SPECIAL: Earth Day 2014

Today is Earth Day: a day dedicated to the environment. In 1970, the first Earth Day marked the birth of the environmental movement. Now, it has grown to be celebrated by a billion people across 192 countries. Although Earth Day brings attention to the environment and the natural world, we must remember that humans are very much a part of life on Earth. With more than half of the global human population living in cities, Earth Day 2014 is dedicated to green and sustainable cities, something which is of great relevance to the Galapagos Islands.

Although 97% of the land in Galapagos is protected natural reserve, the urban presence of humans has an ever-increasing impact on the Archipelago. From a population of 2,000 in the late 1950′s, there are now approximately 30,000 inhabitants on the Islands. In addition, the park attracts around 200,000 tourists yearly and both of these figures are expected to continue rising. The pressure that this influx of human activity has placed on Galapagos is immense.

The construction, infrastructure growth and pollution that results from a rapid increase in human presence has the potential for serious negative impacts on both the islands’ fragile ecosystem and the people who live there. As such, sustainable development on the Islands has been the focus of several projects in recent years.

One such project is the Galapagos Sustainable Buildings Project; a collaborative effort between GCT, the Prince’s Foundation for Building Community (PFBC) and the Charles Darwin Foundation to improve the sustainability of both existing and future buildings in Galapagos. Waste-water treatment, solar panels, natural ventilation and rainwater collection are all features which can be retrofitted into existing buildings or included in the design of new buildings to improve their energy and water efficiency. Taking these into account, the PFBC have designed a number of exemplar houses for Galapagos which limit the buildings’ environmental impact. To learn more, visit the project site.

Another project is being undertaken by the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) and Toyota, who have been working together to focus on waste management in Galapagos. By 2020 they plan to implement an integrated waste management and recycling system on all of the Archipelago’s inhabited islands which will be another step in the right direction for a more sustainable Galapagos.

All these efforts are important, for they remind us that through sustainable practices we are helping to protect both the environment and ourselves. But, while this is happening thousands of kilometres away, you may be thinking “What can I do for Earth Day?”

The answers are numerous! You could make a donation, plant a tree, install solar panels on your roof, reduce your plastic footprint, help with outreach or even just talk to your friends about what this day means to you and why conservation is so important for life on Earth. One very important thing to remember is that even as today comes and goes we should continue playing our part to protect the planet. After all, as the Earth Day Network says, “Earth Day is every day”.

Easter special: eggs, events, education and more…

As the Easter weekend approaches we thought we would give you a quick overview of what we’ve been up to in the last month and what’s coming up…

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The most important eggs this Easter…

With less than 100 remaining, the mangrove finch is the most critically endangered bird in Galapagos, but a new ‘head-starting’ conservation project may save them from extinction before it’s too late. Sixteen mangrove finch eggs were successfully reared at the Charles Darwin Research Station earlier this year and the hatchlings are currently being released back into the mangroves.

But conservation work like this is expensive and as funding for the project is running out we are asking for your help this Easter. In the UK alone we spend around £500 million on chocolate eggs for the coming weekend. Less than 0.05% of this could fund the Mangrove Finch Project for a full year. By donating to our Mangrove Finch Appeal you will be directly contributing to saving this species.

There hasn’t been a bird extinction in Galapagos since before Darwin’s time and we have a chance to keep it that way. Visit our Mangrove Finch Appeal site to learn more about the project and how you can help.

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An exclusive event this summer…

After our highly successful sell-out event last year with David Attenborough we are pleased to announce another exclusive event this summer. Famous CEO, author and whistleblower, Michael Woodford, will join us at one of London’s premiere private residences, Bridgewater House, for an entertaining evening on 10 June. This black-tie fundraising event will include a drinks reception and dinner in the Great Hall of this Victorian mansion; a captivating speech by Michael Woodford who will share his insights on the Olympus scandal; and an auction led by the Honourable Simon Carr. For more information or to book tickets, visit the events page on our website.

CDRS Sign - Swen Lorenz, Godfrey Merlen, Ian Dunn

Become a part of Galapagos history…

Those who have visited Galapagos will know that the sign outside the Charles Darwin Research Station is a popular spot to have your photograph taken. In recognition of the 50th anniversary of the research station, the Charles Darwin Foundation and the Friends of Galapagos Organisations are asking you to send in your photos beside the sign to contribute to a giant montage that will go on display at the new visitor centre. It is a great opportunity for you to become a part of Galapagos history! To learn more or submit your image, visit our project site.

