By Rocio Ruiz, University of Málaga biologist and GTRI program volunteer.
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Summarizing my six months in Galapagos is difficult — as I sit down to write this blog back home in Spain, my heart wants to return to the landscapes and voices left behind. I can still remember when María del Mar Trigo, a friend and expert in aerobiology and botany, told me about Galapagos Conservancy. I couldn’t believe it when I later received an email from Wacho Tapia, director of the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative (GTRI) in Galapagos, confirming my participation as a volunteer with the program for six months. As a biologist, it was a dream come true!
Upon arriving in the the Archipelago last November, I was impressed by its blue waters, Scalesia forests, sea lions and marine iguanas, pelicans, boobies, sharks, sea turtles, and Puerto Ayora’s Darwin Avenue full of shops and colors. It was incredible to be there. Shortly after my arrival, I helped Wacho with preparations for the expedition to Wolf Volcano to recover hybrid giant tortoises with genes from the extinct species of Pinta and Floreana Islands. I was filled with enthusiasm to be part of this unique adventure.
Together with a large group of Park rangers and scientists, I embarked on the Park’s research vessel, the Sierra Negra, the night of November 18, 2015. The next morning, the helicopter dropped us near our camp. We spent eight days opening passages through the dense vegetation and crossing lava fields dotted with cactus trees. In that immensity, one feels little more than a humble grain of sand. My field group’s search for tortoises depended greatly on the experience of Park rangers Anibal Altamirano and Rafael Díaz. Working with them was a privilege. The expedition was a success, and we returned to Santa Cruz with 32 tortoises.
I spent much of my six months helping in the Fausto Llerena Tortoise Center, where work vital to the long-term conservation of giant tortoises has been carried out for more than 50 years. The tortoises are essential components of the ecosystems of these islands. I watched as baby tortoises broke out of their shells and took their first steps — an event that’s magical to behold. I learned to measure, weigh, and mark them, taught by Park rangers Freddy Villalva, Walter Chimborazo, and Moses Villafuerte, whose passion for their work is contagious. I also participated in the long-term work to improve the digital database for the tortoise centers.
During my time in Galapagos, Jennifer Vásconez, an Ecuadorian student doing her bachelor’s degree at Central University of Ecuador, conducted a study with the tortoises we brought back from Wolf Volcano. She was trying to determine the necessary quarantine time after moving tortoises from island to island, to ensure that all seeds from the previous location have passed out of the tortoises. These seeds can then be identified to determine diet. I helped with the daily collection of scat from the tortoise corrals and supervised the work; we learned a lot together.
I decided to study the social behavior of the giant tortoises from Wolf Volcano and of marine iguanas. I collected data on hierarchical behavior and dominance of the tortoises in captivity, and on the head-bobbing movements of marine iguanas in the wild.
I also had the opportunity to participate as a field assistant with a German research group collecting morphometrics and samples of marine iguanas from seven different islands to better understand their social interactions. During two weeks onboard the sailboat Pirata, I was accompanied by beautiful sunsets, starry nights, ghost stories, and rough seas.
Galapagos is a unique place in the world, both due to its landscapes, fauna and flora, and its people. I grew both professionally and personally, and I learned that the work of conservation is hard but essential, and at the same time satisfying. I will continue working for conservation in my future projects, and I hope to return again one day.
Rocio Ruiz is a biologist from the University of Málaga in Spain and an ethologist. She completed six months as a volunteer in the Galapagos Islands under the supervision of Wacho Tapia, director of the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative. She received her MSc in 2015; her research was on the begging behavior of passerine chicks at the Doñana Biological Station of the Spanish Council for Scientific Research (CSIC), with Dr. Tomás Redondo. Photos © Rocio Ruiz.