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Stephanie Merison - Conservation in Ecuador

An iguana in Ecuador

I was extremely excited to arrive in the Galapagos, a place unlike any other in the world. I had heard only good things about this place and my trip certainly did not disappoint. I was met on arrival by a Projects Abroad staff member and was taken to the house of my host family. I briefly met some other volunteers staying there and was welcomed by the family with a delicious lobster and avocado lunch!

I was taken for my induction with William, who was very welcoming and explained the important work I would be doing at the Conservation Project, alongside local staff at the Galapagos National Park. I couldn’t keep the smile off my face during my tour of the town as the first thing I saw on the Malecón (the main street along the sea front) was lots of sea lions, some of which were relaxing on the benches – it was brilliant! On the rocks I saw loads of crabs and iguanas and was just mesmerized by how they were all living in harmony with each other and the people. It was truly magical and I was already glad I had chosen the Galapagos.

The main town is small, so although it was slightly overwhelming on the first day as there is a lot to take in, it didn’t take me long to figure out where everything was.

My tip for other volunteers: Be prepared for the heat! I think I used the phrase "It’s so hot" a lot, especially in the first few days. Sun cream is a must!

Working at the Giant Tortoise Breeding Center

Working at my Conservation placement at La Galapaguera was an incredible experience and it really felt like we were making a vital contribution to the Saddle Back Giant Tortoises. Generally, we went three times a week (Monday, Wednesday and Friday) to feed the younger tortoises with freshly cut Otoy (a nutritious plant for tortoises). We cleaned the water pools and while doing this for the first time, a couple of four year old tortoises came to say hello to me and started nibbling at my boots. It was so cute! It was pleasing to see the tortoises dive in to drink the clean water I had just filled the pool with. Two San Cristobal finches joined them too!

Feeding tortoises for her Conservation Project

The tortoises are cheeky at all ages – they will try to get extra food and you need to be careful of your hats. I left my cap on a rock while cleaning the pools and turned around to see one of the adult tortoises walking off with it in his mouth! Luckily they move very slowly, so after a bit of a battle, the tortoise released my cap leaving behind lots of slobber, but fortunately no bite marks.

Conservation work in the plant nursery and removing invasive plants

Endemic plants are being grown in the greenhouse and at the conservation center (which was still under construction when I was there in February 2017) and I enjoyed helping with the planting and the watering of new shoots. A large part of the central highlands contains invasive blackberry bushes and a large proportion of the work I did involved using a machete to remove invasive plants. We then planted Otoy in their place. This was hard work in the heat but seeing the area of land cleared and the Otoy plants neatly planted and growing well after a few weeks was very rewarding. It was great knowing I had made a difference and the cheeky tortoises would have more food!

I would recommend bringing good gardening gloves and long trousers, in particular ones you don’t mind getting ‘forever’ dirty. Otoy stains clothes and although the stains fade, they are pretty much permanent, even with numerous washes!

Sea lion (lobo) monitoring

I decided to stay for four weeks so I could join in with the sea lion monitoring program and I’m so glad I did, as this was really fulfilling and I just loved watching the sea lions. They have such great mannerisms and make such funny noises! The work involves early starts at 5.30am and as it gets light you count the numbers of lobos on various different beaches and identify whether they are male, female, juvenile or babies. Counting needs to be done early so most of them are still asleep, as once they start moving they are difficult to count! I saw a few newborns and they are adorable.

Stephanie observing sea lions

After a few weeks of collecting the data, another volunteer and I entered the numbers into a database and it was interesting to look for any drastic differences. We actually found that the numbers went down after a firework display for a fiesta in town and it took over a week for the numbers to increase again. This data was fed back to William and the National Park staff. As a consequence, they are going to look at reducing the number of fireworks for celebrations and, if possible, they will promote using fireworks that are silenced. It was satisfying to know that our work can improve conditions for sea lions in the future, as newborns will likely die if left abandoned by their mothers.

In the afternoons, the monitoring involved sitting on the beaches and ensuring the interactions between people and sea lions were harmonious. We educated locals and tourists alike on the National Park rules which include not touching the sea lions (even when they come and sit right next to you and try to steal your beach towel to have a rest on).

Building an Iguana Sand Pit

With the help of iguana monitoring by the Projects Abroad team, the National Park rangers had recognized that the number of iguanas was increasing and the females were in need of a new nesting site for their eggs. William asked all of the Conservation volunteers to be involved and this was a great example of teamwork and camaraderie. We helped the National Park rangers remove the concrete on a small area of the Malecón so the ground was loose and the next day we saw a female iguana using the new "sand pit" to dig to lay her eggs. This was another worthwhile job.

My free time

San Cristobal is a lovely island with very friendly welcoming people and beautiful wildlife. In my free time, I relaxed on the beaches and enjoyed being at one with the wildlife. While I was lying on a beach, a sea lion came to lie down next to me and this was such an exhilarating experience and one I will never forget.

Sunset over the sea in Ecuador

I would recommend the 3600 boat tour of the island as a day trip during one of your weekends. You get to see the wonderful geology of the island, especially the impressive Punta Pitt at the north of the Island, some gorgeous beaches (only accessible by boat) and Kicker Rock. Snorkeling at Kicker Rock was phenomenal. We swam amongst white tipped and Galapagos sharks, turtles and sea lions all at once! Other volunteers also did dive trips here and saw hammerhead sharks along with lots of fish.

From my first night, the social aspect of living on San Cristobal was brilliant. We had salsa lessons every Tuesday and Thursday with a local instructor and they were so much fun! These lessons were great for beginners and more experienced dancers alike and they were provided for free by Projects Abroad. The lessons are a great opportunity to meet other volunteers on other projects, such as Care and Teaching.

The minibus that took us to the different parts of the island for Conservation everyday provided an insight into the local music culture. Little did I know I would be reminded of that later, with the song ‘Despacito’ by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee being released in the UK three months after I had been singing it every day in the Galapagos!

TIP: There are lots of places with free Wi-Fi (including the Malecón). Make sure you download or use WhatsApp as the Projects Abroad team uses this for communication during your stay.

I would definitely recommend traveling to Santa Cruz and Isabella. I took the last two days off at the end of my placement to go as a long weekend, but I loved the Conservation Project so I wished I had scheduled some more time at the end to enjoy traveling. Santa Cruz is easily accessible by boat (approximately a two hour journey) and is much more built up than San Cristobal. If you go, I would definitely recommend visiting Las Grietas and the Charles Darwin Research Centre where there are hundreds of tortoises being bred. I was pleased to see the different species are not being cross bred.

Tortoises at the Conservation Placement in Ecuador

Isabella is a further two hours from Santa Cruz by boat and is just stunning. The main beach and sunset is magical and the Sierra Negra volcano hike is awe-inspiring and a must do. There are also fun things such as the flamingos and the "iguana crossing" to check out. There are a LOT of iguanas on Isabella!

My overall experience

My placement has been a wonderful and unforgettable experience that has made all of my friends jealous. I feel immensely proud to have been a part of the good work Projects Abroad is doing and to have made a difference to the protection of the wildlife of the Galapagos.

The large lunches and dinners made by the family and the daily ice creams I treated myself to were well justified with all the hard conservation work! Be prepared to eat a LOT of rice!

Stephanie Merison

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