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Chapman professor shares his love of Galapagos Islands

Fred Caporaso isn't a biologist, but he's has been taking students to the Galapagos Islands regularly since 1992. A highlight? A huge old tortoise called Lonesome George.

September 10, 2012|By Rick Rojas, Los Angeles Times
  • Items in food science professor Fred Caporaso's office at Chapman University, such as this photo of him with tortoise Lonesome George, reveal his passion for the Galapagos Island.
Items in food science professor Fred Caporaso's office at Chapman… (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)

The sign outside Fred Caporaso's door lists his official title: professor of food science. And it's true that his research area is sensory evaluation, the science of how food tastes. But step inside, and it's clear that his heart never strays far from the Galapagos Islands.

His cluttered desk and shelves are lined with tortoise trinkets and photos with him and his students, mementos from the 18 trips he has taken to the islands.

The professor has become enamored with the islands made famous by Charles Darwin, and he has emerged as something of an authority — taking students each year and giving lectures nationwide about the creatures inhabiting the islands.

It's a breathtaking place, remote and almost untouched by mankind, where many of the animals have little fear of humans.

"A bird will land on you as easily as [it would] somewhere else.... You can snorkel with penguins, and sea lions will swim up to your face," Caporaso said. "You can walk the same path 18 times and see 18 different things happen."

Of all the animals he's encountered over the years, none of them had as much of an effect as a tortoise named Lonesome George. The massive reptile had become an icon for the islands, with a reputation for being finicky and quirky.

Lonesome George died in June, marking the end of his subspecies named after Pinta Island in the Galapagos, where he lived.

Caporaso talks about George like an old friend and slips into the present tense when talking about him, even though he's been gone for a while.

George was notorious for not reproducing, despite having two female tortoises with him in his protected habitat for nearly 40 years. One laid eggs a couple years ago, but they were infertile; the other one drowned.

Caporaso admitted that his pal had gotten overweight in the last few years of his life, weighing in at well over 300 pounds.

"He's more interested in food than females," Caporaso said. "Everyone is rooting for George to reproduce, and he could never come through."

Visiting George had become part of Caporaso's almost annual trek to the islands. Although his background is in food science, Caporaso, 65, has been interested in turtles since he was a boy growing up in New Jersey, where he would search for turtles in the woods behind his home.

He continued to pursue the interest over the years, traveling around the world to study them and other reptiles — including Australia, where he met Steve Irwin, the late "Crocodile Hunter," before he became famous.

Caporaso first traveled to the Galapagos Islands in 1986, as a part of a documentary project. And since 1992, he has taken students there as part of a course on Darwin and evolution at Chapman University, the campus in Orange where he has taught since the early 1980s.

He takes the students to various points on the cluster of volcanic islands off the coast of Ecuador in the Pacific. They spend several days traveling by boat, and the students keep a journal documenting the experience, the terrain and the animals they come across.

The trip is costly — about $5,200, not including the airfare to Quito, their first stop in Ecuador — but students said it was a worthwhile investment.

"I kept saying to myself, there are very few people who get to do what I am doing," said Madison Hoffacker, a 21-year-old Chapman senior studying environmental science who went with Caporaso in January 2011.

"It is a lot of money, but there's no other trip like it," she said. "If you did it at any other time in your life, it wouldn't be the same."

Frank Frisch, a professor of biological science and one of Caporaso's close colleagues, has lived in and traveled to many corners of the world and been disappointed by some of the places. "Sometimes," he said, "I'm underwhelmed."

Frisch took his wife and two school-age children on the Galapagos trip one year, and it was a captivating experience — "a wonderful confluence of literature and travel," he said.

"You're literally in the footsteps of Darwin and others in the study of evolution," Frisch said. "It's an amazingly fertile learning experience."

And Caporaso, he said, was the ideal guide, a natural storyteller whose passion for the islands and the wildlife was evident. But he was hands off, nudging his students to explore and follow their own curiosity.

"He's not teaching you," Frisch said. "He's guiding your learning — and it's powerful."

rick.rojas@latimes.com

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