Humpback Whale Watching, by Timon Keller

After we had been working with green sea turtles for three days, we turned our attention from marine reptiles towards studying and observing marine mammals for a day. Several dolphin and whale species live in the waters off the coast of Los Organos in northern Peru. The months of spring in the southern hemisphere, August – November, mark the mating season of Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae). As a result, the abundance of whales during these months is especially high in the tropical waters off the coast of Peru. We left out hotel early in the morning and headed down to the pier. There, we were greeted by Santiago, one of the biologists and tour guides from Pacifico Adventures, the whale watching company that was going to take us out to sea.

 Santiago gave us a short safety briefing and introduced us to our second tour guide, Romina. They took us down the pier where we waited for a few minutes before boarding a small, two-engine vessel. Similar to a bus, the vessel had two rows of seats on either side. Once everyone got settled on board and put their life vests on, we headed towards the open sea. After a few minutes, we drove past an old oil platform in the ocean that had been reclaimed by South American sea lions (Otaria flavescens), Peruvian pelicans (Pelecanus thagus), and neo-tropical cormorants (Phalacrocorx brasilianus). Our guides wanted to illustrate the difficulties of biological surveying and asked us to divide into two groups; one group was to count the number of neo-tropical cormorants, and the other group was to count the number of Peruvian pelicans as the boat slowly circled the platform.

Unfortunately, our tour guides did not account for the field work we had been doing in Lima, Paracas, and Los Organos prior to our whale watching tour. As a result, our counts were significantly more accurate than they expected; roughly 115 neo-tropical cormorants and 70 Peruvian pelicans. Pleased with our work, we continued our journey along the coast in search for marine mammals. During the first half hour, we did not see any whales. Everyone was eagerly scanning the water with their eyes, watching for blows (the fountain of water droplets generated when a whale exhales), dorsal fins (the back fin of a whale), flukes (the tail fins of a whale), and breaching (a whale jumping out of the water).

Finally, we spotted our first whales. Far in the distance at the right side of the boat, we spotted several humpback whales swimming along the surface of the water. At first, we saw blows from the whales exhaling as their heads broke through the water surface. Then, their entire bodies slowly scratched along the surface as the whales dove again. This highlighted the dramatic size of the humpback whales; female whales are usually larger than and normally grow up to 16 meters in length, even though individuals up to 18 meters have been recorded. Finally, the fluke of the wales would come out of the water for a brief moment before the whale dove. Whales lift their fluke in the air before diving to gain additional momentum going downwards.

The fluke of every individual humpback whale is unique, similar to a human finger print. Fluke Identification (Fluke ID) allows scientists to identify whales and track their movements all around the world. Humpback whale flukes range from being all white to being all black, with various colorations in between. Additionally, each fluke may have a slightly distinct shape, scars, or other distinct markers. Generally, flukes are classified on a scale of 1 to 5, from 1 being an all-white fluke and 5 being an all-black fluke.   

We followed the group of roughly 5 humpback whales for about 20 minutes as they kept resurfacing. One student got particularly lucky; while all other students were looking for whales on one site of the boat, she looked towards the other side and got to witness a whale breach in close proximity of the boat. All other students only got to hear a giant splash and feel a few water droplets on their skin. Such groups as the one we observed are common in humpback whale breeding grounds, which the warm, tropical waters of northern Peru are a part of. These groups are referred to as competitive breeding groups, which usually consist of one female and several males in pursuit of the female. The males will show off to each other and fight each other. Eventually, the strongest and most dominant male will get to mate with the female. Sometimes, a competitive breeding group solely contains male humpback whales showing off to each other while searching for a female to mate with.

The first group we followed was a competitive breeding group, which became evident by the whales’ behavior. The whales were swimming fast along the surface of the water and slapped their flukes on the surface of the water as they were diving down, a demonstration of their strength addressed at other male whales. Eventually, we lost track of this group and continued searching for whales along the coast of Los Organos.

Before we encountered more humpback whales, we encountered a group of dusky dolphins (Lagenorhynchus obscurus). This was a special occasion, because this species had not previously been documented in the waters around Los Organos. As a result, our tour guides got extremely excited, a sentiment that was shared by a majority of the students on board. Dusky dolphins, like all dolphins, are highly social animals that live and travel in groups of several dozen animals. These groups of dolphins are referred to as a pod.

Dolphins are extraordinarily skilled hunters, feeding on schooling fish, squid, and sometimes crustaceans. Dolphins belong to the toothed whales, a group of whales that, as the name indicates, have teeth. Other members of this group include killer whales and sperm whales, a species most famously represented by Moby Dick. Humpback whales on the other hand belong to the baleen whales. Instead of teeth, these whales possess baleens; long, broom like structures hanging from the top of the mouth that allow the whales to filter small planktonic lifeforms, such as crustaceans, out from the water column. Humpback whales are somewhat unique, as they are the only species of baleen whale that has been documented literally eating dirt from the bottom of the ocean and then filtering small lifeforms out of the dirt as the whale swims through the water column. It is fascinating to think about that humpback whales reach their massive weight of up to 36,000 kg solely by feeding on some of the smallest animal lifeforms in the ocean.  

We continued our tour and slowly began heading back towards the port. On the way there, we encountered a special treat: a humpback whale with her newborn calf. Both animals were calmly floating at the surface and allowed three whale watching boats to slowly circle them. The animals were sitting completely still at the surface, which caused our tour guides to hypothesize that the mother whale was currently feeding her calf, or had been doing so shortly before we arrived. The fact that the whales were not concerned about the presence of the whale watching boats bears testimony to the great trust between humans and animals in the waters of northern Peru, and the responsibility of the touring companies in interacting with the whales.

