Seven days at Alcedo Volcano

17 Dec 18 /
Seven days at Alcedo Volcano. Photo by: Joshua Vela, CDF.

Giant tortoises have disappeared from almost every corner of the world, and currently, they are the most threatened group of vertebrates according to El Comercio. Although it might sound bizarre, this kind of reptile once inhabited several continents. However, an IBS special issue corroborates the rapid decline of tortoises' population since the Pleistocene. Nowadays, we can only find them free on the Galapagos Islands and on the Aldaraba Archipelago. Human beings and the species we have introduced into their habitats are their main threats.

Biologists, park rangers, veterinarians and many others work for the conservation of the world's biggest land reptile. As part of the Galapagos Tortoise Movement Ecology Programme (GTMEP), eight people traveled to the Alcedo Volcano with the endeavor to gain a better grasp of this species' health. Ainoa Nieto Claudín, veterinarian and researcher of the Charles Darwin Research Station, invited me to be part of the team as a photographer. Through my camera, I wasn't only determined to document the programme efforts, but also decided to widen a conservation message taking this remote paradise as an example. Especially now that digital platforms have assumed significant roles in communicating and images convey through them.

This expedition was led by Dr. Sharon L. Deem, director of the Institute for Conservation Medicine at the Saint Louis Zoo and member of the GTMEP. This program is a multi-institutional collaboration among the CDF, the Max Planck Institute of Ornithology, Galapagos National Park Directorate, Saint Louis Zoo Institute for Conservation Medicine, the Houston Zoo and the Galapagos Conservation Trust.


El equipo. Ilustración digital.
The team. Digital illustration: Joshua Vela, CDF.
El equipo. Ilustración digital.
The team. Digital illustration: Joshua Vela, CDF.


El equipo. Ilustración digital.
The team. Digital illustration: Joshua Vela, CDF.
El equipo. Ilustración digital.
The team. Digital illustration: Joshua Vela, CDF.


The expedition's aim consisted of taking thoroughgoing health samples of 70 giant tortoises of the Chelonoidis vandenburghi species, and furthermore, collect information of the past 11 tortoises that were tagged and have been tracked for the past 8 years. The purpose is to better understand this species' health that lives in a remote location and contrast the data with other tortoises that live within human-inhabited islands.

Datos de los patrones de movimiento de la especie Chelonoidis vandenburghi en el volcán Alcedo
Movement patterns of Chelonoidis vandenburghi on Alcedo Volcano. Map retrieved from www.movebank.org.

It was disturbing, as a Galapagueño, to learn the massive population decline of the species that gave the name to the archipelago. There used to be hundreds of thousands of giant tortoises back in the 1600s, and in the 1970 census, there were counted only 3,000 Galapagos tortoises. Today there are more than 26,000 individuals and Alcedo has been one of their most successful environments with around 8,000 tortoises. Its fame has spread tales of the volcano's ecological paradise. Some people are fascinated by their surreal landscapes, fauna, and it's been said that tortoises there are as big as Volkswagen Beatles.

 Chelonoidis pichirilus
Chelonoidis pichirilus. Digital Illustration: Joshua Vela, CDF.


The expedition took place from the 17th until the 23rd of July of 2018.

Now, I'm going to share the expedition's chronicles through my photographs, illustrations, and extracts of my voyage diary's entries.

03_1.- DAY ONE

El equipo se traslada en fibra de Puerto Ayora a Bahía Cowley, Isla Isabela.
The team traveling on a boat from Puerto Ayora to Bahía Cowley on Isabela Island. Photo by: Joshua Vela, CDF.

The ascent to the crater took us seven hours. It felt like visiting seven countries at once; the continually changing vegetation served as an indicator of each zone we were passing and multiple of the volcano's micro-ecosystems.

Vegetación frondosa común en zonas con altitud.
Dense vegetation common at high-altitude zones. Photo by: Joshua Vela, CDF.

Log entry – July 17th, day one - 17h03:

"We just arrived at the 'Linda J. Cayot' camp in an altitude of 1.170m of height. It took us seven hours and ten minutes. I have never felt so much pain in my body. The good thing is that, while I focus on my feet, I forget my shoulder's pain. Even so, I would do it again without hesitation."

