Birthday Celebration, Start of a New Class, and Isabela Experiences!

Hello all!


Where did I leave off last? I believe it was Thursday’s stunning snorkel fieldtrip to Isla Tortuga. The island itself was a marvel: layers of stone jutting out of the sea in beautiful twists and folds, dotted with iguanas and all types of seabirds. Waves of bright blue water sprayed through its caves and blasted against its cliffs, while below the surface huge schools of fish darted among a city of corals, craters, and clefts.

Over the weekend I was lucky to celebrate my birthday here in paradise, surrounded by close friends both new and old. I could not express my utter joy and appreciation in words as what felt like the entire island cheered for me at the stroke of midnight while out on Friday. I spent the first day of my 22nd year learning to surf, snoozing on the beach, hunting down the best pizza on the island, and spending time with my host family.


As an additional birthday delight, BisCaydence (the University of Miami a cappella choir I’ve been in for a years) released its first professional album, “Blue Horizon,” on Spotify Friday. The group, which I consider to be a second family (or third now, when including my beloved hosts here in Isabela), is undoubtedly what I miss most from Miami; as such, the music has become my go-to homesickness remedy.

To everyone’s great excitement, the beginning of this week marked the start of our course with Dr. William Drennan. Touching on everything from climate to geography to botany to governance, Drennan’s course encourages us all to engage in thoughtful discussion and be more mindful of the world around us.


Tuesday involved a long, green bike ride from the base of Sierra Negra volcano (which we will be hiking up later on in the program) back to town, with stops along the way to observe transitions between different climate zones and their associated plant life. Drennan noted that it’s getting more and more difficult to differentiate the distinct subzones within the highlands (grouped together as the “Humid Zone”) as the invasive species introduced for agricultural purposes further their reach. Still, the rich vegetation and stunning views made the long and arduous bike ride worth it!

Until next time, Claire Griffin

Life as a Study Abroad Student

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Another week in Galapagos has come and gone in the blink of an eye. Our classes with Dr. Olson have included lots of nature walks led by our guide Alfredo, complete with salinity profiles and birdwatching (two of the professor’s favorite pastimes).

Almost every day after lecture, our entire class will head to the beach for an afternoon of relaxation and various games. If you ask me, life’s simplest pleasures require only a ball, a beach, maybe a sunset, and a group to enjoy it all with.

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Students spent a sunny weekend with their families and together at the popular surfer spot El Faro. It was a delight watching the locals shred alongside IOI’s very own surfer extraordinaire, Rachel Sandquist. My favorite moment of the day had to be when UGalapagos student Karen Slattery, under Rachel’s encouragement, got up on her first wave. Shoutout to Josh Zahner for capturing that scene perfectly, as seen in the picture below.

(Left: Karen Slattery, happily atop her first wave. Right: Proud teacher Rachel Sandquist pumping her fists)

(Left: Karen Slattery, happily atop her first wave. Right: Proud teacher Rachel Sandquist pumping her fists)

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On Monday we celebrated the 22nd birthday of UGalapagos student Kate Cordero with cake and a visit to the nearby tortoise conservation center! After cooing over the abundance of these adorable baby tortoises at the facility, students walked back to IOI through lush green forests and mangrove ponds dotted with bright-pink flamingos and slumbering ducks.

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Looking forward to our big snorkel tomorrow at Isla Tortuga!

Thanks for reading! Until our next adventure,

Claire Griffin

Photo Creds: Claire Griffin

Weekends as a study abroad student


After a Thursday and Friday spent toiling on final projects for Social Ecology, students made the most of their second free weekend in Isabela; highlights included all varieties of water sports, intense tournaments of ultimate frisbee, hiking in the highlands, and continued exploration of our beautiful home in Puerto Villamil.

Island wide beach clean up!

On Saturday morning, UGalapagos participated in an archipelago-wide cleanup: locals and IOI volunteers united, fanning out across the island and surrounding waters to collect all forms of pollution and debris. By the end of the day, Isabela teams had collected over 448 kg of trash!

Me and my “mom” Ruth!

Me and my “mom” Ruth!