Around the world, distinct populations of humpback whales exist, and all of them, except one population in the Arabian Sea, have one thing in common; they migrate. During the winter months, humpback whales live in the waters surrounding the Antarctic or Arctic. Here, they feed. When it is spring, during the months of August – November in the southern hemisphere, a part of the Antarctic humpback whale population migrates to the warm waters of Peru and Ecuador, while other parts migrate to Hawai’i, Australia, and other locations. Here, humpback whales reproduce and give birth. A pregnant female humpback whale will swim all the way from the Antarctic to Peru, give birth, nurse its calf, and then swim back; without feeding! The reasons for this migration are not exactly known, though it is assumed that calves benefit from beginning their lives in warm, tropical waters rather than in the freezing waters surrounding Antarctica.

Eventually, we left the mother and her calf in peace and headed back towards port. Shortly before we reached port, one of our tour guides believed to have spotted a moonfish swimming at the surface. However, as we got closer it turned out the “moonfish” was just the fin of a dead South American sea lion floating at the surface. While we headed for port, I started talking to one of the tour guides, Romina, about my brief experience working with humpback whales in the eastern Caribbean. Last spring break, I got to work with a researcher that was investigating how humpback whales use ocean bathymetry, the shape of the ocean floor, to amply their famous singing across large geographical areas throughout the ocean.

Every humpback whale population has a distinct song and all males that belong to a certain population sing that same song. Usually, males begin singing once they reach sexual maturity; immature male whales have been observed following mature, singing whales, potentially to learn the song of their population. Throughout a breeding season, the song of a population slowly evolves and changes. At the beginning of a breeding season, male whales sing the exact song that was sung towards the end of the previous breeding seasons. Distinct humpback whale populations have developed ‘accents’; similar to a Texan and an Australian, an Arctic and an Antarctic humpback whale will sound different.

Once we were back on shore, we got to visit the facilities of Pacifico Adventures, the tour company that had taken us whale watching. Pacifico Adventures was started to unite two seemingly separate worlds: tourism and research, a combination commonly referred to as ecotourism. The money that is generated from touristic activities is used to fund scientific research. All tour guides on board are scientists; as the tourists observe the whales, the guides take photos and other scientific data. This combination has proven highly successful in the case of Pacifico Adventures. The company proves to be profitable, has been able to develop its own museum, and funds extensive scientific research.

After a brief tour of the museum, we got to meet the founder of Pacifico Adventures who briefly talked to us about the story of her company. Afterwards, all students toured the gift shop extensively and obtained some souvenirs. It was good to know that our money would support future scientific research. Throughout the following days, many students returned to Pacifico Adventures on numerous occasions to enjoy the view of the ocean, learn more about whales, and, most importantly, purchase amazing brownies from Pacifico’s Café.  

Turtle Rodeo in Los Organos, Peru! by Natalie Cooper

            I like turtles. Who doesn’t? They exude peace, serenity, and wisdom, and are fascinating creatures to study. Our group had the amazing opportunity to work with highly accomplished marine biologists in Los Organos, a little beach town way up in the north of Peru, for ten days. The highlight of our time in there was definitely our chance to capture and tag green turtles for three days. The many biology classes culminating in the three days of our turtle work prepared us for this special experience, which was significant in two ways: we were about to experience hands-on learning where all that we had learned was put to use, and we were being taught by Scott Eckert: only the most knowledgeable marine turtle biologist in the world!

 Our group provided manpower and data collection to an important research project run by a former Ph.D. student of Dr. Eckert’s, Dr. Sheleyla Kelez.  She has been studying the sea turtles (and many other marine species of Peru, including whale sharks!) for many years.  While we worked hard on this project, we also considered it an amazing privilege. Our large group of 20 students was split into three smaller groups and sent to two different docks: two teams to the Los Organos dock and the other to the dock at El Nuro, a ten-minute drive away. Two groups observed the behavioral patterns of the sea turtles swimming near the docks for five minutes at a time with ten-minute breaks over the course of two hours. This data would the scientists clues about the general behavior of the turtles, how they would react to boats and to the ‘swim with a turtle’ ecotourism activity that is developing in these two villages. The third team had the pleasure of working from a small boat, anchored about twenty feet away from the dock, with a team of diligent biologists. Three members of the biology team were
in the water and attempted to capture any untagged turtles by hand. This task was relatively difficult given that the turtles can both swim quickly and fight hard when grabbed by human hands! When one team member spotted an untagged individual, they would dive quickly, grab the turtle’s shell near its neck and back flippers, and hope that another team member would help steer them toward to the boat. Once brought to the side of the boat, it was our job to lift the turtle, flippers flailing (which we made sure to avoid because of their sharp toenails), over the rail and to lower the creature as gently as possibly onto the bottom of the boat. We would then quickly cover the turtle’s head with a damp towel so that it would (hopefully) stay calm as we measured, weighed, photographed, and tagged it.  Why is it necessary to tag turtles? Marine biologists study the migration and movement patterns of different turtle populations and check how the species is doing in general by placing an identity “tag” on each turtle.  That way
each time a tagged turtle is observed or captured, scientists can recognize it as an individual.  With enough recaptures, valuable information on where the turtle lives and travels, how fast it grows and even how long it lives can be determined.  One turtle from Los Organos, was found nesting in the Galapagos Islands!  Tagging a turtle includes piercing one fin and placing a “tag” in the piercing which is stamped with a unique number. This number is added to a global database and when the turtle is recaptured by different biologists, they can determine where the turtle came from and how far it has travelled.