Letrero de la caseta.
Camp's sign. Photo by: Joshua Vela, CDF.

That night we were supposed to sleep like babies...

Lanzo una rata de mi sleeping
Me kicking a rat from my sleeping. Digital Illustration: Joshua Vela, CDF.

Log entry – July 17th, day one - 23h42:

"A rat got on the sleeping. I can't sleep more."

03_2.- DAY TWO

Next day, and with our batteries charged back, we started the field work.

El equipo toma las muestras de la tortuga #1.
The team collecting tortoise #1 samples. Photo by: Joshua Vela, CDF.

Log entry – July 18th, day two - 09h22:

"It has been only fifteen minutes since we left the camp and we can finally see the crater cloudless. Besides, a Vermilion Flycatcher and two Galapagos Hawks came close. This is amazing. P.S. I didn't bring the 500mm because of the weight. I have a 50m f1.4, a 14mm f2.8 and a 24-85mm f.3.6 with me. "

Un Gavilán de Galápagos se cruza en la toma mientras realizo un timelapse.
A Galapagos Hawk flying through while I was making a timelapse. Photo by: Joshua Vela, FCD.

One of the things I remember the most was the amazement of José when he saw the vegetation. As he recalls, when he was part of the Proyecto Isabela, the goats had most of the green swept away, and the landscape was completely different.

The Proyecto Isabela carried out by the Charles Darwin Foundation and The Galápagos National Park between 1998 to 2006, eradicated 135,000 goats from the archipelago's biggest island.

"Goats are one of the most destructive introduced species due to their ease to adapt to hostile environments. They are herbivores quintessential; depredating all kinds of plants, they even feed on trees' cortex, disrupting, in doing so, the habitat of native and endemic species that live on the Galapagos Islands."

- Carlos Pi, DPNG

Ilustración basada en una fotografía de Richard Wollocombe
Illustration based on a photograph by Richard Wollocombe. Digital illustration: Joshua Vela, CDF.

And, as a result, the ecosystem has recovered in an astounding natural response.

I had not seen a Vermilion Flycatcher (Pyrocephalus rubinus) in ten years. Little by little the population had been declining on islands like Santa Cruz or San Cristobal. In Alcedo, this bird's numbers are stable despite the presence of one of their biggest threats: the parasitic fly Philornis downsi.

Pyrocephalus rubinus comúnmente conocido como
Pyrocephalus rubinus commonly know as "Wizard Bird". Photo by: Joshua Vela, CDF.

"What makes photography a 'strange' invention is that its primary raw materials are light and time."
- John Berger

Caseta Linda J. Cayot. Nikon D610 | Rokinon 14mm. | Exposición de 30 segundos | Apertura f.2.8 | Iso 1.250.
Linda J. Cayot camp. Nikon D610 | Rokinon 14mm. | 30 seconds Exposure | Aperture f2.8 | Iso 1,250. At nightfall, the team of two veterinarians and an ambientologist worked on collecting vital information on the samples. This tests had to be done in the next few hours; otherwise, the data would have bee lost. Photo by: Joshua Vela, CDF.

On the camp, the only available energy resource was a fueled electric-generator, which we carried up to the crater, and had the purpose to keep the samples in low temperatures.

Sharon Deem en la foto de la izquierda y en la foto de la derecha: Ainoa Nieto, Sharon Deem y Surya Castillo (de izquierda a derecha) realizando sus análisis utilizando solo linternas como fuente lumínica.
Sharon Deem on the left photo and on the right: Ainoa Nieto, Sharon Deem, and Surya Castillo (from left to right) performing analysis using only flashlights as light sources.Photo by: Joshua Vela, CDF.

03_3.- DAY THREE.

Freddy Cabrera guiándose de la señal telemétrica mediante una antena.
Freddy Cabrera following telemetric signals with his antenna. Photo by: Joshua Vela, CDF.

On the third day, Freddy shined with his localization skills. Using telemetry, movement data has been collected over the past eight years. This data has been used to answer many questions such as:

• What are the spatial needs of tortoises?
• How, when, where and why do Galapagos tortoises migrate?
• What factors disrupt movement?
• What habitat resources are critical for survival?
• What are the ecological roles of Galapagos tortoises?
• How are tortoise populations changing over time, particularly in response to management threats and interventions?

