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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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 .