Less than two weeks ago, I returned from another amazing adventure in Galapagos. 2017 will be my ninth and final year of leading tours for Galapagos Conservancy — with the last cruise set for June. It has been a wonderful run — getting out into the Archipelago where each time I become reinvigorated with the beauty of the Islands — so much better than sitting in meetings in Puerto Ayora. The people part has been as enjoyable as the wildlife.
On this last trip, several Galapagos scientists added to our adventure, on Santa Cruz and then out in the Islands. All have received project funding from Galapagos Conservancy, some for several years.
Dr. Heinke Jäger, a restoration ecologist at the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF), was our guest at our first lunch on Santa Cruz. GC has been funding Heinke’s projects on invasive plants and ants and the restoration of the Scalesia forest for several years. As luck would have it, she was scheduled to be in the field the next afternoon at Los Gemelos. When we arrived, Heinke met us at the side of the road. She and her assistant, Marcelo Loyola, who has worked with her for the past six years, led us along a narrow path through the woods to one of her plots where they are studying the impact of control methods for the ever-spreading blackberry — one of the most destructive invasive plants to become established in Galapagos.
Other scientists we met with on Santa Cruz included Dr. Charlotte Causton of the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) and Paula Castano of Island Conservation. Charlotte leads the project to control the invasive bot fly Philornis downsi, which includes coordinating some 19 international scientists from nine countries. Paula, a veterinarian, is working on the larger Floreana Project (with the eventual aim of eliminating cats and rodents and returning some of the original native species), as well as the ongoing study of the hawks of Pinzón. She told me they’d recently seen the first fledgling hawk since the rat eradication in 2012. We hope to have more news from her shortly as she returned to Pinzón this past week for follow-up monitoring.
Recently GC has expanded its funding to also support some exciting work in sustainable agriculture. Paulina Couenberg, of the Galapagos office of the Ministry of Agriculture, joined us one evening at Safari Camp to speak about the Bioagriculture Plan for Galapagos and their project to develop sustainable livestock production (pigs and poultry). After years of abandoned farmlands covered with invasive plant species, it is heartening to see these advances — as the more Galapagos produces in the Islands, the less that needs to be brought from the mainland.
Once again, we were treated to a demonstration by Darwin and Neville, the two dogs trained to search for the Giant African Land Snail (GALS) on Santa Cruz. Both dogs worked with their trainers to locate the hidden GALS; when Neville finds a snail he barks, while Darwin sits down beside it. Previously the Galapagos Biosecurity Agency team had done the demonstration in the field; this time it was at their headquarters: the dogs have been so successful in removing GALS from the nearby area that none are left to find. We also met Rex, the new dog being trained for inspection work at the airport.
Perhaps our biggest surprise was when we arrived at Elizabeth Bay on the western side of Isabela Island and found Ratty, a boat belonging to long-time Galapagos naturalist Godfrey Merlen. Dr. Dee Boersma of the University of Washington had told me she’d be out that way on Ratty doing her annual penguin work. GC has been supporting Dee’s work aimed at increasing the penguin population through the construction of artificial nest sites (based on the idea that nest sites are a limiting factor). That evening, Dee, Godfrey, and Dee’s graduate student Caroline came on board for drinks and an impromptu talk. That morning we’d seen how healthy the penguins looked around Punta Moreno and Elizabeth Bay; onboard we got to have up-to-the-minute reports from the scientists studying them.
The next afternoon, at Punta Espinosa on Fernandina, we ran into the famous Galapagos photographer Tui De Roy, as she wandered the site taking photos. Tui and I have known each other for decades and it was great to run into her out in the wild. Back on board, the group devoured the one book of Tui’s in the Integrity library. Tui was traveling on a boat with several scientists – all doing different projects. The group included, among others, Dr. Inti Keith of the CDF who is doing marine invasive work, funded by GC, and Dr. Kathryn Tosney, doing a study of marine iguanas. Kathryn had traveled with me on the GC cruise twice — once on the western trip and once the eastern trip.
While catching up with the scientists and learning more about their work were trip highlights — for me, the greatest joy came in the western islands when I saw blue-footed booby feeding frenzies — with many blue-foot juveniles; something that has been missing in recent years. I proudly wore my blue-footed booby socks to celebrate.
Photo credits: All photos © Stefan Tucker except group photo © Richard Polatty (top); blue-footed booby feeding frenzy © Isaac Pessah (second-from-bottom) and blue-footed booby socks © Joanna Prukop (bottom).