by Paula Fan
Please note - the expedition referenced is no longer running.
It's 7:30 in the morning in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos. "Sharpen your machetes, everyone!" announces our Principal Investigator, Jen Young. She is petite and auburn-haired, with a creamy skin and composed demeanor more suited to an English garden party; all she needs is the wide-brimmed hat. We are a group of twelve, Earthwatch newbies and Earthwatch junkies, from Canada, Mexico, Ireland, England and the US. We come from jobs ranging from brewery environmental manager to biology professor. And there's one middle-aged, out of shape pianist, me.
Jen had herded us through arrival a day and a half ago, flashing an indulgent Julia Roberts smile as we gaped at the blue footed boobies doing their perpendicular dives next to the Baltra-Santa Cruz ferry and the pelicans with thieving brown noddy birds on their heads---our first Galapagos Moment! Since then we have been introduced to the Darwin Center and put through our GPS---geographical positioning system---paces. Jen understands incentive well; our point to point navigation route led to lunch at Waypoint 5. And we have our equipment, issued as we sat around the pool at our Puerto Ayora hotel: the machete (complete with sheath and sharpener) that hangs past my knees, compass, rubber gloves, garden gloves, goggles and mask, plus a laminated cheat card with pictures of the Galapagos Most Wanted, our target species.
The desolate reddish moonscape of Baltra greets the traveler arriving on Galapagos. Solitary prickly pears gaze down from atop tall shiny tan trunks, and the forlorn palo verdes, familiar friends of my desert life, somehow have become misshapen, squashed alien beings. On the Santa Cruz side, the skeletal forms of dormant Palo Santo incense trees press in with a menacing air until suddenly a welcome sea of lush green ushers in the highlands. Jen has made sure we know the truth. The luxurious canopy of foliage conceals an army of invasive species crowding out the last large stand of the endemic scalesia forest.
Our area borders Los Gemelos (The Twins), two large pit craters that are remnants of the volcanic activity which created the islands. Tourists come to walk around, stare into the depths, and spot birds. The study site has been divided into virtual lines. Each small team is to walk a transect, some 400 odd meters long, and identify, record, measure, map and control any of the Five Most Wanted that appear. I mutter the mantra, "Cedar, Sauco, Passion Fruit (non-native!), Guava, (non-native), Quinine, oh my!!!" mind reeling with non-native information. The native passionfruit has boomerang shaped leaves...Squash a sauco leaf and it smells like peanut butter followed by a pepper chaser...There are no bad plants, just plants that don't belong there...The piano is a long way away.
We hike through the legendary torrential mist, the garua, over unstable uneven terrain. Omar, a young machete- wielding native, leads us into a sea of waist-high ferns to hack through to our starting points. The walls of tangled greenery ensure that we linger with each step. Invasive mora and the grumpy native catsclaw grab at our damp clothing. There are no paths other than the clearings we make ourselves. Finally the teams line up on their respective transects, and at Jen's shouted command, off we go, armed with machetes, rainproof notebooks, GPS units and spray bottles of herbicide mixed with dye.
"Passion fruit! Not native? What's the area? It starts at this tree and seems to go way over there? Did you get the GPS point? Where's the root?" It's a painstaking task to trace the deadly Medusan plaits through thick green foliage, then over soggy ground to the root of all evil. I decapitate it with ghoulish satisfaction, remembering the photo of a strangled yellow warbler, and savoring every inefficient stroke. The glossy orange and green leaves of the quinine are easy to spot as are the guava. The cedars tower above everything else. Then there's the sauco, lots of it, from tiny seedlings to compound trunks, each sending a three-meter-high cascade of fruit filled branches to the sky. I badly need a machete lesson.
For maximum efficiency one needs to strike the same point more than once. I can't do this!!!-- until the dim muscle memory of a golf swing and an ad hoc Varden grip get me into the groove. It's like piano! You have to practice! I end the day by chopping down a cedar, using one hand. My pride is dampened by the knowledge that it's the softest of the invasives, and that it is, or was, a beautiful tree. I look at the sad stump before I spray it; it looks like white meat chicken.