Every Sunday is “family day” for study abroad students, who take time out of their week to bond with the beloved host families of IOI. This past Sunday I was lucky to spend the day with my “madre” Ruth Gomez and her extended family up in the highlands.

We hiked the beautiful Sierra Negra volcano in the morning then explored the picturesque “Equine Camp” in the afternoon.


It’s hard to decide what I enjoyed most: seeing faces young and old light up with joy when everyone took turns riding horseback, embracing what I like to call my “inner-Eliza-Thornberry” whilst bonding with the five dogs and dozen horses that call the Camp home, or learning all types of new card games with nothing more than laughably basic Spanish, a series of hand movements, astute observation that any scientist would be proud of (stay tuned for a peer-reviewed thesis on the game theory behind it all), and most importantly, a blessedly patient family to teach me.


IOI was happy to welcome the arrival of Donald Olson, or as the locals affectionately refer to him, our very own Charles Darwin! When he’s not talking about birds, he’s teaching us all about physical oceanography and the plethora of atmospheric and oceanic factors influencing the world we see around us. We started the week off strong with a 10-hour boat trip yesterday, complete with lava rock tour and two amazing snorkels. Students happily braved the frigid waters to swim with flights of sleek eagle rays and golden/cow-nose rays, a horde of baby blacktip sharks, and a number of mellow sea turtles.

Until our next adventure,

Claire Griffin

Hello and welcome to Fall 2019 U-Galapagos blog!

My name is Claire Griffin, and I’m a student in the University of Miami Fall 2019 UGalapagos program! I’m so excited to be running IOI’s blog this semester to show the world what adventures await in the beautiful town of Puerto Villamil, Isla Isabela!


Some background on me: I’m a senior at the University of Miami majoring in marine science, biology, and political science. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, and while that’s about as isolated from the ocean as one can be in the US, irony demanded that a love of the sea be a defining feature of my life.

I knew from the beginning of my college search that marine science had to be a huge component of my higher education, so the University of Miami was naturally a huge contender: the perfect size, the gorgeous location, the renowned Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, etc. But it wasn’t until after my first tour of the school, sitting in the student lounge with one Dr. William Drennan and listening to him talk about their one-of-a-kind abroad program in the Galapagos, that I was really sold on becoming a Hurricane.

Fast-forward four years and I’ve finally made it to Isabela! We’re just reaching the two week mark, yet it already feels as if we’ve spent years in this unique little oasis. We’ve explored three different highland farms, called “fincas,” and gotten a small taste of the laborious yet satisfying work people here have made a living off of for generations. The juicy oranges, sweet pineapples, rich coffee, and giant avocados that spread across the highlands make it clear why the islands have attracted so many to their shores.

For our first class of the semester, political ecology with Sarah Meltzoff, students were tasked with interviewing residents all over the island to collect insight and knowledge on local culture and history, and how it all ties in with their specific research topics: plastic usage, lobster fishing, water quality, and local coffee production. The class wraps up this weekend as students hand in mock research proposals, based on the host of knowledge gleaned from these interviews.

I’m most looking forward to all of the days of snorkeling that await us; the single morning I spent in the water so far was easily one of the best I’ve ever had. I twirled through the water with a playful sea lion pup, leisurely drifted alongside a couple stunning sea turtles, and had a staring contest with the largest ray I’ve ever seen. If the rest of my underwater experiences here are half as amazing as that, I may never leave!

Until the next blog, CG

Learning the ropes as an IOI volunteer in the Galapagos

By Luke Nackley

Luke is a Social Media Volunteer in the Galapagos. Here he shares his insights from his first few weeks on Isabela Island.

Week 1

Exploring the island with study abroad students.

Exploring the island with study abroad students.

It has been a week since I landed in the Galapagos Islands; it already feels like I belong here. I don’t mean as if my whole life I dreamed of living in the Galapagos, rather, I have experienced such a fun and exciting welcome that my mind has already accepted the people I’ve met as friends and family. The people involved with IOI are eager to include me in the programs and activities around town and have become friends that I hang out with daily.

