Notes from the Field

Ghost Writers in the Sky

July 26th, 2009 by Gene Feldman

I have been very fortunate to be accompanied on my first trip to Galapagos by Professor John Morrison of the University of North Carolina Wilmington, a long-time colleague, collaborator and friend. Having been here many times over the past eight years, John was a great source of local knowledge and invaluable in helping ease the transition from the familiar, although increasingly uncomfortable, travel rituals of airports in the United States to those very different customs that we faced once arriving in Ecuador and more importantly, in Galapagos. I have asked John to provide a little perspective on his work here in Galapagos from the “boots on the ground” perspective or perhaps more appropriately, “flippers in the sea”. While we still have access to the internet before heading out to sea, I humbly submit his journal for your reading enjoyment.


Thanks John,

Professor John Morrison’s Journal

Here I am back in the Galapagos! On my many trips to the islands, I have come to love them and have formed lifelong friendships with a large number of locals and scientists from all over the world. On this trip, we are getting to meet some of the founders of the Station! Arrived here a couple of days ago with Gene Feldman. Just think it has been 8 years (2001) since I first visited the Islands. I am here to present an invited paper at the Galapagos Science Symposium in honor of Darwin’s 200th birthday, the 150th anniversary of the publication of his “Origin of the Species” and the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS). This trip is special in that I am accompanied by Gene Feldman of NASA. Gene was the one that got all of this started. Eight years ago in discussions with a new master’s student from Great Britain, Stuart Banks, who was visiting him at Goddard on his way down to volunteer at CDRS, he asked him if he would like to run a SeaWiFS Downlink Station in the Galapagos.


Stuart was interested and Gene contacted me (we were running stations in Oman, India, and North Carolina) to see if I was interested, and so started my 8-yr love affair with the Islands. This trip will hopefully be a far cry from my first trip to install the SeaWiFS Station in 2001. That trip that started off my infatuation with the islands ended abruptly with 9/11. We had to leave the islands early and find our way home to a different world, but that trip is another story unto itself.


The station was to fill in a gap in the high-resolution, ocean color data for the Eastern Tropical Pacific. On my first trip, I was surprised to learn that while scientists has been working in the Islands for well over 100 years, there had been little systematic work studying the oceanographic conditions found in the islands and how it related to the biodiversity and endemism of the marine environment. That led to a proposal to the NASA Biodiversity and Ecosystem Monitoring Program to study upwelling dynamics and connectivity in the Galapagos Marine Reserve.

In this program we formed a strong relationship between the scientific team from University of North Carolina Wilmington, North Carolina State University, CDRS and the Galapagos National Park Service (GNPS). Without this relationship, we would never have had the success that we did. CDRS cleared most of our logistics problems for us. We convinced the GNPS of the importance of our project to the point were they actually allowed us to use their patrol vessel, LAUNCHA SIERRA NEGRA, for unprecedented access to Galapagos Marine Reserve to carry out 5 Archipelago-wide seasonal oceanographic cruises over a 2.5-year period.


On these cruises we collected standard oceanographic data and optical data (local and remotely sensed) to study the ocean circulation, upwelling and marine biodiversity. We went places where tourists are not allowed!

Well back to this trip. Here I am again to present a paper on the status of this project and turn over the final dataset to my collaborators at CDRS and the Galapagos National Park Service (GNPS). I have mixed feelings about this trip as our original NASA funding has expired and we have had difficulty finding continuing support. We will keep trying as we feel that we still have on the order of 2 – 3 years of analysis remaining to fully meet our goals. This does not mean that we have not been productive. We have nearly 1 terabyte of in-situ and remotely sensed data that is being put into a GIS database that can be used by investigators and the GNPS for years to come to help make decisions on conservation of the marine reserve. In addition, the group has published, has in review or has in preparation on the order of 10 – 15 papers. More importantly, we hope that we have proved to GNPS the value of continuing an oceanographic monitoring program if the Galapagos Marine Reserve is to preserved for generations to come.

Biodiversity and Upwelling Dynamics of the Galapagos Marine Reserve, NNG04GL98G Final Technical Report (pdf, 1.3 MB)

I have always had mixed feelings when I visit the islands. I remember my first trip. I arrived, with all of the normal problems of traveling to a developing country, especially when traveling to a remote location such as the Galapagos. I checked in my hotel and then with great anticipation went to visit CDRS. I expected to be visiting a state-of-the-art research center, after all CDRS was established over 40 years before! What I saw was an understaffed, underfunded research station, focused mostly on terrestrial research. I was also amazed that compared to the terrestrial work, the scientific exploration of the marine ecosystem of the Archipelago was far behind. Stuart Banks, a volunteer at the Station who we employed part time to run the SeaWiFS station was actually the first physical oceanographer to be employed at the Station. To this day I have problems trying to understand why such an internationally important research center is continually fighting to stay alive. Many of the same problems I observed then still exist today, but one thing that they do have is a highly dedicated staff!

