West Feliciana High School teacher had the opportunity of a lifetime when she visited the place that inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

Nicole Means, who teaches ninth-grade classes in advanced placement human geography and world geography, traveled to the Galapagos Islands Sept. 11-20. She was awarded the National Geographic Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship, and the trip was funded by National Geographic and its alliance with Grosvenor.

The Galapagos Islands are an archipelago of volcanic islands on either side of the equator in the Pacific Ocean, west of Ecuador, and they include a national park and a marine reserve and have a population of about 25,000. During his voyage on the HMS Beagle in the 19th century, Darwin spent time in the Galapagos as he developed his revolutionary theory.

The Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Program is a professional development opportunity made possible by a partnership between National Geographic Education and Lindblad Expeditions. The two organizations formed an alliance to inspire people to care about the environment.

Means said there were about 70 guests on the expedition. Retired schoolteachers joined geologists and employees of large food corporations on the trip. She was accompanied by another teacher fellow, Janet Ruest, from Victoria Island in British Columbia. Most of the participants were from the U.S., although one guest was from Australia.

“Many of the guests were not teachers but want to become stewards of our environment,” said Means, who has been on West Feliciana’s faculty since 2001. “As a fellow, I am charged with bringing what I learned ‘on the field’ and translating that into lesson plans for my students. As a result of my participation, there are several deliverables I have to submit to National Geographic such as an outreach action plan, blog posts during the expedition, outreach presentations and documentation of all these components.”

Their journey through the Galapagos started in San Cristobal, where they boarded the National Geographic Endeavor, a customized expedition ship. From there, they traveled to Espanola, Floreana and Bartolome and ended in the Santa Cruz Islands.

Means learned about the intricate ecosystem of the islands, one of the most pristine regions of the world, she said.

“The naturalists who guided us through the Galapagos truly loved and cared for the islands,” she said. “Even something as small as an apple core can harm their precious ecosystem. It is so easy to introduce food or insects that can be dangerous to the fragile ecosystems. So if you leave behind an apple core, that apple core can disperse its seeds and later become a tree. This is not good for the islands.”

Means had plenty of opportunities to interact with the indigenous animals.

“The animals are definitely not scared,” Means said. “In fact, as we deboarded the bus that took us to the ship, we were greeted by two sleeping sea lions. Birds are not afraid of people. They do not fly off in flocks when near humans. The iguanas were camouflaged in rocks, and we had to be careful not to step on them. However, even though the animals are ubiquitous, we still had to respect them at a distance of 6 feet.”

She said she will incorporate her experiences into her teaching by developing a unit of study to help students understand how natural systems interact with human systems. For a final project, they will create storybooks based on various species found in the Galapagos Islands and will narrate the necessity of caring for the world. They will present the stories to students at Bains Elementary and Bains Lower schools.

Means also said she would love to go back.

“No other place like this exists on Earth,” she said. “I am so impressed by the conservation efforts that Ecuador has made to preserve the Galapagos. Tourism is limited each year, and I feel honored that I was able to visit there. It was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I cannot wait to share my experiences with my own students and the students at the elementary schools.”