Professor Bill Durham led the expedition, his 34th to the islands that have served as a focal point for his research in ecological and evolutionary anthropology, conservation and community development and resource management.
Tensions between conservation and development in the Galapagos Islands were explored by three dozen students and affiliates of Stanford’s Master of Liberal Arts Program in a summer study adventure to the archipelago. Professor Bill Durham led the expedition, his 34th to the islands that have served as a focal point for his research in ecological and evolutionary anthropology, conservation, and community development and resource management. In nine stops over six days, the group witnessed how the Galapagos Islands have been heavily impacted by humans and analyzed efforts under way to both preserve and restore endangered flora and fauna.
The Stanford MLA group learned about efforts by the Galapagos National Park and the Ecuadoran government to curtail population growth, manage tourist visitation and repopulate endangered species in visits to locales that included the Cerro Colorado Tortoise Reserve and Breeding Center on San Cristobal Island, the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island and Punta Suarez on Española Island—where they witnessed the peak breeding activity of the rare waved albatross.
Throughout the intellectual journey, Durham conducted lectures on evolutionary issues and current conservation strategies in Galapagos. He noted that while Darwin’s finches are well known for their beak adaptations, Darwin was actually more interested in the variation among Galapagos mockingbirds. As with most Galapagos species, the mockingbirds vary by island in their beak and wing configurations that adapted to available food sources.
Durham’s favorite island flora is a daisy variety, Scalesia, endemic only to the Galapagos and thus evolved to become a tree as tall as 15 meters. It has evolved through adaptive radiation and is found in 15 different species at various climates and elevations on the islands. As with many island plants, Scalesia is threatened by development and invasive plant species. Durham noted that on many islands, almost all of the visible vegetation is non-native.
Travel for the group was dictated and restricted by the Galapagos National Park, which has implemented new measures within the past year to limit visitation to key sites. At each location, a park guide accompanied every 12 people to minimize impact to wildlife, the majority of which still has not developed a fear of people. Boats and ships, the only way to travel between the islands that dot the ocean over hundreds of miles, cannot visit any location twice within two weeks, limiting itineraries. Only about 2,000 tourists at a time can be present on the islands, and curbs have been instated for permanent inhabitants—marriage and birth are the only paths to official residency.
Prior to the expedition, students had enrolled in Durham’s small MLA seminars, Conservation and Development Issues in Latin America: Galapagos as a Microcosm and Evolution and Conservation in Galapagos, and had read extensively from published research on conservation and writings on evolution.
The map below shows the order in which the MLA group visited the islands. To read about their experience, either scroll down, use the top navigation, or click on the different islands on the map below.
From the air, San Cristobal appears uninhabited and arid, with lava fields and desert vegetation. But the island is home to Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the capital of the Galapagos Province of Ecuador—a port town of 5,600 people with an airstrip for one 737 jet per day from the mainland city of Guayaquil. Puerto Baquerizo Moreno supports jobs in fishing, farming, government and tourism in a handful of rustic hotels, restaurants, bars and gift shops. Galapagos sea lions roam the streets, lounge on park benches and overtake roads and piers in areas of their original habitat now paved over. The Stanford MLA group visited the Cerro Colorado Tortoise Reserve in the densely forested highlands, where conservationists are incubating and hatching eggs to repopulate the rare San Cristobal giant tortoise, which has been in danger of extinction.
At the easternmost point of the Galapagos Islands, Durham led the MLA group up a steep canyon to view red-footed boobies along the cliffs. Scalesia, the daisy adapted into more than a dozen species in Galapagos, grew in large shrubs. In stark contrast to the bustling port town more than 50 miles away on the other side of the island, Punta Pitt was remote and showed little sign of human impact. As at all beaches, Galapagos sea lions were prolific and declined to move out of the path of visitors. The beach required a “wet landing” via pangas from the M/V Santa Cruz, the expedition ship.
A lava plateau makes up the bulk of this relatively small, uninhabited island, which is home to a particularly large and rare species of land iguana. While the terrestrial landscape was desolate, filled with cactus and succulents, a protected ocean cove was bustling with local fishing boats. Blasting radios and stereos from the boats could be heard underwater, where white fin sharks, sea turtles and seals had no fear of snorkelers. Fishing is banned near shore, but there are few resources to police poaching.
A narrow rocky outcropping not far from the shore of Santa Cruz Island, Plaza Sur teems with wildlife. The trail cutting across the landscape is well worn by tourists. Fearless animals make clear the reason for National Park guides to accompany every group—it would be easy to harass a marine iguana or sea lion, as they don’t move off the trail for people. New rules limit crowds at any location—only one large boat can arrive between 6 a.m. and noon, and only one between noon and 6 p.m. No boat can visit the same location twice in two weeks. Camping on islands is also barred.
The Stanford group was surprised to see Puerto Ayora is more bustling city than small town, filled with buses, trucks, motorcycles, businesses of every type, and apartment buildings five and six stories high. There is a debate over how many people actually live here: 30,000? 50,000? Until very recently, Ecuadorans flocked here from the mainland seeking tourist jobs and dollars. To curb the boom, new rules require someone to be born on the islands, or to marry, in order to become a permanent resident. Nothing in the Santa Cruz landscape has escaped human impact: cats, dogs and chickens roam the countryside; giant tortoises are seen along the side of the road and in fields with cattle. Most vegetation is non-native. But here, the Charles Darwin Research Station is successfully breeding tortoises to repopulate all of the other islands with their native species.
Española is the southernmost of the Galapagos Islands, uninhabited by people, and a rich breeding ground for rare sea birds. The massive waved albatross breeds only atop the rocky bluffs at Punta Suarez. The Stanford MLA group witnessed albatross parents teaching a newly hatched chick to feed, as well as courtship dances by blue-footed boobies. In an on-ship lecture, Durham explained that the critically endangered waved albatross is in steep decline—the birds get hooked by longline fishing in their feeding grounds off South America. Fishermen use metallic streamers to ward off birds above water, but the albatross dive deep to eat fish already snagged.
On his 34th trip to the archipelago, Durham saw something he’d never seen before: sea turtles surfing the waves off the point at Gardner Bay. With little evidence of human impact, the waters of the bay are clear and pristine and home to many white-tipped sharks. The Stanford group observed the Española mockingbird, one of the largest of the mockingbird species observed by Darwin, with a long, curved beak; the Española lava lizard; and the red-colored Española marine iguana. The last stop for the Stanford MLA tour, Española is a 12-hour boat ride from the departure airport at Baltra Island.