Shark-Ambassadors at Tortuga Bay beach.

Enthusiasm, positive energy and good attitude are the most obvious characteristics that I notice when looking at the youths who are part of the "Shark Ambassadors", the Science Club of the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF).
This is a non-formal education project that aims to provide a learning space for these youths on various topics related to the socio-ecosystems of the islands, develop skills and abilities and apply this knowledge in the community in which they live. . The Shark Ambassadors are made up of children, from 11 to 17 years old, from the community of Santa Cruz Island who agree on their interest and willingness to support the conservation of the Galapagos Islands, which they undoubtedly do from this group.
I had the great opportunity to work with the Shark Ambassadors and go on field outings to the beach known as Tortuga Bay to see the nesting monitoring of sea turtles, an activity developed by Ecology Project International (EPI) led by the Galapagos National Park Directorate (DPNG) during the breeding season of this species.
I want to share with you my experience that overflows with joy as well as my desire to learn and help.

Ending a field trip at Tortuga Bay beach.
Ending a field trip at Tortuga Bay beach. Photo by: Camila León, Mola Mola Club.

We all meet at the entrance of Tortuga Bay at 6:45am. It was essential to bring water, sunscreen, hand-sanitizer and a mask (due to the biosecurity protocols).  We were greeted by the EPI staff; we had a couple of minutes to get to know each other and our researcher Anne Guezou. I was grateful to have this moment as I didn’t know the Shark Ambassadors or the EPI team, which was made up of Lady Márquez, Sebastián Pilla and Erik Ojeda. After getting to know each other we were given the schedule and plan for the day.

Lady Marquez of EPI explaining biosecurity standards to the Shark Ambassadors.
Lady Marquez of EPI explaining biosecurity standards to the Shark Ambassadors. Photo: Leslie Leon, CDF

The walk to the beach was an enjoyable one as we passed the time getting to know each other a little more. When we got to the beach, it was Ann’s turn to speak and she gave us a talk about microplastics and a short induction to be able to do a little monitoring of microplastics in the different transects of the beach. 

After this talk, we split the Shark Ambassadors into smaller groups and then the activity began. We started looking through the sand for microplastics, collecting samples that were stored and then taken back to the laboratory for analysis. 

Sebastián Pilla a volunteer for EPI and the DPNG, together with the Shark Ambassadors analyzing microplastics, Tortuga Bay beach.
Sebastián Pilla a volunteer for EPI and the DPNG, together with the Shark Ambassadors analyzing microplastics, Tortuga Bay beach. Photo: Leslie Leon, CDF

The EPI team gave an introduction to the nesting activity of sea turtles. They explained how to recognize turtle nests as well as ways to protect them. The Shark Ambassadors set to work, as always, and built a barrier with tubes and rope to enclose the nest and thus prevent it from being trampled by accident. 

Finally, to finish with the activity, we performed the count of the nests and the respective record of what was found. This marked the end of this activity and we made our way back to Puerto Ayora at around 10:30 am. 

Delimiting a cool nest, the shark ambassadors distributed charges.
Delimiting a cool nest, the shark ambassadors distributed charges. Photo: Leslie Leon, CDF.

After several weeks of going to Tortuga Bay to monitor the nests and place protective fences in new nests sites, it was time to check if the turtles inside them had hatched. This was a long process that took us all morning and lasted until the afternoon. 

As in the other outings, the meeting point was the booth of the Directorate of the Galapagos National Park (DPNG) at 15h15, we had to add insect repellent because our activity would extend until the night and the mosquitoes would be plentiful. Before 16h00 all the equipment was already on the beach, and until 17h00 we did the micro plastics activity since we could not dig nests while swimmers were in this sector.

Hatched eggs from a nest. Fertile and infertile eggs are counted.
Hatched eggs from a nest. Fertile and infertile eggs are counted. Photo: Leslie Leon, CDF

Once the visitors left, we split the Shark Ambassadors into smaller groups, each group began to carefully dig one to two nests. This was done to check the condition of the eggs. The eggs were all counted and the non-hatching eggs were examined and the relevant data is taken from all the information collected. It is important to mention that we only examine the nest after enough time has passed for the eggs to hatch, we only check to see how many eggs hatched. However, life is full of surprises. 

