On March 5, 2016, I celebrated the 35th anniversary of the day I first arrived in Galapagos. I had no idea when I stepped off the plane onto the reddish soil of Baltra Island in March of 1981 that my life had just changed forever. Many people speak of their transformational journey to Galapagos. My two-and-a-half years studying giant tortoises on Santa Cruz and Pinzón in the early 1980s slowly morphed into a lifetime of passion, dedication, and hard work for the conservation of these amazing giants and the islands they call home.
Today one of my “jobs,” as Science Advisor at Galapagos Conservancy (GC), is to lead our annual cruises, along with INCA‘s naturalist guide extraordinaire Richard Polatty — a friend of more than thirty years. Some of the best ambassadors for preserving Galapagos are those who have visited the Islands. We believe that sharing the Archipelago’s wonders while providing information on current conservation efforts helps to ensure life-long supporters of Galapagos.
I recently returned from GC’s cruise to the western islands, along with fifteen passengers hailing from Hawaii, California, British Columbia, Michigan, and states east. Before heading out on the Integrity to visit numerous uninhabited islands, we spent a couple of days on Santa Cruz to focus on the problems confronting Galapagos and its flora and fauna, as well as some of the solutions.
Scientists, educators, natural resource managers, and others joined us for meals or gave us tours of their projects. Dr. Charlotte Causton (Charles Darwin Foundation/CDF) talked about the problems with the invasive bot fly, Philornis downsi, which is decimating many of the land bird populations. Dr. Heinke Jäger (CDF) showed us areas where the hill raspberry, locally called “mora,” has invaded the native forest, and talked about the methods they are testing to control it. While in the highlands, we happened upon Dr. Sonia Kleindorfer (Flinders University, Australia), studying Darwin’s finches. She gave us an impromptu roadside talk about her work and played some of her recordings of finch calls.
We scrambled through ongoing construction of a building that will house the expertly taxidermied specimen of Lonesome George, to reach the Galapagos National Park’s tortoise rearing center. There we got an up-close look at the incubation process, saw the first tortoise hatchlings of the year, and watched as the park rangers fed the hundreds of young tortoises in the rearing pens. When these small creatures emerge from the egg they already look prehistoric, and though tiny, they will eventually grow into the giants that will help to restore the wild populations and their islands.
A major treat for me was the opportunity to watch Neville and Darwin (Dogs for Conservation) in action. Back in 2014, GC funded the training of the dogs in the USA and their transport and initial work with the Galapagos Biosecurity Agency in Galapagos. The ongoing project to rid Santa Cruz of the invasive Giant African Land Snail (GALS) is making progress. We spent an hour in the field with these remarkable dogs and their handlers as they demonstrated searching for GALS. One GC trip participant, having read about the dogs on our website, brought gifts — toys, packs, water bowls, and several other items. Although the area had already been cleared of the largest snails, tiny snails remain hidden in the brush until they grow large enough for the dogs to detect. Darwin and Neville had each located a small snail before the demonstration ended.
A visit to the Tomás de Berlanga School provided the group with insight into the current project to reform education in Galapagos. A couple of passengers talked with Matt Geiger, the director of the school, about how they could help.
One of the things I love about GC trips is the opportunity to visit many areas on Santa Cruz, the island with the largest human population, where I can introduce our trip participants not only to the myriad problems facing Galapagos but also to the people who are working to solve those problems — as well as inform them of ongoing research, management, and educational projects focused on ensuring a better future for the islands, their flora and fauna, and the human population that calls them home.
After three days on Santa Cruz, we enjoyed a week of wonder wandering visitor trails on many of the uninhabited islands, snorkeling with the incredible sea creatures of Galapagos, and watching sunrises and sunsets over the ocean and Galapagos — all of which took me back 35 years to the moment I first stepped onto Galapagos soil, fell in love with the Islands, and eventually dedicated my life to their preservation.
Dr. Linda Cayot is GC’s Science Advisor and has played an important role in Galapagos conservation efforts for more than 30 years.
Photo credits, from top: Integrity panga ride © Karen Kaufmann; tortoise hatchlings © Thomas Heller; dogs in the field © Thomas Heller; dog gift bag © ABG; Integrity at Punta Vicente Roca © Thomas Heller.