Over the past two weeks I have explored the natural area around Puerto Villamil on the island of Isabela in the Galapagos. Through many field activities to a variety of locations I was able to gain a broader understanding of the ecosystems in the Galapagos and the current status of the species that live in those ecosystems. Fishing, snorkeling, walking, and other modes of exploration were utilized in order to view the habitats in as many ways as possible and earn a deeper understanding of this region. There are a wide variety of charismatic megafauna along with other smaller organisms that can be easily viewed and observed without looking extensively for them. It is important to understand where they are and what they are doing along with their conservation status so that scientists can know what their status is and how best to help conserve them if they need it. Visitors should also educate themselves about these animals in order to gain respect for them and educate others to also protect and conserve the entire Galapagos environment.
Loberia Chica is a small lagoon located near Tintoreras, a rocky islet near the port in Puerto Villamil. The bay is semi-protected from the open ocean by lava rock formations below the surface of the water and mangroves above. I have been snorkeling three times in this location during my stay in Puerto Villamil and have been able to watch the progression through this hot, rainy season that is present from January to May. In January, large numbers of green sea turtles gathered in this area to feed. They gather in this place in order to mate in the open water of the port, but many can be found feeding on algae in Loberia Chica. In January, around 20 individuals were seen in this area feeding on Ulva. On March 8, 2011, only a solitary female was observed. Most turtles will tolerate being watched as long as they are given enough room to move from one group of algae to the next. They will continue their eating and breathing behavior patterns even when humans are close by. Some of these sea turtles show an interest in humans and will approach and hold eye contact for an extended period of time.
The Green Sea Turtle is the only species of sea turtle that is known to lay eggs on the beaches of the Galapagos. This species does not become sexually mature until age 26-40, making them vulnerable to changes in population. If a large number of sea turtles are killed, or the population is reduced, there will be very few reproducing adults left to repopulate. This slow life history makes them especially vulnerable to overharvesting and bycatch which still occurs in some countries. The biggest threat to the turtles in the Galapagos is the destruction of their nests and eggs which gives them a status of endangered with the IUCN Red List. Cats, feral pigs, and fire ants are predators that will dig up a freshly laid sea turtle nest and eat the eggs and young. If the turtles hatch during the day, they are also vulnerable to frigate bird predation. About 1400 females a year nest in the Galapagos, and I have witnessed females coming to shore in order to lay their eggs on the beach right outside the reaches of town in Puerto Villamil. One female that I observed on March 12, 2011 had made her way from the water to the sandy road and was moving down the road to find a spot to bury her eggs. She was a smaller female so it may have been her first time laying eggs and she did not know the right location. I followed her tracks and she had been walking down the road of unsuitable habitat for a long time. In the morning if you walk the beach, you will see tracks that look like they originated from a snowmobile and these tracks lead to a large mound under which the eggs are buried. It is important to protect these nests because the Green Sea Turtles are an endangered species and young turtles are constantly needed to increase the population and add genes to the gene pool. Unfortunately, the benefits of saving eggs and young turtles are not seen for decades because it takes the females so long to mature and lay eggs of their own.
Another animal that is fun to observe is the Manta Ray. These animals usually are located swimming near the surface filter feeding on plankton. On March 16, 2011, I was able to witness the behavior of several of these creatures between Los Tuneles and the Puerto Villamil harbor. At first sight they are overwhelmingly large, growing up to 9 meter wingspan, although the ones we observed had about a 15 foot wingspan. We witnessed a manta ray in the distance breech the surface of the water three times in a row. We also came across ones that were closer to the boat and the wingspan of one could almost reach the bow and the stern of the boat as it swam underneath us. When we entered the water with masks and snorkels we learned how fast these animals really were while we were trying to get close to them. These rays move by undulating their pectoral fins which enable them to “fly” through the water. The larger their wingspan, the more distance they can travel with a single movement. When we reached the manta rays, they did not seem alarmed by our presence and continued to swim around us. Twice they passed directly beneath me within reaching distance. After they passed below the group they turned downward and appeared to be diving.
Manta Rays are protected in the entire country of Ecuador, but they are hunted elsewhere for their liver oil and meat. They are considered near threatened according to the IUCN Red List. It is important to protect these animals for their sheer aesthetic value. They are stunning creatures, maybe the most stunning in the Galapagos and they hold a high value with tourists. I would come back to the Galapagos again and again in order to just view these creatures.
All of the organisms in the Galapagos are amazing in different ways. These two organisms, the Green Sea Turtle and the Manta Ray are both representatives for all of the organisms in the Galapagos. Conservation is important to protect both of these species and ecosystems that they live in. Ecosystems around these islands are all connected by the Pacific Ocean and it is important to value each component of this system. If one species is no longer well represented, the ecosystem is vulnerable to major changes which in turn can affect other populations and species. If conservation and awareness are made important, however, ecosystems can thrive and be amazing places to observe.