Enchanted Forests and Giant Tortoises / by Nate Westheimer

This post is from my sister -- one of the most insightful and wide-eyed people I know. Hannah is a junior in college and studying in Ecuador and the Galapagos this semester. I recently got this update from her and was so moved I got permission from her to post it to you all. So, sit back, relax, and dive with her, into the brilliant seas and enchanted forests of the Galapagos: By Hannah Westheimer:

My class with Franklin, learning about the environment from an economic point of view, continued, as uneventful as ever (economics is not my favorite subject). Meanwhile, the class that our peers were in, “Plants of the Galapagos,” kept taking field trip after field trip, exploring the plants of the Island on foot and on bike. Finally after watching our friends enjoy the sun -- while be sat and learned about private property rights and subsidies and externality -- got to us and after hearing that the Plant class was going to take a camping trip to the highlands and learn about the ecosystem there and help eradicate invasive blackberries, we decided we wanted to come along. After convincing our professor, their professor, and our program director we were told we could come along as long as we were willing to learn and participate. I was willing, so I packed my bags and on Tuesday the 16th we headed up into the highland of San Cristobal to explore and learn.

We set up camp in a campground that was owed by a local family right outside of Cerro Verde, an extremely small town that consists of a soccer field, a small store that sells chips and ice cream, and a couple of small run down houses. The campground owners cooked us dinner in a small hut with no windows. During the whole time we spend in this hut the family put on DVDs of music videos where women walk around with very few clothes on to crazy music; it is very bizarre. While the Plant Class does presentations for their class, the political class sneaks away for Ice Cream. After presentations, Ice Cream and a dance party to crazy music videos, there is campfire and we sit around and play games and converse. On Wednesday morning we are up at the crack of dawn, wet and cold, (it rains at night in Cerro Verde and we didn’t have a ground-clothe) and after breakfast, we drive to La Juncla, a site that is part of the National Park. San Cristobal is the only Island in the Galapagos Islands that has fresh water and La jungla is a crater full of fresh water. Surrounding this crater is National Park land that has been infested by introduced Mora (blackberries) a plant that spreads very easily and is very good to eat. This morning our job is to eradicate as much mora as possible. The Park Service brings us Machetes and we get to work for 3 hours cutting the stupid plant down. Damn the person that introduced mora to the Galapagos! The plant is everywhere and there is no real way to eradicate it. While we are cutting it down for now, it will grow right back next year. This mora was originally introduced to the Islands as a crop for harvesting however, it turns out the blackberries on the Coast of Ecuador grow to a much larger size and have much less seeds and so this mora is left to the birds, who promptly disperse it all over the Islands. After our morning adventures we go to the Galapagara, a conservation site that has been set up to help increase the Tortoise population on the Island that has gone from 10,000 to 1,200 in the past sixty years. The Tortoises are huge. No wonder there is so many creationist stories of Tortoises carrying the world on their backs! These Tortoises could support our planet comfortable on their backs. They move so slowly and deliberately. They must think about every move before attempting it. We hike to Puerto Chino after this and after we play on the beach we enjoy the sunset. On Thursday morning we venture into an enchanted Miconia forest. Miconia is an endemic tree that used to cover the highland region and is now endangered and not as easily encountered. The land where this Miconia forest is located is not Park Service land; it is owned by the decendents of Manual Cobos, a man who came to the Islands in the 1800s with hundreds of slaves and claimed the Islands as his own, and the only reason why they have let their Miconia grow is because the Plant professor, Hugo, has talked to them and told them all about the value of this plant. Hugo brought us here to show the landowners just how much of a difference their efforts have made. (To get into the enchanted forest you must crossover a dam that is less then a foot wide, with water on one side and a fall to your death on the other side!) Once in the forest, the Miconia is so thick that you must walk hunched over under the branches for periods of ten minutes at a time, dodging branches as you go. However, every time we emerge and look around we feel we are in a movie. The landscape looks like the Lord of the Rings. It is awesome.

