38 Wonderful Years with Galapagos: Thoughts Upon My Retirement

January 8, 2019

As I begin this blog — a farewell of sorts and a big thank you to my Galapagos friends and colleagues, and to Galapagos Conservancy (GC) supporters dedicated to the long-term conservation of the Islands we all love — I’m filled with a wide range of emotions. It’s been quite a ride and I could never have done it without you.

It’s hard to believe that I first arrived in Galapagos nearly 38 years ago — in March 1981. The world I encountered was so different from today — a small community of people, dirt roads, mail once a week, no phones — only a couple of ham radio operators, and electricity from 7 am to 11 pm. The population of the Archipelago was around 6000, with some 2000 tourists showing up each year. We lived isolated from the rest of the world.

The intersection at Pelican Bay

The intersection at Pelican Bay, Puerto Ayora in 1981, near the location of the fish market today 

Over the decades, I have watched conditions change, more and more rapidly. Today the human population is closer to 30,000, with over 250,000 visitors arriving each year. Yet while the human-inhabited islands have undergone un-ending development, many uninhabited islands are in better condition than when I first arrived — with many invasive species controlled or eliminated and some native populations on the upswing (including my favorites — the giant tortoises).

Upon my arrival in Galapagos, I visited the tortoises in the corrals at the Tortoise Center, but it was not until I journeyed into the Santa Cruz highlands and encountered my first tortoise in the wild that I was hooked. Watching this giant reptile amble through the forest, seemingly without a care in the world, transported me into an era long past, before humans walked the Earth. Even at hatching, the tiny tortoises appear to have arisen from some ancient time. Giant tortoises, the focus of my PhD research in the early 1980s, have remained at the core of my involvement.

Some of my favorite memories over the years include:

  • Following a tortoise down a river in the highlands of Santa Cruz during El Niño 1982-83. That the tortoise opted for a river run – a mode of migration almost NEVER available in Galapagos – to migrate to the lowlands amazed me. We bumped into rocks as the water carried us onwards. His carapace and my daypack caught on the Clerodendrum branches overhead. When the tortoise entered the river late one afternoon to begin his half-hour river run, I, the intrepid scientist, followed. He was, after all, my focal animal for the day.
Floodwaters flowing through the forest on the Tortoise Reserve

Floodwaters flowing through the forest on the Tortoise Reserve – El Niño 1983 

  • Leading the GC cruises on the Integrity, in partnership with Richard Polatty (good friend, naturalist guide, and now a GC board member) and INCA Travel (a GC travel partner), from 2009 to 2017. I loved sharing Galapagos with group after group of wonderful people.
Panga ride

A panga ride during the 2016 GC cruise on INCA’s Integrity

  • Spending weeks camped on uninhabited islands following tortoises, land iguanas, and other species — sharing exhausting days of fieldwork, stories, laughter, and deep, long-lasting friendships with park rangers and Ecuadorian students,.
  • Emerging from my tent one morning on the crater floor of Alcedo Volcano to watch giant tortoises emerge out of the mist as the sun rose above the crater rim.
Tortoises on Santa Cruz

An old male and female tortoise on Santa Cruz Island

In 2012, I facilitated the international tortoise workshop in Galapagos that resulted in the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative (GTRI) — a collaborative effort of Galapagos Conservancy with the Galapagos National Park and a suite of international scientists. Our aim is to restore Galapagos tortoise populations to their historic distribution and numbers. Over the last several years, we have returned tortoises to Santa Fe Island, begun a breeding program to restore tortoises to Floreana Island, and continued to work on rebuilding populations on Española, Pinzón, and other islands. As coordinator of the Initiative, I worked closely with Wacho Tapia, the Galapagos-based GTRI director, and Dr. James Gibbs, our principal scientist. Since Wacho first worked with me as a volunteer at the Charles Darwin Research Station when he was 17 years old, he has grown into an extremely knowledgeable and accomplished professional. I am happy to turn the GTRI over to his capable hands.

2012 Tortoise Workshop team

Team from the 2012 Tortoise Workshop, which led to the development of the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative

I discovered the Galapagos Islands in my late twenties, and they quickly found their way into my heart. The beauty and wonder I experienced there each day — and the incredible wildlife on land and in the sea — were major factors, but I also fell in love with the people. Over all these years, that list of people has grown into a worldwide community of friends — all tied to Galapagos. And working these last 14 years with the dynamic and dedicated group at Galapagos Conservancy, led by Johannah Barry, has been a privilege and a joy.