On one of the outings, while we were carefully digging, we found newborn turtles in the nest. We can assume they tried to get out, but couldn't as the sand was too compact due to heavy rain the last couple of days, which meant that they were trapped. This meant we arrived just in time to help the newborn turtles. After lending a helping hand, the turtles made their way to the ocean

Thinking back to this memory, I wonder how could I describe this experience? The answer is, unbelievable! To have seen baby turtles, newborns, going out to sea was exciting. Even more, understanding the perfection of nature motivates me to love my environment much more and increased my desire to continue caring for these islands that have given me so much. 

Hatching turtles coming out of the nest towards the sea.
Hatching turtles coming out of the nest towards the sea. Photo: Leslie Leon, CDF

However, I shouldn't just tell you how beautiful this experience is. There are also sad things that are important to mention, as it is part of the natural processes, the life cycle of species such as sea turtles. 

While we were happy to see the hatchlings make their way to sea, a flock of seabirds arrived. They flew over the site and preyed on them. In the end, we couldn't know how many of the hatchlings survived, all we could do was witness the event, as it is part of the natural life-cycle of the sea turtles. 

Did you know of all the eggs laid on the beaches each year less than 60% survive? Out of 1000 turtles that are born only one will reach adulthood. This is because while baby turtles go in search of the sea to start their journey across the ocean, there are many natural and anthropogenic factors that can interfere and prevent this natural process from being carried out successfully, one of them being seabirds that are predators of baby  sea turtles. 

During the nesting season, the Shark Ambassadors participated in nine outings to Tortuga Bay. This was done to monitor the nesting site. The field trips were made between the months of March to May. Without a doubt, these activities are very important within the non-formal education programs developed by the shark ambassadors. In these outings, knowledge about sea turtles is shared, the development of greater sensitivity about their threats and the use of scientific learning tools for young people are promoted. 

To know and love our home, Galapagos. It’s important that we feel like custodians of the islands. We can do this by contributing and sharing our knowledge for the conservation of this magical place, which always seems to surprise us with new findings and good news.  

Let’s take care of Galapagos and its species. The Shark Ambassadors serve as a good example as they have decided to be part of the change through these environmental education and citizen science activities.

I want to thank Juan Sebastián Torres and Isabel Grijalva for the opportunity to be a part of this amazing experience. Anne Guezou, for sharing all of her knowledge and for teaching us about microplastics (A subject I did not know about). Lady Márquez, Sebastián Pilla and Erik Ojeda EPI and the DPNG for their contributions to green turtle. Finally, to the shark ambassadors, for the dedication and love they put into each activity.  

The shark ambassadors with the EPI and DPNG team returning from an outing to Tortuga Bay.
The shark ambassadors with the EPI and DPNG team returning from an outing to Tortuga Bay. Photo: Camila León, Mola Mola club.

 

Press Release.- Scientists from the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF), the Saint Louis Zoo Institute for Conservation Medicine (ICM), the Animal Health Research Center (INIA-CISA), the Complutense University, and the European University of Madrid, together with technicians from the Galapagos National Park Directorate (GNPD) showed that one of the most emblematic species on Earth, the giant tortoises of Galapagos, carry antibiotic resistance bacteria associated with human activities in the archipelago.

This research showed that a greater quantity of resistant bacteria is present in tortoises that share their habitat with human settlements (i.e., agricultural, urban, and tourist areas) than tortoises living at remote areas, such as the Alcedo Volcano on Isabela Island.

These results were verified after analyzing the fecal samples of 270 tortoises. Scientists searched for a total of 21 genes that encode resistance to eight different classes of antibiotics, commonly used in human and veterinary medicine, as well as growth promoters in farm animals.

"Antibiotic resistance is spreading around the world causing an invisible pandemic that compromises the health and treatment of humans and animals." explains Dr. Ainoa Nieto Claudín, first author of this work, PhD student and researcher at the CDF and ICM.

Researchers around the world are working together to better understand the origins, transmission, and impacts associated with these “superbugs”, as international health agencies have designated the study of antimicrobial resistance as one of the top priorities of political agendas.

"The Covid-19 pandemic has increased the use of antibiotics and, consequently, the emergence of resistant bacteria around the world. The animal-human interface creates the perfect scenario for resistance to enter wild species and contaminate their habitat, perpetuating the resistance transmission cycle,” adds Dr. Nieto Claudín.