My position as a social media volunteer has given me insight in to the mission of IOI as well as the opportunity to experience the local lifestyle. It has been a week that has given me inspiration and motivation to do my best while I am here- I see IOI as a place that produces real change. Photographing the endemic species’ roaming the island, observing the Miami students in their study abroad program, interviewing locals, travelling to the highlands on farm visits… it’s a job description I can gladly say I love.

In just this first week I have settled in to my new lifestyle. Living with my housemates is never boring- chatting in the morning over hot cups of coffee, going out to eat and spending an afternoon at the beach are becoming memories I won’t forget.

My volunteer work has been giving me amazing insight into what I might want to continue doing in life. My social media position offers lots of opportunity for adventure and meeting new people.

Week 2

A chick rests on top of my computer as I work.

A chick rests on top of my computer as I work.

This last week has been quite action packed for me. A week ago, as I was writing my last blog, a baby chick walked in to the office. Obviously not taking notice of the very concentrated-looking human, it hopped and chirped its way on to the arm of my chair, then my desk, and finally perched itself on top of my computer. Of course, I’m not one to get in the way of someone else’s happiness and so I took a quick picture and allowed it to have its fun. A little bit of poop cleaning later and the chick was on its way out the door. This might be the only place in the world where I can start my week in that fashion.

I have learned quite a lot this week. To start, I began working on my open water diver certification with a local dive shop; they love to see me learning and constantly check up on my reading (I may slack a little on that part). I also broke a couple of mental barriers for myself. In the past I have never really been much of a dancer. I just don’t have rhythm. But, turns out all you have to do is ask a friend that loves dancing and you are bound for success; a few of my friends had a blast trying to teach me to salsa. In the middle of a crowded dance floor, I didn’t have to worry about how ridiculous I looked and soon enough I was salsa-ing the night away. To top it all off, I started surfing. I’m not the most balanced person and things like skating and snowboarding have always ended with some bruises for me. Hence, my resolve to simply observe the surfers. But, to not try while I was here would have been idiotic… and with a little beginners’ luck, I have gone to surf almost every day since then. The local surfers ended up giving me a couple lessons and still love to watch me constantly fall off my board.

I have finally become familiar with the town. Going shopping to make dinner with my housemates is a great time. And as a bonus, I now know where to find the cheapest chocolate to feed my addiction. Thinking about everything I learned, I’m more than happy with what the week brought me, and I now have some skills to master in the coming weeks.

Not me but someday I’ll get there!

Not me but someday I’ll get there!

Week 3

Over the last week this town has grown on me. I regularly hang out with the locals and never run out of things to do. Surfing is becoming one of my favorite activities, and I am almost done with my open water diver certification. I am starting to realize how special these memories are to me. I have also been gathering with friends regularly for things like pizza or pasta nights.

There is something to be said about pizza night in the Galapagos. Having all your friends at the IOI kitchen along with a whole lot of homemade dough. Everyone brings their toppings and shapes their own dough. What you end up with is about 10 or so misshapen, steaming hot pizzas over the span of a few hours. Instead of people eating just their own pizza, the pizza is passed around and either praised or embarrassingly critiqued. We all tend to agree that waiting on each pizza is a little annoying, but it ends up being worth the wait.

Last night the Miami students and I joined the local soccer matches. There are multiple fields in Puerto Villamil but this one is right next to the beach. They play in teams of five and only to two or three goals. Some of the teams are incredibly skilled and very competitive, but others, like mine, are just there for some fun. It is exciting watching the skilled players move the ball around so naturally. I think I should bring some popcorn next time to enjoy the show. After playing for 3 hours, my legs are plenty sore today.

My volunteer work has been giving me amazing insight into what I might want to continue doing in life. My social media position offers lots of opportunity for adventure and meeting new people. To be completely honest, however, it is easy to lose track of any work I need to do when I become ‘distracted’ by the beautiful island life.

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Jamie Preira, Reflections on Cuba

Growing up in Miami, Florida I was constantly surrounded by Cuban culture – the coffee, the music, the language, and the people. Cuba has always felt like a fairytale place that I would only hear stories about or see pictures of – it was this fascinating yet “forbidden” place in my mind. IOI broke down that barrier and helped me go on a trip that’s felt out of reach my entire life; doing something I love doing – SCUBA DIVING! All of this while volunteering for a wonderful cause – restoring coral reefs!