El equipo trabaja mientras una tortuga se acerca a centímetros de mí debido a su visión limitada.
The team worked while a tortoise approached a few centimeters from me due to their limited vision. Photo by: Joshua Vela, CDF.

I noticed that the same Vermilion Flycatcher laid on the same branch at the same hour. Its behavior was very predictable, and he seemed unconcerned towards us.

La niebla tapa el atardecer en el fondo de un Pájaro Brujo.
The mist overlayed the sunset of a Vermillion Flycatcher's background. Photo by: Joshua Vela, FCD.

03_4.- DAY FOUR

José Haro toma medidas de una tortuga entre helechos.
José Haro taking measurements of a tortoise surrounded by ferns. Photo by: Joshua Vela, FCD.
Surya Castillo (izquierda) y Sharon Deem (derecha) disfrutan el vuelo de un Gavilán de Galápagos.
Surya Castillo (left) and Sharon Deem (right) enjoy the flight of a Galapagos Hawk. Photo by: Joshua Vela, CDF.
Varios Gavilanes de Galápagos juveniles se acercan curiosos.
Several juvenile Galápagos hawks approaching curious. Photo by: Joshua Vela, CDF.

Log entry – July 20th, day four - 14h18:

"I just had a display of at least 15 Galapagos Hawks posing for my camera, then a male tortoise was following me for at least 10 minutes, fighting over its territory like I was another turtle."

Defensa de territorio de una tortuga macho.
Defensa de territorio de una tortuga macho
A male tortoise defending its territory. Photo by: Joshua Vela, CDF.
Un Gavilán de Galápagos juvenil descansa en la misma tortuga macho que me siguió por minutos.
A juvenile Galapagos Hawk resting on the same male turtle that followed me for minutes. Photo by: Joshua Vela, CDF.

This moment of photographic climax is what Henri Cartier-Bresson would call a Decisive Moment.

"There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative (...) Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever."
-Henri Cartier-Bresson

Otro juvenil intenta posarse sobre la misma tortuga sin éxito.
Another hawk tries to rest on the same tortoise without success. Photo by: Joshua Vela, CDF.
No podía faltar el brujo.
I could not miss the flycatcher. Photo by: Joshua Vela, CDF.

03_5.- DAY FIVE

Una tortuga macho (izquierda) levanta el cuello frente a una hembra que responde (derecha).
A male tortoise (left) rising his neck on a female (right). Photo by: Joshua Vela, FCD.

On day five we went to a very humid zone and full of "mud baths" were tortoises spend hours moistening and getting rid of parasites.

Log entry – July 21th, day five - 10h20:

"This place is, without doubt, the most photogenic. Ainoa told me it is known as 'Tui's Spot.'"

Los caparazones de las tortugas brillan por las gotas que caen del árbol.
Tortoises shells shining for the droppings of a tree. Photo by: Joshua Vela, CDF.

Tui de Roy is immediately recognized as Galapagos's most iconic photographer. She was born in Belgium in 1953 and come to the Enchanted Islands at the age of 12. From an early age, she built a solid career as a naturalist photographer and writer. Tui speaks four languages, she was the first approved by the Galapagos National Park's naturalist guide, she has published several books, and has worked with various local and international ONGs. Furthermore, she is the co-founder of the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP) and member of the Charles Darwin Research Station board.

Tui de Roy con un teleobjetivo. Ilustración digital.
Tui de Roy with a telephoto lens. Digital illustration: Joshua Vela, CDF.

She is a complete inspiration.

Las patas delanteras de las tortugas gigantes tienen cinco uñas mientras que las posteriores sólo cuatro.
Tortoise’s front legs have five claws, while back legs have four. Photo by: Joshua Vela, CDF.


Sharon Deem (izquierda) y Surya Castillo (derecha) trabajan con las muestras sin descanso para aprovechar la luz del sol.
Sharon Demm (left) and Surya Castillo (right) working without rest to take advantage of the sunlight. Photo by: Joshua Vela, CDF.


Ainoa Nieto clasifica las muestras.
Ainoa Nieto classifying the samples. Photo by: Joshua Vela, CDF.