While on the boat, Scott gave us the coolest biology lesson that I will ever have about the genetic makeup and capabilities about the green turtle. Did you know that the marine turtle contains tear-ducts behind their eyes to filter out the salt that they ingest from the sea water? Nature is phenomenal. We studied the distinctive shells of each turtle, which is similar to the concept of a human fingerprint. The unique lines, barnacle patterns and algae create a distinguishable picture on each turtle. My group tagged eight turtles during our day, which seemed like quite a few (as attested by our sore muscles!), but it seems that group 3 caught  eleven turtles during their boat time!  Of course a little team rivalry insued, and they had a hard time proving to us that they really caught more than our team, especially since one of ours weighed 250 lbs!  After we finished
processing each turtle (and of course we couldn’t resist a few selfies with these gorgeous beasts), we lifted the turtle back into its vast home. As I write this blog, I distinctly remember the wide, dark eyes looking up at us as we photographed its magnificent shell and flippers. The texture of the skin was durable and smooth, perfect for gliding effortlessly through the water.

            These creatures are truly amazing and I could not imagine a world without them. This being said, I strongly suggest lowering the use of plastic, especially straws. Turtles eat algae and jelly fish, and jelly fish are easily confused with plastic bags floating in the water. I assure you, both our Abroad group and the turtles will thank you, because we’re all now turtle crazy!

I can’t even begin to properly put into words to how incredible it was to be in the presence of the most knowledgeable biologists in Peru and the world while helping them do what they do best on my favorite animals. I love turtles, and will never forget this experience.

First impressions: Eclectic Lima by Truett Sparkman

We landed in Lima and hit the ground running! What follows is adapted from my first two journaling assignment while in Peru. As you will see, we covered a lot of ground and learned a ton!

Lima is located along the central desert coast of Peru. It’s grown rapidly in area and population since the mid to late 19th century for a variety of reasons related to the internal migration of people seeking jobs, fleeing the terrorism of the Shining Path in the 80s, and escaping the devastation of a particularly severe earthquake in the highlands of Peru. Today, about 30% of Peru’s 32 million people live in this 30 x 16 mile metropolis, a size and density that you gain an appreciation for from the air and while driving around the city. Due to the huge number of cars on the roads, it consistently takes 2-3 hours to drive across the capital – often in frantic traffic or slow-crawling traffic jams. Lima’s public transit is heavily used, and while still developing, it has a long way to go before it meets the city’s needs. Newly-implemented bus lanes and buses are already at capacity, and government-regulated private bus companies serve the overflow. The city is trying to phase out these less-sustainable private companies as the public transit system improves, but it is a slow process. There are few train tracks due to the prevalence of earthquakes, but in 2016 the municipality began work on a (presumably) earthquake-resistant metro system to help reduce traffic congestion. The threat of earthquakes influence much of the building and infrastructure construction in Peru. The recent quakes in Mexico were a constant source of conversation among many of the people we spoke with in Lima.

Lima retains large amounts of Colonial Spanish and French-influenced buildings, particularly in Old Lima, since Lima was the capitol of Spain’s western hemisphere empire during the colonial era. It’s amazing to see the sort of wealth that must have passed through Lima as evidenced by its extravagant colonial architecture. The grandeur of the older government buildings, churches, and properties of wealthy elites is truly extraordinary.


We toured a Franciscan Convent, called the Convento San Francisco. It was rich with colonial history, and illustrated well how Catholicism was brought (by force) to Peru’s native people. The convent is home to an extensive library of original and early writings on Christianity. The complex tongue-and-groove wooden dome, large courtyard, extensive library, fine paintings, and elaborate woodwork in the chapel were very impressive to see and demonstrated the extensive means (wealth) and manpower (members of the order) of this convent in the past. Today there are fewer than 40 monks in the convent, and they charge an entrance fee to their museum to sustain the property. Here we also saw a small section of the catacombs of the convent, where people have been buried for hundreds of years. It was interesting to experience the culture of this order regarding death, burial, and the preservation of bones in the foundation of the church.

Our next stop was the Plaza de Armas at the heart of the city. On one side of this public square was the Government Palace, the president’s residence and offices, currently occupied by Pablo Kuchinsky. It is massive, grandious, and guarded with an elaborate display of police and military in ceremonial uniform. Perpendicular to this side of the square, there is the city’s main Catholic cathedral and the official residence of the Peruvian Archbishop. The proximity of these buildings is a symbol of the church’s historical role as the major power in Peru. While the president’s house displayed a French architectural style, the church and the other buildings surrounding the plaza were very much Spanish and Moorish; the church was dressed in beautiful cut stone and the other government buildings featured large, enclosed wooden balconies on their second floors.

I was struck by the cleanliness of the plaza and the surrounding streets. Our guide told us that since the terrorism of the Shining Path in the 80s ended, Lima has regained its sense of pride, and one display of this is the meticulous cleaning of public spaces. The city employs people around the clock to clean up trash, sweep the streets, and maintain the city’s green spaces. It shows!


We then ventured into a park called the Magic Circuit of Lights.  The park has been here since 1929 as a memorial to those who fought in the war of the Pacific — a war with Chile over nitrate resources during which the capital was occupied by Chilean forces for several years. Peru lost the war, but still celebrates their heroes. The park deteriorated during the time of the Shining Path, but was restored in 2000 and again in 2007 with the installation of 13 water monuments with constantly changing, colorful light displays. Today it is one of Lima’s most attractive parks and draws tourists and locals to look at and play in its beautiful fountains, sculptures, and greenery. This park is a good example of the city’s pride, sense of safety, and renewed identity in the post-Shining Path era.

At the National Museum of Archeology, Anthropology and History, we were able to see the development of ancient Peruvian culture from the early stone carvings, pottery, and weaving of the Chavín to the incredibly advanced techniques and elaborate creations of the Wari empire and then to the sophisticated engineering, architecture, and statecraft of the Inca. We learned that, while most westerners think of the Inca as the primary and most important group in Peru’s history, there were actually many other, earlier groups whose technological and cultural advancements were necessary and important steps in achieving the apex of Andean culture before the Spanish conquered Peru in 1533.

