For many, mention of the Galapagos evokes thoughts of a far-away tropic, a place of biological and ecological fascination lingering some 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. We often recall imagery of its peculiar inhabitants and the rocky volcanic archipelago they call home: blue-footed boobies atop boulders tapping their feet in elaborate mating displays, sandy coastlines populated with families of slumbering sea lions, giant reptiles baking their scales under equatorial rays, or, as it was in my case, the famed homelands of Darwin’s Finches and their curiously shaped beaks, which helped set evolutionary discourse well on its path from aboard the HMS Beagle.
All of that is true. But what many people don’t think about as much when it comes to the Galapagos, and what Darwin unfortunately missed out on, are the surrounding oceans that frame the islands’ very existence. These waters are home to some of the healthiest populations of large sea-dwelling creatures on our planet.
With that in mind, and in honor of last week’s World Ocean Day, it seemed appropriate to share my recent trip to the Galapagos in the language of sharks and whales instead of birds and iguanas.
The ocean was, after all, the most central part of the adventure. Unlike most travel to the islands, which is to say by way of the 2-hour plane ride from mainland Ecuador, this journey set course from the port of Guayaquil due west on a three-day crossing.
I was aboard the National Geographic Endeavour, a Lindblad-operated ship that began her life in the waters of Greenland as a commercial fishing trawler in the 1960s. Now a fully-stabilized classic-expedition ship, the Endeavour hosts up to 96 guests per trip and has had a long and successful career bringing guests—and scientists—closer to the ocean and its inhabitants.
One of the first things to notice in Galapagos are the rich blue waters surrounding the islands. A combination of deep waters, cold and warm currents, and strong Antarctic upwellings that bring about large concentrations of ocean nutrients results in an abundant marine life, even if not as varied as one might find in warmer tropical waters.
Reefs exist, although they host fewer species of coral—the result being a greater number of pelagic fish populations (meaning those that live neither close to the bottom nor near the shore) than reef fish populations. This fact, in addition to the deeper, cooler waters that are home to many of our larger-bodied ocean mascots, creates a rich marine environment for whales, sharks, and rays.
Large groups of hammerhead sharks can be seen in the Galapagos waters year-round. Pregnant whale sharks are being witnessed making an annual passage through the northern parts of the islands, and dense schools of rays (mantas, mobula, and eagle rays) often come together to mate in impressive numbers. Throw in the other large schools of fish, playful sea lions, turtles, penguins, and iguanas and you have an underwater circus of the most thrilling kind.
Scientists at the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) on the island of Santa Cruz are working hard to share just how rich the oceans surrounding the Galapagos are, and to elevate their importance as a hotbed location for large marine animals and high-quality research to better understand them. This is no easy task. As a species that often fears—and therefore seeks to vilify, contain, or eliminate—other species that are more powerful than ourselves, it involves working to erase the poor reputation we have cast over many of our largest ocean predators.
One solution, coming from the creative minds of the Fisheries and Sharks Research group at the CDF, are two new cartoon characters—“Ramona la tiburona” and “Felipao el bacalao” (Spanish for “Ramona the shark” and “Felipao the grouper”)—who are the ultra-friendly ocean mascots of the CDF Campaign “Protect Our Zones.”
Another remarkable effort to improve awareness about the importance of conserving this world heritage site has been capturing an underwater version of Google Street View, offering us an impressive ‘virtual dive’ experience of the Galapagos waters with the hope of using the images to document, monitor and compare these underwater ecosystems over time.
However one chooses to appreciate and remember the Galapagos, we can all agree that such a unique place is one worth preserving. The plight of our oceans and the fascinating creatures that inhabit them is no small matter, and a visit to the Galapagos will show, in just one location, how much bounty and beauty is truly at stake.