Having lived in Colorado for 7 years now, my biggest fear heading into this trip was the language barrier and that I was traveling alone. Not to mention I felt a little rusty with my diving skills. Being forced to overcome my fears, because that was my new reality, those fears actually became the most empowering parts of my trip. Everyone I met in Cuba was always willing to help in any situation and everyone was very patient with my Spanish. The community of Cocodrilo was especially patient, kind, and friendly. My fear of traveling alone was quickly overcome by all of the new friends I was making in Cocodrilo. Reinaldo (aka Nene - the dive master and IOI representative for the project in Cocodrilo) was an amazingly patient and kind dive instructor. My fears of being rusty at diving were also quickly overcome the second we got into the water.


Getting to Cocodrilo is definitely an adventure and if you go into that with that mindset, you will enjoy the experience so much more. Knowing that the small airports, possible airplane delays and long bumpy car ride will take you to one of the most beautiful and unique places on earth is the right mindset to have. I spent a few days before my travels to Cocodrilo in Havana and Vinales and I enjoyed experiencing Cuba in this way before heading to Cocodrilo. The best part about traveling with IOI on this adventure was how supported I felt. It can be daunting thinking about arranging car rides in a foreign place, getting to the airport, traveling around an unfamiliar country in general, and dealing with delays in another language. But with IOI, I was taken to the airport by Enrique when it was time to fly to Gerona, and then received the same phenomenal service when I was arriving and departing from Gerona. It made my travels so much easier knowing that I was always going to have someone waiting for me on the other end of a plane ride.


The Havana terminal for domestic flights is smaller than for international flights and does not have much to it - there is a place to grab snacks and water, but I would recommend doing that before you arrive at the airport. The plane ride itself was short and sweet. The Gerona airport is quaint - you walk off the plane and into a small room with one baggage carousel. Once I got my bags, I left that room, found Reinaldo (a different Reinaldo from the dive master) and we were on our way to Cocodrilo! It’s about a 2.5 - 3 hour drive on a very interesting “road.” My excitement had me uninterested in the amount of time it was taking or the bumpy nature of the ride but rather taking in my surroundings and the cool, salty air. We stopped after about 30-45 minutes in the car to head to the local immigration office where I had to show my passport and my slip of paper authorizing me to head into this part of la Isla. I felt, and still feel, so lucky to have been granted access to this remote part of Cuba that most Cubans don’t even know about!


Dinner was waiting for me when Reinaldo and I arrived at “Villa Arrecife” and I quickly learned that I was going to be very well accommodated. Between having a comfortable room in a beautiful house and eating SO WELL for every meal, I was able to completely immerse myself in the experience of being in Cocodrilo.

The town of Cocodrilo is small. Really small. My favorite part of it being so small was not only interacting with locals, but really getting to know the people of the Cocodrilo. I made some great friends that I know I will maintain contact with for the rest of my life. Everyone I met was genuine, helpful, friendly, and outgoing. Living in a small town means lots of time together, sitting on the porch, walking to the beach, or watching/participating in a pick up soccer game. You get to spend lots of genuine time together - not looking at cell phones or distracted by computers - it’s magical! One of my favorite parts on the weekend was heading to the "circulo" to listen to music and talk to locals, folks from Gerona, and others from La Fey. Making sure you’ve got everything you’d need is going to be key before you head to Cocodrilo. Being in a small town means there’s not much to buy besides chips, soda, rum, and other things like this. I highly recommend following the IOI packing list and not skipping over anything!


An average day consisted of a morning dive volunteering and free time in the afternoon. Diving with Reinaldo (Nene) is a great experience. He’s patient, slow moving, and very communicative which makes it easy to feel comfortable in the water regardless of how much time has passed since your last dive.  My 3 weeks volunteering consisted of completing fish counts, conducting trash pick-ups, hunting lionfish or cleaning the PVC pipes underwater where the corals were growing. Afternoons were free time and self-driven. There’s great snorkeling and exploring around Cocodrilo. If you interested in exploring more, going snorkeling or doing more than that, there’s usually someone there who’d be happy to go with you - all you have to do is ask! I was in Cocodrilo for 3 weeks and I was never bored, and I read more books than I have in 3 years! Cocodrilo is the perfect place for disconnecting from technology and the fast-pace nature of your life. It’s a great place to reconnect to nature, recreate those genuine people to people interactions and focus on yourself!

