A visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station was one of the things that I was looking forward to the most. For years, I was captivated by the idea of seeing where scientists studied the one of the world’s most important ecosystems. The station has been around since 1959 and boasts a huge staff of scientists, 90 percent of which are Ecuadorian. To me, a visit here alone would have made the trip worth it.
So I was ecstatic that this was the first stop on my Galapagos Experience Program. But as I approached the station, I was confused at first. In my head, I had always pictured it as one huge sleek building filled with books and microscopes. Instead, I wasn’t even sure if I had reached it or if the signs and small cluster of tiny buildings were only the entrance. Around the signs, there was a maze of tiny paths lined with cacti and nondescript signs.
After a little thought, I realized that this setup made sense. If the purpose of the station is to help preserve the islands, why would the founders make a huge man-made structure that would disturb them? Instead, this was a space that let them study the environment while actually being in the environment.
Once I shook off my naïve confusion, I doubled back to get a closer look at the cacti that I had mistakenly passed over. As it turns out, the Galapagos Islands have a few different types. The most prominent species is the Prickly Pear Cactus (the scientific name is Opuntia Cactaceae). There are multiple types of Prickly Pear on the islands and they are an important food source for the iguanas and tortoises. Many of them sport tiny yellow flowers, which can eventually develop into thorn-covered fruits. These large-paddled plants can be found in multiple islands in huge numbers; the path on the way to the station is also lined with them.
After examining the rows of plants, I continued walking until I ran into a building with solar panels on the roof. This source of renewable energy was a good reminder of the Galapagos Islands’ dedication to preserving the environment. Just last year, the construction of a huge 1.5-megawatt solar energy power plant was finished in Santa Cruz Island. The decision to make this project came after 2007, when the Ecuadorian government created policies on renewable energy. As a result, many Galapagos residents no longer have to rely on a diesel power plant.
The last part of the visit included a chance to see the famous giant tortoises. Pictures of these tortoises have graced the websites of so many travel companies, making a trip to see them an essential part of the Galapagos experience.
Seeing these monstrous creatures chomp their way through piles of vegetables was truly a mesmerizing experience, on that I only tore away to watch two tortoises fight.
Because of their short legs and sluggish crawl, I had never really thought much about the idea of them fighting. But like every species, they have their own specific way of asserting their dominance. When two tortoises fight, they do so by raising their heads as high as they can. The “winner” is the one that manages to raise his head the highest. After this competition, the “loser” usually retreats. As they fought, a strange raspy sound gradually let its way out of their gaping mouths.
There weren’t as many tortoises at the station as I had expected, but then again there aren’t that many Galapagos tortoises at all. For about two centuries, these creatures were used as a food source for whalers and fur sealers while their oil was used to light lamps. This consistent use led to a loss of about 100,000-200,000 tortoises and the extinction of four of their species.
The most famous of the tortoises is most likely Lonesome George, whose name is plastered onto many souvenir t-shirts and key-chains. As the last surviving member of the Pinta tortoises, he was discovered in 1971 when the species was thought to be extinct. For a long time, scientists tried to find a breeding partner for Lonesome George, but he died in 2012 due to natural causes.
Hearing this information about the tortoises was slightly unnerving, but it didn’t do much to put a damper on the visit; in fact, it was comforting to know that the research station is there to help preserve the islands’ ecosystem. There are so many fun things to do on the islands, but a visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station can help you understand your surroundings and why they are so strongly protected. Swimming, snorkeling, and hiking in the Galapagos Islands are fun, but you can do these activities in a variety of locations. What makes these activities different is the idea of being surrounded by plants and animals that can’t be found anywhere else on earth.