by Paula Messina, AIFS Resident Director in the Galapagos Islands
During the 2016 January Term, 11 students participated in the first ever AIFS program in the Galápagos Islands in Ecuador. An adventure and learning experience worthy of any “bucket list,” students enjoyed homestays, snorkeling excursions, hikes to a waterfall, lagoon and coffee plantation as well as close encounters with sea lions, sea turtles, tortoises, land and marine iguanas and blue footed boobies – just to name a few.) And the finches! The students learned to identify many of the 11 endemic species of finches, live and in person.
The group spent their first day of the program in Quito at the Universidad de San Francisco de Quito (USFQ) campus, attending orientation and their first class with Dr. Alex Hearn.
Bookending the program, the group also spent their last day of the program in Quito, this time experiencing a city tour. The tour began with Itchimbia Park, high above the city with breathtaking views of all Quito surrounded by breathtaking Andes mountain peaks. In the historic downtown, students visited the Independence Plaza, the Baroque Compañia Church and the Casa del Alabado Museum. From there the group traveled north to the San Antonio district and the 00°00’00’’ Latitude marking the Equator. At the Intiñan Solar Museum, the group straddled the Equator with one foot in the Northern Hemisphere and the other in the Southern Hemisphere. They felt the pull of gravity from the Poles while doing experiments like balancing eggs on the head of a nail (pictured), walking a line with their eyes closed or watching draining water spinning counter clockwise in the northern hemisphere – or spinning clockwise, a few feet away in the southern hemisphere – or going straight down the drain, directly on the Equator.
Arriving in the Galápagos was an emotional moment for many of the students. The stunning views of Kicker Rock brought tears to the eyes of a few. The group spent 8 days in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristóbal Island. After their arrival on the USFQ campus and a short orientation, students met their homestay families and had their first home cooked meal in Ecuador. Even though most of them spoke little to no Spanish, they felt welcomed and integrated into the homes and life in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the capital city of the Galápagos – and a village of 6,000 people and thousands of endemic species.
The walk along the seaport of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno is home to a colony of sea lions. The animals spend evenings resting along the pathways and wooden bridges and even on city benches! On Playa Mann, in front of the USFQ campus, the “beach master” or alpha male of the colony, patrolled the shore, howling and protecting his family.
The following 8 days in Galápagos were packed with classes and experiential learning. Dr. Alex Hearn from USFQ gave students an overview of the Galápagos Islands and their unique role in changing our understanding of the biology of life. Students learned about the physical setting of the Galápagos and visited the Islands’ Interpretation Center. They studied Darwin, Endemism and adaptation, hiked up Frigate Hill and snorkeled in Darwin Bay.
Classes focused on the history of humans in the Galápagos and the threats they pose to the Islands’ native flora and fauna such as loss of habitat, hunting and fishing and invasive species. Students visited the La Galapaguera Tortoise Breeding Station and El Cafetal organic coffee farm; they learned about sustainable fishing near Bahía Sardinia and hiked up the El Junco lagoon.
Snorkeling around Kicker Rock was an experience of a lifetime. As soon as students hit the water, they saw hammerhead sharks, white and black fin sharks, giant and tiger manta rays, whose spots seemed to glow in the dark. Students swam along the surface, just above schools of fish, sea turtles and sea lions.
Also during the program, the group traveled by speedboat to Galapagos’ second largest island, Santa Cruz Island, where they visited the Charles Darwin Research Station and met Super Diego, a 140-year-old saddleback tortoise (or Galápagos tortoise), who is singlehandedly responsible for fathering over 1,700 offspring and repopulating the tortoise population on the island of Española.
While in Santa Cruz Island, students also visited the Galápagos National Park offices and met with the director of the park, learning about the various projects, studies and conservation efforts undertaken by scientists and park officials. Students also met with Ros Cameron of the Galápagos Conservancy and learned of the efforts and projects this NGO undertakes in the community when educating locals about sustainability and conservation.
The 3-week program in the Galapagos Islands creates an educational, culturally stimulating experience like no other – in a beautiful location that features a biodiversity not found anywhere else on earth. The hardest part of the program for these 11 students, was having to say goodbye.