Walking in Darwin's Footsteps

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I had never traveled anywhere alone before. Half way through high school, without a car or drivers license, and the local grocery store was perhaps the farthest distance I had ventured alone. As my parents waved goodbye to me at the Toronto airport, I tried not to think about the maze of terminals and planes I would need to pass through before I reached my destination. Clearing security, my mind raced 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, and he himself  knowing the journey he embarked on was into his unknown. My two-week journey was met with much resistance.

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I was one of fifteen youth embarking on an program called Global Leadership Adventures. Participants meet each other for the first time at the destination airport of their chosen program. My program "Galapagos: Preserving Nature's Wonders" would gather first in Quito, Ecuador, before travelling together to the Galapagos. The Quito airport stretches in an open plain between mountains and at an altitude of 2,800 meters. While the west coast of Canada can boast these altitudes, Ontario cannot. My eyes widened at the sight of the mountains as our plane positioned itself for landing. Our group trickled into the airport over a few flights, all met by GLA staff. As the only Canadian on the trip my nickname in the group became "Canada" within a few hours of arrival.  

 

We spent the first two nights in Quito. As our group climbed four stories to reach out hotel rooms, I was forced to pause for a rest as I regained my breath from the low oxygen at this high an altitude. The following day explored the historic town center of Quito. It is a great investment for any traveler to the Galapagos if you have the extra time. The city markets bustled with shops selling alpaca wool coats, and bright buildings lined the cobblestone streets. The following day was filled with adventure, as rode in the back of a pickup to the head of a river, where we jumped into floating tubes roped together and meandered downstream through the tropical 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 west over the Pacific Ocean. The deep blues of the ocean with speckled white crests of waves popped in and out of view between the clouds. Then the deep greens and grey of the islands emerged. Minutes later the wheels of the plane touched down on San Cristobal Island. The wildlife lover inside me squealed in excitement. 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 are still debated amongst academics. We took the time to appreciate the geologic history of the area as we 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 on their genes.

The Galapagos is perhaps best known for its impressive aquatic life. We had a variety of excursions to explore all of the life that thrives below the waves. On one such occasion, I remember my foot furiously tapping the metal haul of our boat in an attempt to squash my nerves. Our boat swayed back and forth in the swells as we slipped on our goggles. A fish jumped in the distance. As someone who is from a land locked province and more familiar with fresh water than salt, I forced back my imagination. I tried not to think of the movie jaws or anything else that could be lurking beneath the waters below. 

I took a deep breath and jumped, out of both the boat and my comfort zone.   

As my goggles peered into the inky blues, beyond my fins I saw nothing but the fading of light into the depths. I was surprised that the bottom of the seafloor was not visible as I floated 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. Our guides explained that this passage is used by hundreds of sea creatures. As I coasted near the pillars, a distant shadow lurked closer. As it took shape below me I let out an internal sigh. It was a sea turtle eagerly munching on the algal growth on the rock pillars.

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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 in Quito with strangers that had turned into great friends. We boarded the plane home with tear filled eyes. I wished at that moment to be Darwin, so I could extend my trip and explore every corner of the archipelago. But perhaps five years would still not be enough. Until next time. 

 

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