Thursday, April 12, 2018

Gallavanting in the Galápagos

It was long before I came to Clemson to major in biological sciences that I became interested in the natural world. I first began learning about Charles Darwin and his findings on evolution in middle school. Traveling to the site of many of his observations, the Galápagos Islands, quickly became a life goal of mine. This dream came true over winter break my sophomore year of high school when family decided to go on an alternative vacation. After flying into Quito, Ecuador and taking the 500 mile flight off the South American coast to the archipelago, we boarded a cruise ship on Isla Baltra and sailed off. However, this was not your typical cruise; we visited many different islands and disembarked on two strenuous excursions per day.

The most striking thing I noticed from the very beginning was the lack of civilization. The Galápagos is an untamed wilderness, with only a handful of human establishments on a few islands. From observation, the environment looked as if it had not changed in a thousand years. But I know for a fact that the Galápagos is far from a static environment. The very landscape is changing, as it is a chain of islands formed from active volcanos. One of the first excursions we made was on a lava field on Isla Santiago. We rode a dinghy from the ship to the coast of the island. A plain of dried lava stretched as far as the eye could see, straight from the ocean up to the base of a recently active volcano that last erupted in the late 19th Century. For such a seemingly inhospitable environment, the island was teeming with life. Thousands of Sally Lightfoot crabs and marine iguanas sat on the barren terrain, basking in the sun and gazing at us with uncertainty. 

This was not the last time I saw these creatures, however. We had a half-dozen more islands to visit. At Isla Isabela, we had the opportunity to snorkel with the iguanas, Galápagos penguins, and sea lions. Many of these animals had never even interacted with humans. On Isla Santa Cruz, I saw all the unique vegetation zones characteristic of the Islands. As we hiked upward in elevation, we watched the landscape transition from rocky coastline to the arid zone, a desert-like area of small shrubs, cacti, and many of Darwin's famed finches. The higher we went upward, the more trees appeared, until finally we reached the Scalesia zone, a dense, otherworldly cloud forest. The pinnacle of my journey, however, was visiting El Chato Tortoise Reserve, the home to many of the remaining Galápagos tortoises on the archipelago. 

Unfortunately, all good things come to an end, my cruise being one of them. I had to make my way back to the United States. For certain, I can say that I have never learned so much about the natural world on a vacation. This small group of islands will in my mind always hold the award for the most beautiful section of land on the planet. The delineation of each community in the Galápagos is distinct, but all organisms in each have adaptations that have allowed them to survive amongst the plethora of environmental factors the Islands present. Darwin could not have found a more suitable place to carry out his research.

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