Finally after 12 months of organisation – applications, work visas and countless email conversations our Tevas hit the steamy tarmac of Baltra Island an ex-US World War II Naval Base and now the main tourist airport on the Galapagos Islands. The archipelago was made famous through the works of Charles Darwin and the countless documentaries about the fascinating wildlife which reside there. It felt like a dream as the hot, humid air hit us on our way towards the security checkpoint. We couldn’t wait to strip off the layers of clothing we had bundled up in before we left Ecuador’s capital, Quito, situated at nearly 3,000 metres above sea level. We watched as the sniffer dogs and National Parks security checked all the incoming luggage to ensure no introduced organisms or foreign materials enter the protected islands before we were crammed onto a local bus and ferried to the main island of Santa Cruz to begin our Galapagos Adventure………
The Galapagos Islands are situated approximately 1000km to the west of the South American mainland, the nearest of which is Ecuador, which has sovereignty over the archipelago. The islands lie right on the equator, which actually crosses the northern volcano (Volcan Wolf) of the largest island of Isabela (100km2), with most of the larger islands situated slightly below latitude zero: Santa Cruz, Fernandina, Santiago, San Cristobal, Floreana, Española, Santa Fe, Pinzon and Rabida. Islands Darwin, Wolf, Pinta, Marchena and Genovesa lie to the north of the equator.
Although the Galapagos archipelago lie directly on the equator, the islands come under the influence of the cool Humboldt (Peru) Current which drifts up from the southern Pacific and brings with it particularly cold waters (which allow penguins to live on the equator!) that assist in keeping the land temperatures at a relatively comfortable level which can almost border on cold during the dry “garua” season. These cool waters demonstrate the phenomena of nutrient upwelling upon coming into contact with the westerly shelf of the islands which forces vast nutrient reserves to the surface of the ocean, leading to the huge feeding frenzies of whales, fish and seabirds observed at certain times of the year.
The Galapagos are volcanic in origin and have never been connected to the mainland, but instead rose directly from the sea and are actually the tips of massive submarine volcanoes. This suggests that the species present arrived here from other distant sources of colonization (mainland South America over 1000km away) and did so by utilizing unique and bizarre methods such as clinging to floating mats of vegetation in the case of the iguanas and tortoises. The islands are believed to be moving in a south easterly direction toward the mainland at a rate of 7cm per year, which translates to around 70km over the next 1,000,000 years. The islands are thought to be the result of a volcanic “hot spot” in the sea floor to the north west of the archipelago, which over time and subsequent eruptions give rise to new islands, the newest of which is the extremely volcanically active Fernandina (only 700,000 years old) and the active volcanoes of Isabela. The volcanoes then begin to move toward the south east and hence the oldest island in the archipelago is Española in the far south east at around 5,000,000 years old.
Our base within the islands was Puerto Ayora (population approximately 12,000) on the island of Santa Cruz, where we worked for five months with the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS), a scientific research institute which provides advice to the Galapagos National Park Service. Our primary role as GIS (Geographical Information Systems) specialists was with the botany department and involved a complete review and remapping of the distributions of the entire endemic plant taxa of the archipelago. Our work will be used to update the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) Red List for threatened endemic plants of the Galapagos and provide future direction for conservation options for endemic plants within the islands.
We were extremely fortunate however that our work with the CDRS coincided with a number of field trips to other islands! Firstly we embarked on a journey to the desolate, lava encrusted island of Española to collect the prickly fruits of the giant Opuntia cactus which dot the island. These plants are extremely important as they provide shade, shelter and food for Galapagos Doves, Cactus Finches, Lava Lizards and the famous Giant Tortoises. The Tortoises on Española are the saddleback variety with long necks and legs to enable them to reach the sparse offerings on the desert islands of the Galapagos compared to their dome shelled siblings from the moister highlands of the larger islands. One of the highlights of our stay in the Galapagos was a field trip to the famous Alcedo Volcano which supports the highest concentrations of Giant Tortoise in the archipelago. Between 4000 and 5000 of the behemoths live in a modern day Jurassic park with the immense backdrop of the active Volcan Alcedo which continues to force clouds of sulphurous gas from its’ active fumaroles. Along with our Ecuadorian colleagues, we spent a week assessing the condition of the vegetation on the flanks of the caldera (approximately 1100 metres above sea level). The ecosystems of Alcedo have received enormous pressure in recent times from introduced goats which have seriously overgrazed the vegetation and placed the tortoise population under threat. Fortunately “Project Isabela”, a program initiated to eradicate feral animals from the volcanoes of Isabela has been highly successful and as a result we only saw five goats for the entire trip and detected a significant improvement in vegetation condition (based on photos and data from previous field trips).
Another highlight of our trip was a week long Galapagos cruise, incorporating the further northern and western regions of the islands. As a tourist, an important point to consider when visiting the Galapagos is that to observe many of the unique fauna it is necessary to go to very specific regions of the archipelago, such as Genovesa for Red-footed Boobies, Fernandina and western Isabela for Flightless Cormorants and Española for the mighty Waved Albatross. We were very keen for the “complete” Galapagos faunal experience and were not disappointed, witnessing the majority of the more closely studied species such as; Marine Iguana, Land Iguana (including some very large specimens in excess of 1 metre in length), Galapagos Snakes, Flightless Cormorants, Blue & Red-footed Boobies, Waved Albatross, Frigate Birds, Tropic Birds, Fur Seals, Galapagos Sea Lions, Galapagos Penguins and more Giant Tortoises. The cruise also provided us with an opportunity to meet some very special friends from all over the world who we hope to meet up with again sometime soon.
Our dream of living and working in the Galapagos certainly lived up to all expectations – the Galapagos Islands are an awe inspiring place where despite the encroachment of man, the biodiversity of the islands has remained relatively unchanged which is in stark contrast to the majority of the island archipelagos around the world. Ours was a life changing experience and the memories of an isolated chain of active volcanoes in the Pacific dominated by huge reptiles that somehow managed to survive in a hostile waterless environment will stay with us for the rest of our lives. However, one thing is for certain….…………………we will return someday!
We would like to thank all our special friends from the
Charles Darwin Research Station, the Galapagos National Park and from
Puerto Ayora who gave us their friendship, were patient with our attempts
at Spanish and who most importantly made our time in the Galapagos so