Starting my scientific career in the Galapagos Islands

13 Apr 21 /
The tough climb to the Las Tunas study site on Española Island. Photo by Joshua Vela Fonseca/FCD.

Author: Esme Plunkett

As a recent Biological Sciences graduate wanting to make her mark on the world, I asked myself: where should I go? Silly question. Obviously, the Galapagos Islands. Having grown up only seeing the Galapagos through a TV screen, often accompanied by the voice of Sir David Attenborough, I didn’t know what to expect. Surely it can’t be as picturesque as it is on the TV. But it is!

I started my 4-month volunteer scheme working with the Charles Darwin Foundation on the Galapagos Verde 2050 Project (GV2050), an award-winning project dedicated to the ecological restoration of Galapagos’ degraded ecosystems and the populations of its endangered species. As I read about the project prior to my arrival, I marvelled the scope it has. Its efforts stretch from deep inside the surprisingly urban towns of Galapagos’ inhabited islands, to the corners of its uninhabited islands to work with species on the brink of extinction. I was ready to get stuck in.

My first day at the Charles Darwin Research Station I met my new project leader, Patricia Jaramillo Díaz, with an infectious laugh and welcoming hug she asked me and my new co-worker Luka Negoita to introduce ourselves to the team of international and local volunteers and staff members. I thought I would try and impress them by doing it in Spanish, “Me llamo es Esme” (I am called is Esme). Facepalm. Note to self: Download DuoLingo.

My first time in the field was on Mario Piu’s coffee farm on Santa Cruz Island. It was a new site for the project, where we planted more than 100 plants of endemic species including Scalesia pedunculata. This is a species that has been reduced to 1% of its original distribution due to the expanding area for agriculture. We planted these species dotted between coffee plants. I have been back to this site since and it took my breath away to see this perfectly harmonious polyculture that so beautifully symbolizes what GV2050 works for: a perfect socio-ecological balance, recognizing the importance of Galapagos’ human population and how it must live in harmony with its unique wildlife.

Esme on one of her field trips.
Figure 1: Esme on one of her field trips. Photo by: Joshua Vela, CDF

My next time in the field was with the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative (GTRI) from the Galapagos Conservancy, with who we often collaborate on tough field ventures. We travelled to Española, the oldest of the Galapagos Islands. As we each hauled 30 kg water containers on our backs over ragged volcanic rocks, I saw the lengths my coworkers physically go to in the name of applied science. Each of these water containers is enough to water or plant two cacti, so you can imagine the effort needed to provide water to the 140 Opuntia cacti GV2050 has in this site. I realized that the often-grueling conditions of fieldwork under the unforgiving Galapagos sun and over tricky terrain, could only be endured by people that really cared about the work they do and the rewards of this demanding labor. All the sweat and, at least from my part, tears on the walk to the site in Española was made worthwhile as soon as I saw the scattering of these small cacti across the site. I could imagine how these would eventually form a dense and vibrant forest to harbor roaming Giant Tortoises and a myriad of native birds. However, unlike the Mario Piu site, I won’t see this in my lifetime, as the Opuntia cactus grows mere few centimeters a year. I feel an immense pride to work with a project leader (Patricia Jaramillo Díaz) and team that are dedicated to work to restore an ecosystem that they themselves won’t reap the benefits of, yet the knowledge of leaving the Galapagos ecosystems healthier than when they found them to future generations is more than enough.

Francisco Calva (GNPD) monitoring with Esme Plunkett in Plazas Sur.
Figure 2: Francisco Calva (GNPD) monitoring with Esme Plunkett in Plazas Sur. Photo by: Joshua Vela, CDF

“The one who plants trees, knowing that he will never sit in their shade, has at least started to under-stand the meaning of life.” - Rabindranath Tagore.

After four months of volunteering, I felt like my work was not done, and was lucky enough to continue on the team as a research assistant. Like the introduced species I am, I too adapted to the Galapagos environment. I became more competent in the field, now able to carry two 30 kg water containers, so my team renamed me ‘Esme-nator’. My Spanish also improved and opened up a whole new range of opportunities for me. I felt the full advantage of working on such an international and multidisciplinary team. Now able to communicate proficiently, I was able to benefit from the wisdom of Galapagos National Park Rangers in the field that have collaborated with the GV2050 project since day 1 (Figure 2).

Figure 3. ‘Doña Opuntia and Don Cande‘, representing two endemic species from the Galapagos Islands (Opuntia echios and Jasminocereus thouarsii).
Figure 3. ‘Doña Opuntia and Don Cande‘, representing two endemic species from the Galapagos Islands (Opuntia echios and Jasminocereus thouarsii). Photo by Patricia Jaramillo Díaz/CDF.

I was also able to involve myself in the education and engagement of the local community. I have loved working with local school children in creating ecological gardens (often while donning a big prickly pear cactus costume called Doña Opuntia)! Seeing these children get stuck in, muddy and enthusiastic about the garden and the unique species it holds brings a feeling of hope (Figure 3). While conservation science is often disassociated with sociological issues, Patricia and the GV2050 team recognize that the future of the islands’ conservation is ultimately in the hands of the local population. By giving them the opportunity to immerse themselves in the environment and conservation work, it will allow galapagueños to understand it, care about it, and eventually work to conserve it. I had the incredible opportunity to present this aspect of the project as a key speaker at the Jorna-das Nacionales conference. To present in Spanish all the work that I've had the opportunity to do with GV2050 and the Galapagos community was a special moment in which I realized how much I had grown, both as a conservationist, but as a person as well.

Figure 4. My GV2050 team that I learnt so much from, drank so much coffee with and made lots of memories with both in and outside of work.
Figure 4. My GV2050 team that I learnt so much from, drank so much coffee with and made lots of memories with both in and outside of work. Photos by Felipe Cornejo.
Figure 5: Leaving the research station with my co-workers.
Figure 5: Leaving the Research Station with my co-workers. Photo by: Esme Plunkett

I never expected to leave the Galapagos with so many experiences, skills and a love for applied conservation work. My story is similar to many others, a 4-month plan that turned into 2 and a half years, the islands and the GV2050 have well and truly captured my heart. I will be forever grateful to the GV2050 team: to Patricia (Patty), for showing me that it is easy to work when you love what you do, to Luka Negoita for showing me the methodological and complex beauty of applied science, and to Paúl Mayorga and María Guerrero whose resilience, resourcefulness and strength never failed to amaze me (Figure 5). Although we joke about each of us still working on the project in the year 2050, I feel in some way we will be. Some of plants we have planted the last 14 years will have grown and died, however they will have left seeds that have given rise to more plants, which will have given home to native birds, insects and reptiles, and will have created beautifully strong and restored ecosystems where the children we once taught can live harmoniously with nature.


Andres Cruz

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