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  • Tensions between conservation and development

Summer Study in the Galapagos Islands

Stanford’s Master of Liberal Arts Program

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.

A map of Galapagos Islands

There’s something magical and hopeful about a place where animals putter around human visitors with an air of ambivalence and superiority. It gives me hope that we’ll find a way to live together sustainably.

- Dale Meikle, Stanford MLA student -

San Cristobal Island

Puerto Baquerizo Moreno

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.

Punta Pitt

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.

  • Galapagos sea lions are at home throughout the bustling port on San Cristobal Island.

  • A new University of Ecuador facility in San Cristobal dedicated to Galapagos research

  • Galapagos sea lions, tourists and residents share the beach at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno.

  • Diesel tour buses carry visitors from the San Cristobal airport, which lands one 737 jet each day.

  • Two-year-old San Cristobal tortoises at the Cerro Colorado Tortoise Reserve and Breeding Center.

  • Galapagos mockingbirds adapted to each island; a San Cristobal mockingbird.

  • Kicker Rock, off San Cristobal Island

  • Uninhabited Punta Pitt is 35 miles from the populated side of San Cristobal Island.

  • The Stanford group had a wet landing at the Punta Pitt beach.

  • Red-footed booby at remote Punta Pitt, San Cristobal Island

  • 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.

  • "Animals in the Galapagos are remarkably unafraid of humans. On the several islands we visited, the inquisitive and social sea lion and their pups were our official greeters. These gregarious animals reminded me of our special responsibility to preserve their habitat and guard against encroaching development."

    - Richard Royse, MLA student
  • 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.

  • In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.

    - Charles Darwin

Santa Fe Island

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.

  • Santa Fe

    Sea lions greet every departure and arrival by panga boat.

  • The Stanford group enters the uninhabited Santa Fe Island terrain with National Park guides.

  • Linda Paulson, associate dean and director of the MLA Program, leading a hike to the mesa of Santa Fe Island

  • Cactus bark from 30-foot-tall trees provides food for Santa Fe land iguanas.

  • Santa Fe land iguanas display camouflage colors to blend with the lava terrain.

  • Land iguanas rely on food that falls to the ground, particularly cactus pads.

  • Frigate birds in the Galapagos have learned to follow boats and ships to scavenge for food scraps.

  • Expedition leader Professor Bill Durham on his 34th trip to the islands, where his research has helped inform tourism practices.

  • Visitors must be accompanied by a National Park guide at all times under new protective measures.

  • Red-billed tropicbirds were found near most islands and at sea.

  • The Stanford MLA Expedition group, with Professor Bill Durham, seated on stairs

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.

Plaza Sur Island

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.

  • South Plaza

    An iguana rests at the marker signaling entry to the Galapagos National Park.

  • Marine iguanas cluster on rocks for warmth after their ocean feeding along Plaza Sur.

  • The landscape on Plaza Sur is arid and rocky, in stark contrast to the lush highlands of Santa Cruz Island.

  • Red feet of the Galapagos gull

  • Galapagos gulls are nocturnal, feeding at night.

  • Galapagos sea lions have no fear of humans and in some cases will swim with divers and snorkelers.

  • Galapagos sea lions have adapted well to humans and their populations are healthy.

  • Professor Bill Durham discusses adaptation with members of the Stanford MLA group.

  • Land iguanas on Plaza Sur bear yellow coloring and have no fear of humans.

  • The Plaza Sur land iguana differs from land iguanas on other islands, but also survives on cactus and other succulents.

  • Sally Lightfoot crab on rocks by water

  • Curious sea lions watch the Stanford group depart Plaza Sur Island at a rare dry dock.

  • The M/V  Santa Cruz, holding 90 passengers, is one of the largest vessels to sail the Galapagos.

If there is any way for humans to live sustainably and harmoniously with the natural world, the Galapagos Islands are the blueprint for that future. If we’re able to conserve the Galapagos, I think we’ll be able to find a way to conserve the world for future generations.

- Dale Meikle, Stanford MLA student -

Santa Cruz Island

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.

  • Santa Cruz

    The Charles Darwin Research Station is breeding giant tortoises from all of the islands for reintroduction. Many species are nearly extinct due to hunting, predation by dogs and declining food sources.

  • Diego, a giant tortoise with a neck adapted to eat high vegetation, is helping to repopulate his nearly extinct species at the Charles Darwin Research Station.

  • The male breeding tortoise, Diego, has replaced the deceased Lonesome George in helping to repopulate his species.

  • A Darwin's finch with a beak adapted for crushing larger seeds on Santa Cruz Island.

  • Giant tortoises forage In the moist, lush highlands of Santa Cruz Island. Their round carapaces and short necks are adapted to eating from the ground.

  • Giant tortoise co-exist with grazing cattle, cars and people in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island.

  • Giant tortoises share roads and parking lots with vehicles in the Santa Cruz highlands.

  • A native crow with an adapted beak in an agricultural area of Santa Cruz Island

  • Pelicans and sea lions have adapted to the fish market at Puerto Ayora.

  • A marine iguana uses a boat ramp to climb to land in Puerto Ayora. A young Galapagos sea lion waits for scraps from one of the many fishermen in the islands.

  • Puerto Ayora is home to between 30,000 and 50,000 people. To curb population growth, new restrictions have been placed on Galapagos residency.

The longevity of the Giant Tortoises and their dinosaur faces make it seem impossible that they’ve become so vulnerable that they’re threatened by extinction. How could this possibly be? And how can we change it?

- Dale Meikle, Stanford MLA student -

Española Island

Punta Suarez

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.

Gardner Bay

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.

  • Espanola

    Waved albatross breed only on Punta Suarez, Española Island. They feed 600 miles away and have an 8-foot wingspan.

  • Marine iguanas show red and orange coloring on Española Island.

  • Trailside markers placed by the Galapagos National Park keep tourists from sensitive areas.

  • A Darwin's finch with a small beak to eat insects in beach sand, Española Island.

  • Galapagos mockingbirds on the beach of Española Island bear different feathers and beaks from counterparts on other islands.

  • Sky-pointing mating ritual of the blue-footed booby on display for visitors only a few feet away

  • Punta Suarez is a breeding ground for the rare waved albatross and blue-footed boobies.

  • Marine iguanas share territory with Sally Lightfoot crabs.

  • Galapagos marine iguanas are the only reptiles that swim in water, where they eat seaweed and co-exist with boats.

  • Professor Bill Durham with marine iguanas in Punta Suarez, Española Island.

  • The Galapagos fur seal, formerly hunted, is extremely rare and endangered; its habitat has been encroached by development.

  • Several boobies breed in the Galapagos; this is the Nazca species.

  • Sea lions nuzzle on the powder-fine sand at Gardner Bay.

  • Seashells are abundant on remote beaches; it is illegal to remove shells, stones or vegetation.

  • The pristine beach of Gardner Bay

  • Sea turtle surfing the waves off the point at Gardner Bay

  • The Galapagos Islands sit on the Equator about 600 miles from the coast of Ecuador.

People are always surprised to learn there are cities in the Galapagos. We've learned that human impact has been significant since Charles Darwin's era. Stanford is studying new ways of balancing the competing interests of people and wildlife to preserve what remains.

- Lisa Lapin, Stanford MLA student -