Volunteering on the Galapagos

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Day 1 – We’re off.

We had a 6am pick up from the hotel for the 40 minute drive to Quito’s new airport, without having a clue who we were flying with or what time, we just followed the G Adventures representative. Tax paid and bags checked in, we just sat and waited for our flight to San Cristobol, eeeeek off to the Galapagos we go!!

We had decided that we wanted to change our flights so we had more time to island hop and see Santa Cruz, which apparently was something we could do and G would sort that out for us. With that in mind I was rearranging our plans all in my head! As we banked around, coming into land at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno we caught our first glimpse of one of the main sites, Leon Domido aka Kicker Rock, that definately got us excited. We think the pilot does that for effect!

Instead of doing the traditional boat cruise around the islands we decided to work on a conservation volunteer project with Jatun Sacha Foundation, we had no idea what to expect so we could only go by the information given; “The Jatun Sacha Foundation has worked to develop reforestation, habitat reconstruction, and agroforestry activities utilising native species for the last 18 years throughout Ecuador. One of the objectives of this station is to develop the technology to reconstruct native habitat in the highlands on San Cristobal. The foundation has established a plant conservation centre for the production of native plant species for this work. Regarding the habitat restoration aspect, the reserve is dedicated to eradicate invasive species of plants, especially a type of invasive raspberry, in order to plant native trees and vegetation.”

It sounded like a challenge but hopefully very rewarding. Jamie, one of the Jatun Sacha employees came to meet us from the airport, Stu had been thinking how to say in Spanish we wanted to stay in the town so we could explore, instead of just going back to the station and doing nothing. Before he even had the opportunity to speak Jamie told us that we had two options, go to the station or stay in town until 5pm – problem solved. Our bags were stored in one of the other volunteers room and off we went, map in hand. I had a huge list of places we wanted to see so we started by walking down to the promenade.

Within minutes of standing there looking at the bay Stu spotted sea lions jumping in the water, camera came straight out and the snapping began. We were firstly heading for Playa Mann which was not too far around the bay, that’s if I could prize Stu away from the sea lions, what we didn’t realise was that there were to be hundreds soon to see. Some of the sea lions were up on the pavement, some sat on benches, a couple lounging in the slides, which I thought was brilliant. They looked so chilled out some really huge ones just flopping around, the babies were so cute some still had their fluffy fur on, adorable.

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Sea lion snuggles.

As we continued on a few massive pelicans flew past and landed on the posts inquisitively just staring, I cautiously passed as I didn’t want to frighten myself when it flew off. If it wasn’t sea lions, Stu was snapping away at the bright orange and red crabs. We had seen these crabs before on some Galapagos promotion pictures, they take a great photo because they are so striking against the volcanic black rock. We eventually made it to Playa Mann which should have been a 10 minute walk and the sea lions were there posing on the sand, we both had our picture taken laid next to them, Stu got a fright when a male started honking at him, needless to say he moved quickly. There was a boisterous male sea lion sitting on the pavement, honking at a few people, so Stu said I had to have my photo taken with him which I was reluctant to do, thankfully two old women decided to photobomb and went off to pose next to him but he went berserk, honking like mad, which startled to two old women. One of them fell to her knees, the other stumbled backwards and landing on her bum whilst her glasses and walking stick went flying… Don’t laugh! Although we couldn’t help it!

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Colourful Crab.

On our way back we bumped into Neil and Kat, can’t get away from the Oasis lot! Kat did mention that she had seen some blue footed boobies in the directions we were heading. I could see Stu’s eyes light up and off we quickly scurried, every bird which flew past we were checking its feet until we saw two blue footed boobies sat on the rocks preening themselves. Again more wildlife which posed so politely for Stu and away we snapped. The pictures came out great and now we were on the hunt for its red footed cousin.

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Blue footed boobies.

We still had plenty of time left before our pick up so next on my endless list was La Loberias, the information I had written down was; sea lions, marine iguanas and birds. The directions were south of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, 30 minutes walk past the stadium and high school (ask for directions.) We got past the stadium and continued walking, in the wrong direction of course. By this time is was raining and we were getting soaked as we had left our raincoats in the hotel. After we’d asked for directions we were back on track down to the beach. I won’t lie we got there and I thought oh no, not much to see here. There were a few sea lions lounging around but we carried on walking along the path which is where we spotted our first marine iguana, ugly as they were, they looked exactly like the ones from David Attenboroughs Galapagos program. They were really hard to spot at first with them being as black as the rocks but once we spotted one another would be a few rocks over. Stu went chasing up the rocks to get better photos whilst trying not to frighten them off. They might be really scaly but there lips make them have a big smile which is pretty cool and reminded me of the Matamata turtle.

