Expedition to the Galapagos Islands This is a first-hand account of Ocean Generation’s founder, Jo Ruxton, as she visits a destination she dreamt of since childhood, the Galapagos islands in early 2022. She takes us with her on the experience and immerses us into the wonders and beauties she witnessed. I have been completely fascinated by Cousteau’s films since the early 1970s. And since it was the pre-Attenborough films days, it was Captain Jacques Cousteau who inspired me to study marine biology, to learn to dive and to experience as much of the underwater world as my budget, and eventually my career, would allow. The one film that has stuck in my mind ever since, was Cousteau’s expedition to the Galapagos Archipelago. My sister bought me his book for Christmas in 1974, and it remains the most-read book I own. How my trip the the Galapagos Islands came about Working in natural history filmmaking, I have been surrounded by colleagues who had been lucky enough to head to the Galapagos on location. I was still very privileged to visit so many other beautiful and diverse underwater filming locations but it remained a dream for me. That was until 3 years ago, when Steppes Travel asked me to accompany an expedition there to and give talks to the passengers about the work of Ocean Generation, in addressing the ocean plastics problem and marine conservation. The trip was postponed three times and I started to think I would never have the chance when the pandemic kept stopping my plans. But this year, it finally happened. Arriving in the Galapagos Galapagos Sealion Even in the Cousteau days, concern over the rising number of tourists visiting the islands was already growing. Back in the 1970s, 20,000 tourists visited annually, now that number has risen to 200,000. I was prepared to be disappointed, especially since I too was visiting as part of a tourist expedition and knew that I would personally be adding to that footfall. However, I was in for a surprise. After landing, we were taken straight to the dock and I could see 5 or six other vessels at anchor waiting to pick up passengers. Our guide accompanied us on all excursions. I am used to this stage of a trip, the hustle and bustle of small boats taking excited passengers and all their gear back and forth to waiting liveaboard vessels, lots of noise, plenty of shouting, engines roaring, and a harbour bereft of life, given all the activity at the surface. This was very different. Everything was calm, just the sound of birds and the water lapping. We had already passed land iguanas on the road to the dock. A sleeping Sealion, was blocking the steps down to the water, she opened one eye as we stepped past, she just stretched and settled back to sleep. In the shallows close by, there were mating Eagle Rays and low-flying Frigate Birds glided over our heads as we climbed into the small boats. All Aboard our floating home Once aboard our boat, Natural Paradise, home for the next 8 days, 5 of us were keen to get into the water and wash away the long flights and journey stresses. The boats were at anchor still. Their guests ate lunch and familiarised themselves with their vessels, listened to safety briefings and were informed of the rules that govern tourist operations on the islands. A filmmaker’s reaction to “Shark!” We took advantage of the final moment of prep time and leapt into the water from the back of the boat. It was warm, clear and full of life. Some of the crew remained at the stern watching out for us and after ten minutes began beckoning, rather urgently. There was a cry of ‘shark’ and general gesturing, and I could see a triangular fin moving across the surface. And this is where the difference between my usual wildlife encounters and this one differed. My immediate instinct was to check it out since a cry of ‘shark’ on a filming trip usually means people quietly getting into the water as fast as possible, armed with filming gear. But here everyone was aiming to get out as fast as they could, and I was wrestling with that as I hung on until the last minute! But I did as I was told and of course appreciated the safety concerns for myself and all the passengers. This was not, after all, an underwater filming expedition. Galapagos sharks are considered to be potentially dangerous but there are rare reports of attacks on humans. They can grow up to 3 meters long and we did have opportunities to snorkel with them later in the trip and they glided below us with no interest in our activities at all. The concern had been that the vessels at anchor may have allowed scraps from the lunches to go out into the waters of the anchorage, effectively ‘chumming’ the surface and possibly inviting the sharks to feed around the boats. Behind the Scenes Coordination of Tourists In that brief introduction we encountered so much wildlife and the trip had barely begun. My perspective had already changed and as we set sail and the voyage continued, I learned that there is a fair bit of juggling happening in the background. Thanks to the Galapagos National Park Directorate and their guides, every effort is made to make sure that the footfall on each island is limited and so far, it appears to be working. The Galapagos Archipelago is a World Heritage Site and all visitors are reminded of the rules they must abide by. These are found on each island in case they forget – see below for details of the rules. The magnificent variety of Wildlife Blue foot Booby During the next 8 days, we were privileged to encounter every animal I had studied as we journeyed around 7 of the islands, from the brightly coloured Sally Lightfoot crabs to Blue-footed Boobys, Giant Tortoises, inquisitive Sealions and my personal favourite, the Marine Iguanas. These are the only ocean-going iguanas and are only found in the Galapagos, where there are 11 sub-species, each differing from the next on each island. Galapagos Penguins We snorkelled with Galapagos Penguins too, the most northerly species of all the penguins on the planet. This is thanks to the Humboldt Current, a cold-water ocean current that flows north from Antarctica along the west coast of South America, bringing nutrient rich water to the Galapagos Islands and helping to sustain the islands rich biodiversity. Without the flow of cold water, the unique experience of swimming at the equator, next to very fast-moving penguins, would not be possible. Getting up close and personal with Pacific Green Turtles Pacific Green Turtles It was the nesting season for the Pacific Green turtles, and these too behaved very differently to the ones I am used to. When I have been underwater with turtles before, they spook really easily, and I am constantly amazed at the speed at which they swim can away. In the Galapagos, they seem very comfortable