Walking in Darwin's Footsteps

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I had never left Canada alone before. As my parents waved goodbye to me at the airport I hoped there was nothing on my packing list I had forgotten. I navigated my way to the terminal gate, mind racing with the hours of nature documentaries I had binge-watched leading up to this experience. When Darwin had boarded the HMS Beagle he had only been 22 years old; with his voyage lasting five years. I wondered how his parents had dealt with his absence, as my two-week journey was met with much resistance.

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I was part of an international leadership program called Global Leadership Adventures. Participants meet each other for the first time at the destination airport of their chosen program. My Galapagos: Preserving Nature's Wonders program gathered first in Ecuador, as the Galapagos Islands cannot be reached without stopping over here. 

 

The Quito airport stretches in an open plain between mountains and at an altitude of 2,800 meters. I knew about the high altitude leading up to this trip, but experiencing it for the first time was more challenging than I had anticipated. Upon my arrival, I was forced to pause for rest as I regained my breath, then continued to I lug my suitcase up four stories to my hotel room. But that was a small hurdle to overcome, as I had so much more to look forward to. Exploring Quito is a great investment if you have some extra time. The city markets bustled with shops selling alpaca wool coats, and bright buildings lined the cobblestone streets. I spent a day riding in the back of a pickup to the head of a river, where we jumped into a floating tubes and meandered downstream through the cloud forest.

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After a few days of layover, we boarded a plane to the Galapagos. The trip was a quick hour and forty-five minutes straight out and into the Pacific Ocean. When we were in the sky all I could see was blue. Then the islands emerged. Minutes later the wheels of the plane touched down on San Cristobal Island. The wildlife lover inside me squealed in excitement, knowing it was time for the real adventure to begin.

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The Galapagos consists of 18 main islands, 3 small islands, and over a hundred rocks and islets that protrude from the water. They exist because of their location on a hot spot on the earth’s mantle. The columns of hot rock are less dense than the surrounding rock, which results in mantle plumes that rise from deep within the earth’s core. Many of the exact mechanics of the formation of the Galapagos is still debated amongst academics. I took the time to appreciate the geologic history as I hiked across the volcanic rock up the side of the Sierra Negra volcano. 

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One of my favourite excursions was to the giant tortoise rescue on Isabela Island. The Galapagos tortoise is the largest living species of tortoise on earth. Native to seven islands of the Galapagos, the tortoise helped Darwin create the theory of evolution. Slight variations in shell size and shape can be observed from tortoises between islands, similar to the better-known beak size and shape of finches. Darwin theorized that these slight differences came about through random genetic mutation. These mutations gave an individual a competitive advantage for their specific island environment, and therefore a greater probability of surviving and passing their genes.

The Galapagos is also known for its impressive aquatic life. I was fortunate enough to explore its waters during my trip. On one such occasion, I remember my foot furiously tapping in an attempt to rid myself of nerves as our boat swayed back and forth in the swells. As I slipped on my goggles a fish jumped in the distance. I tried not to think of the movie jaws or anything else that could be lurking beneath the water that had startled the fish… 

 

I jumped off the boat. As my goggles peered into the water, beyond my fins I saw nothing but the deep blue of the ocean depths. While the bottom of the seafloor was not visible floating on the surface, distant shadows of sharks slipped in and out of view. Our group swam between two giant rock pillars that rose from the depths of the ocean and seemingly touched the sky. This passage was used by hundreds of sea creatures, our guides shared. As I coasted near the pillars, a distant shadow lurked closer. Luckily for me, it turned out to be a sea turtle eagerly munching on the algal growth on the rocks.

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Two weeks of adventure behind me and more pictures than my memory card could hold, I was back at the airport, boarding a plane home. I wished at that moment to be Darwin, so I could extend my trip and explore every corner of the islands. But perhaps five years would still not be enough. Until next time. 

 

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