Important Ocean Science in the Galapagos

25 August, 2022

The challenges of wrestling 15 flight cases loaded with film equipment and dive gear from Stockholm to the Galapagos Islands are forgotten the instant we emerge from the airport into the sunshine of Baltra Island. 

Making documentaries about the state of our marine environment exposes us to the harsh realities of climate change and the ruthless overexploitation of marine resources. But a visit to the Galapagos Islands is the realization of a dream that began when I read my father’s dog-eared copy of Charles Darwin’s travel journal, The Voyage of The Beagle. My mind is filled with images of giant tortoises, flightless cormorants, turtles, sea lions and so much more and our first impression doesn’t disappoint. 

sea turtle
Sea turtle. Photo: Johan Candert
whale shark
Whale shark. Foto: Göran Ehlmé
Photo: Johan Candert

Baltra is a harsh volcanic island separated by a channel of clear blue sea from lush Santa Cruz. The air is filled with soaring frigate birds and blue footed boobies. Iguanas cross the road in front of our bus and a group of sea lions frolic at the pier.

blue footed booby
Blue footed booby. Photo: Simon Stanford

marine iguanas
Marine iguanas. Photo: Simon Stanford

We are going to spend the coming 12 days aboard the research ship M/V Argo in the company of legendary oceanographer and National Geographic Society Explorer-at-Large, Dr. Sylvia Earle, who first visited these islands in 1966.

Dr. Earle’s foundation, Mission Blue, has established a network of marine “Hope Spots” and Galapagos is a jewel among these special places. The program identifies a global network of valuable ocean regions that showcase biodiversity and aims to inspire us all to support the restoration of ocean health through marine protected areas.

The Deep See Submersible. Photo: Göran Ehlmé
Sylvia Earle
Sylvia Earle. Photo: Johan Candert

Under the leadership of marine biologist Dr. Alex Hearn (Galapagos Science Centre, Universidad San Francisco de Quito), the research expedition will look at how effective the Galapagos Marine Reserve has been on the occasion of its 25th anniversary. A team made up of local and international researchers will travel the length and breadth of the archipelago taking samples and measurements, fitting trackers and installing monitoring equipment. The Argo has onboard a custom-designed submarine that allows scientists to descend to 450 metres to film, observe and take samples. The main activity for most of the scientists and for my two underwater photographer colleagues will be to observe and record the world below the surface using scuba.

I love the ocean — I surf, I snorkel — but I’m not scuba trained and this vast, deep part of the Pacific Ocean with its powerful currents is not the place for me to put myself or any of my companions at risk. I will have to live vicariously through the images that my colleagues, Johan and Göran, film but I can’t help being envious. Fortunately, I couldn’t hope to be better represented underwater; they are both exceptional divers and photographers.

dr Alex
The marine biologist, Dr. Alex Hearn. Photo: Simon Stanford

galapagos bullhead shark
The endangered Galapagos bullhead shark. Photo: Göran Ehlmé

moray eel
Moray Eel. Photo: Göran Ehlmé

Sylvia Earle’s flight is delayed so we pick her up from the pier on our way out to the Argo. Sylvia will turn 87 in a month’s time, so I expect her to at least show signs of being as travel-worn as we were when we arrived, but she clambers aboard the skiff radiating energy and insatiable curiosity. Our heap of flight cases and bags are loaded, some precariously balanced on the roof for the short transfer to the Argo.

research ship argo
The research ship Argo. Photo: Simon Stanford

Our first destination is tiny uninhabited Wolf Island, 280 kms from Santa Cruz on the northwest extreme of the archipelago. The Galapagos Islands are unique in that they are situated at the crossroad of major oceanic currents. The Humboldt Current brings cold water from the south, the warm Panama current flows in from the northeast and the Cromwell Current wells up bringing cold, nutrient-rich water from the west. The mingling of these major oceanic currents explains the exceptional marine biodiversity.

There’s something magical about waking up in a totally new place after an overnight sea journey and the sight of the rocky volcanic cliffs of Wolf Island doesn’t disappoint, as Sylvia Earle says:

“The Galapagos Islands are special from the tops of the mountains to the depths under the sea. It’s not just land. And it isn’t just ocean. It’s one system. Totally, inextricably connected.”

Expedition leader Alex Hearn briefs the team and presents the day’s packed schedule over breakfast.

divers on a boat
Photo: Simon Stanford

The Galapagos batfish is adapted to a life on sandy bottoms where they get around by “walking“. Photo: Carl Gustaf Lundin/Mission Blue
galapagos shark
The Galapagos shark. Photo: Johan Candert
sylvia earle
Sylvia Earle on one of her many dives in the submersible. Photo: Simon Stanford

The researchers onboard for these hectic days, which we spend around Wolf and Darwin islands, do at least three dives per day. They collect eDNA, take water samples, count sharks, tag tuna and survey batfish. Sylvia Earle is tireless; strong currents don’t stop her from diving and making at least one submarine descent every day. She may have been here countless times over the past 55 years, but this fact hasn’t dimmed her passion for this place or her capacity for sharp observation. 

Johan and Göran often return from a dive arm in arm with Sylvia, whooping with delight at what they’ve seen and filmed. 

shark and gustavo manrique
Photo: Sylvia Earle

We return to Santa Cruz where Gustavo Manrique, Ecuador’s Environment Minister, joins Sylvia Earle for a dive in the submarine. The experience, which includes a close-up encounter with an ocean sunfish that swam within kissing distance of the Minister, clearly makes a strong impression and he has this to say:

“We should drop the “s” of oceans, we should call it Ocean. It’s just one and I feel proud as a world citizen.”

We’re halfway into our Galapagos expedition and a strong point has been made. This is truly a Hope Spot. Things may not be perfect, but the ocean has spoken with a strong voice and marine conservation is the winner.

Text: Simon Stanford
Photo: Johan Candert, Göran Ehlmé, Simon Stanford, Sylvia Earle

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Legendary oceanographer, Sylvia Earle first visited the Galapagos Islands in 1966 and described it as, “the sharkiest fishiest place I’ve ever been.” In July 2022 we return to this special place on a research boat chartered by Dr. Earle’s Mission Blue foundation. The expedition is tasked with checking key environmental health indicators on the 25th anniversary of the Galapagos being declared a marine protected area…
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