By guest author Andrés Valdivieso of Yale University.
Magical. Breathtaking. The Enchanted Islands really can be described as just that, and yet so much more. A few days ago I took off from the Baltra Island airport, leaving behind an archipelago that will forever hold a special place in my heart. Having grown up in New York City, I expected my summer in Galapagos to be life-changing, completely different from the hustle and bustle of everyday city life. But the magnitude of the impact these months had on me is something I will continue to reflect on as I return to Yale University for my last year as an undergrad.
It seems like just yesterday that I was speaking to my lab advisor, Dr. Gisella Caccone, about the possibility of travelling to Galapagos for the summer as a field assistant with the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative (GTRI). After receiving the all-clear from the “tortoise research team,” I spent some three months on-site, working alongside Wacho Tapia, the GTRI’s director.
I first focused on creating and expanding a database for the Fausto Llerena Giant Tortoise Breeding Center on Santa Cruz Island. Eventually this database will contain nearly 50 years of tortoise breeding and rearing information, and future analyses will provide valuable insight into the giant tortoise program and produce recommendations for strategic changes to the breeding center protocols. Then I spent time in the field learning about the tortoises and partaking in fieldwork on Santa Fe Island, where we released 201 young tortoises.
Near the end of my summer in Galapagos, we returned to Santa Fe for the first of many follow-up monitoring trips to assess the progress of the tortoises. Of all my activities with the GTRI, this proved to be both the most rewarding and the most difficult. We spent eight nights camping on the island, working nine-hour days, conducting a survey of the tortoises released in June, and collecting data on the vegetation in previously-marked permanent plots and exclosures near the tortoise release site.
Although we were occasionally blessed with a welcome hour or two of cooling cloud coverage, we mostly worked under the full blaze of the equatorial sun. We were exhausted at the end of each day, but I knew that I would do it again in a heartbeat if it meant making a difference in the ecological restoration of such a unique ecosystem. I felt like a kid in a candy shop, constantly turning and smiling in amazement at the natural beauty of Santa Fe and its wildlife.
My work with Galapagos Conservancy and the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative will guide me as I make decisions on grad school and post-grad internships. Conservation can be a demanding and competitive field, but one I would say is definitely worth the sweat and tears. When over the course of a workday I encounter humpback whales, giant tortoises, land iguanas, hawks, owls, and countless other native and endemic species — both plants and animals — I feel inspired to continue to labor towards a future where these organisms can exist in a healthy and protected environment.
Whether Galapagos is in my near future is uncertain, but the lessons I learned there will be something I carry with me for many years to come. I am eternally grateful for my experience this summer, and hope that many will continue to contribute towards the conservation and restoration of these special little islands out in the Pacific Ocean.
Andrés Valdivieso is a senior undergrad at Yale University, majoring in Environmental Studies with a focus on Wildlife Conservation. He is conducting his senior thesis research on the conservation genetics of Galapagos Giant Tortoises under the guidance of Dr. Gisella Caccone in the Caccone Lab, the central laboratory for the Galapagos tortoise genetics work. Thanks to support from the Yale Macmillan Center Council on Latin America and Iberian Studies, Pierson College Richter Summer Fellowship, and Yale Summer Environmental Fellowship, he was able to spend this past summer on Santa Cruz Island working with Galapagos Conservancy. All photos © Andrés Valdivieso.