I had such an incredible, life changing experience on my trip with IOI to Cocodrilo. Pre-Trip communication was clear and my pre-trip questions were quickly responded to. I felt extremely prepared and well informed for my trip. During my trip I felt well taken care of and supported by the IOI Cuba staff. The volunteer opportunities were very accurately advertised and the diving and snorkeling around Cocodrilo were breathtaking. The house (Villa Arrecife) is very comfortable, the community is nice, safe, and engaging. The food was amazing - delicious, filling, and healthy! It felt so empowering to be a part of this program and to be able to help. There is so much to do and so much to see in this small town! I cannot wait to be involved in another program and return back to Cocodrilo!

Study Abroad in Galapagos

Kathryn Metzker


After studying abroad no fewer than eight times between high school and grad school, you could say I am a big fan.  Language programs, college courses, student exchange, volunteer teaching, learning traditional Ghanaian wood carving, I couldn’t get enough.  Each type of trip was a completely different experience, but all offered me the chance to get out of my natural habitat, out of my comfort zone, and immerse myself in a new place and culture.  Years later when I started teaching study abroad programs, I found it even more rewarding than my experience in standard classroom-teaching because students are so much more excited to learn on study abroad.  They are ready for a life-changing experience, ready to broaden their minds and challenge their beliefs.  While there are difficult days when students are hot, mosquito-bitten, and completely sick of eating rice and beans, I see them rise to the occasion to make the most of their experience.  I learned that lesson first-hand in college, studying abroad in the Galapagos through the University of Miami and IOI: when you have planned, saved up money, and had to take 2 planes, a ferry, 3 buses, and a boat to get to where you are going, you are committed. 


In the Galapagos, I lived with a wonderful host family and explored the islands, studying biology, sustainable agriculture, and conservation.  There, I developed skills in adaptability, enthusiasm for cultural immersion, and building strong relationships which I still maintain today.  My strongest memory from that trip was a bike excursion I took during my first week on Isabela Island.  One morning I went up to the highlands on the side of the volcano with two other IOI students, Jimmy and Joel, to conduct interviews for a class in Political Ecology.  We were learning about where people got their drinking water on the island, looking at personal catchment systems and larger bottle distributors.  We had biked to our interview site from Joel’s host family’s farm and intended to bike back to the farm for lunch and then down the mountain back to town.  However, after biking for a few hours, we realized we had gotten lost.  Turning down random paths between jungle and farmland, we looked for familiar landmarks.  A big tree, next to some vines, a barbed wire fence, and a few boards of wood that perhaps at one time were a bench… And if you know the highlands, you know that is not a promising landmark – it describes pretty much the entire mountainside.  Still, as avid cyclists, we were enjoying our detour until Jimmy’s front tire popped.  Well now we could not even just bike straight back to town. 

Walking our bikes through the lush, steep hills was beautiful, if difficult work.  We sent Joel ahead on his bike to look for the farm, and lucky we did because Joel found his most of his host family loaded up in the truck and about to leave.  That load was full, but his host dad assured us he would be back in about an hour for us.  Learning about “Galapagos time,” we spent not an hour, but the rest of the afternoon and evening helping the rest of the family plant cassava, playing card games, and having a rollicking good time.  While nothing went according to plan, we adapted to our situation and opened ourselves to have a more fun and rewarding day than we could have expected.  An adventure, started for the sake of homework, finished with making great friends.  After years away from the island we still keep in touch.  Now that I am headed back to Isabela as IOI’s new Assistant Director for Education and Outreach Programs in Galapagos, I have already emailed my local bicycling friends and planned our next adventure!