In Andean culture, textiles were valued above all else. Pottery was seen as the next most valuable material possession and was used extensively for rituals and daily needs. Gold came in third in the realm of important and cherished goods and crafts. This stood in contrast to the culture and values of the Spanish, which may have caused the under-estimation and devaluation of the exceptional quality of Inca and pre-Inca textiles and pottery.

It was interesting to note the value placed on nature by these Andean cultures and to see it reflected in the designs on their textiles and pottery. There was a strong, spiritual connection to the land. Veneration for the sun and moon, the mountains, glaciers, pumas and other creatures carried through all the pre-Hispanic cultures of Peru. This was visible in our visit to the Franciscan Convent the day before, as well. Our guide told us that when the conquerors imposed their religion and its iconography, Andeans saw Jesus and thought of him as signifying the glaciers, and they saw Mary and thought of the mountains. This respect for Mother Nature may have played a role in the longevity of these cultures. It certainly led to religious syncretism among the conquered Andeans, which seems to persist even today.

Our next stop was to the U.S. Embassy. During our visit, we met with Sunshine Ison, a cultural officer who briefed us on the United States’ relationship with Peru.  Peru is seen by the Embassy as a strong US partner as it increasingly steps out on the world stage through the hosting of international conferences and other events. She noted that Peru’s president, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, was one of the first international leaders to meet with United States President Donald Trump after his election.

The US is still working extensively with Peru to eradicate coca production. The approach taken by Peru today is to help farmers replace their coca crops with viable alternatives, and there seems to be progress since the days of Operation Green Sea. But, this agenda still chaffs against an important piece of Andean culture by aiming to stop all cultivation of the initially benign and culturally important coca leaf.

It was interesting to me to learn about the role of US embassies in foreign countries. They support US citizens who live and travel abroad and are also tasked with representing only the Executive Branch of the US government.  Such limited representation means that changes in leadership in the U.S. can dramatically change international relationships.  Ameliorating this potential scitzophrenia, however is the professional foreign service corp – diplomats and bureaucrats who advise the president and who are at the actual interface between the United States and other countries.

After a very full 2 days in Lima, we were exhausted, but more knowledgable for it.   We immersed ourselves in a city of fantastic history and mixed cultures – and now have the context to continue our journey through Peru.

Flying Backwards in Time to the Nasca Culture by Nathaniel Kenworthy

In Nasca we were given a wonderful opportunity to learn, through presentation and observation, about the achievements and culture of the Nasca people with a particular focus on their water irrigation systems, pottery, and enormous desert line drawings or geoglyphs commonly known as the Nasca Lines.

Solving the problem of water in one of the driest places on earth was key to their survival.  I was very impressed by the level of sophistication that the Nasca people demonstrated in engineering their water management system, consisting of miles of stone channels and spiral stone access points, like wells, to the underground water sources invisible on the face of the desert. Incorrectly referred to as “aqueducts” because of the closest western equivalent found in the Roman aqueducts made for lifting water up, the Nasca system was for bringing it down from the Andes into their dry coastal lands hundreds of kilometers to the west.

Being near stones laid down by the Nasca people sometime between 300 and 1200 AD and knowing that the Nasca people walked the exact paths we did meant so much to me. They so cleverly built the winding walls that control the speed of water-flow. The fact that they are still standing and serving their function, all without the use of any binding material between the stones, is really quite amazing.

Another impressive aspect of their design was the use of the huarango tree wood in the in the system. The significant role played by this tree in Nasca life is reflected in the enormous drawing of the tree traced in the Nasca geoglyph in the desert, which was likely part of their spiritual practices. The tree was used not only to detect underground water (where they grew) but also to create tools to dig the trenches and as material which added more flexibility than stone. This ultimately protected the structure from the earthquakes that this area is prone to.

The visit to Tobi’s pottery workshop in the town of Nasca reminded me of time spent studying artists and viewing or interacting with their creative spaces. Tobi demonstrated an expert knowledge of the technique he and his father together have determined as the most probable technique that the Nasca used to make their pottery. The full process, right from the type of clay through to the firing process, was illustrated by pre-made examples. This includes the shaping, painting, and polishing of the pieces, with a segment about the minerals that are the source of seven different pigments used by the Nasca in their polychromatic pottery.

The uses of the pottery included: storage and pouring of water, spiritual offerings, decoration and music. I was surprised to learn that these beautiful pots, which are very time intensive to create, were often smashed as spiritual offerings to their gods.

The final part of the Nasca excursion was viewing the “lines” themselves. These structures have been the object of several long-term archaeological studies, including that of Maria Reiche, who spent years making measurements and calculations to try to decipher them. I’m still left wondering about the details of exactly how the lines were constructed so well that they still exist, almost undamaged nearly two millennia after their creation thanks to the dryness of the region.

Flying in six-seater planes over the 12 classic figures and the hundreds of lines and trapezoids was beautiful, such a privilege. Besides local coastal creatures, the figures represent animals from the rainforest on the other side of the Andes, indicating contact, probably trade, at a distance.  We saw the hummingbird, condor, spider, monkey, parrot, pelican and dog, as well as the two representations of humans – a pair of hands and the figure known as the “astronaut” for his large vacant eyes staring from the sky.  Many of these figures are motifs seen on Nascan ceramics and textiles, indicating their symbolic importance within the Nasca worldview. The most accepted hypothesis as to their purpose points to their ceremonial and religious significance. Looking down on them from the sky, which is the only way to see their whole form at once, was very special.

