Tucked away on Isabela Island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean where the population is less than 2,000, University of Miami students participating in the UGalapagos program had hoped they would finish out their semester without any disruptions from the global coronavirus pandemic.
UM previously canceled all study abroad and university-related travel in China, Japan, Italy and South Korea and later suspended all study abroad programs in Europe due to the spread of the coronavirus.
As cases began to pop up in Ecuador, Vice President Otto Sonnenholzner announced a ban on all international travel into Ecuador.
At that time, the government also announced that travel restrictions to the Galapagos would follow, which prompted Johann Besserer, the executive director of the Intercultural Outreach Initiative, the NGO that partners with UM to run the study abroad program in the Galapagos, to recommend that UM cancel the program.
Students were gathered for an emergency meeting on March 14 and told in a video message from UGalapagos program coordinator Larry Peterson that they had less than 72 hours to book flights and get out of Ecuador by March 16. This was ordered to ensure students were able to make it out before Ecuador closed its airports.
Besserer wrote in an email to UGalapagos students that the situation was dynamic and required swift action. While UM’s demand that students leave with such short notice may have seemed like harsh marching orders, he said, the series of events that unfolded were unforeseeable at the time.
“UM’s required timelines turned out to be exactly the right call,” Besserer said.
He explained that as the situation continued to develop, they had to continue to accelerate the process of getting the students out of the Galapagos in order to avoid travel restrictions that locked down Isabela on March 16, the Galapagos on March 17 and all of Ecuador on March 18.
Students struggle to find the last flights out of Ecuador
Chaos followed as students scrambled to purchase plane tickets home, said Mikayla Quigley, one of the 15 students in the UGalapagos program.
Flights out of the Galapagos are limited under normal circumstances, but with short notice and a global pandemic in the background, finding a way back home was made all the more difficult, said Quigley, a junior marine science and biology double major.
Students scoured the web to find the next available flights out of Ecuador and were met with prices spiking as high as $3,500, Quigley said.
“Panic built as we were told to book flights immediately, but many flight agency websites were crashing or unable to load in the limited WiFi service on Isabela, and airlines had two-plus hour wait times for phone communication with airline agents,” Quigley said.
She explained that throughout the process, UM was unable to provide much help in finding tickets, but rather encouraged students to book flights as soon as they could.
Devika Milner, the Assistant Dean and Director of Study Abroad at UM stated that the university had to move quickly to inform students and work with administration during a very fluid situation.
She said that those on the ground from Intercultural Outreach Initiative were instrumental in helping students find flights and make it back home and kept her and others at UM well-informed throughout the process.
“The island they’re on in the Galapagos is pretty remote. It’s not like flying from Miami to Chicago. The folks at IOI were on it with communication and were providing really updated information so that we knew exactly what was going on with each student,” MIlner said.
Cassidy Renninger, a sophomore ecosystem science and policy major, said her parents had to book three separate flights out of Ecuador, as one got canceled, and she never received a confirmation for another one.
The process of leaving was long and difficult, Renninger said. She left Isabela Island at 5 a.m. March 16 and then boarded a boat for a two-hour ride to Santa Cruz Island. From there she took a one-hour water taxi to the airport, waited two hours to check in and then took a two-hour plane ride to Guayaquil, Ecuador, where she had a five-hour layover. After an unexplained two-hour flight delay, she finally left at 10 p.m. from Guayaquil to Miami, and arrived at Miami International Airport the following morning at 3:30 a.m.
Quigley said she fared much worse as she had to face a total of 52 hours of travel, involving six airports, five flights, two bus rides, two boat rides, a shuttle, a taxi and a car ride before she was able to make it back to her home in Boston.
Some students were on the very last flights available out of Isabela Island, the Galapagos, and various cities in Ecuador, Besserer said.
Unable to book a commercial flight, one student was nearly stranded in Ecuador
However, while the majority of students was able to leave Ecuador by March 16, one student was left behind, and for a time, unsure if she would be able to return to the United States at all.
After landing in Quito, Ecuador, Maria Calandranis was six hours early for her next flight to a connection in Guayquil that would eventually take her to the United States. But then, because of the Ecuadorian government’s new curfew, all flights after 10 p.m. were canceled, including hers. The only flights she could take the following day were to Guayaquil, which had more cases than Quito, or to Paris, which didn’t seem like a good move either, she said. She decided it was better to remain in Quito.
Out of options, her parents booked her a hotel for the night. She got up early the next day to try and buy her way onto a flight, but to no avail–they would not even let her into the airport, she said. The only flights going in or out were charter flights, which the U.S. embassy in Quito told Calandranis they would not be able to provide for her at that time. Instead, those at the embassy suggested that she pressure the airlines to help her out.
Calandranis emailed her senators back at her home in Wisconsin, as well as the former UM president and current congresswoman, Donna Shalala.
“I was hoping my case would resonate with Congresswoman Shalala due to her past role at the University of Miami,” said Calandranis, a junior majoring in marine science and biology.