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2014 Galapagos Photography Competition…

In the 14 years that we have been running our Galapagos photography competition we have had some stunning shots sent in by our supporters. Every year we our surprised and impressed by the diversity and quality of the images sent in and we expect this year to be no different. If you have been lucky enough to visit the Enchanted Isles and have managed to capture some of the Archipelago’s stunning natural beauty through the lens, why not enter our competition and see what the judges say!

2008 Photo Competition

Join us as we cruise around Galapagos…

Following a wonderful cruise last year we are now taking bookings for our 2014 and 2015 supporter cruises. On our 2014 cruise you will visit the western islands in the Archipelago and be accompanied by special guest speaker and marine biologist Professor Nicholas Owens who will give a series of lectures on-board the beautiful Majestic yacht. The 2015 cruise will follow a different itinerary, this time around the eastern islands. Joining you on this cruise will be Kelvin Boot, natural history writer and broadcaster for the BBC. For more details and to request a cruise brochure, please visit our website

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Enhancing education in Galapagos…

Discovering Galapagos is GCT’s new educational programme. Written in partnership with the Royal Geographical Society, it aims to deliver conservation themed, curriculum linked resources for an audience in the UK and Ecuador (including Galapagos). We are currently testing material in Ecuadorian schools (GCT’s CEO Ian Dunn is pictured here in Quito) and our friends at The Book Bus are in the highlands of Santa Cruz, Galapagos over the next two weeks testing out sessions with students aged 4-7 years old on adaptation, colonisation and, of course, giant tortoises!

We are on the lookout for people with educational links to be a part of this project – please click here to sign up for updates on the project and to watch our introductory animation.

And finally…

Have a good Easter!

If you want to receive regular updates to your inbox, simply sign up here.

Focus on Galapagos: 2014 Photography Competition open for entrants…

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We are pleased to announce that our 2014 Galapagos Photography Competition is now open for entrants. In the 14 years that we have been running this competition we have had some stunning shots sent in by our supporters. Every year we our surprised and impressed by the diversity and quality of the images sent in and we expect this year to be no different.

If you have been lucky enough to visit the Enchanted Isles and have managed to capture some of the Archipelago’s stunning natural beauty through the lens, why not enter our competition and see what the judges say!

This year’s categories are:
  • Animal Portrait
  • Animal Behaviour
  • Landscape
  • Botanical
  • Man in the Archipelago

To find out more and for information on how to enter, please visit the competition page on our website.

 

Tsunamis and the Galapagos Islands

A powerful 8.2 magnitude earthquake rocked northern Chile earlier this week, causing at least six deaths and a two-metre high tsunami that swept portions of the coast. In anticipation of further waves, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre issued warnings for Chile, Peru, Colombia, Panama and Ecuador, the last of which the Galapagos Islands belong to. All warnings, watches and alerts for Ecuador were fortunately lifted later, but this raises the question: What are the impacts of tsunamis on the Galapagos Islands?

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It may not be often remarked upon, but the Galapagos Islands are no strangers to natural disasters. Volcanic in origin and located near the conjunction of the Cocos and Nazca tectonic plates, the Archipelago witnesses eruptions and earthquakes to this day. It is also subjected to tsunamis, most recently in 2011 after the devastating Tohoku Earthquake in Japan. How well prepared are the Islands for these catastrophic events, especially for tsunamis, which can strike with deadly force thousands of kilometres from their source?

For the most part, the human impact is relatively minor. Thanks to efficient evacuation plans and disaster management, there have been no recorded fatalities from tsunamis in Galapagos’ history. In addition, damage to infrastructure on the Islands is generally not extensive; many affected businesses repairing and restarting operations quickly after the 2011 tsunami, where waves 1.77 metres in height coincided with a high tide to lash the shore.

Obviously, low-lying buildings were hit harder, including parts of the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS). The tsunami destroyed facilities, flooded workshops, laboratories and storage buildings while scattering equipment in a wide radius around the station. Highly buoyant scuba tanks were found scattered throughout the bay for weeks to come.

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Destroyed Pumphouse at the CDRS marine wet lab. Image (c)Volker Koch/GC

But what of the natural costs? The flora and fauna of the Galapagos Islands did suffer during the 2011 tsunami, though to varying extents. According to a rapid assessment carried out by the CDRS, wave height and penetration varied significantly between areas. Animals affected by the waves included the flightless cormorant (which suffered some nest destruction), sea turtles and marine iguanas. By all accounts the overall natural environment was not drastically disturbed, and critically endangered species, such as the mangrove finch, fortunately remained unharmed.

