we made our way back down, I watched the lodge disappear as quietly as it greeted that first day and made the best of my last hike, trying to commit the feeling of spongy earth beneath me, the sight of trees and shrubs all around, and the tickling coolness of the sweat that poured off me. It would be a while before I would step foot into the wilderness and experience the rush of field research again, but at least I know that one day I will be back, maybe not the same mountain but somewhere interesting all the same.
Edwin Carranza, Zoo Magnet School Student and L.A. Zoo General Volunteer
Waking up in the morning to the sound of the plumbeous pigeon in the mists of the cloud forests will be one of the most memorable moments in my life. Life in the Santa Lucia Cloud Forest Reserve was very eccentric, the sky (when visible) was a bright blue - clear from pollution, the clouds were a perfect cotton white and no aircrafts were spotted in the sky. At night, it grew chilly and the clouds sank into the valleys and formed lakes, the stars dotted the sky and grasshoppers provided the music for the night.
Each day was a new adventure in the forest, although it would be natural to observe animals in the forest, plants were taken into consideration on this Earthwatch expedition. The plant survey easily ranks as my favorite activity on the expedition. The survey consisted of going off hiking trails, plotting a 15 metre by metre square using piola (Ecuadorian Spanish for rope) and measuring trees in three different ways (crown size, diameter of base of trunk and height of tree). Consideration of foliage coverage of the ground and dead trunks are also taken into consideration to comprise the data of about how much carbon dioxide is absorbed by the forest. Miguel and Edison were the scientists in charge of the plant survey, both were very knowledgeable in their field work; Miguel would give both the genus and species name in Latin of trees during the collection data process out of the top of his head and Edison could look at tree crowns and say the type of shape.
After each day of hard work, rest time was very appreciated at the lodge. During much of the rest time we got to know the people that worked at the lodge as well as other volunteers. We met people from the United Kingdom, Spain and of course those from Ecuador. The people at the lodge came from all different types of backgrounds and were interested in many different fields. The cook, for example, was from the Yumbo Culture of Ecuador and was currently enrolled in the culinary program at the German University in Quito. Noe, who ran the lodge and was part of one of the founding families of the reserve. Noe’s expertise was birds and with Hugolino they led the early morning team of bird watch. The program not only offered the opportunity to experience wildlife first hand but also the experience of other cultures.
My favorite moment on this trip was when we climbed up stairs in the Hostal in Quito after coming back from Santa Lucia and noticed that was I was not short of breath, unlike the first night we stayed in Quito. This trip besides giving me a new sense of wildlife and culture has also brought up my physical endurance making this trip very well rounded to feed the body, mind and soul.
This may only be the tip of the iceberg of my Ecuadorian adventure, but none of this would be possible without the help of Linda Duttenhaver, the hero of my adventure.
Elizabeth Ewart, Zoo Magnet School Student and L.A. Zoo Student Volunteer
Writing about this experience has been one of the most challenging writing tasks I have ever done. Everything was so surreal and magical that I feel like it was a dream straight out of National Geographic.
Ecuador is a beautiful country with so much scientific and cultural value that every day I was able to learn something new. Whether I learned about the Cloud Forest or the animals that inhabit it, which varied by day depending on the biologist I was assisting, I was always able to learn something new about myself at the end of each day. Because of this trip I was able to discover that science is an important part of my life, and somehow it made the jump from classroom topic and hobby to a passion that has me hooked. Being able to be a part of the science and then seeing all the time, effort, and sweat the biologists put into it really put things in a new perspective. Day after day being able to be so optimistic and positive while working in extreme conditions to get the research they need. This passion and love for their work was contagious, it helped energize me and push me forward when times got tough on the long and strenuous hiking trails. I can only hope that one day I have the same passion all the biologists have shown for their field of study. These biologists weren’t just passionate and knowledgeable but they were also friendly. Miguel and Edison knew every plant, Noe and Hugoilto knew every bird and bird call was amazing and inspiring and they loved to share this information with all of us.
All the people who visited or worked at Santa Lucia were really friendly; at first I was too shy to start talking to most of them because I knew about five words and phrases in Spanish. Yet, as time went on I slowly began talking to them through Coleen’s bracelet strings. Coleen brought a ton of string that we were using to make these beautiful bracelets; we would sit in the lodge making them in our free time. Soon everyone including the staff of Santa Lucia would sit in the lodge and make these bracelets, giving me a chance to talk to them. At first the conservations were about the bracelets, and then they slowly branched out into different topics. Like about Noe’s fish farm or Edison being a professional basketball player for an Ecuadorian team, but his favorite team is the Los Angeles Lakers. This helped me feel more comfortable talking to them and starting conservations once I knew our two cultures were somewhat similar after all.
This trip was truly amazing and I am so thankful I was able to go on the Earthwatch expedition to Ecuador. Being able to experience this with old and new friends just helped make this more enjoyable and memorable. I will never be able to forget all the fun we had and the knowledge we earned from this expedition. One of my favorite memories was making the pit traps for the reptiles and amphibians on my first day of work, and throughout the trip being able to see results of what I had helped build. It was really awesome thinking that because you helped the field biologists all this new scientific research would be discovered. I would like to thank Mrs. Duttenhaver and everyone else who had it possible for me to go on this wonder adventure, I am really grateful!
Daniel Setiady, L.A. Zoo Student Volunteer
My trip to Ecuador has been an incredible learning experience. For ten days, we trekked through some of the most magnificent landscape, surveying the different plants and animals. This expedition was physically demanding, but in exchange for my hard work, I received a number of invaluable lessons and knowledge in return.
This experience has given me a deeper appreciation for nature. All of the different plants and animals coexist harmoniously forming an intricately woven web. Being isolated from large towns and witnessing the magnificence of the cloud forests has made me realize how important it is to preserve nature. Ecuador has seen over fifty percent of its forests destroyed since the late 1980’s. It is more important than ever to protect these natural treasures.
One of the things that struck me the most was the passion that the scientists and researchers had for their work. Many of them leave their families for extended periods of time to conduct research at the reserve. They are fountains of knowledge in their fields of expertise and are very eager to share this knowledge. Their dedication to their work is something I greatly admire and hope to have in my future career.
Perhaps the greatest thing that I took home from Ecuador was the friendships and bonds that I formed with everyone involved in the expedition, especially my fellow students. Going into this experience, one of my biggest concerns was whether I would fit in with the rest of the students. But after just a few days, it felt as if I had known all of them for many years. I left for Ecuador with seven strangers and came back with seven close friends.
This experience has also taught me the importance of a positive attitude. Approaching a daunting task with a positive attitude can make completing that task a great deal easier and even enjoyable. This was especially true on those long, early morning hikes, where it was a struggle to put one foot in front of the other. Instead of thinking about how I was getting further away from my warm bed with every step I took, I learned to think of the reward of seeing a Spillman’s Tapaculo and listening to the call of a Plumbeous Pigeon. There was always a reward for your efforts in Ecuador, whether it was happening upon a caecilian or the incredible view of the reserve from the top of the tower.
This experience as a whole has come with many rewards: the satisfaction of knowing that your efforts have contributed to a worthy cause, the friends that I have made and the memories that were created. I have learned so much about the cloud forest and about how our actions affect others and the world around us. This was truly a once in a lifetime experience and I am honored to have been a part of it.