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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Day in the Life of a Volunteer

Isabela Island | The Galapagos


From a sunrise at dawn when the first rays of light hit the town to the watercolour of oranges, pinks, blue and yellows at sunset, everyday on Isabela is unique. 24 hours can feel like three days as there is so much to do and see - this week I spent the day with Kiki Hunegs one of the tortoise centre volunteers to see what she gets up to on a normal day on the island. 

We began the morning with breakfast in the volunteers house before heading on our way to the tortoise centre. The walk takes you through the colourful streets of Isabela down to iguana crossing and the spectacular broad-walk.  Turning onto the broad-walk takes you along one of the most unbelievable trails you will have step foot on, walking the half an hour journey takes you past ponds filled with wild flamingos, marine iguanas basking in the sun, giant-cactus' - the walk is breath-taking and Kiki says that it never gets old, every day she sees something new and it is the perfect opportunity to collate her thoughts and prepare for the day ahead. 

Upon arrival at the tortoise centre Kiki is greeted by full-time conservation staff Pato and Oscar, reminding her that its Monday, a tortoise feeding day. Three days a week volunteers at the tortoise centre begin their day by feeing the tortoises giant plantain stalks. Her morning continues with cleaning the corrals, raking the ground and ensuring that the area’s are kept in perfect condition for the tortoises. 

During their morning at the centre it’s not uncommon for tourists to stop and ask them questions - all the volunteers have learnt a lot about the project during their time here and have a gained an immense knowledge on the work their doing and the success its having on the overall long term benefits for the tortoise.

At around 10.00am the volunteers are called in for break time and they enjoy tostadas (grilled-cheese) and take it as an opportunity to cool off in the air-conditioned break room. For the rest of the morning the volunteers are assisting with measuring and weighing the tortoises and ensuring the records they keep are up to date and accurate helping to give the park accurate readings and information on the animals. Working at the tortoise centre allows them to get involved in the conservation of tortoises - this is only possible if you have a visa specifically for the conservation project. 

At 12.00 the volunteers finish their work and we begin to walk back down the sandy streets of Puerto Villamil to enjoy lunch at one of the many delicious restaurants.  All volunteers from any of the programmes can eat lunch at one of many restaurants which are participating with the IOI, we meet up with lots of volunteers and enjoy the menu of the day. Everyone discusses there mornings and plans are made for the long sunny afternoon ahead. 

This afternoon Kiki is heading to Concha De Perla the local lagoon, to enjoy some snorkeling at low tide. The water is crystal clear and visibility is perfect. We snorkel for an hour seeing sea lions, reef sharks, endless fishes and two penguins whizz past us across the lagoon.  The broad-walk to Concha de Perla is dotted with sleeping sea lions and the rest of the day is spent relaxing on the beach taking turns using a couple of rented surfboards we spend the late afternoon catching waves as the sky looks like a painting and the day ends with the most spectacular sunset. 

Volunteers living at the volunteer house eat out for dinner on the same plan as at lunch and those living with a family go home and enjoy a family dinner. Every day on Isabela is filled with lots of activities, things to do and endless sunshine - there is never a dull moment or lack of adventure. 

Volunteer on the Island

Volunteer on the Island

Having interviewed many of the current and past volunteers about there work on the island and why they choose to volunteer on Isabela rather than just travel to the island’s or the Galapagos as a whole it became apparent there was a trend. Many of the volunteers decided to work here because it gave them the opportunity to experience the island’s community and cultural side more deeply and by living here for a month or so they have been able to become part of island life.

What is ailing the Galapaguenos?


Before arriving in Isabela I had a very remote idea of what would be waiting for me. When I mentioned to friends in the United States that I was going to the Galapagos Islands for nearly three months to do public health work I was often met with utter confusion, as many do not realize that there is a substantial human population in the Galapagos.

Of course everyone has heard of the wonders of the Galapagos Islands with its nature and diverse wildlife and as the birthplace of Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection. However, little is spoken of the people that actually live here. Truthfully, before planning my trip I had trouble finding the Galapagos Islands on a map. I was ignorant to the culture of the people here and even the language that was spoken. To my delight I found that the Galapagos Islands are an Ecuadorian province made up of Spanish-speaking families who have either migrated here from the Ecuadorian mainland or who have lived here for many years. Having been born and raised in Miami, a city that hosts many different Latin cultures I was comforted to know that I would be able to communicate with the locals and be familiar with many of their customs. Isabela is less inhabited than some of the more commercial islands and has more of a small town feel. It is breathtakingly beautiful with its beaches and unique animals but at the same time is immensely in need of public health improvements.

There are many health concerns on the island as I was informed of when I arrived. The project that I will be focusing on during my time here is nutritional education for the local population on a multitude of levels. Metabolic disorders like obesity, diabetes and heart disease are common in Isabela, due to the lack of ample nutrition in the local population’s diets. Since the population at one point in time was malnourished, currently more weight is placed on eating larger meals with artificial supplements rather than on maintaining a well-balanced diet. Therefore, my current project includes developing and holding nutrition workshops for parents, school care workers and pregnant teenagers within the community. I am also developing new meal plans for the children within the schools as many of the schools provide daily meals for the children. I am hoping that by working jointly with the parents, teachers and cooks through education, cooking workshops and meal plans they will be empowered to change their eating habits for the long term. So far I have had a great response from the people here, they have been incredibly welcoming and are so open minded and eager to learn about things they can do to improve their health.