Pájaro Brujo en vuelo.
Pájaro Brujo en vuelo. Foto de: Joshua Vela, FCD.


Vista del Volcán Sierra Negra desde la caseta Linda J. Cayot.
Sierra Negra Volcano sight of the eruption from the camp. Photo by: Joshua Vela, CDF.

03_6.- DAY SIX

The last day of work was just as exciting as the previous five. We look for the tagged tortoises using telemetry and end up in a low, humid area full of large males.

Sharon Deem regresa con cada muestra a un laboratorio improvisado en el campo.
Sharon Deem working on an improvised field-laboratory. Photo by: Joshua Vela, CDF.

There, the team took the samples of the last tortoise, the # 70. And marked it with water-based acrylic paint, like the rest, to identify them.

Foto de la última tortuga que se tomó muestra, la #70.
Picture of the last sampled tortoise, the #70. Photo by: Joshua Vela, CDF.
En la foto de la izquierda (de izquierda a derecha) Freddy Cabrera, Surya Castillo, Ainoa Nieto, Sharon Deem, Joshua Vela y José Haro. En la foto de la derecha Surya Castillo en una niebla de azufre.
On the left's photo (from left to right) Freddy Cabrera, Surya Castillo, Ainoa Nieto, Sharon Deem, Joshua Vela, and José Haro. On the right's photo Surya Castillo in a mist of sulfur. Photo by: Joshua Vela, CDF.

03_7.- DAY SEVEN

La caseta y la neblina que entra al cráter.
The camp and the mist entering the crater. Photo by: Joshua Vela, CDF.
Plano general de la caseta y las fumarolas
Open shot of the camp and the fumaroles. Photo by: Joshua Vela, CDF.

In contrast with the ascent, going down took us only 3 hours and 45 minutes.

El equipo espera a la lancha para volver.
The team waits for the boat to return. Photo by: Joshua Vela, CDF.

04.- AT HOME

Back home, and with Wifi, I found myself bombarded with notifications again. A week without internet makes you go back and see the amount of time you really spend on your devices and the impact they have on your life.

But Smartphones and social networks also help us to share and leave a virtual footprint. Our presence has managed, for the first time, a state of permanence. The spoken language, the written texts, paintings, and analogous photographs, among other ways of documenting, are fragile and time is their biggest threat. But with the servers and their backups, we are continually writing the history on the web in a permanent way.

Photography has one of the most critical roles, being that they require just a few seconds of our time, and its effectiveness in transmitting a message rests on the millions of users who consume images every day. Today we are all photographers, even without knowing it. An average person takes 50 photos a week and is exposed to more than 5,000 images a day. Also, the photographic equipment stopped being a barrier. For example, an iPhone not only has one, but three cameras; two rear 12MP f1.8 and f2.8, and a front 7MP f2.2 with a variety of focal lengths, depth control or Bokeh, greater detail and sharpness in low light conditions, video 4k, HDR, etc. features at our fingertips. Thanks to this, many professional photographers use their cell phones as their primary cameras and the phrase "The best camera is the one that fits your pocket" has become popular.

From my point of view, the role of a professional photographer comes from his conscious and dedicated practice; photography opens a new world to you, you begin to see moments and details that would have been unnoticed before and puts you in a constantly-seeking mode.

“Photography is like skateboarding in that you start to see the world in a specific visual language. A curb isn’t just something you step up, but once you skate, it becomes an important symbol. I like being able to use photography as a way to recontextualize moments of our world.”

-Andrew Kodama

In my case, photography comes from my urge to transmit messages efficiently. I am a strong advocate that environmental problems should be our most significant concern since they not only have social, economic, political and cultural repercussions but also risk life as such.

So, the next time you take a picture don't think about the "likes" or followers, instead ask yourself: "What do I really want to say?" or "How do I want the story to be written today?"

If you are interested in learning more about volunteering in Galapagos, please visit our volunteer vacancies.


Andres Cruz

Protect Galapagos, Impact the World

The impact you make on this small ecosystem of enormous biodiversity is part of a larger footprint you are leaving for the world's future. Join us on our mission to safeguard one of our planet’s most important natural treasures through science and conservation action by making a donation today. Thank you for making an impact with us.