Iowa City students preparing for trip of a lifetime to Galapagos Islands

West High biology teacher has led biennial trip since 1999

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IOWA CITY — Mae Grahs spent a lot of time scanning the water as a lifeguard to save up for an Iowa City West High trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands.

In less than a month, she’ll be in the water — snorkeling and seeing distinctive animals that could include the green sea turtle or marine iguana — on what she described as a once-in-a-lifetime trip.

“As soon as I heard the presentation about it when I was a freshman, I knew I wanted to go,” said the West High junior.

Grahs, one of 25 West High students going on the excursion June 6-20, got final instructions at a group meeting last week with Brad Wymer, West High biology teacher.

“I think everybody is super excited to see the biodiversity of the jungle and the Galapagos,” said Wymer, who has led the biennial West High trip since 1999.

The Galapagos, volcanic islands about 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, are known for the unique plants and animals that inspired Charles Darwin’s 1859 book “On the Origin of Species” exploring evolution.

“The species in the Galapagos originated there,” Wymer said. “You find different versions of animals there than you do anywhere else in the world.”

The West High students are scheduled to land June 6 in Quito, Ecuador, where they will ride up the Volcano Pichincha west of Quito and take a tour of Quito’s central district. From there, they will take a four-night cruise that visits five of the Galapagos Islands.

On Day 8, the group heads to the Antisana Ecological Reserve on the edge of the Amazon and Andes national parks, according to the itinerary. The area with ecological zones ranging from high grasslands to lowland rain forest is known for a large variety of birds.

“We’ll see the Antisana Volcano, which is 18,000 feet high,” Wymer said. “It’s a breathtaking panorama.”

The rest of the trip will be spent in the jungle, where Wymer warned students to pack light for hiking and be prepared to have damp clothing because of rain or humidity

“Has anyone been shocked by an electric eel?” Ben Caster, a West High sophomore, asked Wymer at the meeting.

“No, but maybe you’ll be the first one,” Wymer joked.

Bailey Raso, a West High junior, put up a GoFundMe page to raise half the $6,400 cost of the trip. The other half she paid for with her wages from Lucky Pawz, a dog day care in North Liberty.

“This is a big dream of mine,” she said of the trip. “I want to be a marine veterinarian, so this will help me figure out what I want to do in the future.”

Nearly every stop on the trip will have Wi-Fi, which Wymer views as a mixed blessing.

“Post your pictures to Snapchat or Instagram and then turn off your phones,” he told the students. “Get to know the incredible people who will be on this trip with you.”

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