Exeter University Field Trip – Diary Blog

Guest blog by Alix Zelly

Landing on San Cristobal

After a suitably long period of travel for such an elusive destination, your first experience of this otherworldly Archipelago comes from the sky. The brilliant blue ocean is, out of nowhere, broken with multiple shades of greens, browns, blacks and yellows. These colours were spewed up from the Earth’s belly in volcanic eruptions thousands of years ago. The Archipelago sits on the Nazca Plate which moves over a hotspot forming this chain of islands with Española now the oldest. This has played a defining role in the colonisation of these Islands and their unique wildlife’s evolutionary histories.

Galapagos brown pelican perched on a harbour fence Frigatebird © Alix Zelly

Galapagos brown pelican perched on a harbour fence © Alix Zelly

Landing on San Cristobal, as opposed to the busier Baltra Airport on Santa Cruz, the first thing to strike me was not the animals which have made the Islands famous, but the peace. The animals own this space just as much as its people. The sea lions are the sun-worshipping tourists, chattering away and squabbling over the best sunbathing spot. The frigatebirds, my favourite birds on the Islands, patrol the skies above our heads. A guide later told me that the locals refer to them as pirate birds, often-stealing fish right from other birds’ mouths.

Frigatebird © Alix Zelly

Frigatebird, or the locally named ‘pirate bird’, against a blue sky © Alix Zelly

This place is also for its people, yet no buildings tower over the seafronts as expected at any other coastal tourist destination. The building materials are mainly wood and stone giving the town a rustic, lived-in, and yet, beautiful feel. Most of the wood comes from cedar trees, rare globally but abundant and non-native in Galapagos. The town holds many murals, art and sculptures paying homage to the island’s wildlife giving you a sense that the locals love their island. Common to all islands in Galapagos is the abundance of outside spaces for the community including parks, playgrounds and exercise areas. These are commonly used by locals and form the basis for a great community atmosphere and friendliness.

Galapagos warbler © Alix Zelly

Galapagos warbler looking for food in a cafe © Alix Zelly

Santa Cruz

A great place to start on Santa Cruz is the tortoise breeding centre. On route, you’ll pass the fish market, a manic place where pelicans, sealions and frigatebirds all compete for scraps. Fishing restrictions are in place to make sure they don’t negatively impact the rich ecosystem of the Galapagos Marine Reserve. To reach the breeding centre you cross into the National Park with dusty brown, greenery-lined paths, scattered with the odd marine iguana.

Marine iguana © Alix Zelly

One of the many marine iguanas spotted on the walk to the tortoise breeding centre © Alix Zelly

At the breeding centre you can see firsthand the adaptive differences in tortoise shells between the Islands’ species. Saddleback tortoises have a curved, high ridge shell to facilitate eating cactus high off the ground where the climate is dry and ground food is sparse. I encourage you to spend some time here, noticing how they delicately place their feet but still wobble as they land on rocks. Watch these giants slowly stretch upwards and curl their head around leaves and fruit. I implore you to add this ethos to your whole trip, to take time to observe and enjoy rather than snapping your camera and moving on.

Giant tortoise © Alix Zelly

Saddleback tortoise showing off its ability to graze on taller vegetation © Alix Zelly

There is a wide variety of activities to choose from on the Islands depending on your availability. For most activities you need a guide, and the local knowledge they provide is definitely worthwhile. I decided to book a kayak and snorkeling tour to explore Lovers Channel, a rocky waterway where, below the blue, nursery sharks were sleeping waiting for their nighttime feeding frenzy. The area got its name from the pirates who used to bring women to this romantic setting for unsolicited action under the stars. We saw no such pirates, but did one better with some mating Galapagos green turtles within metres of our kayaks. After passing the playful sealions, frigatebirds, lava gulls and other fascinating creatures we stopped for a snorkel. A total role reversal occurred with us humans floating in the water and sealions lounging on the pontoon. I was lucky enough, through the murky water at the mangrove edge, to have a fleeting encounter with a shark (species undetermined) – my first ever shark encounter!

When darkness falls on Santa Cruz, more of the locals are seen around town, but the same relaxed atmosphere remains. There are several food options along the front, but I encourage you to wander a street or two back from the sea to roads such as Charles Binford. Under the cover of dark, traffic gives way to a street of long tables and food pouring out of the street’s side restaurants, which when served is simple yet utterly delicious. Wash your dinner down with an evening stroll on the pier where you can easily spot juvenile blacktip sharks in the water and, if you are lucky, some small ray species.

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