Notes from the Field

Be Careful What You Wish For

August 6th, 2009 by Gene Feldman

Ever since SeaWiFS was launched back in August of 1997, I had hoped to figure out some way of getting a high resolution satellite receiving station installed on the islands to collect a time series that would once and for all provide a data set for generations to come that would help characterize the ocean’s biological response to a changing environment in this most unique part of the world.  Unfortunately, things never seemed to work out quite right until a cold November day in 2000 when I first met Stuart Banks.  After a number of e-mail exchanges with some folks in Galapagos and Stuart, his travel plans were changed at the last minute so that he stopped off at Goddard on his way down to the Galapagos for the second time and spent the evening at my home and the next day at Goddard where together with John Morrison (see his journal for the details), we hatched a plan that was to profoundly influence the course of both of our lives.  To this day, both my daughters who were 17 and 12 at the time remember the night they had dinner with this very charming young man from Great Britain with the terrific accent.  For me, it was realization of a dream that started back in 1982 when I first started observing these marvelous islands from space with data from the Coastal Zone Color Scanner.  For Stuart, it was the start of what was to become an incredible scientific and personal adventure that continues to this day.

I asked Stuart to try and find some time in between the continuous diving and data logging that has filled his team’s days onboard the M/V Queen Mabel to provide a more personal perspective on his work here in Galapagos.  True to form, Stuart went way beyond what I could have ever hoped for and here is what he wrote.

Sending my best regards while at anchor off the northeast tip of Fernandina.

Stuart Banks

Stuart Banks

Science Role:
Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) Oceanographer, Marine Ecologist, Marine Biologist, Marine GIS and Data Manager

Admin Role:
Project and Proposal Development, Project management, Marine finances, Fund raising

Outreach Role:
CDF applied marine science local, national, international forums

CDF Role:
Coordinator: Marine Ecosystem Research and Monitoring
Theme leader: Monitoring of Ecological Change
PI Flagship initiative: Climate variability, Change & Adaptation in the Galapagos Archipelago

When asked whether I’d like to contribute to a blog about my time in Galapagos I wasn’t entirely sure where to start. It’s fair to say that even now after eight years of often unbelievable (occasionally surreal) moments, chain of unlikely events, a fair share of challenges (to put it mildly) it is still something of a surprise that I find myself here, rolling around in a boat with the smoldering volcano of Fernandina Island looming over the mist out the window as I try to punch fish data into my laptop. Time and time again I find it helps to have a little reality check to remind yourself where you are — just in case you get used to it…

Stuart, scenes from he Galapagos

Ten years ago I caught my first glimpse of Galapagos, but from afar. By afar, I should say, satellite images. Studying oceanography in the National Oceanography Centre in the south of England, I began to look at how sea surface temperature changed around the archipelago using satellite data, yet never could have guessed how close it would finally take me to the islands. In 2000 I was asked to help organize the first marine biodiversity records at the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS) — a step that took me on a roundabout route through NASA-GSFC, and led to the installation of a dedicated receiving station for the SeaWiFS mission collecting data across the Eastern Tropical Pacific.

Installation of the SeaWiFS receiving station Computer interface for the receiving station

A fair amount of “Spanglish” and a multitude of research projects have since taken us across the entire Galapagos Marine Reserve — some of the first descriptions of the marine realm since being declared a World Heritage site, thanks to a cast of dozens of marine scientists.

I was captivated by the challenge and great unknowns that remain in Galapagos, changing hats as oceanographer, marine biologist, ecologist, GIS technician, science diver, developing marine projects for the Charles Darwin Foundation with a colorful cast of characters — fishermen, tour operators, international scientists, conservation Non Governmental Organizations (NGO), navy researchers, and Park rangers. The niche that first attracted me was the determination of oceanographic processes — the driving forces behind marine biodiversity and biogeography in the Galapagos Marine Reserve (GMR) at the small scales important to management. To that end we’ve helped coordinate research in a number of complementary projects (NASA satellite oceanography, marine ecosystem dynamics, long term Galapagos monitoring systems evaluating Marine Protected Area (MPA) effectiveness, coral surveys, IUCN red listing, search for rare species, climate change adaptation etc.) that use a range of methods to examine human and climatic interactions in the coastal zone.  National Park partners, Navy, local organizations and visiting scientist groups, are all vital collaborators. It’s the technical information that we develop together engendering a sense of ownership that helps evaluate and improve adaptive management measures as the islands and community continually change. “Climate smart” marine protected areas, invasive species control, long term biodiversity conservation and sustainable fisheries and tourism management are easy to write down on a proposal, but less straightforward to put into practice.

Strangely enough Galapagos presents two faces for me — which are difficult to reconcile. The side of Galapagos that never fails to amaze and inspire will be apparent to anyone fortunate enough to have dipped their head below the waterline in the archipelago.