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Marine Iguana.

5pm arrived and into the trucks we got with the other volunteers for the 40 minute drive to Jatun Sacha station, the road was pretty muddy and bumpy and seemed to just go on forever. Finally we pulled up a the start of the foundation. We were shown to our room which had two sets of bunk beds in, wooden walls and a separate roof that covered the whole building. So really any insect, bug or spider could come in and they did just that. There were about 3 spiders in the first minute of looking, I looked at Stu with sheer panic on my face, how would I sleep?!

We had tea which consisted of pasta and carrots in a tomato sauce, bland but did the job but just topped our tiredness off. We braved the cold showers which had been spider checked and after Stu tucked me into the mosquito net I actually slept really well.

 

Day 2 – Work begins.

Breakfast time, scrambled eggs and bread. We got kitted out ready and raring to start our first day of hard labour. Wellies on, long sleeves on, head mosquito net on and into the back of the van we got. Off to Galapaguera reserve to collect some native plants, I was particularly excited because this place is on our list too, they have giant tortoises, I was hoping for a glimpse. Some plants turned into hundreds which made it that the flat bed of the pickup was completely covered and the three boys had to cram into the back whilst I squeezed into the front with Lidia and Jamie jr. Sadly, no tortoises this time. A plant chain was formed for the unloading, at which point I started to giggle every time I looked at Stu because of the ridiculous hat he had on.

Strenuous activity over, it warranted a 3 hour break which included lunch. The afternoon task for us newbies included an orientation tour. Jamie told us some rules and the history of the Jatun Sacha station then explained the activities board. Mainly clearing and planting was on there but also each week they help out at the La Galapaguera Cerro Colorado reserve working on there conservatory. Which means in return the volunteers got a free tour of the reserve seeing the baby, medium and big tortoises. We were on the list to go tomorrow, camera at the ready. I forgot to add Friday was classed as a hiking day so no work, four, well now three day working week for us.

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Kit station.

Day over we went to see the small cascade, a great shower place after a hard days work. Not for us as we hadn’t broken a sweat, the most strenuous thing of the day was the climb back to the station from the waterfall.

Stu went back to our room to grab the camera, he came back smiling and once I got it out of him, he said that he’d gone into the room and seen a mouse run across the top bunk, when he’d chased it off he looked under the bed and noticed some biscuits that looked very similar to some we had in his bag. On inspection of his bag he’d noticed that the mouse had bitten a small hole through the material and had helped himself to the biscuits!

Stu did his routine check of the room for spiders before I would enter and we were tucked up into bed for 8 o’clock. We must have been tired, we slept all the way through, well Stu apparently tossed and turned because he thought there was a mouse, or rat, crawling under his duvet… There wasn’t!

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Bed time.

 

Day 3 – Flippin Tortoises.

Today was cool. We were off to La Galapaguera Cerro Colorado, (or tortoise breeding station,) to help out there, Chloe was on breakfast duty first whilst I had an hour extra in bed.

Another 45 minute bumpy, wet drive to the north of San Cristobol. I was sat in the back of a pickup truck with five others so whilst Chloe had a comfy, warm seat, I got soaking wet. The weather is strange on San Cristobol, where we are located in the centre of the island, a little higher in altitude to the rest, it gets quite misty and during the mornings it nearly always rains. Closer to the coast however, there are usually blue sky’s and sunshine. So we drove up and over to the north of the island where the Tortoise breeding station was located.

The person responsible for the station greeted us and told us that it was our lucky day, because today we were going to weight the tortoises, it was lucky because this only happens twice a year, unbelievable. But first we had to do some real work. With a quick lesson in machete-ing, we headed for an overgrown section of the station, off the normal tourist trail that circulated the complex, and started hacking at the mora plant. It was hard work for some, i.e. Chloe, who couldn’t quite get the knack of her machete, the nice thing about volunteering is that you can take your time, you aren’t paid by the hour and every minute you work is hugely appreciated. But they only worked us for an hour, we’d made a large opening where the females would now lay their eggs. We laid down some leaves around the open area of pools which the tortoise can smell from 300m away, so they congregated for lunch time. One lucky couple were making strange noises, they were mating. Apparently the female tries to get away but some males are strong enough and last for up to four hours. The guy that we were watching, finished and started walking towards us with a grin on his face and a spring in his step, not bad for 200 years old.

