IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF CHARLES DARWIN | EVOLUTION, ECOLOGY AND CONSERVATION IN THE GALAPAGOS ISLANDS
Steven A. Martin, Ph.D., Environmental Management
Click on photos to enlarge.
In 2003, the Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ), Ecuador, invited me to visit the opening of a new international college campus on San Cristobal Island – in the Galapagos!
I didn't waste any time in booking the flight to Quito to meet the staff who were developing the facility and study program.
After a meeting at the university main campus in Quito, I flew to San Cristobal, the administrative capital of the islands.
I arrived at the new campus in the afternoon, and although the accommodations were not yet officially open to staff and students, they made an exception, and I was among the very first to stay at the new facility.
What I found was way beyond my expectations – a new college campus built directly in front of a world-class beach!
Below are a few photos taken in 2003 when the original community college opened to offer students on the island an opportunity to study locally.
USFQ | GAIAS | GSC | Study Abroad on San Cristobal
At the time of my visit in 2003, the Galapagos Academic Institute for the Arts and Sciences (GAIAS) was established as a branch of the USFQ in Quito. Current programing includes USFQ Galapagos semester abroad opportunities, service learning projects, and ongoing projects with the Galapagos Science Center (GSC) in collaboration with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Semester program with USFQ
As of 2018, international students who study at USFQ can select semester-long courses from one of four academic tracks in the biological and social sciences:
- Evolution, Ecology and Conservation
- Marine Ecology
- People, Politics and the Environment
- Sustainable Tourism
San Cristóbal | Administrative capital of Galápagos Province
The Galápagos Islands are located nearly 1,000 kilometers west of the South American coast, and I stayed on San Cristobal, the fifth largest and easternmost island in the archipelago.
I knew the islands received large waves year-round from the northern and southern hemispheres – But was it safe to go surfing there, considering the abundance of marine life and a wide variety of shark species?
Fortunately, I had packed several surfboards for the trip, and was able to meet up with the local surfers, who explained that although sharks are definitely of concern, they are well-fed due to the natural abundance of fish in coastal waters, and not generally interested in eating surfers.
However, Galapagos sea lions were another story, particularly males protecting females, and mothers protecting their young. Males reach weights over 400 kilos and females average 120 kilos when full grown. Although they barked at me in the water, and chased me around a little, nothing serious happened.
I had surfed among frisky sea lions before in California, but sharing the waves with large marine iguanas was a first for me. I watched as they launched themselves off the rocks and dove through the big waves like fearless prehistoric surfers.
A Galapagos marine iguana checks the surf before taking the plunge
In 1835, a 26-year-old Charles Darwin (1809-1882) arrived in the Galapagos Islands aboard the Beagle, a 10-gun brig-sloop, captained by Robert FitzRoy, landing at San Cristóbal.
Forever touched by his experiences in the Galapagos, Darwin went on to develop his theory of evolution, and is best remembered for his research on the process of natural selection. His name, now a globally-recognized acronym for his scientific theories, is often expressed as simply "Darwinism".
As far as we know, Darwin didn't surf, but it is safe to assume that he marveled at the big waves, as well as the wildlife around San Cristobal.
Today, the port city of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, capital of the Galápagos province, remains the oldest permanent settlement of the islands.
Evolution in theory and practice
Having the opportunity to visit this amazing place, following in the footsteps of Darwin, was a truly life-changing experience. Iguanas diving into the sea, seals of many different types, colors, shapes and sizes, the incredible variety of birdlife, dolphins and sharks swimming near the coast, and giant land-bound tortoises, for which the archipelago is named, all combined to make it one of the most incredible places on Earth.
Like the tortoises, my time in Galapagos was mainly land-based, in contrast to tourists who spend most of their time in the islands on live-aboard boats. While I may not have had the opportunity to travel between the 13 different islands, go diving, or see very much of the marine wildlife, I was there on my own, independent of tour guides and groups, rules and regulations.
I was free to walk to local surf spots in the mornings, paddle out to sea, sometimes alone, and to explore inland areas in the afternoons and evenings to see the flora, fauna, and the geographical features of the island.
Around San Cristobal
One of the benefits of spending time on the same island was getting to know the local people. I met fishermen, shopkeepers, restaurant owners, surfers, and the new staff who were setting up the university program and community college.
I fondly remember the smell and taste of home-grown Galapagos coffee, kindly shared by the owner of a small cafe in the early mornings before opening to the public.
Appreciating natural history and travel
Like Darwin, spending time in the Galapagos changed the direction of my life.
This amazing, one-of-a-kind world of biodiversity, deepened my appreciation of natural history and my enthusiasm for learning and travel.
Toward the end of my stay, I called home to the US from a payphone right on the beach, and agreed to sell my stake in our business, Surf Lessons Hawaii, to my business partner. With that cash, I was free to attend graduate school in Taiwan and begin to realize my plan to launch an online magazine, the Study Abroad Journal.
Learning is an adventure.
Thank you for visiting my Galapagos Learning Adventure page.
I hope you enjoy my photos and the information in the links provided. If you feel motivated to learn more about this amazing educational opportunity, please let me know – I’d love to hear from you.
- 2009 Nat Geo Video | Galapagos Exploring Oceans 4:46
- 2016 Nat Geo Video | New Marine Sanctuary 2:33
- 2018 Nat Geo Video | Galapagos Pristine Paradise 1:47
- UNESCO | World Heritage List
- USFQ GAIAS | Blog
- USFQ Galapagos | Academic Tracks
- USFQ Galapagos | Semester Program
- USFQ Galapagos | Service Learning
- USFQ GSC Projects | Global Science Center
- Website Photos | Slideshow