SEVENSEAS Marine Conservation & Travel Issue 15, August 2016 - Page 30

For the semester, I lived in the small town of Puerto Villamil, population roughly 2,000, on the westernmost inhabited island of Isabela. I went with a group of fifteen other marine science students and we each were placed with a host family to better appreciate our immersion. My family, the Gils, was actually one of the oldest established families in the islands, their ancestors having arrived in the first wave of familial colonization in 1893. Previously, the islands has served as a penal colony, and whalers would stop by to stock up on tortoises to eat on their long journeys.

My classes were heavily focused on the living laboratory surrounding us. In the mornings we had lectures and in the afternoons we would venture out to observe the incredible fauna and flora of the islands. It was almost like being on another planet at times. For a geology course, we hiked around the rim of the Sierra Negra volcano, one of the largest calderas in the world, observing the lava flows and rock formations. The landscape seemed almost Martian in design, bright red gravelly mounds and lava tubes big enough to sit in! The physical beauty of the islands was undeniable, but the creatures and plants living on them were even more extraordinary!

One of my first encounters with Galápagos wildlife was in the few days after my arrival. We had gone on an excursion to the “highlands” of Santa Cruz, searching for the emblematic Galápagos giant tortoise. Our guide, René, led us through tall grass and dense thicket until we reached a pasture in which dozens of these slumbering giants were lounging about, munching on blades of grass and fallen fruit. It was incredible to think that some of these tortoises might have been old enough to meet Charles Darwin himself! Some of the other key players, the birds and sea lions and marine iguanas slowly revealed themselves as we went along.