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Friday, January 12, 2018

Day #7 - Darwin Day!

We began our last day on the island with a relatively late start of 8:30AM. Some of us tried a local coffee shop; sustainably-grown coffee (and chocolate) is a significant crop in the Galapagos and Ecuador in general.We walked through the town of Santa Cruz on our way to the Charles Darwin Research Station:

We also walked by a very elaborately decorated above-ground cemetery:

After about 15 minutes, we arrived at the Research Station. Established in 1959 (the 100th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species), this facility works to protect the terrestrial and marine biodiversity of the Galapagos archipelago.

Our guide Marlon led us through the exhibits. Some discussed general information about the biology of the islands. Other exhibits taught us about the restoration efforts of the Research Station to control invasive species and protect the endemic wildlife.

The Station is best known for its tortoise breeding program. Tortoises are bred and raised in captivity for 3 years in preparation for being returned to the wild. These efforts have been quite successful, with the hope that in another decade or two, the wild tortoise population will reach its full capacity on all of the islands.

The breeding program affords the opportunity to see very young turtles:

We were also able to closely observe adults of several species that we had not seen in the wild:

The station also afforded the opportunity to observe a variety of birds and a land iguana (which we did not see in the wild):

One of the strangest exhibits had to do with Lonesome George, a tortoise who lived at the Research Station. George was famous as a symbol of conservation and the need to protect endangered species. George was the last surviving Pinta Island tortoise. After he died in 2012, the Station sent his body to the U.S. for examination and preservation. He is now housed in a special room at the Station. Entrance is limited to about a dozen people at a time. You start by spending two minutes in a climate acclimation room, which features a germ-killed UV light. You then enter the display room, where George stands behind plexiglass as the sole item in the room. You exit via another two minute acclimation room. The display reminded me of Lenin's tomb and struck us all as a bit odd.

As we walked back into town, we were all quite aware that this was our last day on the islands. We were sure to pause for final looks at the unique creatures and culture of the islands:

We boarded our bus, stopping at a supermarket to stock up on local hot sauce, chocolate, and coffee before our departure. This also afforded the opportunity to look at Santa Cruz bay one last time:

Santa Cruz was definitely the most developed island we visited, with paved roads, traffic lights, some traffic, and many stores geared toward tourists.

Our final stop on our journey was to view a forest of scalesia tree. This was particularly gratifying since it was these trees that we all had worked to help replant during our visit to the reforestation center. The forests were filled with trilling birds.

Some tears were shed as we said goodbye to Marlon, our guide and constant companion during our visit, and waved goodbye to the islands that had shared so much beauty with us:

We rode the bus to the far end of the island for a short ferry ride to Baltra, our fifth island. We rode another bus to the airport. We took time to repack for our long journey home:

Our 25 hour journey back to Henniker proceeded in total by bus, ferry, bus, plane, overnight plane, train, plan, and finally the van ride back to school. (Thank you to Mark Mitch for driving us!)

Thank you all for reading this blog! In the future, we will be posting our travel writing and other reflections, as well as additional photos and videos documenting our journey. 

Everyone had a wonderful and transformative experience. Every student embraced the experience for all it was worth and always conducted themselves with respect and enthusiasm for this unique opportunity. We thank everyone who made this trip possible, especially the New England College Travel Away Program for funding our trip.

- Eric J. Simon, Ph.D.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Day #6: Tortoises!

We spent this entire day on Santa Cruz, the 2nd largest but most populated island of the Galapagos. It was a bit shocking when we disembarked the boat to see so many people gathered in the center of town (to watch voleyball matches, a common pastime here). After so many days of seeing so few people, it felt so cosmopolitan! Santa Cruz is more built-up in a tourist-town sort of way - there are even a few traffic lights.

We began the day with a visit to a forest restoration project. Much of the natural ecosystem of the Galapagos has been displaced by agriculture, and this project aims to help restore some of the local flora. After learning about the operation, we were all put to work pruning young trees, preparing them for eventual transplantation. This facility can grow thousands of trees at once for reintroduction.

It was nice to be able to give back to this beautiful region that has given us so much fulfillment:

From there, we drove to an area to view Galapagos giant tortoises in the wild. This was a moment that many of us had been anticipating from months! We were not disappointed, being "greeted" by a tortoise in the road as we drove to the site:

At this time of year, the tortoises spend their days grazing on abundant grasses in the highlands. We began our tortoise education with a guided walk through the area:

We explored some large lava tubes that had formed in the area. These are tunnels left behind after molten lava rushes through an area, cooling only around the edges. We had seen several such tubes on other islands, but none that were large enough to walk through:

We were given free reign to explore the wooded fields which were dotted with giant tortoises. They ranged in size from about 2 feet across (measuring the long axis of the shell) to about 4 feet across. Some were shy and would withdraw into their shell as you approached. Others didn't seem to notice or care about our presence at all. Most were eating grass, some were wallowing in mud, and some were slooooowly traversing the landscape.