Still, it is too soon to say that the Galapagos Islands do not have much to fear from the sea. Despite escaping relatively unscathed from previous tsunamis, including Tuesday’s threat, this is no guarantee of future security. Geophysicist Mark Simons from the California Institute of Technology predicts that there will be an even larger earthquake to strike the region in the future, but nobody knows when that will be or the strength of the waves it may create. Eruptions can also generate tsunamis, and as an archipelago with active volcanoes, the threat of such waves is potentially very close to home.

As the human population continues to grow on the Islands, increasing competition and pressure upon the fragile ecosystem, there is also the heightened risk that the Galapagos as a whole will become more vulnerable to natural disasters. In this sense, this is but a reflection of a similar narrative that is playing out in the larger world. How we choose to manage our influence, and indeed our own responses to natural disasters, will play a progressively larger role in determining the impacts of such catastrophes on the environment – and us.

by Jose Hong

The giant daisy forests of Galapagos…

Tomorrow is the second ever International Day of Forests, a United Nations backed initiative which aims to raise awareness of sustainable management, conservation and sustainable development of all types of forests for the benefit of current and future generations.

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Forests cover a third of the total land surface on Earth, which is almost exactly the same percentage as the forest coverage in the Galapagos National Park. However, in a way so typical of Galapagos, things are not quite as they first appear and the trees and forests are no exception.

One of the most important genera in the Galapagos forest is not strictly a tree at all. To be more specific, these Scalesia plants are giant members of the daisy family (Asteraceae). They can grow up to 20m in height and have a trunk circumference of 60cm. While in stature they may appear to be trees, a closer look will reveal that they share many similarities with shrubs – including soft, pithy timber and fast growth, on average 4m within their first year.

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Scalesia plants account for 15 of the 180 endemic species of flora in Galapagos. The largest and most dominant species is Scalesia pedunculata. The zonation of plants in the Islands is intrinsically linked to altitude, with the Scalesia zone between 400 and 700m. At this height above sea level, the forests are regularly shrouded in the garua mist, so famous across the Islands. This incredibly humid environment leads to numerous epiphytes (a plant that grows on another plant) covering the Scalesia and taking moisture directly from the air without the need for roots.

Another of their unique traits is that many of the plants in Scalesia forests are around the same age. As the plants grow vertically very quickly, they create a canopy cover, casting a shadow on the forest floor. This prevents the growth of younger individuals and leads to vast swathes of trees growing together. The down side to this is that natural events can lead to population crashes. This has been documented twice; once between 1935-40 and again between 1982-3. The latter event coincided with a very strong El Nino which, due to its associated increase in rainfall, weakened the root systems, allowing strong winds to topple these giant daisies. Once the canopy is removed, seeds which have remained dormant on the forest floor have access to sunlight and begin to grow, creating the next generation of forest.

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However, it is not only these large natural events which threaten the species’ survival. The soil in the Scalesia zone is some of the most fertile across the Islands. The human population has taken advantage of this by turning large areas into agricultural land. Non-native species have been introduced (some intentionally such as Guava and a Himalayan hill raspberry) which outcompete the native floral species. In addition, goats and pigs now roam the forests, devouring any new seedlings that begin to emerge. The result of this could be catastrophic. If another natural event wipes out swathes of forest, there may not be a sufficient seed bank to produce the next generation and vast areas could remain bare.

The International Day of Forests and Trees allows everyone to take a moment to consider the effects that humans have on the trees and plants around them. If effective conservation action is not taken to protect species like the giant daisies of Galapagos, they may simply become another example of the destruction that man can cause. Fortunately, the Galapagos National Park is a closely monitored reserve and research and conservation management is possible thanks to the help and support of many people. If you would like to help conserve Galapagos’ stunning natural beauty, see how you can get involved on our website.

by James Medland

SPECIAL: Discover the Galapagos Islands on their 479th Birthday!

“… nothing but seals, and turtles and such big tortoises that each could carry a man on top of himself, and many iguanas that are like serpents…”

These were the thoughts of the first visitor to the Galapagos Islands, Fray Tomás de Berlanga, who, 479 years ago today, accidentally discovered the Islands. Fray Berlanga, the Bishop of Panama, was actually on his way to settle a dispute in Peru but slackening winds and a strong westerly current took him and his crew off course to the Archipelago on March 10th 1535.

