Tales from abroad: Galápagos Islands

Credit: Celia Ludwinski | Photo Editor Credit: Celia Ludwinski | Photo Editor

When I first realized I wanted to be a scientist of some sort, I knew I had to go through a very important rite of passage: I had to travel to the Galápagos Islands in Ecuador to pay tribute to one of the fathers of evolutionary theory, Charles Darwin. Darwin used his exploration of the famous archipelago during his journey on the H.M.S. Beagle to conceive his theory. Like many of my peers, I considered walking in his footsteps a crucial step in my career.

To explore the islands, it was necessary to travel via boat. Our boating staff was composed of a small family: a chef, a captain, a guide, and a few other hands to make the voyage smooth sailing, though we were by no means traveling on a cruise ship. It was actually a very cultural experience because, while our guide did speak English fairly well, the rest of the crew mostly spoke Spanish and Quechua, the native language of Ecuador. We were able to communicate with the crew between our broken Spanish and their broken English, and it made for some very amusing conversations. The cramped quarters and the language barriers were worth it once we stepped off the boat and began exploring the first island.

The diversity of animals on the islands was more impressive than I had expected, even though I was armed with personal accounts from my teachers and hours of studious preparation. Not only did we get to see blue-footed boobies, giant tortoises (pictured), marine iguanas, land iguanas, penguins, and finches, but we got to see the rare albatross, an amazing variety of fish, and much more. Unexpectedly, we also saw a huge population of California sea lions. These mammals tended to lie on the beach while tourists stomped through their home. There was one time, though, where we got a little bit of a fright from an animal’s aggression: A sea lion alpha male must have decided to put the adolescents in their place, because he began chasing them and they all started running straight at our group. Of course, our guide, Jorge, was unfazed and told us not to worry. As it turned out, the sea lions stopped before they got too close, and I got my best picture of the trip (where it looks like the sea lions are kissing) because of it.

On the trip, we tried to structure our days to see at least one, maybe two islands. When we remained at an island for only one day, we would generally hike the island in the morning to learn about the animals and the geography. We’d return to the boat for lunch, where the chef served us Ecuadorian cuisine. Our guide would then take us snorkeling for the afternoon. The marine population was surprisingly much less diverse than the land population. Rather, I should say that it was much less colorful than the land population. This is due to the water temperature — despite being located near the equator, the archipelago is subject to a very cold current, which snakes under the ocean and is then forced up toward the surface when it hits the rising geography of the islands. The cold water means that the fauna and flora underwater are a much more conservative population. It also means that I had to wear a wetsuit for all my snorkeling experiences, which defied my expectation for the tropical climate. The cold water was not all bad, however; it is also the reason we were able to see penguins at the equator. We even got to swim with sea turtles and play with sea lions.

The trip was partly so much fun because we were able to make observations of the animals up close. None of the animals are afraid of humans because the activity of tourists on the islands is severely limited. Only a amall number of visitors are allowed to travel through the islands at a given time. Additionally, to try to prevent contamination between islands, guides are asked to ensure that tourists brush sand off themselves before re-entering the boat and that no creatures, rocks, or plants are brought with them. The conservation effort is actually very admirable and, I think, successful so far.

As a separate part of our trip, we visited the capital of Ecuador, Quito. There we spent a day volunteering at a local school, working side by side with the students and community members to repaint the one-room schoolhouse. Everyone was extremely friendly and sympathetic despite our butchered Spanish. I was really impressed with the compassion of the society. Occasionally, we came across blue hearts painted in the streets of the city; it turns out these blue hearts are painted to honor victims of car accidents. It was one of the most moving aspects of the trip.

The scientist in me must also point out how enjoyable it was to visit the equator. Though it was over an hour’s drive into the mountains, visiting the equator was extremely fun. A number of very interesting phenomena occur directly on the equator, which we all got to test by balancing an egg on a nail and watching water swirl in different directions, depending on which side of the equator the drain was on.

Although visiting Ecuador was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, I would love to go back again and spend more time observing, discovering, and exploring.