On our first full day of work, we pull 434 sauco seedlings, chop down 200 small two-meter-high sauco trees and eradicate 118 other larger plants and trees including, sauco, guava, invasive passion fruit, cedar and quinine. There is now a new clearing in the forest. It looks like a meteor has struck, all the felled invasives lying flat on the ground, with the brightly colored herbicide marking the poisoned trunks. It takes 3 days to go 350 meters along our transect, and each day we emerge sodden and earth-stained from slipping on felled trees and falling into potholes, skin and clothing polka-dotted with the Happy Smurf blue of the herbicide. At week's end however, working 5 to 6 -hour days, the crew has eradicated 1400 trees over 2 meters high. As we emerge from the trail, I catch a few tourists snapping pictures of us from the windows of their sanitized buses. We take a public bus to and from work--funny how no one ever wants to sit with us. On Friday afternoon, I hand in my laundry, cringing in embarrassment.
Workdays end by early afternoon, AND we get the weekend off! Our Galapagos Education is overseen by Paul McFarland, a gangly, loose limbed, effusive Brit expat who, despite his many years on the islands, delivers lectures on geology, weather and the native flora and fauna with undimmed boyish enthusiasm. There are Darwin Center exhibits, films, and presentations by resident scientists and staff. Their diverse accents mirror the world's concern for this special place, but no one is more passionate than a young Ecuadorian naturalist named Carlos, who inspires us with the beauty of his photography. Free time is also for Galapagos Moments: communing quietly with the E.T. faced tortoises in their pen at the Center; wandering past the off-limits-to-tourists gate to the staff canteen dock to watch marine iguanas march to the sea in search of an algae meal; staring into clear water at low tide, bewitched by the sensual sway of rays and morays; smiling at a drowsy sea lion eying a lone snorkler; doing impromptu Tai Chi on one of the Center beaches, trying to mimic the graceful swoops of sea birds.
Galapagos is not just animals; it's people, and Puerta Ayora is in a festive mood. World Cup Mania is in the air with the English Pub, Tintorea, doubling as a sports bar during game time. Never mind that the match starts at 8:00 a.m. It's got to be time for a beer somewhere in the world. Beyond the commercialism of Charles Darwin Avenue, there is the real world, where fresh baked bread scents the air as the sun rises, where the town's children cannonball off the cliffs of Las Grietas (The Cracks) into the narrow channels of chilly water, where mass is celebrated on the front steps of a department store, shopping carts pushed to the side in orderly rows, parishioners toting their own plastic chairs. BYO ! In the real world, the locals hike to the silken sands of Tortuga Bay for sun and swimming, slurping the richest vanilla softserve on earth from sugar cones. There is a Weekend Fun Fair, with children in Ecuador team T shirts bouncing on a giant inflatable Titantic. On Saturdays, the Free Market is the place to meet and eat and buy anything from blankets to coffee. We spot an enormous pile of passion fruit. I wonder if someone has been picking up all the stuff left after we cut the vines---I hope so. I think helplessly of all that fruit on the ground, and all those seeds, each a little invasive time bomb.
In the real world, the wildlife has started to notice what people are about. Encroaching civilization, with the folks in the white pickup truck taxis that scurry around town, means Handouts. The Darwin's finches herd like pigeons around the Center Snack Bar while tourists target them in gigantic cannon-like lenses. Brown pelicans nest in the mangroves next to the outdoor fish stall. They come out in droves as the catch of the day is cleaned. Three sea lions bob next to the moored boats barking, "Me, me, me!!!", and a single blue footed booby circulates among the shoppers, hoping he's appealing enough to feed.
Monday of Week Two brings the corporate groan, "Do I have to go to work today??!!!" as we stumble in to our 6:20 a.m. breakfast. Our ranks have been thinned by the Tortoise Two Step and we start our new transects with professionals on board. Omar has been joined by Manuel One and Manuel Two. Numero Uno of the thick raven hair, stone face and low growl joins my team. Unfortunately the polite vocabulary of my Spanish CDs doesn't extend to "What is the diameter at chest height of this tree? Height in meters? Fruit or flowers? Cut it down!!!" I learn.