Tomás de Berlanga

He was clearly not impressed at the “worthless slag” which could “create little grass, and only some thistles”. Perhaps his bad mood was caused by the fact his boat was quickly running low on water and their incorrect belief that “on account of its size and monstrous shape, there could not fail to be rivers and fruits”. After spending a few days searching several islands for water and sustenance, Fray Berlanga and his crew left and headed back eastwards towards the mainland having resorted to squeezing juice out of prickly pear cactus fruits for refreshment.

The Islands left enough of an impression on him to include a description of them in his letter to Carlos V, King of Spain, however not enough of an impression to be formally given a name or even claimed as Spanish territory. It was this discovery however, which led to them appearing on world maps as early as 1569. It would be another 300 years after Fray Berlanga’s visit that the HMS Beagle and its crew, including a young Charles Darwin, would made their famous expeditions through the chain of islands.

The Galapagos Conservation Trust and Royal Geographical Society are hoping many more young explorers follow in the footsteps of Fray Berlanga by Discovering Galapagos with the aid of a new educational website.

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Discovering Galapagos, the project’s title, will provide a global education platform for all things Galapagos. There will be English and Spanish language websites designed for teachers and students in both the UK and Ecuador. They will have the ability to share classwork, hold Q&A’s with Galapagos experts via Skype and also connect with each other to find out what the life of a student in a very different country is like.

It will not only be of interest for students however, as the website will also showcase the diverse and important conservation projects that are happening right now. All the information and resources – including teaching materials, interactive activities and quizzes – will be free and available to all. The target is to get the website live by September to coincide with the start of the new academic year and the launch of the new UK national curriculum.

To make sure you keep up to date with the developments of this international project please sign up to the newsletter by visiting Discovering Galapagos. Let the journey begin!

by James Medland

Climate Week Special: A Changing Galapagos…part 2

The previous blog post spoke about the numerous threats Galapagos is facing from expected climate change within the next century. However, it shouldn’t all be seen as doom and gloom as multiple adaptation and mitigation strategies are already in progress…

Sustainable development

In the last 60 years the human population of the Islands has increased from 2,000 to around 30,000, all of which require housing and infrastructure to make their lives comfortable. The danger when populations increase so rapidly is that the consequential building work is done in an unmanaged and unsustainable manner. The Galapagos Sustainable Buildings Project is a recent joint venture between the Galapagos Conservation Trust, Charles Darwin Foundation and Princes Foundation for Building Community with the goal of reducing the human impact on the Islands through sustainable development. The project looks at reducing the energy and water needs of buildings and not only looks at rejuvenating existing infrastructure but also showcasing best practice ideas for the locals to copy when building new structures.

Monitoring of threatened species

Multiple programmes are underway which ensure frequent and in-depth monitoring of species and habitats at risk from climate change across the Islands. GCT has funded several projects including the Penguin and Flightless Cormorant Monitoring Project which aims to assess the health and stability of populations. Galapagos penguin colonies can also be a useful indicator of the health of the marine environment due to their reliance on it for food. Increased sea surface temperatures and reductions in upwellings lead to the cold-water fish which penguins feed upon migrating away from the Islands, affecting penguins and a whole host of other species. This not only leads to the death of weaker individuals but also results in breeding seasons being skipped, affecting the ability of future generations to be able to replenish populations. By closely monitoring colonies, it allows for management decisions to be made with the most up-to-date data and enables managers to gauge whether or not existing conservation measures are working effectively.

Education and Community Awareness

Another important aspect to all projects is the dissemination of information to locals and tourists to make them aware of the fragile nature of the Islands and what they can do to help protect them. This can and is being done both on and off the Islands: the Charles Darwin Foundation has education centres on Santa Cruz and San Cristobal with informative displays for all visitors; the Galapagos National Park Service ensure that all park guides are trained and educated with the skills and information necessary to prevent impacts to the areas visited; and a new GCT project which launches later this year is a bilingual online education tool called Discovering Galapagos which will allow students and the general public to learn about these unique Islands and the conservation issues they face.

While the experts may still be unsure exactly how climate change will affect the planet, almost everyone is in agreement that there will be significant changes in our lifetimes. The projects mentioned plus many more will hopefully ensure the islands are as prepared as possible for what is to come.

If you would like to contribute to any of the above projects or for further information, please visit the respective website: 

Sustainable Galapagos www.sustainablegalapagos.org

Penguin Appeal www.penguinappeal.org

GCT www.savegalapagos.org

by James Medland