Flying out above the city also allowed me contextualize these ancient lines within the contemporary reality of the city of Nasca. Most of the central part of town is oriented towards the tourism industry while the surrounding area is agricultural. I loved looking out and seeing all the modern irrigation ponds, the people shifting their livestock and the green crops growing in this otherwise desolate landscape, nourishing the whole system from the animals to the local residents and tourists.

A fun addition to the flight experience was the sensation of zero-gravity, when the pilot flew steeply upward and then dropped immediately. We all lifted off our seats as phones and paper floated for a two or three surreal seconds that reminded me of astronaut training footage.

Kike Pinto: Learning from an Ethnomusicologist, by Anne Webster

            Kike Pinto is an amazing ethnomusicologist and professor of music here in Lima who has been collecting indigenous Peruvian instruments for 44 years. The ones he showed us during our workshop with him were only some of the 500 pieces he has in his private collection. Kike started out by having us simply listen to the sound of the instruments, playing a medley of his own creating in which he incorporated every one of the instruments he brought. They were all beautiful in their own way but some were absolutely ingenious and immensely impressive. He then explained the origin and use of the instruments.

            We learned that some instruments known as “complementary” are only played together. Some instruments such as one made from a deer skull with bees wax to seal it are still used by Amazonian peoples, in this case for calling others.  The natural materials used to make the instruments are inherently meaningful for religious/spiritual or ceremonial uses.  For example, deer embody the forest, life, ancestors, while instruments made of condor bone and feather represent the sky, the highest step in the Andean cross and worldview. The conch shell trumpet was used by the Incas for communication at a distance and announcing important people. One instrument looked like a double-spouted vessel but was actually a water instrument in which the sounds are caused by moving of the instrument and changing the air flow. Music used by the shamans for healing was always directed to the spirits, not to the patient.  The pentatonic scale used in some of these instruments is also used in a Japanese flute.  Some instruments imitated bird or animal calls to facilitate hunting.  Others were for courting. Still others were to be played only by women.   All the music was passed down by oral/sound tradition such that music became like a language of its own in each place and culture.  It was so natural to those who grew up with it and learned it but very hard to pick up otherwise.

Kike really amazed me. He played each instrument with so much talent and tenderness.  In the absence of sheet music and the use of the western scale, he has had to learn how to play the instrument from an occasional elder in a remote community who might remember how it´s done or, in others, figure it out himself. Several instruments, such as a dual pan flute with two separate pieces, is meant to be played by two people, but he is able to play them simultaneously. He also did this with a drum and another instrument.

 Kike generously let a number of us attempt to play some of the instruments. I decided to try a wood flute that had two finger holes to control at the end and got it pretty much on the first try, which was fun.

    A sidenote on language adaptation: Cecily introduced Kike and explained what was to happen all in Spanish before then saying it again in English. It wasn’t until that transition point that I even realized she had been speaking Spanish! I truly understood every word and didn’t even think about which language it was.

The Life of a Sailor by Nikki Matters

Our first research opportunity, which also happened to be my first long period of time out on the ocean in a boat ever, was quite amazing. The diversity of the wild life and stunning landscape of Peru (mountains, ocean, islands, desert – you name it, Peru has it) never ceases to take my breath away. Timon has already given you a wonderfully well-written explanation of our first lab off the coast of Peru in a previous blog.  My trip, by chance, happened to turn out a bit differently because it ended with one of my favorite connections so far on this trip : a hour and a half long conversation with Cesar, a 70 year-old sailor.

This conversation was a demonstration of God’s constant care. I have no doubt about this. At this point in time during the trip, I had left my species observation group on the second deck of the boat to pray and have some quiet time, as material claims of discord were presenting themselves to others and creeping into my own thought as well. The idea of abiding in God’s infallible love came into my thought with a surprising amount of force. I was immediately comforted, and smiled because hymn #7 was one of the last ones sung at hymn sing before we left campus.

 Feeling strengthened by this idea, I traveled to the back of the boat to enjoy some sunshine. Here I experienced God’s constant provision once again, through this conversation with Cesar. Even though an hour and a half seems like a miniscule amount of time in the grand scheme of things, the conversation was my opportunity to connect and joyfully “abide” in God’s love. What a gift this conversation was.

It started out with my asking Cesar a question about a “lobo marino” or sea lion. However, I soon found myself engaged in a lively conversation as the boat headed back toward the shore. During this time, I learned Cesar’s life story. He has been working on the sea all his life. He began as a young man who worked on boats that transported imported and exported goods, allowing him to travel to ports of countries all over the world. Eventually, he married and started a family.

 Cesar explained that his work has required sacrifices, which he has made because of the necessity to work.  For example, he has not been able to be at any of his six siblings’ weddings and has sometimes had to miss celebrating Christmas with his family.  At this point in the conversation, I was able to connect with him when I explained the sacrifice of my not being able to be at the wedding of my cousin, who is also my best friend, in October.  Despite being difficult, we agreed that sacrifices are necessary and “valen la pena” (are worth it).

Holidays are just dates, and we have each found that we can celebrate with those we love no matter when or how far away we are. Distance cannot stop love from being shared, even if those celebrations don’t happen on the time schedule that we originally planned.

I also shared with him various places we are going on our trip. I pulled out our itinerary from my backpack, and we read through it together. He has traveled to many places in Peru, so he was ecstatic to see the variety in the places that we were going to. And of course, I had to ask him for food recommendations being the food enthusiast that I am (the food here in AMAZING).

Cesar was only too happy to give me plenty of recommendations. This part of the conversation was fun for me because I loved watching how much he loved talking about various Peruvian dishes. He was so sincere, and wanted me to have the best experience possible here even though he had only met me an hour ago. If there were Spanish names of ingredients that I was not familiar with, he would stop mid-conversation and explain them until I could recognize what food he was referring to. This part was very animated, because I would suddenly exclaim, “!Sí, le entiendo!” (Yes, I understand!), and a broad smile would spread across his wrinkled face before he launched into an explanation of another food dish.

