Two tickets to Paradise

Virginia and Dick Dolder pose with some of the souvenirs brought back from their travels to the Madagascar and Costa Rica. The couple has been on four expeditions with Dr. Thomas Emmel through with Florida Museum of Natural History.

Tricia Coyne/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Monday, June 1, 2009 at 7:45 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, June 1, 2009 at 7:45 p.m.

"Good morningladies and gentlemans! Welcome to paradise called the Galapagos Islands!"



For more than 30 years, Dr. Thomas Emmel has been leading educational expeditions to such destinations as the Monarch overwintering sites in Mexico, the Galapagos Islands and Madagascar through the Florida Museum of Natural History's Expedition Travel program. To learn more about upcoming expeditions, including travel costs, trip itineraries and accommodations, or to make a reservation, contact Court Whelan at (871-2710),,

Virginia Dolder calls out her best rendition of the island reveille that she and her husband, Dick, awoke to each morning during their stay in the Galapagos Islands three years ago. The couple both retired teachers from Littlewood Elementary School spent two weeks exploring the remote islands as part of a tour led by Dr. Thomas Emmel and the Florida Museum of Natural History's Expedition Travel program. And every morning on the motoring yacht that was their home-away-from-home, the local tour guide would play piano music and call out this greeting.

For the Dolders, the museum-sponsored island adventure was just one of many educational trips they've shared with Dr. Emmel.

"I call him my Dr. Doolittle," Virginia says of Emmel, who is the director of the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity at the museum and professor and retired chair of UF's Department of Zoology. The Dolders first heard about Emmel's expeditions from one of the secretaries at Littlewood, whose husband had worked with Emmel and had been on some of his trips. Five years ago, the Dolders, educators and lifelong learners, signed up for Emmel's annual trip to central Mexico to see the overwintering sites of the Monarch butterflies.

"After we went on the butterfly overwintering trip, I just said, 'Whatever they've got, I want," says Virginia, who volunteers at the museum's Butterfly Rainforest.

The numerous scrapbooks and photo albums the Dolders have stacked up on their living room coffee table chronicle their travels over the past several years to some of the world's richest treasure troves of tropical ecology: the rainforests and cloud forests of Costa Rica, the unspoiled island of Madagascar, where 80 percent of the wildlife is unique to the island, and, of course, the Galapagos.

This archipelago of 13 volcanic islands 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean offers a rich diversity of wildlife that most people have seen only on television.

Every day on the 12-day Galapagos trip, the museum group of a dozen or so intrepid travelers disembarked the motoring yacht in a small inflatable Panga to explore a different island. And on each of the islands, the group encountered some of the most spectacular wildlife and unspoiled natural beauty this side of paradise.

On one island they met Lonesome George, a 200-year-old giant tortoise who was all alone in his island world. Natural and man-made forces, such as El Nino, oil spills and the introduction of non-native species to the islands, have brought the rare giant tortoises to the brink of extinction.

"They were trying to find him a mate," Virginia says of the tortoise that was being kept in a special pen with a heart-shaped pool. Lonesome George's caretakers had sent samples of the tortoise's DNA around the world in search of a compatible species.

"There were some female tortoises in California that matched him, and they were thinking about flying them to the Galapagos to see if they could mate," she says. "They wanted him not to be so lonesome!"

On another island they saw penguins. They watched in awe as a male sea lion barked out a warning in the waters just offshore while a group of female sea lions nursed their young on the beach.

And then there were the birds: The blue-footed boobies, the red-footed boobies, the albatross and the frigate bird: Named after a type of warship, these birds make a living pilfering the fresh catch of the day of other birds. The males have an inflatable red air-sack and a distinctive head shake that they use to attract a mate.

And of course, there were the numerous species of finches observed by Charles Darwin 150 years ago that were the impetus for his theory of evolution.

Dick, 76, says the diversity of wildlife on the islands was incredible. "You could just sit there for hours and watch."

"It is just like paradise," Virginia says.

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