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The lucky old man.

So now it was time for the tortoise weigh in, most of them must have heard that it was weigh in day because they all decided to hide, they must have put on a pound or two. It didn’t take long to find them though as we walked around and through their habitation, most of them were chilling in the mud.

To weigh them you first had to make sure they were staying still, so you had to put your foot in its face so that they couldn’t see. Then flip them on to their back, there was defiantly a technique to it and it was the guys who got this job because they were very heavy. Once on its back you could attach a rope from the hard shell under its head and at the back under its small tail. The scale was then hooked to the rope and it took two men to lift the tortoise by the shoulder with a pole. The ladies did get to lift a couple of the smaller, female or younger tortoises, but mainly they were in charge of writing down the important credentials. The biggest was 240lbs and Chloe lifted a 90lbs female. In total we weighed 14 of the 44 large tortoise

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Flipping tortoise time.

It was a fantastic opportunity, we got to do far more than the average tourist, at the end we went to the incubation centre where there were tiny tortoises, which we fed by cutting up the leaves into small pieces. There was a section where they would be moved once they’d grown a little, five years to be exact, so we fed those too, it was funny to watch them all scuttle along, acting like we had on Frida for the past 7 months, thinking that there wouldn’t be enough to feed them all. I’m well into this volunteer stuff. After saying goodbye, our taxi finally arrived and again we drove 45 minutes back to the station.

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Little baby tortoise.

Eduardo informed us that there was no work for the volunteers that afternoon, so whilst everybody had a nap. We decided to go on our own little excursion and Tristan, the German turned tour guide was kind enough to come with us so that we didn’t get lost. Little did we realise how important that was, the track was rough and missable in places, it went through mora, cactus fields and over volcanic rocks. It took us 45 minutes to reach the edge of the cliff, but it was definitely worth it!

Cameras came out immediately as the Frigatebird, the one that pumps it’s bright red chest out during mating season, flew overhead. Unfortunately it wasn’t that time of year so it looked like a saggy, red chin. Other stunning birds flew past such as the red-billed tropicbird whilst the swallow-tailed gull (Creagrus furcatus) just sat in a group on the rock nearby, staring at us with their red ring around their eyes. As we watched the huge waves crash against the rock, we could spot a turtle riding the waves, then we’d spot a few more and realise that, actually, there were a big group of them having fun in the ocean. One larger wave crashed against the rock and managed to soak Tristan, pretty funny.

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Male Frigatebird.

A short walk down to the beach. Well, collection of rocks between the ocean and a lake, was a beautiful place to sit and watch the various birds fly past and the turtles surf in the humongous waves. We sat there for quite some time until it was time to return home before it got dark, which we managed to do with perfect timing as we walked in to dinner being served. A fantastic day.

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Crashing wave.

 

Day 4 – More flippin work.

The “boss” at Galapaguera had said we’d done a fantastic job and asked if we would come back to work tomorrow to finish off the job, we obviously said that we’d love to. Thankfully it was a dry day so I didn’t get too wet sat in the back of the truck. First we cut the last bit of mora and then we began to flip tortoises again. This time we were to collect more vital details like length and with of the shell and the length of the underside, then weigh it, although they were much harder to locate today, we had to scramble and crawl through brambles to get to most of them, on top of that, it was boiling.

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Afternoon work, what is this?! Planting mais, or corn, Chloe got the easy job marking out lines and putting four seeds in each hole, I got the hard job of making the holes in the very dry land with a shovel. Well, it was another thing on the list that we had achieved and helped with at the foundation and we weren’t there for too long at all, easy work really, even easier if there weren’t any mosquitos.

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Hard graft.

There is a bar next door, or on the neighbours land, so that evening we all went there to have a few beers, play pool and Irish snap, a new card game that we were taught, I didn’t really want to leave but we did have our final day of work tomorrow, so I had to behave, and make sure Chloe got home safe of course.

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Pool in wellies.

 

Day 5 – Planting cocoa.