This program allowed me to get to know amazing Galapagueños, adventurous travelers, and to get to know myself.  Through UM and IOI’s model for teaching, I found that hands-on experience and learning from local friends and teachers helped me develop and learn more than I could have in a classroom setting.  I saw my friend Erika, who had never left the US before our semester abroad and who spoke no Spanish make so many local friends over her time there by developing her talent to communicate without speaking the same language and also committing to learn Spanish.  Each of my travels has shaped my philosophy and practice of learning and adapting to other cultures. Meeting the incredible team at IOI inspired me by showing me that it is possible, and in fact crucial, for an organization to interweave conservation, community development, and international exchange.


Reflecting back on what I have learnt on Isabela conjures up a whole host of things, a list which is endless - I think it is safe to say that every single person I have met on this island has influenced or taught me something.

A tourist passing through taught me a new card game, Nick and Felipe showed me how to fillet a fish, and cook an incredible tuna pasta, locals have helped me with my Spanish, showed me how to salsa, surf and so much more. But, these are all things I can demonstrate I have learnt, I came to the Galapagos prepared to learn about the wildlifeand culture but during the process perhaps most importantly I have learnt a lot about myself, reflecting back on the person I was when I came I can see that my mental approach to life has changed. I have been able to relax and become spontaneous, going with the flow and not afraid when things go wrong. Like the endemic wildlife of the Galapagos I have adapted from the bustling streets of london to the peaceful methodical island life of Isabela. 

Before they left I asked some of the Spring 2017 UMiami students what they had learnt. Steph who came to Isabela with some Spanish told me that she now understands so much more Spanish and sometimes doesn't even need to think about it. The other big thing she said she’d learnt is to embrace the culture, to relax if something isn't as you expect, there a big culture different here and the island is like one big family, community is definitely an important word on Isabela. From the moment you arrive you get swept into the community, and you know everyone embraces you as part of the family. There are lots of differences but thats what makes the Galapagos so special, you learn to love it and everything that makes the island individual. 

During my time on Isabela I learnt that being adaptable and easy-going is going to help make the whole experience more enriching. It is likely that 90% of the things you do on this island will be different from your life at home, so rather than finding issues with it make it your advantage, embrace the fact that the experience your living is completely unique to you.

It is a great opportunity to get a first hand account of a different culture - no matter how often you travel, no matter how many countries you’ve visited on vacation there is nothing like living and interacting with locals on a daily basis. I learnt to see the unseen by listening to the locals and getting them to take you to the less visited tourist sites and hiking the additional pathway to Volcan Chico with the guide to ensure you see as much as you can, rather than letting the fatigue set in and wait for the group to return from that part of the hike.  I learnt so much more about the Galapagos that I would have done by visiting and sticking to a guidebook, I learnt this by talking to people, listening to their advice and making the most of every opportunity.  I fly home next week with a wealth of enriched knowledge from my trip, knowledge off the famous Galapagos Iguanas, or how tortoise conservation is bring back the species or no matter what the language barrier is try to communicate with the locals they know what there talking about for they live it everyday. 

Alongside this I am going to take home knowledge about myself, who I am, how i’ve changed and how my Isabela experience has taught me to be a better version of myself. I hope that all future volunteers have an experience as inspiring and life changing as mine as it is something I will never forget. 

As I have said goodbye to people on the trip it became a tradition to ask there highs and lows (although the lows were very limited and often included not getting into the island life as soon as they arrived, or not taking full advantage on day one - these are things we couldn't have changed). 

The high’s seemed to be endless and it came down to a week by week highlight so that everything could be included. My first night here I sat on the beach with Kiki watching the sunset planning everything we wanted to do whilst we were here, time has flown past and last week I sat on the beach with her and as the sunset set on her last night on Isabela. We reflected on the highlights of our and trip and it dawned on us that we have done everything we set out to do and so much more. When I asked her what she was taking away from the trip she couldn't choose is it the passion for life that the locals exude or the exotic widlife? Working with the giant tortoises? Or simply living in the Galapagos? Our island experience has been unbelievable, we both came here looking for something different to our lives at home and we found it and so much more we could never have imagined. The paradise of the Galapagos captured our hearts and is something I know I will never forget. 