Research conducted as part of the Galapagos Tortoise Movement Ecology Program (GTMEP) showed that giant tortoises are key species for the archipelago's ecosystems. They are considered Galapagos engineers and gardeners, due to their role in the dispersal of seeds and the modification of the ecosystems. Increased tourism, habitat fragmentation, introduced species, and climate change are just a few of the many threats that Galapagos tortoises face today.

Dr. Sharon L. Deem, Director of the ICM and a co-author on the paper comments:

“Galapagos tortoises are migratory species on islands like Santa Cruz, the most populated in the archipelago. Here, tortoises often leave the protection of the National Park and enter private lands during their annual migrations. Galapagos tortoises may spend more than six months a year in urban and agricultural areas, where they encounter new threats such as impacts from cars, plastic ingestion, and exposure to resistant bacteria and pesticides.”

Wildlife such as Galapagos tortoises may act as sentinels of the health of the ecosystems where they live. Fernando Esperón, co-author of the paper and professor at the European University of Madrid explains:

“It is essential to continue with studies of this caliber in emblematic species such as giant tortoises, to better understand how these resistant bacteria spread, proposing solutions to a global crisis that threatens the health of both people and animals.”

But it is not all bad news. Knowing the places where there is more antimicrobial resistance within the human-populated areas of Galapagos allows us to coordinate management actions with local institutions to control the use of antibiotics and raise awareness among local farmers. Furthermore, the data produced by this study suggest that levels of antibiotic resistance found are low, when compared to other studies carried out in large continental cities. This suggests that the situation in the Galapagos could be reversible if scientists, decision-makers, and the local community join efforts to regulate and reduce the use of antibiotics in the archipelago.

This research was published in the journal of Environmental Pollution, which can be accessed through this link: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0269749121010356

Cassiopeia, the pregnant scalloped hammerhead shark tagged last February with a satellite transmitter at the Galapagos Marine Reserve, has reached the coasts of the Gulf of Panama, a known nursery area  for this species. After covering more than 4000km, Cassiopeia has provided the first round-trip satellite track between this oceanic archipelago and birthing grounds located on the continental coasts of Panama for this Critically Endangered species.

Detailed return satellite track of pregnant scalloped hammerhead shark ‘Cassiopeia’ between the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador and the coast of Panama.
Detailed return satellite track of pregnant scalloped hammerhead shark ‘Cassiopeia’ between the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador and the coast of Panama. Credit: CDF


In a research project made possible by a multi-institutional collaboration between the Charles Darwin Foundation’s shark ecology project, the Galapagos National Park Directorate (GNPD), the Save Our Seas Foundation Shark Research Center Center and Guy Harvey Research Institute at Nova Southeastern University (USA), researchers used satellite transmitters to follow in near real-time the movements of pregnant hammerhead sharks that aggregate at the beginning of each year around the northernmost Galapagos islands of Darwin and Wolf. These very large females display very distended abdomens, a clear sign of a late pregnancy. Scientists also time the tagging of pregnant hammerheads in February, which is just before newborn scalloped hammerhead sharks start to be recorded around the Pacific coast of Panama.

Pregnant scalloped hammerhead sharks aggregate around Darwin and Wolf islands during the first months of the year.
Pregnant scalloped hammerhead sharks aggregate around Darwin and Wolf islands during the first months of the year. Photo by: Pelayo Salinas, CDF.

Previous studies by other research groups, including members of the Migramar network have revealed inter-island movements of scalloped hammerhead sharks between the Galapagos, Isla del Coco and Malpelo oceanic islands. This current ongoing research builds on those efforts, by further investigating the movement of pregnant sharks to birthing grounds located on the continental coast of the Pacific coast of the Americas.

“This satellite track provides definitive evidence of the connectivity between the Galapagos Islands and birthing areas on the mainland coast of the Americas for this critically endangered species”, said Dr. Pelayo Salinas de León, Senior Marine Scientist at the Charles Darwin Foundation and Save Our Seas Foundation Conservation Fellow. “Cassiopeia was extremely fortunate to survive this epic migration across kilometers of fishing hooks and nets that have been laid in her migratory route by fishing fleets. Unfortunately, several other sharks we have tagged during the past two years were fished while migrating towards the mainland coast. If we are to save the Tropical Eastern Pacific scalloped hammerhead population from extinction, we need to protect their travel corridors and impose much stricter fishing regulations across the region”, added Salinas-de-León.

