Joseph Gunn - Conservation & Environment, Galapagos Island Conservation in Ecuador
It’s hard to know where to start when I talk about Projects Abroad in the Galápagos Islands. From almost losing my passport in the San Cristóbal airport, to spending two weeks in the most beautiful and mystical place I’ve ever seen, I can say that it was the most extraordinary experience of my life.
Volunteering in Ecuador
I applied to help with the Galápagos Conservation project during my last year as a college undergraduate in the United States. With majors in Biology and Mathematics, and having studied Spanish for several years, the islands seemed like the ideal spot to embark on a crazy volunteer adventure. I had always heard stories and read books about the famous and inscrutable endemic species - the finches, the giant tortoises, the multi-colored marine iguanas – and before I even traveled there, I always considered the Galápagos Islands to be one of the most intriguing places on earth. I knew I would have to see them for myself someday.
I’ve always had a passion for nature; Projects Abroad was the ideal way to combine my interest in the Galápagos, my love for the outdoors, and my background in Spanish in a context that would allow me to contribute to the preservation of a delicate ecosystem.
Arriving in the Galapagos
To be honest, the next two hours were simultaneously the most terrifying and the most special, memorable, and magical moments of the whole trip. When the truck stopped in front of the small, colorful house that would be my home for the next two weeks, I was immediately greeted warmly by my host family. I’ll never forget how welcoming they were, how eager they were to bring me into their home as if I were their own child. I barely set my suitcases on the tile floor when my host dad’s brother and nephew also showed up at the front door to greet me. Within minutes, we were all sitting around the dining table enjoying some traditional Ecuadorian ceviche, animatedly telling our life stories.
Then, before I even had time to absorb the new environment I was in, my host dad shot up from the table with an enthusiastic “Now let’s go snorkeling!” Wow. Ten minutes in the Galápagos Islands, and I was already doing something that I had only dreamt about a month ago. My host dad and I hopped in a truck without hesitation and drove to El Lobería, perhaps the most picturesque beach in the world. There, in the impossibly clear, blue water, we snorkeled for two hours, literally swimming with sea lions and huge sea turtles. I somehow felt more at home in that moment than I have in a long time.
The rest of my two week placement in the Galápagos was equally, if not more, amazing. I met six or seven other volunteers the next day, and I think all of them were from different countries. A few of them had already been involved with the project for a while, but the Projects Abroad staff gave all of us a detailed, extensive training session to catch everyone up to speed. The staff showed us all around the town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, pointing out grocery stores, laundry outlets, the best restaurants, the best beaches, and more. They not only explained the different types of work we would be doing, but they emphasized the importance of the projects in protecting the unique species of the Galápagos. It was inspiring to hear about how Projects Abroad was making a difference in such a delicate ecosystem; it was exciting to know that I would have a small hand in helping with the conservation effort.
Conservation in the Galapagos
On the first day, after all of our training, I had the chance to help with my first job, which would ultimately be my favorite. We traveled into the highlands to La Galapaguera, the giant tortoise breeding center of the Galápagos. I imagined I would see the famous tortoises, if only from a distance, but I didn’t realize I would be walking among them, literally feeding them from my hands. We fed the tortoises, cleaned their water ponds, and counted the juveniles to keep track of their population numbers. We even got to feed the baby tortoises. Once we were finished at the center, all of us volunteers spent the rest of the day hiking through the highlands and lounging at the beach back in town. That was just day one.
The next two weeks were almost surreal. I had the chance to help with several other projects, from cleaning shorelines to counting sea lions at the beach. I spent my second day on San Cristóbal cleaning the rocky cliffs at El Lobería with three other volunteers, listening to the waves claw their way through the rocks as we hiked in the company of sun-bathing marine iguanas. I spent the next few days working at the endemic plants nursery where they work to cultivate new seedlings to be replanted in the wild. We weeded the gardens, dug holes for new seeds, and observed the plants’ growth.
A few days later, I got to help chop down invasive species near the giant tortoise breeding center, perhaps one of the most pertinent projects, as invasive species have become a serious issue on the islands. On my last day, I got to walk lazily along the beaches of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno with the other volunteers, counting and identifying sea lions. Of course, the trip wasn’t all work. In between projects, I always came home to a delicious Ecuadorian meal with my host family and a long nap on the hammock outside their front door. I made frequent stops at the convenient store just around the corner of their house, where the owner always asked me about my day.
Living in San Cristobal
I enjoyed the vibrant San Cristóbal nightlife as I explored the town with the other volunteers, people who, although far away from me now, will be lifelong friends. I walked slowly along the Malecón - the main, beachfront avenue - almost every day, snapping hundreds of pictures of the ocean, the wildlife, and the people. I traveled to some of the other islands, hiking across volcanoes and snorkeling along the way. And in between all of that, I spent hours just hanging out at the Projects Abroad office, another place that felt pretty much like home.
It really is difficult to know where to start when I tell people about my trip to the Galápagos. I was only there for two weeks, while some volunteers stay for as long as six months. But those two weeks were unforgettable, and they have left more of a mark on my life than almost anything else. Somehow, I managed to fulfil every aspect of my Galápagos dream.
All of that is thanks to Projects Abroad. Without the efficiency, hospitality, and friendliness of this organization, my experience could never have been possible. I’d really like to express my gratitude for Projects Abroad and everyone involved with its work. It’s a life-changing experience that I would recommend to anyone and everyone, and it’s something that I’ll hopefully have the opportunity to do again.
Read more about Conservation in Ecuador