For many of us, today was a bucket list item fulfilled. I didn't' expect to see so many tortoises, and nothing quite prepares you for how big and awesome they are.

We left to highlands and returned to the hotel for a brief rest. We changed into beach gear and headed out on a 3km hike to a famous beach called Tortuga Bay:

We relaxed in an inlet with calm, warm, shallow water. It felt great to chill for a few hours, enjoying the warmth, sand, water, and of course the ubiquitous wildlife:

Located along a black lava cliff that bordered the swimming area, we were able to explore a cactus forest. This was a truly unique area featuring cacti up to 30 feet tall, some with cinnamon-brown trunks, and most sporting yellow prickly pear flowers.

We boarded a boat for a ride back to the main harbor. The rest of the day was spent lazily enjoying the culture of the islands, watching sea lions frolic everywhere, enjoying some local gelato, resting and talking by the pool, reflectin on our day and our journey, eating a nice dinner at a restaurant overlooking the harbor, touring a local artisan craft market, and (as usual) retiring early.

I was once again struck by the unique beauty of the Galapagos. The landscape is so varied, and so beautiful in absolutely unique ways. It's amazing to consider the tremendous variety that we had witness - and we've only been to four of the islands.

Tomorrow is our last day on the islands, so look for one final blog entry from the Galapagos! Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Day #5 - January 8th, 2018: Endless forms most beautiful

Greetings from the Galapagos! I am writing this blog entry from the island of Santa Cruz at the end of day #5. Please allow me to update you about our 5th day of the trip, a day filled with beautiful creatures.

We began the day with our latest start of the whole trip: 9AM. Most days we've been meeting by 7AM, so everyone was quite glad to have the extra time to sleep in and relax after our somewhat grueling hike of yesterday. Everyone in the group has been so great about embracing the experience and staying focused on our mission. In fact, I think I may need to encourage the students to be a bit more adventurous at night, to take in the local culture while we can.

Our day began with a bus ride to a nature sanctuary. We walked along a wooden plank walkway while our guide Marlon taught us about the habitat and ecosystem. Here we were able to observe the native flamingos, as well as the usual iguanas (which are much more abundant on all of the islands than any of the realized!):

We walked across the street to a stunningly beautiful beach. We watched iguanas swim and fight for territory, pelicans dive, and bright red/yellow/orange/black crabs dart along the pitch black lava rocks:

We all could have stayed at that beach all day! But instead, we drove across the island back to the pier where we first arrived.

 We boarded a small boat to take a tour of the bay and surrounding small islands:

As we toured the area, we saw several creatures that were on our list of targets for the trip, such as the Galapagos penguin (the only species of penguin that lives north of the equator) and the famous blue-footed boobie:

The wildlife was pretty amazing, even from the boat. We soon landed on the small island of Tintoreras and were immediately greeted by a sleeping sea lion:

We followed paths through a truly unique landscape of black lava rock dotted with white lichen backed by green sea and blue skies. I've been a lot of places in the world, but I've never seen anything quite like this!

We visited sea lion nesting areas, and viewed a channel in which local black-tip reef sharks gather for rest:

After boarding the boat, we motored out a short way and donned our snorkel gear for our final underwater excursion of the trip.

We snorkeled for over an hour and were not disappointed by the abundance of fish, sea stars, urchins, lobsters (including a blue one) turtles, and countless other species:

It was our longest and best snorkel of the trip! After boating back to the island, we quickly showered and changed in the hotel and then walked for a nice local lunch (featuring some wonderful sour orange juice and dessert). We then backed up to bid goodbye to Isabela (which was, I will confess, my favorite island).

We boarded the speedboat for a 2 hour trip to Santa Cruz:

We arrived in the late afternoon to the main city in Santa Cruz, which is the 2nd largest and most populated island in the Galapagos. We checked into our hotels and had an hour or so to "stimulate the local economy" (i.e. shop for souvenirs) before enjoying a nice local dinner and, as usual, an early bedtime.

Thanks for reading! Although minor injuries are accumulating (sunburns, scrapes, blisters) everyone is fine. The group is getting along splendidly. Everyone is busy writing and completing their work. It's a great group!