Rebecca Firth - Galapagos Islands Conservation in Ecuador
From a first time traveller’s experience, I could not have chosen a more beautiful and unique place to call home for 6 weeks. From the minute I first read about the Galapagos Island Conservation project, I knew it would be a worthwhile opportunity not to be missed – I was right.
Arriving in San Cristóbal
Once I had stepped foot out of the plane, I was immediately hit by the warm, wet breeze blown onto the runway from the sea and beating rays of the sun. From then on, I knew I was far from the familiar conditions of the UK where I started. At the airport, I was met by one of the Projects Abroad staff along with three other volunteers who had also just arrived on the same flight, and then taken to the taxi waiting outside.
When I arrived at my host family’s house, I was welcomed by the whole family and straightaway felt at home. Although learning all of their names was a challenge at first, and trying to communicate with my limited Spanish ability was entertaining at times, I soon grew in confidence and was eager to practice.
At 3 o’clock, I was met by another staff member for my orientation around Puerto Baquerizo Moreno where I was staying. We were shown around the main streets, the Projects Abroad Office, where to find the pharmacy, cash points and other important things like where the bakery is (I highly recommend the caramel filled doughnuts) and the beach. Yet it still took me a few weeks until I finally learned my way round!
The Conservation project
During my time on the Conservation Project I was lucky enough to take part in so many activities. My typical working day looked like this: wake up at 5:45am, have breakfast at 6:30am prepared by my host mum and then walk to the office for 7am.
At the office, I would meet with all the conservation volunteers and staff to talk about the day’s activities and then move swiftly to the mini bus. The bus took us into the highlands each morning where we worked either at the El Junco Lagoon, or La Comuna, or further towards the coast to work at the greenhouse, Galapaguera, or at Cerro el Colorado.
During my first three weeks, a lot of my morning’s work was spent at the El Junco Lagoon where we worked with the machete to eradicate the invasive blackberry species. The machete days were hard work and often quite wet and muddy. Using the machete was quite fun, and it was rewarding to see the outcome of the morning’s work, however, the most tiring part was walking to the top of the lagoon in the first place! Other work in the highlands included trekking through the La Comuna forest where we monitored the Galapagos Petrel populations (an endemic marine bird).
Some mornings we would work in the greenhouse, where we helped maintain the plants in the nursery and pack soil into bags ready for the new plants. After some machete work at Cerro el Colorado, we were able to reforest the area and plant the native plants grown and raised at the greenhouse.
Having said that however, the activity I looked forward to most each week was working with the Giant Tortoises at the Galapaguera. One group of volunteers would drive to collect the Otoy plant, while the second group would begin to clean the pools and feeding areas. Carrying large bundles of Otoy on our shoulders to the feeding areas was hard work as it was so heavy. However, once the tortoises had spied out our food, they were determined to move as fast as they could!
At around 12:30pm I would return back home to my host family for an amazing lunch. Normally soup and a plate of rice and fish with freshly squeezed juice – the food was always delicious!
After a quick power nap, afternoon activities would start at 2pm which included numerous beach clean-ups, planting and watering mangroves, and marine iguana monitoring. A couple of times a week we would have the afternoon off, during which I enjoyed spending time with the other volunteers snorkelling, relaxing on the beach and eating ice cream.
During my last week on the Conservation project, I took part in a marine rescue course held by the Marines, and also assisted in a beach dive clean-up! Being out on the boats helping to haul in large tyres collected by the divers was definitely a fulfilling experience I will never forget.
I was lucky in my six weeks to be able to travel to Santa Cruz and Isabela Islands at the weekends. I don’t know where to start when talking about my island hopping adventures. Each island has its own special character and there’s so much to see! The city Puerto Ayora in Santa Cruz is a beautiful, vibrant port town I spent 3 days exploring. I remember waking up early on my first day, unaware that I was about to embark on a long 2.5km walk along a winding path in the scorching sun to Tortuga bay. Finally, we were rewarded with an exquisite shoreline, painted with pristine white sands and sparkling blue waters – undoubtedly a memorable moment.
Island Isabela is equally as stunning, and now home to many of my new first time experiences such as snorkelling with white tipped reef sharks, turtles and penguins!
While in San Cristóbal, I experienced a lot of the culture by learning the basics of salsa dancing at the bars and clubs on the Island. I also went to a fiesta at one of the local high schools, where I was immersed in culture by seeing all of the bright colours and traditional clothing. I was amazed how these types of event can bring together the whole community.
Events organised by Projects Abroad such as BBQ’s and beach sports events were also great fun, and allowed me to get to know volunteers from the Care and Teaching projects too. I even took part in a dance performance with the Project Abroad volunteers on the waterfront!
The thought of returning back home to the UK was never anything I wanted to think about. I wish it was just my mind playing tricks on me, and not reality. I miss walking along the Malecón in the evenings, watching the glowing sunset from the beach, and the friendlessness of the people around me. But in spite of that, I have gained so many wonderful memories, new friendships, and of course had many unforgettable and life changing experiences.
To all future volunteers, bring an open mind, a great sense of humour, and make the most of all the time you have exploring these extraordinary islands. I would love the opportunity to return in the future; a wish I believe not just to be a figment of my imagination.
Read more about Conservation in Ecuador.