Another exciting project that I worked on during my time with IOI was on developing a community health assessment of prevalent diseases within the community. This was done by working in the local hospital with their health records in order to assess what diseases needed more attention. Respiratory infections and diarrheal infections were the most common health problems found on the island of Isabela, with a prevalence of 20.6% and 3.19% respectively over an 8 month period. This is likely due to poor hygiene and inadequate water sanitation. Among chronic diseases, high blood pressure (2.35% prevalence) and diabetes (0.80% prevalence) were present among individuals. Hopefully, the findings from the community health assessment will facilitate the planning and implementation of the community health center that IOI is preparing to open in the future. My time in Isabela so far has been incredible. I feel so lucky to have worked with an organization that cares so much about making a difference in the lives of those within the local community. After I leave in August I will go back to Boston University to finish my Master of Public Health degree in Epidemiology and really hope to continue to work on outreach projects similar to those completed in Isabela!

Jessica B. – public health

Teaching Self Love in Paradise

I passed my first hour on Isabela supine under palm shade, legs and arms akimbo as I released into the kind of deep sleep that occurs only when your body knows it can finally and fully give in. When my eyelids eventually fluttered open, they took in the white sand, tropical palm fronds, turquoise water, and blue sky. 'Am I in paradise?'

I remember asking myself.  Indeed, I had landed in an eden of wild and endemic species, varying landscapes from black lava fields and flamingo-lined ponds to ominously overgrown forests and endless coastlines.  However, as much as my two years in the Galápagos Islands were characterized by unparalleled nature, the experience was boldly defined by the unique opportunity to teach and learn from the local villagers, los isabeleños.

From 2007-2009, I lived in Puerto Villamil, Isabela, where I taught at the Colegio Fray Agustín Azkúnaga, in collaboration with the non-profit Isabela Oceanographic Institute.  With less than a year teaching experience, and a brand new teaching certificate, I entered the open-air classrooms of the high school with equal parts naïveté and enthusiasm.  Over the course of the next two years, I came to know my students alongside their families, all part of an interconnected community on a small island in the Pacific.  It is the mix of Latin American culture woven into interdependence and intimacy, set within a dramatically unique environment.  For me, this was paradise.

English class began with group projects surveying and analyzing the level and type of English usage on the island.  From here, students discussed advantages of learning English, including the potential for becoming a naturalist guide, a career that many aspired to attain. With this motivation, students researched, practiced and finally performed interpretive talks on animals and tourist destinations during field trips with a panel of invited guests.  Other highlights included guest speaker question and answer sessions, student-written role-plays, interactive games, and even having students come voluntarily to my free evening English classes for adults.

However, class time wasn’t always easy, as any teacher can attest. As I learned more about my students’ backgrounds and histories, I understood the many challenges they had overcome, as well as the trials they were still battling: broken families, alcoholism, abandonment, abuse, and teenage pregnancies. Laying in a hammock with a pile of homework papers, my heart broke to read a 13-year-old girl’s wish to have her dad, who lived on the island, give her a hug or say happy birthday, just once. I soon realized my biggest hurdle wasn’t teaching grammar; my struggle came in helping my students recognize their self worth and potential. While I found small rewards in team building activities, self-reflection surveys, and letter writing, I also saw how home struggles correlate into disruptive or defiant behavior, or a simple lack of hope for future successes.

The excitement, stimulation, reward, and tribulations of the classroom were balanced out by the friendships I made within the community. Walking home from school, a family would invite me over to eat freshly prepared ceviche, from fish caught that morning. Surfer friends would daily whistle from outside the mission gates where I lived to call me out for an afternoon session. Doña Fanny would cheerfully call my name, “¡Laurita, tienes una carta!” from the seascape painted mural outside the post office. Everyone, from the 4-year-old daughter of the neighboring grocer, to toothless, smiling Don Plutarco, would greet me with kind words and big smiles. For Thanksgiving, the handful of other international friends gathered with locals to celebrate our U.S. traditions of sharing food together. Each day was truly a shining shell, resplendent in its beauty and simplicity.

Now, looking back, I am still ever grateful for the experience I had on Isabela. Four years later, I am still teaching, now with a master’s in Spanish and ESL (English as a Second Language), working with junior and high school age kids in Utah. Working in education on Isabela taught me that teaching is never easy, that victories can be subtle or hidden, and that all humans deserve support and self-love. I look forward to the day when I go back, when I swim with sea turtles, drink fresh agua de coco, and surf perfect waves. But mostly, I look forward to seeing the faces of my old friends, perhaps grown, perhaps changed, but always rooted in the magic and love that is Isabela.

Laura B. – english teacher volunteer