Georgia B


Every time I travel to a new place in the Galapagos, I go with the anticipation of seeing a new animal that I have not yet spotted or getting a better view of one of the unique animals I’ve already had the chance to interact with. Students who have studied abroad in the Galapagos before me always raved about the trip that they took to Punto Moreno on the west side of Isabela so I decided that it was a trip I had to go on. Even though it was a two and a half hour boat ride over to the west side of Isabela, my group and I didn’t mind because we had heard that there was a good chance to see whales and dolphins. We saw lots of dorsal fins on the way over, likely belonging to dolphins, but we never got a good look at anything to figure out what it was. Nonetheless, we took it as a sign that we were in for a great day.

Once we arrived at Punto Moreno, we immediately saw endemic flightless cormorants, which only live on the west side of Isabela. The water was only about 20ºC so it was frigid when I first jumped in to snorkel, but the chance to see the flightless cormorants up close for the first time kept me going. I watched as the flightless cormorants stood on rocks near the water with their disproportionately small wings held out, trying to dry off. Most of the cormorants that we saw in this first spot were juveniles; they were a dark brown color rather than black and did not have piercing blue eyes like the adults. At one point, two of them got into a fight, seemingly because one got too close to the other’s rocks. They waddled towards each other, opened their beaks, and started to thrust their wide-open beak in between their opponent’s. It was absolutely comical to watch because the flightless cormorant is not particularly coordinated on land and it was such a strange way to show aggression. After about two minutes, the intruder admitted defeat and went back to his initial rock, a little bit further from the water.


After the water got too cold for us to handle any longer, we got back into the boats and went to a new bay where we found Galapagos penguins. There was a group of about 25 penguins swimming along, and I was so excited that the cold water didn’t matter anymore – I just jumped back in and joined them. As someone who has worked with penguins in an aquarium before, I was thrilled to get to see them hunting in the wild. I was awestruck as they glided through the water easily hunting the small baitfish that were all schooled together. We soon came across a rock that was separated from the rest of the island and deemed it “the most Galapagos rock there ever was” because there were three endemic species sitting on it: 1 flightless cormorant, 4 Galapagos penguins, and 2 marine iguanas. There were also 3 Galapagos green sea turtles swimming around it.


After lunch, it was time to start heading home and fish along the way. Even though I hadn’t seen any of the really big Galapagos animals I was hoping to, it had still been a wonderful day. On our way back, the boat suddenly stopped and Stallen, our boat hand, ran to the front to look in the water – he had seen a whale shark! I quickly joined him on the front of the boat and got a quick glimpse of her as she dove down and disappeared from sight. I didn’t get to swim with her, but I was satisfied – I had gotten a glimpse of a whale shark and no longer needed to refer to it as “that mythical beast” in order not to jinx myself and decrease my chances of seeing one.


A half hour later while we fished, I was once again hanging out on the front of the boat and saw something appear at the surface. It initially looked like the carapace of a sea turtle, and I pointed it out to Steph who was sitting next to me, but neither of us thought much of it. Suddenly it was back again, but this time it didn’t look like a turtle, it looked more like a fin of a manta ray swimming at an odd angle. Stallen came to see what we were doing and we asked what it was – the whale shark was back! We ran back to the main part of the boat and grabbed our snorkel gear, determined not to miss our chance to swim with the whale shark again. I catapulted my body off of the boat and swam in her direction as quickly as I could. I caught up to her in time to swim together for about 20 seconds and then she dove down again and disappeared from sight. Back on the boat, we were all freaking out because we were so excited – Shannon was hysterically crying, Katie was squealing, and all I could say was “Oh my god”. Once we all finally calmed down and started fishing again, the whale shark was back, but this time she was closer to the boat! We all leaped back into the water and watched as she slowly swam by. She swam right under the boat and we were able to watch all 35 feet of her pass and noticed that she was definitely a female and appeared to be pregnant. Her tail was taller than I am and her gills were about five feet large. I kept up at her pace, swimming alongside her, a little more than 6 feet away, as she fed on the abundant plankton. After staying near our group for five minutes, she once again dove down and we lost sight of her.