around humans. There are large numbers that decide where they want to be and if you are in their way, they will either hang out with you or just nudge you out of their way. One of their biggest threats is the Galapagos Hawk. And we saw plenty of these during the day, sitting high enough to keep an eye on a beach full of nests, just waiting for the hatchlings to emerge so that they could be picked off as they ran hell-for-leather into the Ocean – and for many, into the mouths of fish waiting for them. Guided by Information Our guide, Peter Freire, was more than knowledgeable with an answer to every question followed by more information that we could absorb. Training to be a guide is intense and each must know every detail of the animals and plants there, as well as their Latin names, and in our case, he needed to be able to answer everything in English, not his native Spanish. His role was not just to provide us with all the information we asked him for, but to make sure that all guests only left footprints, respected the wildlife and of course enjoyed every moment in this unique place. From volcanoes to fresh guava – a jam-packed schedule Flightless Comorant We walked up to the rim of the Sierra Negra volcano, just one of the massive volcanos on Isabela Island. It had last erupted 15 years ago and steam was escaping from one of the fumaroles on the far side, just visible with binoculars across the 11km caldera. We picked fresh Guava on the way, spotted more incredible birds than we could count and after our 11 km walk, returned to the boat to ‘refuel’ ready for the afternoon snorkelling. Although there was no opportunity to dive, we were given ample opportunities to immerse ourselves in the cool, Pacific waters for swimming and snorkelling. I had been warned that it would be cold, thanks to that Antarctic current however, since lockdown I had taken up cold-water sea swimming back home in Cornwall and to me the wetsuit was barely necessary/ Although it did allow me to stay in the water for well over an hour and there was so much to see. The Protected Areas in the Galapagos The Galapagos became a UNESCO World Heritage Area in 1978 and in January this year, the government of Ecuador extended the boundaries of its Marine Protected Area by 60 thousand square kilometres. This plan was agreed by the country’s close neighbours, Columbia, Costa Rica and Panama at the UN Climate Summit in Glasgow last year and now, a total conservation area of 198,000 square kilometres including the feeding and migration areas for endangered species, is protected. Ongoing Pressures faced by the Islands Protecting marine areas cannot of course eliminate all the threats that affect the local waters and critically important coastal habitats and even the Galapagos is not immune. Illegal fishing is hard to control and nowhere on the planet can escape the constant tide of pollution and in particular, plastic waste. Islands on the eastern side of the archipelago receive highest load since they face the South American coastline where much of the plastic enters the ocean. Most of the beaches appeared to be clear however, but microplastics still managed to find their way through even though beach cleans had removed the worst offenders. Galapagos setting an Example for the rest of the world This year saw the beginning of the UN Decade of Ocean Science with one of its goals to have 30% of our ocean protected by 2030. The Ecuador government has started that ball rolling. What if we could beat that goal and do so within 5 years? If Ecuador can turn things around in such a short space of time, with the agreement of four of their neighbouring countries, that is quite an example to set for the rest of the world. Everyone wins, including the fishermen because those protected areas mean more fish for the surrounding seas, a scenario we see wherever well-managed reserves are in place. We must safeguard the Galapagos Sally Lightfoot Crab There is another threat simmering just below the surface and speculation amongst local guides and crew is starting to rumble. Applications are being made to develop coastal resorts and these could spell disaster for this unique place. Not only might they destroy local coastal habitats including turtle nesting beaches and mangrove stands, but the potential from pollution, including everything from sewage to sunscreen, would automatically increase. These islands must remain pristine as a shining example of a successful nature conservation project. Visitors to the Galapagos should continue to go specifically because of the unique flora and fauna found there. Resorts catering to tourists wishing to lounge by a pool in the sun can be found anywhere in the world so it is my hope that Galapagos will never fall into the trap of exchanging parts of its unique, vulnerable coastal areas for tourist dollars. It has never happened in the past and should never be on the agenda in the future. Galapagos World Heritage Site Rules Visitors to any protected areas within the Galapagos National Park must be accompanied by a naturalist guide authorized by the GNPD. Travel only with tour operators and/or boats authorized to work in the protected areas of Galapagos. Remain on marked trails at visitor sites and respect signs at all times for the protection of wildlife, and for your safety. Maintain a distance of at least six feet (two meters) from wildlife to avoid disturbing them, even if they approach you. Never feed wildlife, as this can cause health problems. Flash photography is not permitted when taking photos of wildlife. Professional photography and videos recorded for commercial purposes must be authorized by the GNPD. Camping is only allowed in a few authorized areas in the Islands. Request authorization to camp at the Galapagos National Park’s offices at least 48 hours in advance. It is your responsibility not to introduce food, animals, or plants into the Archipelago. Cooperate fully with all environmental inspection and quarantine officials during your visit. Do not take or buy any products or souvenirs made from banned substances, including black coral, shells, lava rock, animal parts, or any native wood or vegetation prior to leaving Galapagos. This is illegal and must be reported. Practice “leave-no-trace” principles in order to maintain the beauty of the environment. Pack out all trash and dispose of or recycle it in the populated areas or on your tour boat. Smoking and/or campfires are strictly prohibited within the Galapagos National Park, as fires poses a serious risk to the flora and fauna of Galapagos. Fishing is only permitted on recreational tour boats authorized by the GNPD. Motorized aquatic sports, mini-subs, and aerial tourism activities are not permitted in the Galapagos National Park or Marine Reserve.