Throughout this abroad, connecting with the people who live here continues to be a personal highlight for me. In this moment, I was struck by the love of sharing that this man so clearly expressed in a random conversation with a student on a boat. I have never had so many meaningful connections with strangers as on this trip.

I am constantly amazed and humbled, in all my interactions with Peruvians, by their sincere expression of selflessness, love, and desire to connect and share. In the U.S., I normally keep to myself in public places because it’s comfortable and easy to avoid possibly awkward conversations with strangers. Here, conversations with strangers have resulted in the some of the most special moments.

The power of human connections is an extraordinary thing, something that extends beyond languages and country borders. My time in Peru has taught me that we are all able to connect if we keep an open mind and heart, and do so with loving motives. For me, I will keep the memory of this interaction close.

Fish, Fish, Everywhere Fish! by Bess Bookout

We crawled out of bed at 5am to board the bus once again and drive to Peru’s largest and most important fish market. Given that Peru has one of the world’s largest fishing industries, and Lima has more than 8.5 million people (its larger than New York City!) our expectations for seeing this amazing fish market were high.  We’d been given a specific assignment.  Our professors (Scott, Shaleyla and Cecily) had divided us into groups of 3.  Each group was to interview a fish monger (in Spanish) about 2 – 3 of the species they sold and where they were caught.  On the ride there, we practiced the questions we had prepared in Spanish, “Buenos días, señor o señora. Somos estudiantes de biología marina. ¿Podemos hacerle unas preguntas sobre su pescados?”

We arrived near the market – a huge metal warehouse. My best description of the area outside the market was extreme chaos.  As we wended our way through the hustle bustle of taxis, buses, dogs, people going to work and street vendors I was amazed at the size of the large steel building that housed the market.  None of us were prepared for the amount of activity and even greater seeming chaos that we were about to walk into – at 6 am. As we arrived at the ramp leading up into the bustling market, we stood in awe for a moment.  The smell of fish washed over us, the random shouts and crescendo of noise, combined with the hustle of vendors racing through the market with carts of fish was almost overwhelming. As far as the eye could see there were tubs of fish, tables of fish, carts of fish, fish everywhere. I was awed by the sheer volume of goods, the diversity of species for sale, and the abundance of people buying and selling.

After a moment to strengthen our resolve (and reassure the others in our group that we could do this) we plunged into the chaos.  Immediately, we encountered a group of fishmongers that seemed to have a lull in business — perfect, we could interview them without taking too much of their precious time.  Stumbling through the Spanish, we asked them about one of the many species they were selling. To our pleasant surprise, they were very kind and eager to talk to us about their products, even though we didn’t intend to buy from them. We left one fishmonger, dodged oncoming carts and attempted to stay out of the way while navigating the walkways to find another willing fisherman. Several waved us over and eagerly shared their knowledge. “Tollos azules” (blue sharks), “pesces espadas” (swordfish), “lenguados” (flounder), “bonitos”, “atunes” (tuna),  “potas” (Humboldt squid), “pulpos” (octopuses), “conchas” (mussels), “cranjeros” (crabs), “algas” (seaweed), and many more species were being sold by the kilogram.  Some of the fish were going for 20-30 soles per kilogram ($3-5 per lb) with others going for 5 soles per kilo ($0.80 per lb) – depending on the species, the quality of meat, and the amount that they had available to sell that week. Each group of fishermen told us they sold about one or two thousand kilos of fish or squid per week.  We learned later from our professor that they had interviewed a manager of the market and were shown the log books for arriving fish.  Each day more than 287,000 kg (632,726 lbs) of fish or seafood move through this market!  After talking to several mongers, and nearly getting run over by carts of fish racing by, we retreated to the relative peace outside the market.

What a cool experience is was to be in the largest fish market in Peru where nearly 80% of all fish and aquatic products pass through. While many of the goods were of marine origin, there were also piranhas and catfish from the tropical rainforest of Peru and crabs and mussels of the mangrove swamps. We left the market feeling a little overwhelmed, but in awe of the amount of fish that pass through that market each day (and smelling like fish which clung to our clothes for days). How is this possible? How is it imaginable that more than 300 tons of fish, molluscs, crustaceans, and other aquatic products are bought each DAY from this single market in Lima? One reason that this market processes such high quantities of marine products is the incredibly productive ocean off the coast of Peru due to its coastal upwelling and from the nutrient rich Humboldt current. The combination creates one of the most productive fisheries in the world. Peru is second only to China in its harvesting of fish. In 2005, Peru harvested over 9 million tons of fish. While many regulations are in place to protect not only the fishery stocks, but also the megafauna bycatch (sea turtles, sharks, etc.), and are followed by the majority of fisheries, there are many
rules and regulations that are ignored. It is especially difficult to enforce these laws when the fishermen are spread so far from the central power in Lima. For example, one of the venders we spoke to told us they sold tollo azul (blue shark), which is legal to catch in limited numbers; however, the type of shark that they actually had for sale was a thresher shark (Alopias sp.) whose season had closed. Sharks can be challenging to identify, once the fishermen remove the head and tail. 

These kinds of problems -the clashes between users and regulators – exist worldwide, and Peru is working on bettering their regulations as well as the monitoring process while also including the input of the parties involved. For example, in the Manglares de Tumbes National Reserve (that we will visit later) the government worked with the fishermen to create quotas and when the seasons are to open and close. By allowing the fishermen to participate in the regulation writing process, they created an environment where the users of the land self-regulate because they see the importance of being sustainable (both to sustain themselves, but also to sustain the populations of organisms they rely on).