The Galapagos represents one of the few places left where the critically endangered scalloped hammerhead shark can still be encounter in large groups.
The Galapagos represents one of the few places left where the critically endangered scalloped hammerhead shark can still be encounter in large groups. Photo by: Pelayo Salinas, CDF.

The scalloped hammerhead shark was categorized in 2019 as Critically Endangered by the Red List of Threatened Species issued by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), based on an estimated global populations decline of >80% over three generation lengths (72.3 years). Despite this critical conservation status, which is at the same threat level as the charismatic Eastern gorilla (Gorilla beringei) or the Javan Rhinoceros (Rhinoceros sondaicus), fins from scalloped hammerhead sharks fished across the Eastern Pacific continue to flood shark fin markets mainly located in Asia.

Despite their critically endangered conservation status, large numbers of adult and newborn scalloped hammerhead sharks are fished across the region.
Despite their critically endangered conservation status, large numbers of adult and newborn scalloped hammerhead sharks are fished across the region. Photo by: Manu San Félix.

“This round trip migration between the Galapagos aggregation and the mainland coast so beautifully demonstrated by Cassiopeia, combined with the high genetic connectivity between these two areas documented by our studies, is allowing a holistic picture of the geographic linkages of hammerheads in this broad region to emerge”, says Prof. Mahmood Shivji, director of the Guy Harvey Research Institute and Save Our Seas Foundation Shark Research Center at Nova Southeastern University. “We hope these findings will help Tropical Eastern Pacific nations implement urgent management measures for protecting pregnant sharks while they are undertaking such important round-trip migrations to the coast, and also reduce fishing pressure in the nurseries, so this vital cycle of life connections can be maintained to preserve this critically endangered and iconic species”.

This ongoing research was possible thanks to the generous support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Save Our Seas Foundation, Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation, Roller Coaster Road Productions, Mark Rohr and Mark Qi Wong.

World Albatross Day, which is celebrated on June 19th each year, aims to highlight this species and draw the attention of governments, fishermen, researchers and the general public to the problems faced by these birds. It seeks to highlight possible solutions to these threats. The theme proposed by the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP) to celebrate this day is "Ensuring Albatross-friendly Fisheries". For this year, the two species chosen to be highlighted, due to their threats, are the Gough Island Tristan Albatross and the Galapagos Albatross, both in the Critically Endangered category, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The Galapagos Albatross (Phoebastria irrorata) is also known as the "Waved Albatross", a seabird endemic to Ecuador. 99.9% of the population of this species breeds on Española Island (Galapagos), and 0.1% on La Plata Island (Machalilla National Park), on the mainland coast of Ecuador. Its range extends from the Galapagos archipelago to the Exclusive Economic Zones off the coasts of Ecuador, Peru and Chile.

The Charles Darwin Foundation and the Galapagos National Park Directorate maintain, as a joint initiative, the Galapagos Albatross Ecological and Epidemiological Monitoring Program, which has been underway for 19 years and is led by CDF Senior Research Scientist Gustavo Jiménez-Uzcátegui.


Gustavo mentions that: "in the 2000s, 50% of the albatross population in Galapagos began their reproductive period when they were 7 years old. However, in the 1970s, their sexual maturity period began when they were 4 years old. This difference in reaching maturity is possibly explained by the fact that in the distribution and feeding areas for this species, over the years there has been greater competition for food with fishing boats, which catch a large part of their food, which delays their sexual development".

June 19, 2021 was the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP). This international agreement, of which Ecuador is a member, is an instrument that seeks to conserve albatrosses and petrels worldwide. This instrument proposes the coordination of an Action Plan to protect seabird species, and details national and international activities to achieve these objectives.

 

The ‘Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galapagos Islands’, in French ‘Fondacion Charles Darwin  pour les Iles Galapagos’, Association Internationale sans but lucrative (AISBL), has its registered office at Avenue Louise 54, 1050 Brussels, Belgium. Trade Registry # 0409.359.103

© 2022 Charles Darwin Foundation. All rights reserved.