• Abi Gwynn

The Galapagos Islands-A Zoologist's Mecca

I’ve been fairly quiet on the blogging front lately, which is mainly due to the chaos of my final year of uni! Things have been hectic, with assignments, society events and post-uni life planning taking up every spare minute for the last 6 months. But I’ve finally found some time to share my most recent and exciting adventure with you. As a part of my Zoology degree with the University of Exeter, third year students get the opportunity to go on a 2 week field course to a choice of some absolutely incredible locations. I was lucky enough to gain a spot on the field course to the Galapagos Islands. A destination that makes every zoologist drool with excitement and could be coined nature’s ‘mecca’ (trust me, the journey there is much like a pilgrimage it’s so long!).

After already spending over 30 hours on planes, trains and in a little Ecuadorian hostel, I was thrilled to be boarding my last flight from Quito to the Galapagueno island of San Cristobal, where I would be spending the next 2 weeks. Taking off from the one of the highest airport in the world (nearly 3000m!) gave me incredible views of the Andean mountains. In just under 2 hours, I would be landing on the Galapagos. So close to our arrival, I got my camera poised to document this exciting moment. But then the worst happened on a wildlife travel trip… “lens error, lens error”. There was no way my camera was usable. After serving me well on trips up Kilimanjaro, to Namibia, Cyprus and Indonesia it was finally packing in. This put such a downer on my mood as this trip was truly once in a lifetime and I was planning some great photography sessions on the non-fearful wildlife there. But I was still going to the Galapagos, and let’s face it, the best memories are not formed through a lens but how you experience them.

Flying into San Cristobal

Stepping out of San Cristobal airport I was like an excited puppy. I was finally here in this place I’d dreamt about for so long! I wanted to shout and jump around…but felt that may have confused locals a bit too much. Even though it was midday and I was carrying all my luggage, I decided to walk to my hotel to get to know the town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno better. Within 5 minutes of walking I spotted some Darwin’s finches. They were scraping around in the dirt on the side of the road looking for a tasty meal.

Can you spot her?

I did get some strange looks from the locals as I was the only white, tourist-looking person wandering town in the equatorial midday heat. But on arrival at my hotel (which happened to be at the furthest side from the airport!), I met up with Rosie and Chloe, some uni friends also on the field trip who had decided to come a few days before the course started like me. First thing on my agenda…to see some sealions! So we headed out to the local beach Playa Mann to try and spot some. To our surprise, it really didn’t take us long to find them, they were absolutely everywhere! Sealions lined the beach, frolicking in the shallows and sunbathing on the sand. I’d say there were probably equal numbers of sealions to humans using this beach, and there seemed to be some sort of mutual agreement between both parties. We went for a quick snorkel with the sealions whilst we were there (ticked off the bucket list!) and watched the brilliant sun go down. Was I in heaven? It felt like it, and it was about to get even better!

Draco lizard

The day before our university field course began, Rosie and I had planned a dive trip at one of the most renowned dive sites in the Galapagos; Kicker Rock. Kicker Rock is an incredible, stand-alone, rock formation rising over 140m out of the ocean. It is also known as Leon Dormido, which literally translates to ‘Sleeping Lion’, as this is what it supposedly resembles (if you squint and have a good imagination…). It is home to a variety of bird life above the water including blue-footed boobies, nazca boobies, frigatebirds and red-billed tropicbirds. You’ll also probably sea some sealions resting on the rocks near the water’s edge. But beneath the water is where Kicker Rock is a real spectacle…

Kicker Rock

After jumping into the cold Pacific water, we immediately felt the strong ocean currents tug us around, so we quickly submerged. My first glance down into the dark depths below was met with a Galapagos shark, which must have been less than 10m away! It was circling us, which was little unnerving, but worth it to see such an elegant animal up close! Once everyone was ready, we descended.

“My first glance down into the dark depths below was met with a Galapagos shark, which must have been less than 10m away! ”

Galapagos Shark

For such a renowned diving spot the visibility was pretty terrible, only around 5m. But this was due to the high concentrations of plankton born from the upwellings of cold water. Plankton; tiny microscopic organisms at the base of marine food chains; are a food source for many marine species. This abundance food source supports high levels of biodiversity in the region. Sharks, rays, turtles, dolphins, whales, sea lions, a plethora of fish species, crustaceans, sea cucumbers and much more! The sight of all these species was amazing, however it is what I heard which struck me the most. As soon as I submerged, there was a cacophony of noise. High-pitched clicking, popping and crackling filled my ears in a world usually thought of as silent. This noise was coming from the thousands of sea creatures living out their lives around the Kicker Rock. Perhaps a parrotfish crunching coral, crustaceans clicking their claws or fish communicating to each other. Only now are researchers beginning to understand how important sound is for healthy marine ecosystems. But sadly this has come to attention due to artificial noise created by man which is blasting oceans around the world and causing devastating effects on wildlife.

The channel running through Kicker Rock was like a fish highway. Hundreds of scissortails along with bumphead parrotfish swam beneath us. Dark silhouettes of Galapagos and reef sharks could be spotted slightly deeper which was exhilarating! Diving in the Galapagos is an incredible experience, but there was one species I really wanted to see and was yet to spot. Towards the end of our last dive, I was prepared to be disappointed I hadn’t seen this animal. But then our guide signalled to swim faster, as if he’d seen something exciting in front. We swam faster and faster, but the poor visibility meant unless it was right in front of your face, you probably wouldn’t see it. As most wildlife enthusiasts will know, wildlife never does what you’d expect. Out of nowhere a huge hammerhead shark came from behind me! It must have been only 5m to the right and the speed at which it was there and then gone again was unbelievable. I was thrilled to see the animal I had top of my list for this trip! I always find when diving, that you want to jump and celebrate when you see something cool. But that’s a little difficult when you’re 20m under. So we did a weird little dive dance to celebrate and started to ascend.

We had an incredible intro to our time in the Galapagos. Tomorrow the “hard work” would begin, as we’d meet with our cohort to start our university field course.

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