Conservation in Ecuador - Dreda Darling
I am about to start university reading zoology and went to the Galapagos Islands as part of my gap year. The Galapagos had always seemed to me like an almost fantasy place with its strange and awesome biodiversity and I never imagined that I might actually be able to go there, let alone live there for a full 12 weeks! Naturally when I found out about the Projects Abroad Conservation project there was no stopping me… I re-watched David Attenborough and off I went.
Arriving in the Galapagos
When my plane landed in San Cristobal I have to say that I was more than a little nervous but I was met by a member of staff from Projects Abroad who showed me around the town and introduced me to my host family. Let’s just say that although I had learnt a bit of Spanish at school in the past my knowledge of the language was extremely limited and at first I found it almost impossible to understand the Ecuadorian accent of my host family. This was not, however, a significant barrier and I was soon able to pick up more of the language. My family were very welcoming and my host mother did my laundry and cooked me three meals a day! Be prepared for a lot of rice and papaya (not together…) but also, due to the proximity of the sea, lobster on occasion!
The Conservation Project
Working in conservation was extremely varied and ranged from macheteing blackberries to monitoring baby tortoises. We also spent a lot of time in the greenhouses planting native plant species for reforestation. I spent my first month monitoring sea lion population which involved getting up at 5am in order to count sea lions as well as monitoring their behaviour in the afternoons and going to the national park office to record the data. The sea lions are certainly one of the most memorable things for me and probably the thing I miss most. They are quite literally everywhere and at night they all come and sleep on the main street and on the benches. In my first week I witnessed one giving birth on the pavement at 5:30 in the morning, something I will never forget!
Another experience which stands out in my memory is Ecuador’s national beach cleanup day. All of the Conservation volunteers were taken by boat over to the other end of the island which took about an hour. The amount of litter washed ashore from the sea was staggering and made me feel quite ashamed to be human. I personally picked up over 400 bottles! It was a real eye opener and highlighted the importance of organisations like Projects Abroad in a world where we take so much for granted… On a lighter note, we saw a humpback whale and her calf on the way back to the town!
All of the other volunteers were really lovely and I am sure I have made some lifelong friends from around the world. When I was there, there were volunteers from the US, Australia, Germany, Denmark, Switzerland, Italy, France, Norway to name but a few countries!
In my spare time I had diving lessons with some of the other volunteers and am now qualified as a “PADI open water diver”. This I would 100% recommend doing as part of the beauty of the islands is the richness of life underwater. Diving with manta rays up to 5m long and hammerhead sharks has to be the most incredible experience of my life! On one dive we swam down to a cave where there were two white tip sharks and a sea lion trying to chase an eagle ray – you’d have to see it to believe it!
I spent my afternoons and weekends exploring the island, sunbathing on the beaches alongside marine iguanas, snorkelling in Las Tijeretas with green turtles and sea lions and frequenting local bars and salsa clubs (my salsa skills are nonexistent). Underwater the sea lions morph from static blobs of animals on land to graceful energetic creatures and are unbelievably playful, often swimming so close to you that you think there’ll be a collision and then darting out of the way at the last second!
As I was there for 12 weeks I spent an entire week Island hopping which involved staying on Santa Cruz and Isabela as well as a fair amount of diving. Santa Cruz if great for day trips to other smaller islands including Bartolome which is arguably one of the most breathtaking landscapes on Earth! I would also recommend taking a trip into the highlands to see the lava tunnels at Chato Dos. This is the only place I can say that I’ve seen a giant tortoise grazing away happily next to a shark… On Isabela we climbed Volcan Sierra Negra. Walking across the lava fields over red and black volcanic rock it feels like you’re on a different planet! The town in Isabela is quite surreal with the sandy streets dotted with marine iguanas and Galapagos penguins welcoming you into the harbour.
To sum it up volunteering in the Galapagos was a simply indescribable and I would recommend it to anyone without hesitation.