After all these years, it is still a real “trip” to get to the islands. Not much has changed except the “hassle factor” has gone up with the numbers of visitors and residents. We were pleasantly surprised to be met at the airport in Quito by 3 women from CDRS (2 of whom I knew, Suzy and Melina) who helped us fight our way through the crowd and into a taxi to our hotel.


Arriving there, I found that they only had a reservation in my name and that the room had only one bed. While Gene and I have been friends for a long time, we are not that close. After a bit a arguing, we finally got 2 rooms. The next day we met Suzy and Melina at the airport and they helped us fight our way through the crowds, get our entry permits for the islands, go through agricultural quarantine and onto the plane. 4 Boeing 757’s arrived at Baltra Airport at the same time. Made it interesting as Baltra only has one outdoor luggage area. Managed to get our luggage and then had to fight our way with luggage onto the airport buses that carried us up to the canal where we caught the ferry to Santa Cruz Island. The car that was supposed to meet us from the station never showed up but we managed to get a taxi (taxi’s on the island are small, king-cab pickup trucks), got to the hotel and found once again that they had one room for us. Convinced the manager that that was not going to work and finally got 2 rooms. Welcome to the Galapagos Gene!!!!!!!

The symposium has been extremely interesting. I gave my presentation summarizing what has been know in the islands for the past 8 years as the “NASA PROJECT”. Made a plug for the dataset, which will be turned over the GNPS and is anticipated to be used as an oceanographic baseline for continued monitoring of the Galapagos marine reserve. It was well received, with great interest in some of the continuing work. Got to get our students, both here and in the US working and get the results out soon. There was a lot of interest in our numerical model defining the circulation and water mass distributions in the Archipelago and eastern Tropical Pacific.


We had one morning off, with some of the folks visiting the Station’s collections and others visiting the tortoise reserves in the highlands (see Gene’s journal entry about his visit with the Giant Tortoises). I did not go as I was going over one of my student’s thesis for the last time – had to get it back to him so he can graduate this semester. Life goes on back in the States while we are here.

It has been fun introducing Gene to the Islands and watching him go through the same sort of mixed feelings that I have when I come to the Islands. Later in the week we will travel to the western part of the Archipelago with an ecological dive team from CDRS. This will be Gene’s first trip within the Archipelago, and hopefully he will be as enthralled as I am when visiting the out-islands. We are here during the cool season and with the potential of an El Nino spinning up and strong upwelling currently going on, it will most likely be cold and rough. We will be working off Isabella and Fernandina, the western-most islands and also the region of strongest upwelling and productivity.


Fernandina Island is an active volcano that erupted earlier this spring. If the weather cooperates, we hope to dive on the new lava fields — the team from the station hopes to establish a new monitoring spot so that they can observe the impact of the eruption on the marine ecosystem and monitor its eventual recovery. Gene and I will be helping with CTD and plankton net tows at the ecological dive sites. I also hope to do some diving with the team, shooting some underwater video of their work. Never know what we will find. We have a small Remotely Operated Vehicle, and every time it has been used to go below standard scuba dive depths, something new has been observed. Hopefully this will continue for Gene’s first trip.

On this trip to the west, we will be using the tourist boat, QUEEN MABEL, which is one of the economy tourist boats. We have gotten mixed feedback from folks that have used this boat, mostly negative, so it should be an interesting trip. There will be 11 of us going, 9 from the Station and Gene and I. Diving in the west this time of year is quite difficult, due to strong currents and cold upwelling water, but this region is the most highly productive in all of the island so we hopefully we will have some great dives. I have brought along an underwater high-definition video camera so we may be able to share some of the dives with you!!!

Over the years I have seen many changes in the islands, not all good. The numbers of residents and tourists has continued to increase, and with it their impact on the marine and terrestrial ecosystems. I have seen an increase in ecologic consciousness, with the introduction of recycling throughout the islands, but at the same time I have seen uncontrolled growth with no thought of the environment. The local government has made a good effort to clean up the town and add facilities for the tourists, but there are still loads of garbage in Academy Bay. So far, gross estimates show that the terrestrial biodiversity of the islands has been about 95% preserved. Hopefully, the Ecuadorian Government will continue to fight to preserve the Islands at times of continued and growing economic pressure.

That’s all for now. The Symposium ends today and our gear goes into quarantine for the trip. They inspect for insects, etc., treat them and keep them until we arrive on the boat. No internet communications from the ship, but we will get back to you when we return and let you know what happened.

— John Morrison


2 Responses to “Ghost Writers in the Sky”

  1. John L. Morrison says:

    Great description. Thanks for sending us the link to the website. Wish I was there.

  2. Chuck says:

    That explains a lot of back story …. interesting technically as well.