Linda Cayot

The author in 1983

While this is my retirement farewell and thank you to all — I will never truly say goodbye to my Galapagos friends and colleagues, and I will continue to support our joint efforts to protect and restore this amazing place into the future.

Dr. Linda Cayot served as GC’s Science Advisor since 2005 and has played an instrumental role in Galapagos conservation efforts for nearly 40 years. She retired at the end of 2018 and will be missed by everyone at Galapagos Conservancy as well as those she worked with in Galapagos and around the world.

All photos © Linda Cayot except Integrity panga ride photo © Karen Kaufmann; 2012 Tortoise Workshop group photo © Ole Hamann; author bio photo © Heidi Köster .

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  1. Dr. Cayot,

    As a fellow conservationist and wildlife biologist, I am utterly inspired by your career and awesome contributions to the field of conservation! I feel privileged and grateful to know you. THANK YOU; THANK YOU; THANK YOU!

    Deep Bow,
    Paul Hardy

  2. My husband Phil was part of the kiwi team of helicopter hunters that eradicated the goats on the islands. He always speaks so fondly of the conservation of Galapagos

  3. Lovely account of your river ride with a tortoise eager to ride, not walk, to the lowlands! Thank you for your heartfelt love and dedication to the magical, irreplaceable islands.

  4. A wild ride indeed! Well done, Linda. Thanks for all that you’ve meant to Galapagos. I’m sure we’ve not heard the last of you, and that we’ll meet in Galapagos again one day! Conley

  5. As a one time tourist & now stanch supporter I am sorry to see you retire but I so admire you & your 37years of dedicated service to my love also, the tortoises.
    The trip “up the hill was a hot long steamy winding road” but the Tauck tour guides took us right where the tortoises were enjoying life munching away. I shall never forget their slow movements as in chewing and breeding. They were just huge and so relaxed with life. I was mesmerized & didn’t want to leave but was told we would next see Lonesome George so I relented & got back on the bus. I was a bit disappointed seeing him in captivity but he and the others were well fed and cared for & the tour of that facility made me realize how much was being done for the tortoises & how much more was needed. You have done a marvelous job all these years and deserve to retire. I’m so happy to see your close colleagues are continuing this much-needed work.
    God Speed & good health & do you still have that marvelous visor-hat in your 1983 picture…what a keepsake! Sincerely,

  6. Oh, Linda, What an upbeat and beautiful goodbye to your many colleagues and friends and the amazing work you did over all those years. I’ll forward this to Amy and Colin so they can see what became of their favorite babysitter from their earliest years on this earth.
    Be well, dear friend. And let me know when your memoir is in print. Can’t wait to read it, especially after reading this piece.
    Love and peace be yours, Glenda

  7. Dr. Linda,
    I remember so well when I went to this wonderful place called the Galapagos. I didn’t bring a wet suit, but you happily lent me yours, I weigh 100 lbs. I was with my 93 year old mother who had been there several times and wanted my brothers and I to see this incredible place. It has always been one of my favorite vacations. My Mom always remembered you very well. Thank You for all you have done . Jeanne

  8. Hello. I found out about you from the Donkey Sanctuary in Sidmouth. I sent them a note about an article I had seen about the feral donkeys on the Galapagos islands, and how they were an invasive species, and causing destruction to the ecosystem and also had injured a dog. I was worried about them as I love donkeys. I wanted to know if that was an old article, or are donkeys still present. Can you update me on donkeys and the galapagos islands. Thank you.

    • Hi Brenda — donkeys have been eliminated from Isabela and Santiago Islands, but still exist on Santa Cruz.

  9. Bravo Linda! Thank you for your confidence back in 1998, which led to my own life-long connection to Galapagos.

  10. Ben Metcalf, Starmer/Sullivan Lab 1979-1986 on

    Congrats Linda on a outstanding career. I’ve enjoyed seeing talking about your work with the tortoises over the years. You brilliantly handled the fact that interviewers can not put tortoise and breeding into a sentence without turning into 12 year olds

  11. Linda, what a wonderful career you’ve had! I gave a talk about Galapagos only this week, using pictures from my trip and modern ones of the same places taken from the www. Will never forget that dampish trip with you and Treesa and was delighted to read about the (young?) female found on Fernandina last month. There’s certainly reason for optimism, with so many projects to get rid of feral animals in the islands. Have a great retirement, my friend. I look forward to your book. xx

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