Calandranis had been in contact with UM the entire time, and eventually received word from Roni Avissar, the dean of Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, that UM had organized a charter with Boston University and Lewis and Clarke College to bring her and other students back.
In an email sent to UGalapagos students, Besserer applauded Calandranis’ resolve, stating that she was resilient, calm and remained positive the entire time.
Calandranis said she felt extremely grateful to those who helped ensure her safe return.
“The university has been very supportive through this process,” she said. “I have had reassurance that work was being done throughout all of campus to accommodate me and my situation is well-known on the highest level at the university,” she said. “I feel very lucky to have such a great team behind me working hard all day to get me home to my loved ones in a time as stressful and chaotic as this.”
Milner said given the little time UM had to process and deliver information, she was very proud of what they accomplished.
“The effort that UM and RSMAS made and what we were able to do was actually a very proud moment for us,” Milner said.
Calandranis finally made it back home to Milwaukee on March 20, after a week of uncertainty.
Learning in the land of Darwin amid a pandemic
Students in the program were not expecting to have their study abroad suspended and had been confident and hopeful that they were going to be able to finish out the rest of the semester, Calandranis said.
RSMAS offers the UGalapagos study abroad program each fall and spring at Isabela Island through the Intercultural Outreach Initiative, an NGO centered in Cuba and the Galapagos Islands, which supports local communities in their initiatives to protect the environment.
UGalapagos students get the opportunity to enrich their learning experience while taking classes at a UNESCO World Heritage site and on the same land where Charles Darwin researched and developed his theory of evolution. UM faculty travel to the Galapagos to teach segmented courses throughout the semester.
After UM canceled all study abroad programs in China, South Korea, Japan and Europe, Calandranis said she and the other students with her began to worry that they would share a similar fate. But with relatively low levels of coronavirus cases in South America and the isolation of the Galapagos islands, Calandranis said it actually felt safer to be at Isabela Island, the largest island of the Galapagos, than at an airport or back in the United States.
The students continued to stay up to date with coronavirus news, Calandranis said, and one student would give everyone news updates in the kitchen area of their host homes each day.
Quigley, whose parents are both nurses, said she was well-informed about the reality of the virus from her contact with them, and wasn’t necessarily worried about contracting it.
Once the first case appeared in Ecuador, Calandranis said things at the island began to change.
“I remember that night was dead. We were walking to a bar and no one was on the streets but us, which is not normal,” she said. “Usually you would see people mingling in the park, hanging out outside the restaurants and people sitting on the beach.”
Restaurant workers began to take precautions, serving patrons with masks and gloves on, Calandranis said.
The students continued to go about their classes as normal, which were centered around excursions in the Galapagos Islands. They would spend around seven hours a day in class, learning from the nature around them.
For their marine ecology course, students went snorkeling and completed fish surveys in the field at the Corona del Diablo, which features a half-submerged volcanic crater and a coral reef.
The students had already finished their political ecology, terrestrial biology and marine ecology courses and were only three weeks away from finishing their study abroad program when they were told they had to find flights home.
Back home, UGalapagos students finish their program online, but worry for the island they left behind
Now that the 15 students are each back in their permanent residences, they will finish out their conservation biology and geology courses online. But since most of their classes were centered around field trips, Quigley said she thinks it will be a challenge for professors to substitute these hands-on activities with online courses.
The geology course, for example, had originally included a camping trip to the Sierra Negra volcano and a visit to the sulfur mines. Renninger was able to hike at the volcano with her family when they visited her, but many other students missed out on this experience, she said.
Shortly after the students vacated Isabela Island, they received a message from their program director Peterson stating that the island is now under a 9 p.m. curfew and is isolated with no ferry boats or flights going in or out. Without supply boats, restaurants on Isabela Island, which relies mainly on tourism, also had to be shut down.
“The situation has changed more quickly than anyone could have imagined,” Peterson told students. As of March 25, there are four reported cases of coronavirus in the Galapagos Islands and the government has banned all visitors to the islands to stop the spread.
Ecuador is now a COVID-19 Level 3 country, as designated by the CDC, meaning that all unnecessary travel to that nation should be avoided. As of March 28, Ecuador has more than 1,500 confirmed cases, the third most in South America after Brazil and Chile.
Had the students remained in the Galapagos, Quigley said finding food and water may have been an issue as Isabela does not have a desalination plant and residents rely on water bottles imported from Ecuador for their primary source of drinking water.
“My concerns are mainly directed towards what will happen with my host family and my friends from Isabela who are still there,” Quigley said. “I’m so upset that we had to leave Isabela, but I feel incredibly lucky to have had such an amazing abroad experience even if it was unfortunately cut three weeks short.”
Back at her home in Tampa, Renninger said she is adjusting to staying inside all day after spending months on sandy beaches in the Galapagos.
“I always wish that this hadn’t happened and that I was still in the Galapagos because it was the most amazing place I have ever been and will likely go to,” she said. “I hope that everyone in the Galapagos is safe and survives this.