The freshwater source for the town (which we pass over a couple times and I fall into once ) is also located on this land. We are all surprised to see no fence around it and cows enjoying the same water we take showers in (I guess bathing in cow poop is another one of those things you must experience before to you die). There are also wild horses running around. We were in a nether world on the Galapagos Islands.

After our morning in the enchanted land of Miconia, we are given a tour of the windmill project that is being established on our Island. The EU has recently helped San Cristobal in the establishment of three huge windmills that currently power 60% of the Island and when the project is completely it is hoped to power the entire Island! And that completes our camping trip. The highlands are a different world than the town where we live. Its so interesting to see what is in the middle of our island.

On of weekend of 20th we went on my favorite fieldtrip of the program. We woke up and caught a boat at 8 in the morning for a day of snorkeling and exploring. Our first stop was Isla de los Lobos, a small Island about a half an hour from our town by boat. We got into our snorkel stuff and our wetsuits and dove into icy cold water. Here the Sea Lions have little interaction with humans and therefore aren’t as mean and aggressive as the Sea Lions in San Cristobal. We see rays, beautiful fish, sea turtle and Sea Lions that come up and play with us- blowing bubble in our faces and swimming circles around us. Snorkeling is amazing! It is like we are allowed to witness a world that is so exotic and different from our own, a world that was never meant for our eyes. Everything I see seems to be a secret. At times I feel I’m swimming through one of those very expensive fish tanks with all of the stunningly colorful fish right in my face. Also at times I feel I am stuck in the Finding Nemo movie (sea turtles remind me so much of Finding Nemo: Good job film people!). Schools of fish are awesome and funny to watch at the same time. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, swim by, all moving the same way at the very same time. The landscape underwater is also foreign and awesome. I almost feel guilty as if I am getting a glimpse of this world that I was never meant to set foot in.

I am also very lucky to be viewing this world now because if we continue fishing at the current rate our fishers could become exhausted in my lifetime (there is an estimated year of 2040). My children will never get to see what I’m seeing. They will never get to feel like they are swimming in a fish tank. Boycott seafood people!

This is way cool. Even though my body becomes completely numb in the water and I loose complete feeling in my hands and feet, I stay in the water and swim through this awesome world, every minute or so going, “oh my god, oh my god, I can’t believe I’m here” to myself into my snorkel.

After Isla de los Lobos, we travel another half an hour to Lion Dormido, a big rock formation in the middle of the Ocean that is in the shape of a sleeping lion and is therefore called the Sleeping Lion or Lion Dormido. We jump onto the cold ocean again this time looking for bigger fish, the kind with big teeth, called sharks. Here the water is much deeper and surprisingly somewhat warmer (either that or the cold was making me hallucinate). We swim through Lion Dormido and at first I see very little. The water is so deep below me; I see no fish just deep blue water. As I am swimming along, one of the kids in the marine biology group (they seem to see everything in the ocean; it is as if the sea-life comes to them) turns to me and says, “There are about 15 sharks below you!” What!?!?!? I look again and this time dive down (a very hard task because the wetsuit combined with the salt water does not allow you to sink, even on your own accord) and sure enough, sharks. I’m swimming with sharks, my first response it to go, “Ahhhhhhhh” into my snorkel. Sharks! At times I’m 5 feet away from these creators. They are Galapagos Sharks and there are so many of them. This is so awesome.

Finally I make my way out of the water and we go to another isolated small Island for a stroll on the beach and finally head home. I loved this day.

I have had many other memorable experience in the past month, including going out around 11pm with a bunch of local friends to one of the soccer fields in town and playing soccer and eating oranges until 2 or 3 in the morning, going to our friend Macro’s house and cooking food and hanging out, going on a sunset cruise (basically going on a catamaran into the bow and watching the sunset), going on my first SCUBA diving experiences and many more. On Halloween, after I send my paper in to Andres, I had an hour to pull together my Halloween costume and after going to a couple stores and finding a few things on the street, I pulled together a Blue Footed Boobie costume that was pretty funny. I was runner up in the costume contest of all the people who dressed up for Halloween on the Islands. I guess I made a good Boobie.