Our last day of volunteering, it has come around so quickly. We decided that because we didn’t work Fridays we would get the afternoon taxi down to the town with most of the other guys, which would give us a few hours to sort out changing our flights, booking a Kicker Rock tour and our ferry to Santa Cruz. Back to Galapaguera, but this time to work in the nursery where they grow endemic plants and coffee which are then sold to local farms including us at Jatun Sacha.

The weather today was gorgeous and the first time it didn’t rain when we drove over the highest point of the highlands near the fresh water lagoon. We could actually see the lagoon which is rare so pretty cool, this is also the main fresh water supply to the whole island, I believe it is an old volcanic crater. Stu had also spotted a lookout point near the lighthouse which he wanted to climb, so he asked Lidia in his best Spanish if we could do it, after work was her response. Then a few minutes later she told Eduardo to take us there and then. Off we went, it was only a 10 minute walk and the views of the coastline were stunning, you could see the white sandy beach of Puerto Chino and the clear blue waters, it reminded me of the Caribbean. For a moment I forgot we were actually on the Galapagos, it’s such a magical place, with it’s diverse landscape, beautiful shoreline and of course the animals.

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Puerto Chino.

The lighthouse could be climbed so I gave it a go and managed three quarters of the way and decided that was high enough, Stu could go up and get the pictures, again of more stunning panoramic views, we are so lucky to be able to find these little gems and do it whilst working. Talking of work, the coffee wouldn’t plant itself, after our delayed start we headed down to the greenhouse and started to fill little black planting bags with soil, it wasn’t like the stuff at home, it was a bit more rugged, more volcanic. After filling easily a hundred bags between us we started to plant. Stu and I got the job of planting the small coffee saplings whilst Paul and Amish prodded the 5cm holes. After 2 hours of this my back was killing and it was home time. We had to wait 30 minutes for the taxi to arrive so we weren’t going to waste this opportunity, back to see the tortoises naturally.

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Growing of endemic plants.

We did the normal tourist loop on the boardwalks and I won’t lie, doing this after what we have done this week I would have been disappointed if that was my chance to see the San Cristobal land tortoises, but any normal tourist doesn’t get this opportunity so they wouldn’t know any different. We have just been so incredibly lucky, twice a year this opportunity comes around and it just happens to be our week!

Back at the station, we had lunch and packed everything up and said our goodbyes. All of the staff were very appreciative of our help even if it was for a short period of time. We both would have liked to stay another week if we could but I don’t think there was much more skin space left on my body for the mosquitos to bite. We somehow managed to cram 10 people and all the luggage into one taxi/flat bed truck and slowly we took the 40 minute drive back to town.

There has been talk around the station of a pig which is digging up all of the plants and making a mess everywhere, if spotted it should be caught and eaten, I for one would be happy with some bacon or pork right now. This pig had given the slip to most people and funnily enough as we were driving away from the station, there it was just causally going down the road with it’s 8 piglets, roughly, on the other side, the station has a lot more trouble on its hands. Even though we wanted to stay, it was nice to leave so we could start our own little Galapagos holiday, which was made even better when we extended our flights by 4 days so now maybe we could do a day trip to Isabela.

After spending a while changing our flights, we headed out of the airport to go into town, it was pretty warm but we were both just chatting away about what to do with our extended 4 days when a van full of water dispenser bottles beeped his horn and signalled for us to jump on the back for a ride into town. Of course we did, so into the back we jumped with the water bottles, clinging on, off we drove making a few stops on the way. It’s moments like these that we do not want to forget.

With Kicker rock and the ferry booked we had a few hours left of daylight to see some animals. On my never ending list was the Interpretation Centre, so we took a taxi to save time when in reality it was literally just behind Playa Mann and we could have done it on our first day, hindsight is a great thing but the taxi was a dollar. The centre was pretty cool, it gave you the history of the islands, how they were formed and the continuous volcanic eruptions which still happen, it gave you the history of the people and also the animals, of course there was a huge wall about Charles Darwin, his work and ventures on the islands. There was also an enclosure where a land tortoise lived, he was a rescue from a family on the island and they believed him to be now 65 years old, still a baby compared to our 100 plus years at Galapaguera.

So the sun started to set and we were in a great position sat on Playa Mann to see it, the sea lions were coming ashore for the night, the boats coming into dock, it was a great way to end what has been such an amazing and rewarding volunteering project.

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