Swimming with the Friendliest Animals in the World

The Galapagos Islands

Ms. Jam Giubardo

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CVU Galapagos trip, students got to observe hundreds of new animals, including this friendly little Galapagos Barn Owl. Photo taken by CVU student, William Braun.

GALAPAGOS ISLANDS, Ecuador — Imagine you are snorkeling in the Galapagos Islands in the middle of the Pacific ocean. Your tight mask sticks to your face as you clench onto the salty rubber tube and breath in. You dunk your head down into the glass clear water and immediately see a whole new world of unique creatures. Millions of colors flashing from a thousand different fish. The coral reefs are swaying with intense serenity and the starfish are bathing in the sun. You turn your head and see a giant sea turtle gliding through the blue sea and a white tipped reef shark swims past your leg. You aren’t afraid because they aren’t afraid. The animals don’t even seem to notice you.

The Galapagos Islands are very special. Most people know them for the discovery of the theory of evolution, developed by Charles Darwin. And yes, research done there has fueled thousands of scientific research projects and discoveries, but from a non-scientist perspective, the islands allow for the most unique experiences and drive curiosity.

In February, 2017, Champlain Valley Union High School took a group of 18 students and 2 teachers to the Galapagos Islands. While they were there they got the opportunity to observe thousands of species unique to the climate and to the islands. During a survey at the end of their trip, the students were asked to state something that amazed them the most about the islands. William Braun, a CVU Junior, responded saying, “Being in a place like the Galapagos, where the wildlife and land is almost completely untouched really redefined what it meant to be one with nature. It was amazing to get so close to the animals and still watch them behave naturally as if you weren’t even there.” This not only illustrates the beauty and experiences people have there, but also shows how 17-year-olds, with little to no knowledge about animals and ecology, notice the magic there too.

This magic is due to the fact that the animals aren’t afraid of people. It is a place where one can get face to face with almost every animal and it won’t even budge. But the question that scientists have pondered for years is, why? What makes these animals so fearless of human interaction? Scientist are divided over many different theories of the mysterious carelessness of the animals, but both don’t really seem to have an explanation for the amazing phenomenon.

One theory called the heat theory states that in a place with only two seasons–dry and wet–where equatorial heat often soars well above 100 degrees, animal inhabitants try to expend as little energy as possible. In doing so they do not react as fast as other animals, and seam to not care that they are being observed by giant people.This theory makes sense if the animals were all terrestrial, but what about the marine life? The waters in the Galapagos are about the same temperature as the water off the coast of California and Hawaii, but the animals there don’t act at all like the marine life in the Galapagos.

Another theory was devised by Charles Darwin when he noticed that the animals seemed to be much tamer on the islands. Not only were they more tame but, “[The] creatures apparently forgot how to fear, their ancestors leaving the instinct of “fight or flight” behind when they swam, flew or floated here to escape prehistoric predators on the South American mainland.” This theory suggest that because they left the mainland escaping predators, when they got to the Galapagos they started evolving with no predators, making them more careless of their surroundings. Biologist Graham Watkins explains the behavior of these animals by stating, “It’s not that the instinct failed to make an imprint in these animals, it’s just that many of them haven’t had a need to invoke it in the way an African gazelle would, or even people who live in cities and who have a fear of crime.” So if this is true then will they start to become afraid?

From the 1990s the Galapagos Islands have had a steady increase in their population and a steady increase in tourism, which is good for the Galapagos economy, but is it what’s right for the animals?  As shown in the chart below, the rate of tourist and residents is increasing exponentially, and that means it’s only creating more and more “predators” for the animals. It’s only a matter of time before the animals remember how to fear predators and became scared like their ancestors.

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Courtesy of The Galapagos Conservancy

So how do we maintain the animal’s unique behavior and still be able to observe them?

Obviously making laws about limiting travel and tourist activities could be beneficial to the ecology, but it’s not only about how many people go there, it’s about the education of the people who go there. The most important thing to maintain is the environment of the animals, and to do so people need to realize their the impact of their emissions and trash so that the islands can maintain their unique quality. One way to make sure people are conscious about how they impact the islands is to require every traveler take a mandatory lesson.

Currently, a petition to promote sustainable development and environmental education for citizens and tourists of the Galapagos Islands is being developed to send to the President of Ecuador. The petetion is still in progress and every signiture helps, so if you want to help protect the magical ecosystem go to  https://forcechange.com/34385/reduce-effects-of-mass-tourism-on-galapagos-islands/

and sign.

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