The people who live along the coast depend on the hyper-productivity found in the Humboldt Current because the terrestrial side of things is a desert. Nothing of economic value grows naturally along the coast unless it is irrigated in the valleys by river water that flows down from the Andes. This contrast between desert and booming life in the ocean emphasizes the need for sustainable harvesting of the fisheries. If these fisheries become depleted (by local or foreign operations), the people depending on them will soon have very little to support their families. However, Peruvians we have spoken with seem to be hopeful that with some altered regulations and more education about the importance of not overfishing, that fishermen will be receptive to more sustainable harvesting of goods because it is their best interest to do so.

So despite a rather shocking early morning wake-up, we left Lima with a stronger sense of the amazing ocean that borders Peru and the close connectivity the peoples of Peru have with the sea. 

“Feeding the Fishes” – We Venture Out Into the Open Ocean to Unlock the Secrets of the Humboldt Current Ecosystem. By Timon Keller

Our first research opportunity of the Peru Abroad started at the port of Callao, just to the north of Lima from which we would head out into the open ocean on a research vessel. The coast of Peru is well known for supporting incredibly high numbers of marine animals, a result of cold nutrient-rich waters being drawn from the bottom of the ocean towards the surface in a process known as coastal upwelling, and due to the nearby presence of the Humboldt surface current bringing nutrient rich water up from the Antarctic Sea.   The nutrients contained in these cold waters support explosive growth of small near-microscopic organisms, known as phytoplankton, who take up the available nutrients and reproduce rapidly.  Phytoplankton form the basis of the entire marine food web as they are consumed by zooplankton who are then consumed by the next larger organisms (e.g. fish) which in turn are consumed by larger organisms (e.g. sea birds and marine mammals). As a result, the high abundance of nutrients in the water is responsible for enabling populations of several thousand fish, marine birds, and marine mammal to thrive off the coast of Peru. The abundance of fish in these waters is so great that Peru sustains one of the largest commercial fisheries in the world. As part of this abroad and our course in Marine Biology, we had the special opportunity to document the upwelling and oceanic productivity in this unique ecosystem.

Our intention was to prove that there is a relationship between cold, nutrient rich water rising from the bottom of the ocean and the amount of animals seen in those areas. Based on research conducted by other scientists, we predicted that such areas of cold water would sustain large populations of zooplankton, sea birds and marine mammals. 

The port of Callao, as with many places in Peru’s capital, was a beautiful juxtaposition between the old, and the new. Our bus stopped besides old, colonial buildings that were likely used for lively commerce centuries ago. We walked past a few old statues and towards the pier from which we would start our ocean adventure. Towards the open ocean, there were uncountable small fishing vessels tied up to buoys bouncing on the water. These vessels bore testimony to the many generations of fishermen that have made a livelihood from the Humboldt Current; and continue to do so today.

On the opposite site from the fishing vessels we could see the large cargo ships lining the piers and big cranes were busy loading and unloading. Colorful containers with writing in all different languages lined the shore of the port. We boarded a small transit vessel that could barely seat our entire group and headed out towards the ship that would take us out to sea.

Once onboard, we split up into four research teams, each with unique tasks. One group headed towards the flying bridge of the ship from where they would count and identify all birds, marine mammals, and schools of fish. The second group was responsible for measuring the temperature of the water column by lowering a temperature recording device from the surface to the bottom (or 50 meters depth, whichever was shallower). A third group was responsible for measuring air and surface water temperature, while a fourth group was responsible for lowering a fine mesh plankton net into the water to measure zooplankton density.

As we left the port of Callao and headed toward the open ocean, we had the chance to practice identifying some of the numerous bird species flying by our ship from all different sites. Several species of cormorant rested on the tied up fishing vessels, Peruvian pelicans flew by just inches over the water, and terns, such as the colorful Inca tern, headed out towards the open ocean. As our ship navigated around a large island separating the port of Lima from the open ocean, we admired a large figure carved into a cliff on the island. This figure has been the unofficial logo of Lima’s port for centuries and watches over all vessels leaving and returning to the port.

Just as we passed the figure, the vessel stopped for our first sampling effort. We counted and identified bird and mammal species for 10 minutes, recorded air and sea surface temperature, obtained a profile of the water column temperature, and captured a sample of plankton. Once our sampling effort was finished, we continued further out to sea.

The further we got away from the busy port of Lima, the more animals we encountered. Countless sea lions played in the water surrounding our vessel. Some were quite curious and swam up to our ship to take a closer look at what we were doing. Wilson’s Storm Petrels danced on the surface of the ocean and Humboldt Penguins swam past our ship. Flocks of pelicans, gulls, terns, and numerous other birds flew past us, and everyone on board was in awe of the incredible abundance of life we were witnessing.

Just as we thought there couldn’t possibly be more animals, we passed by some small islands that housed colonies of sea lions and pelicans. Our first estimate of the population sizes suggested there were 5000 pelicans on one island alone! We arrived at a similar estimate for the sea lion colony. Throughout our entire trip, we passed by several of these islands filled with wildlife. It was near these colonies that we conducted two more sampling efforts before we continued our voyage further out to sea.

As we headed further out to sea, the waves grew stronger and our research vessel pitched and rolled. As a result, the some of the students got a bit queezy and were introduced to another aspect of field research on the ocean, known as “feeding the fishes”.  However, all remained in good spirits as we finished our data collection and headed back to shore.  We had been on the ocean for 3 hours which felt more like 30 minutes to some, and possibly like several days to others!

