By Leandra Rhodes January 11, 2018
In July 2015, I volunteered for a month on the island of San Cristóbal, the most eastern of the Galápagos Islands. The project focused on environmental conservation and partnered with local national park authorities to help with various tasks: monitor sea lion populations, aid staff at the local tortoise breeding centre, collect trash from beaches, and remove invasive plant species from various areas around the island. Volunteers lived with host families in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, and we convened daily at our base for work assignments.
Many days, we would help the park authorities with plant removal at El Junco, a crater lake on the island. We used machetes to cut down invasive blackberry bushes; these bushes were brought to the islands in 1968 and have since spread across the Galápagos archipelago . Blackberry bushes are now considered one of the most threatening and invasive plant species in the Galápagos. Its growth hinders that of many other plant species and affects the nesting abilities of many birds endemic to the islands .
Other days, volunteers went with the park rangers to the Galapaguera de Cerro Colorado, San Cristóbal’s tortoise breeding centre. There, we would help the staff and park rangers clean the habitats and collect food for the tortoises. Fresh food was harvested every other day, and when delivered caused a veritable feeding frenzy!
The Galápagos tortoises are the largest living tortoises on earth and can live to well over 100. It’s these tortoises, or galápagos in Spanish , that gave the archipelago its name. At the Galapaguera, staff monitor the growth of the tortoises. When needing to handle the tortoises, particularly the younger ones, the staff take great care and always wear gloves. We were told that oil from human skin can affect the tortoises’ shells, warping and deforming them. This can hinder their growth and affect the development of many internal organs. While I have been unable to find further information about this phenomenon, these deformities are not uncommon; many tortoises and turtles are often victims of plastic pollution and have deformed shells due to of milk jug rings or six-pack holders. Two famous examples of this are Peanut the turtle and Mae West the snapping turtle.
Human interaction with the environment can often have negative repercussions; this is seen all over the world, and highlighted here with examples of invasive plant species introduction and risk to wildlife. So let’s talk specifically about marine life, and the thing that affected me most during my stay on San Cristóbal: the sea lions, and the effects of human interaction.
Every beach in the Galápagos is covered with sea lions: napping, sun tanning, playing in the surf. The youngsters are incredibly friendly, splashing around with tourists, blowing bubbles with scuba divers, posing for pictures. This has given many tourists a false idea of how they should behave with these animals. Most tourists now overstep their bounds, trying to one-up their friends with the ultimate selfie and with the biggest sea lion.
The thing is: sea lions are extremely territorial creatures. While the cubs may want to play with you, the adults definitely don’t. If they feel, in any way, that you are encroaching on their territory, they will chase you away and threaten to bite. They do this also to try and protect their young, the silly cubs who just want to play. Combine the naiveté of the cubs and humans’ inability to maintain a healthy distance, and you get a big problem.
One day, I was among several volunteers participating in a beach cleanup on the island when I saw an upsetting site: a dead sea lion cub on the beach. The park rangers explained that it had died of starvation after its mother had abandoned it. Turns out that when a sea lion cub gets too close to a human, it changes their scent. The mothers can no longer identify their babies and the cubs are abandoned, often when they are still too young to feed themselves. Sea lions don’t adopt other cubs, so once abandoned they typically starve . The park authorities do everything they can to encourage tourists to keep their distance from the playful animals, but it doesn’t always work. This is when unnecessary human interactions with nature take a turn for the worst.
Similar to beached dolphins used for selfies…but that’s a discussion for another time.
Having had the opportunity to live and work in such a beautiful place was truly amazing, immersed in the biodiversity of the Galápagos. La Loberia is the place to go to hike among iguanas and to spot a number of bird species, including red- and blue-footed boobies and frigatebirds. Cerro Tijeretas is popular for snorkeling, and a common place to spot sea turtles and manta rays. Punta Pitt is one of the top diving destinations to explore, and a location frequented by Galápagos sharks. León Dormido, or Kicker Rock, is just a boat ride off the coast, and hosts a channel between two volcanic rocks. This channel has become a famed snorkeling destination to spot hundreds of Galápagos and hammerhead sharks.
These places are just a few of what make the Galápagos so incredible, and the wildlife they host are another. Both the land and the species need to be protected. One of the best ways to ensure protection is to increase awareness: read up before you travel, share your knowledge, and don’t forget, respect the wildlife – whether on land or in the water!
All photos by Leandra Rhodes