Image depicting clorophyl-a concentration

We are usually blown away not by crystal clear water (far from it), but by the astounding charismatic life and variety. In fact it’s the pea soup of productivity (the same that the SeaWiFS sensor so dramatically highlighted) that brings life to the islands — from schools of hundreds of hammerhead sharks, to immense mantas, penguins darting like feathered torpedos through cold upwelled water, to orcas and whale sharks, endemic scallops peering at you through dozens of eyes while spotted morays peer between massive coral heads, sealions tug at your fins and whales breach alongside sheltered bays.

You realize very quickly, that this is a place worth fighting for. Some of my most memorable moments are beneath the water — being eye to eye with a 60ft humpback and screaming non stop for 5 minutes is up there as being fairly unforgettable, as well as watching huge ungainly Mola mola sunfish cruise past as flightless cormorants glide around searching for a damsel fish snack.

The other face is more worrying. Over the last 40 years the human presence in the islands has increased exponentially, and we are rapidly reaching a critical crossroads between a sustainable future for the islands, or a shift in the natural environment where we stand to lose biodiversity.

Galapagos is no stranger to change — since pirates arrived in previous centuries and whalers removed huge numbers of Galapagos giant tortoises as fresh food stores on ships, there has been a human footprint. Today restoration programs between Charles Darwin Foundation and the Park have greatly restored these populations — although Lonesome George, last of his kind holds testimony to how susceptible endemic species are to extinction upon such small islands. A repeating pattern of overexploited coastal fisheries for sea cucumber and lobster, fishing down the food web for coastal fin fish, and today a huge increase in tourism (one of the most rapid in the world) creates a new set of challenges for conservation.

Human impact on climate change

Marine accidents and oil spills occur more frequently, overfishing and illegal fishing of keystone reef predators such as reef fish and lobster and shark encourages the formation of uncontrolled urchin barrens, reducing the capability of the marine ecosystem to recover after strong El Niño events. As tourism drives development, more materials and flights increase the chances that invasive species establish in the islands. At huge expense goats, rats, cats, pigs have been eradicated from some islands, wild blackberry persists as do fire ants. The microscopic threats are less easy to remove — avian flu, West Nile virus in the islands would be catastrophic. Overlaid upon everything is the ever present El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) — with global climate change we expect that these climatic events will certainly be more intense. As climate shifts, the biophysical gradients shift with implications for the entire ecosystem and the resources upon which the local community depends.

In fact those are a few of the reasons why we’re here this week freezing under the sea while under the equatorial sun. Rolling around in the swell and peering through a pea soup of plankton upwelling around the western islands. It’s part of a long term submarine and coastal monitoring program to both understand the interaction between climate, oceanography, marine communities, human use and also help evaluate and improve management measures such as the Galapagos Marine Reserve (GMR) coastal zoning system of fisheries take and no-take tourism and Marine Protected Areas.


The Charles Darwin Foundation is an international NGO that works as technical advisory to the Ecuadorian government applying that science to the conservation of the Galapagos to help get a handle on these problems and plan for a sustainable future. Although much of the solution lies in supporting governance, it is vitally important to have your finger on the “pulse” of the reserve. The trick is how to make the links between people and key messages and also understand the interdependencies between the needs of GMR users and the capacity of the natural resource to support their activities without degrading the natural function of the unique ecosystem.

So as we work to understand and protect the Galapagos Marine ecosystem, how it changes its unique character between seasons, between years under the El Nino Southern Oscillation and under the drastic changes since people colonized the islands, it’s comforting to know that there are some extremely talented people here on the islands doing the best they can under difficult circumstances to draw attention to the problems and search for solutions. The key is how to reduce those novel human stresses so that the  “human footprint” becomes as light as possible. An international network of those inspired by ambling iguanas and dramatic lunar landscapes watching Galapagos from afar — through their universities, through interested concerned individuals… even from space – all have helped a huge amount. But I most admire those local researchers and Park rangers dedicating themselves day to day – not the least of whom are on this same boat working to put the pieces together for a sustainable future for the Islands.

Parque Nacional Galaoagos

It will always be a privilege to be here and work with them on what often seems a frontier between development and conservation values. If we can do it in a place like Galapagos, then there’s some hope for the rest of the world’s oceans.

The Galapagos

2 Responses to “Be Careful What You Wish For”

  1. Noemi says:

    Thanks Gene and Stuart for a FANTASTIC post highlighting the intricate marvels and threats the besiege the Galapagos Islands where we live, work and love.

  2. Chuck says:

    An amazing story of care for the home we all share called Earth, and your part in preserving an important piece of it. Kaplah!