After catching six yellowfin tuna, it was time to head home for real, but it turned out our day of excitement still wasn’t over. On our way, we saw spouts of water being hurled into the air, apparently from a blowhole. A couple minutes later, we finally saw the whale – it had a small dorsal fin and even though we were far away, we could tell it was huge. Later we used pictures of its dorsal fin to determine that we had caught a glimpse of a right whale. As I watched the horizon on the lookout for the whale, I watched as three mobula rays breached, one after the other. Soon after, there was a flock of blue-footed boobies dive-bombing the water to feed on a school of fish.


After we got back from Punto Moreno, I realized that my Galapagos animals bucket list has been completed. I’ve swam with or seen all of the Galapagos’ unique flora and fauna including an orca, sea lions, green sea turtles, marine iguanas, scalloped hammerheads, giant manta rays, common dolphins, and dozens of species of fish. My time in the Galapagos is quickly coming to an end, and even though I don’t want to leave Isabela, I still consider myself lucky: lucky to have had the opportunity to spend three months here, lucky to have met so many incredible people, lucky to have seen so many incredible creatures, and most importantly lucky that a place like the Galapagos still exists. I envy the simple way of life that is maintained in Isabela, where people live harmoniously with the incredible natural world around them. Isabela, Puerto Villamil, and IOI have become my second home. From the moment I leave, I know that I will constantly be on the lookout for an opportunity that will take me back to this extraordinary and unique place.

Megan P

An Interview with Ben Hall

Ben is a student from the University of Miami, he has spent three months living with a host family and living on Isabela as part of his study abroad program. Ben has spent a lot of his free time on the island surfing at El Faro (the surf beach), and has for his Service Learning Project he has been conducting evening walks along one of the beaches looking for signs of sea turtle nesting. Ben was lucky enough to witness a sea turtle heading up the beach to begin nesting. 


What do you do in your free time/weekends on Isabela? 

I paid to rent a surfboard for my last two months here, so on my free time and every Saturday I make sure to go out to the surf beach and surf as much as I can.  On Sundays, I go on trips with my host family where we have picnics and play soccer at local beaches, such as Playa del Amor or El Estero.


What Interested you in the Galapagos? And the Study abroad program?

The Galapagos are famous for being the inspiration for modern evolutionary biology, so as a biologist I have always been interested in coming here and seeing all of the famed wildlife.  When I was still in high school, I found out the University of Miami had a study abroad program to come here, so I knew I had to attend Miami and take advantage of this incredible opportunity.


How did you become involved with IOI? 

University of Miami and IOI Study Abroad Program


How long are you going to be part of this program? 

3 months 


What are your goals? Why are you participating?

My goals for coming to the Galapagos were to see all of the unique animals and to see the same unique patterns that inspired Darwin's theory of evolution.


How are you liking the experience? 

Living in the Galapagos has been an incredible experience.  Even though the islands seem small, there is an endless number of things to see.  There are so many large creatures in the Galapagos, and unlike other places in the world, you see them all the time! Living in the Galapagos for multiple months has also allowed me to learn about the island culture and puts my life back in the States in a whole new perspective.


Would you recommend this to other travellers? 

Absolutely.  The Galapagos Islands are like nothing else in the world and you will not regret coming in any way.


For people coming after you is there any advice you’d tell them?

Be ready to eat lots of fish, and overall less calories in general than what is considered normal in the States.  Invest in some jam at a local store, and then always have lots of fresh bread from a panaderia on hand.


The one thing you wished you’d pack.

Lots and lots of CLIF bars.  I brought 12, but they disappeared fast.


One thing you regret bringing. 

Not really anything.  I've used basically everything that I packed, and stuff I haven't used is mostly medication just in case I get sick.


Highlight of your trip?

Probably the most amazing part of my time in the Galapagos was when I got to swim with giant manta rays on my way to Los Tuneles.  Our boat captain spotted one from the surface, so we slowed our boat down to get a closer look.  Once we noticed that there was more than one in the water, the captain told us we could quickly put our gear on and swim with them.  When I first jumped in, the one we were following was pretty far away, so I only saw its outline and thought that was it.  However, when I looked back to the boat, the deckhand was pointing me in another direction.  Sure enough, I turned around and clearly saw a giant manta about 20 feet away! As I kept swimming around, I saw 3 or 4 more giant mantas, and one swam straight at me.  It was an incredible, unforgettable experience.


Georgia B