We move much more quickly as Manuel does with one whack what I can do in ten. He doesn't need the compass and only glances occasionally at the GPS. I am humbled, even more so when I slide 15 meters down the same steep barren hillside twice, literally saving face the second time by flipping over. After I go around the long way where the slope is gentler, we spend the rest of the morning chasing Manuel over the slippery ground, recording his muttered information and trying to keep up with the spraying as fast as he whacks. I desperately yell across the forest to Cristina who is from Mexico City. "How do I tell him to slow down and wait???!!!" All I hear is an empty echo. I sing a little Schubert across the hills just to hear the friendly reply. At noon, sitting on a felled trunk, huddled over my packed lunch, the sun comes out. Light flickers through the canopy spotlighting a flutter of movement. Suddenly a female vermillion flycatcher lands next to me, cocked head inquiring. It's the sandwich, right? Why I am doing this??? I'm doing this for YOU!!! Tell a friend.
After days of destruction the chance to nurture is so welcome! Two youthful scientists, Andreas and Jorge, explain their system of plots and planting. And dirt collection. It's back to the transects. After filling 40 bags, our little caravan lurches out of the forest into the open. Walking an unimpeded straight line is a new found freedom. We prepare the plots with the lighthearted excitement and anticipation of soon-to-be parents. A thousand healthy, chest high scalesias are waiting in a nearby nursery to populate this area at the edge of Los Gemelos. As the overcast clammy pall of the cloudforest gives way to sun, we strip to our T shirts and work the soil, our cast away raingear piled at the edge of the gaping crater. The sun is shining and all is right with the world.
Planting day starts with a downpour and fury. The seedlings have disappeared. The nurseryman shakes his head: I can't think what happened. I just got back this morning from a trip and.....Andreas, his Danish Viking blood rising, is ready to kill. Jorge shrugs philosophically and observes: If somebody has stolen them in order to plant on private land, we'll have a new forest. More power to them. It's time for Plan B. We harvest 350 small struggling scalesia plants from the edge of the road, tagging each with pink tape. The few robust specimens are the exception. The sun comes out as we carry them to the plots---where is the rain when we need it?!!! Each infant tree is placed gently into the ground. We baptize the weakest with the leftovers from our water bottles. As we board the bus to depart our site for the last time, we are all thinking, "Grow, little scalesia, GROW!!!"
In two weeks we have eradicated or controlled 4200 trees, planted 300 scalesia in plots, and 50 in random spots. A small dent, but something to celebrate this festive Friday night. Hilarity reigns, there are speeches and a fine bottle of wine to toast...Jen's birthday! We have ordered a cake as a surprise, but the surprise is on us when Paul pulls the traditional Ecuadorian (?) frosting-in-face ambush on her. The crowning touch is when B.B., who has been in charge of the herbicide-dye mix all week, reveals his feet. Happy Smurf blue! A blue footed B.B.!!!
And suddenly after two weeks, I am a tourist, spending dreamy hours on a ship with new touristy friends, drifting from island to island. We enjoy the gentle banter of our naturalist-guide and fresh fish lunches. We snorkle with penguins and sea lions, brushing through schools of fish. We wave at whales and dolphins. We coo over fluffy booby babies with their violet feet and marvel at the Casanovan red display of the magnificent frigate birds. We come face to face with smiling yellow land iguanas, are "spat" at by their black marine cousins, and sit with the brightly colored Sally Lightfoot crabs, watching white tipped sharks frolicking in the surf.
On our last lazy day, we land on the little stone dock on South Plazas. All eyes are drawn to a young sea lion in a classic ballet pose, chin lifted, nose high in the air, spine arched in a graceful curve. Its wet black head glistens in the sun, but the whole of its back has been shorn off, neatly, cleanly exposing blood-red muscle. Our guide looks away, muttering something about a shark. One of my fellow tourists knows better. He shakes his head and says, softly, his voice breaking, "A boat." And so, horrified and helpless, we watch this innocent child of the sea sink slowly, strength ebbing, until an aquamarine wave takes it away, rocking the little body gently in its saltwater cradle. A black nose occasionally lifts above the surface for a few last quiet breaths, and then it's over, it's gone.
We are reminded that Nature is defiant, wild, proud, beautiful and yet so very
vulnerable, and that all too often we let it slip away through our thoughtlessness. When I unpack my case back at home, a brochure falls out from between the pages of a book. The words "Galapagos Forever" sing out from beside the breathtaking rock formation pictured on the cover. All one can do is hope and try.
WildAid, the Charles Darwin Foundation and the World Wildlife Fund all have a large presence on the Islands; all sponsor worthwhile conservation projects while balancing the needs of the human population with economic initiatives.