By Lisa Barrett
My recent trip to Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve and the Galápagos Islands with University of Wyoming students and professors was nothing short of magical. Since you already know why the Galápagos Islands are so interesting, you should not be surprised!
A New Species
The first stop on our two-week trip was to a cloud forest reserve near Mindo in Ecuador, which is situated in the Andean mountains. Between day hikes, night hikes, watching hummingbirds, learning from our superb guide, Nelson, and enjoying delicious meals, we were busy absorbing everything–especially the exciting flora and fauna–the reserve had to offer. The olinguito, a newly-discovered mammal species belonging to the same family as raccoons, frequents the reserve at night. During dinner one evening, our guide excitedly told us the olinguito was approaching– naturally, we rushed out to see it! Although briefly, we spotted the nocturnal critter running along the branches before it disappeared into the treetops.
Snorkeling with Sea Lions…and Sea Turtles…and Sharks
Snorkeling in Galápagos is completely overwhelming. As long as the water was not too rough, every day we snorkeled in a new location. This allowed us to explore a wide diversity of fish and other animals in a whole new light. Some of my favorite snorkel sites boasted sailing sea turtles, playful penguins, and vibrant parrotfish. The most exciting snorkel trip was when whitetip reef sharks were swimming beneath us. But most memorable is the day we found dozens of penguins swimming around our yacht and we jumped into the water to swim with them. A young sea lion joined us, and playfulness ensued. In a situation which I can only compare to a “dance-off,” the sea lion proceeded to spin and flip around under water and then stop and stare at us, as if to see what we would do next. To keep the fun going, we had to spin and splash right back at the sea lion. It certainly was unbelievable!
Post Office Bay
On our first full day in Galápagos we stopped at Post Office Bay on Floreana Island. Historically, sailors would drop off letters here in the hopes that someone might be traveling in the direction of their letter’s destination. Today, tourists write postcards and leave them in an old barrel; they also check the barrel to see if any post cards are heading their way so that they may hand deliver them to the addressee. It was fun to check the barrel and leave our postcards, because we aren’t able to predict when they will get delivered!
Birds, Birds, Birds
As a student of animal behavior, I have learned about several concepts in my field through examples in bird species. To see some of the behavior firsthand that I’ve known only through classes and textbooks was very meaningful to me. For example, I have always been intrigued by siblicidal behavior, or when a (usually older) chick kills its younger sibling in order to procure enough resources from parents for survival. Thus it was exciting to get to see Nazca Boobies, whose young exhibit this behavior, in the Galapagos. We also observed the Magnificent Frigatebird’s “magnificent” courtship display!
Our Gifted Guide
The most important component of a memorable Galápagos trip is your guide! Wanting to gain as much knowledge as we could, we were ecstatic to be led by Greg Estes, the son-in-law of well-known scientists, Rosemary and Peter Grant. The Grants led one of the longest-running studies on evolution, using Darwin’s finches as their focal species. Greg knew everything about everything to do with Darwin and Galápagos! One of my favorite trips with Greg involved circumnavigating the island of Daphne Major, where the Grants conducted much of their famous work. He pointed out to us how the Grants managed to climb up the rocky cliffs off of their boat, and we saw the caves they used for eating their meals. Without Greg, the trip would have been significantly less meaningful.