As we headed for port, we received a special treat. One of the students spotted a whale surface just a few hundred meters away from our boat. The whale was spotted several times over the course of half an hour. Each time it surfaced, we got to witness a fountain of water droplets and air rise from its blowhole as it exhaled. Thanks to some photos taken off the whale’s dorsal fin, we were able to later identify it as a minke whale, a close relative of fin and blue whales.

The closer we got to shore, the calmer the ocean became. We approached the large island separating the ocean from the port of Lima. Since we had some spare time and the waters were calmer, we took the long way around the entirety of the island. Its tall, sandy mountains offered a stark contrast to the deep blue ocean crashing against the islands shores. A small, wooden hut was located at the very top of the island’s largest mountain and colonies of sea birds added some life to the otherwise barren cliffs. At this point in the day, the skies had cleared up a little after being overcast throughout the morning and some warm rays of sunshine guided our way back to port.

As our research vessel approached its anchoring spot, we packed up our gear and boarded the same small transit boat that had taken us out in the morning. Once we tied up to shore and departed the transit boat, all of us were happy to have some solid ground under our feet. We walked back through the port to a restaurant where we enjoyed a buffet lunch and a beautiful view of the open. Here, we had the opportunity to relax for a moment and quietly express gratitude for the many extraordinary sights we got to witness during our journey on the Humboldt Current ecosystem.

First Looks Can Be Deceiving, Our Visit to Villa El Salvador, By Emily Staunton

Faded and broken brick cling to walls that meet a tattered tin roof that may or may not fully cover the house. Piles of trash, dust, and rock blanket sections of the street, sometimes visited by rugged stray dogs. The somewhat monochrome brown brick line the whole horizon, as far as the eye can see, and create a sharp contrast with the white sky that is characteristic of Lima. 

Without context, a stereotypical Westerner would mark this scene as a bleak, impoverished developing city. One of my initial thoughts was that it felt unnatural to have humans placed in what looked like to me to be an inhumane, lifeless area. Driving into Villa El Salvador, I asked myself how I should mentally approach the strong suggestion of poverty that made US inner cities look luxurious.

I soon found my answer in the proud smile and enthusiastic story-telling of Pedro, a Peruvian who works for la Municipalidad de Lima and lives in Villa El Salvador. He spent the day with us and told us the story of Villa El Salvador. Here’s a brief version of what he shared:

In 1971, squatters from around Lima took over some unused government land in the coastal desert, protesting high rent and overcrowding in the city. After some struggles with the government, a compromise was reached and the families were moved from Pamplona to where it is now (about 12 miles south of Lima). Within a month of this grassroots effort gaining governmental recognition, 90,000 more families came. Through the 80s and 90s, Villa El Salvador was marked by attacks from a terrorist group, the Shining Path. The city has continued to grow and is now at full capacity with close to half a million inhabitants.

I couldn’t help but notice how proud and eager Pedro was to tell us his city’s story. He smiled nearly the whole time he presented to us. Why? I found the answer to this when I heard Villa El Salvador’s motto, “porque tenemos nada, haremos todo” which translates to: “Because we have nothing, we will do everything.”



Citizens have more than lived up to this motto. Villa El Salvador is now a city that other developing cities have modeled themselves after. It is divided into groups, each having 16 blocks and 24 lots to each block. There are 100 public schools, 300 private schools, drug rehabilitation centers, health clinics and sports facilities. We drove through el Parque Industrial (Industrial Park) which had many furniture, clothing, and carpentry workshops and retail outlets. Citizens used to commute to Lima for work but this job creation intiative has resulted in 60% of the citizens being able to work within Villa El Salvador. What is the secret to going from a tent shantytown to a developing city? Pedro said that the core of Villa El Salvador is solidarity.

We could certainly feel solidarity when we visited the Arena y Esteras (Sand and Woven Mats) Theatre. (The name alludes to the extent of what the squatters had when they first arrived.) This theatre mainly does unscripted collective creations and invites community members of all ages to take part. Most notable is their work with youth. Many come seeking friendship and are greeted with the opportunity to create, gain self-confidence, and find a place to heal. They will tour in Germany next year.


Two moments from our time there stand out to me. The first was when a two-man music group called “Austero (Austere)” that was rehearsing at the theater played a traditional song, “La Flor de la Canela” (Cinnamon Flower) for us on the guitar and quena (Andean flute).  Etched in both men’s intent faces was pure passion for what they were doing; I could tell every note mattered to them. The other moment was when some rehearsing dancers invited us to play a game with them, which left us all laughing and tossing a ball to each other. These interactions felt frozen, without time. I was no longer in a “shantytown.” I was just a human being interacting with other humans in a way that made time, place, and status not matter. Humanity – or as Villa El Salvador would put it, solidarity – was all that mattered.

Another place that solidarity was strong was at the Comedor we visited. Comedores are a type of soup kitchen originally set up by Maria Elena Moya, former Vice Mayor of Villa, Woman’s Federation president and anti-Shining Path activist. (She was later assassinated by the Shining Path and we visited a monument to her in the community). Currently numbering some 200, these simple kitchens and dining space  provide nutritious meals to families for 3 soles ($1) and, in Moyas’ day, were the lifeblood of many women and their families.

Three to four women, including a grandmother, greeted us and fed us a delicious meal of rice, chicken, and beet salad with barley water to drink. I was touched when one of the women teared up as she described the sense of family she has with this Comedor because of how they supported her after a near-death accident.

On the bus ride back to the hotel, a friend and I commented how our view of Villa El Salvador had changed because of these interactions. When I removed the Western lens and saw Villa El Salvador through the eyes of Pedro, Austero, and the women at the comedor, Villa El Salvador was no longer an impoverished town but an accomplishment to take pride in. These qualities of dignity, resilience, and solidarity are the strength that allow citizens to transcend challenging circumstances and establish their own identity.