Category: Galápagos


Should we stay home to save the oceans?

By Midge Raymond,

“Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?” Elizabeth Bishop asks in her poem “Questions of Travel”—the same question I asked myself upon learning, when I was in the Galapagos Islands last year, that more than 200,000 tourists visit this small archipelago every year. These islands, virtually undiscovered until the sixteenth century, are now bursting at the seams.

For all who venture to the Galapagos, it’s the trip of a lifetime—yet it’s also resource-intensive: I had taken 10 flights in 8 days to reach a place that is among our world’s most affected by climate change. And right now another travel season is wrapping up  in Antarctica, another remote and increasingly popular travel destination. Antarctica, which 20 years ago saw fewer than 10,000 tourists, will likely have counted upwards of 40,000 this season, more than 90 percent of whom travel on ships.

According to the World Tourism Organization, international travel increased in 2015 for the sixth year in a row, to a record 1.2 billion tourists, with 1.8 billion forecast for 2030. Only a week after a long-awaited marine protected area was established in Antarctica, the United States elected a president who has called climate change a hoax and seems intent on dismantling the EPA. Can the planet’s most vulnerable places handle much more? Perhaps it’s time we ask ourselves whether should do our part for the planet and leave a few of our bucket-list destinations in the bucket.

Instead of traveling to Antarctica—which can be as extreme financially as it is environmentally—perhaps we can get glimpses in other ways. Web-based citizen science programs like Zooniverse offer virtual experiences—a chance to count penguins and identify individual humpback whales in Antarctica, in addition to myriad other adventures. From our computers, we can “travel” the world, see incredible sights and creatures, and contribute to ongoing research efforts.

And even if we do travel to these fragile environments, we can help the oceans by playing a role in conservation and research. The website iGalapagos.org depends on travelers’ photos of the elusive and endangered Galapagos penguins to further their research toward protecting this species. And those of us who love the oceans can reconsider the role of seafood in our diets, as nearly 90 percent of the oceans’ stocks are extinct or depleted.

Not all travel is inherently bad, of course, and if you’re like me and you can far more easily give up seafood than a trip, how we travel can make a big difference in minimizing the impact of our presence—by choosing green hotels, using public transportation, buying local. Even the little things, like packing a reusable water bottle and shopping bag to minimize plastic, help a lot. Those traveling on ships can check out Friends of the Earth’s Cruise Ship Report Card before booking a trip (in its latest report, in 2014, no major cruise line earned a grade higher than a C; most grades were Ds and Fs).

Sometimes it takes visiting a place to fall in love with it and become inspired to help save it—and this may well justify our carbon footprints in the end. Which brings me back to the question: Should we stay home? There is no easy answer. But those of us who have the luxury of asking the question might consider that, for the sake of the planet, the oceans, and for future generations, the road less traveled—or not traveled at all—does make all the difference.



Happy World Penguin Day

By Midge Raymond,

Today is World Penguin Day!

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Not that we need an excuse to celebrate these magnificent birds … but it’s still fun to see them getting a little extra attention.

After all, they need the exposure: penguins are facing threats from multiple fronts, from climate change to overfishing. I love this post from One Green Planet, which offers five ways you can help penguins.

To discover the very latest in what’s new with Magellanic and Galapagos penguins, visit the Center for Penguins as Ocean Sentinels. And if you follow Penguin Sentinels on Facebook, you’ll be treated to wonderful penguin videos.

And to learn about the researchers who count penguins at the bottom of the world, check out The Penguin Counters, a documentary about these dedicated researchers and the species they study in Antarctica.

And, finally … stay tuned for My Last Continent, coming on June 21 from Scribner! In this novel, you’ll meet four species of penguins: three Antarctic species, and the Magellanic penguins of Patagonia. Check out the book club kit for a little more info, and join my mailing list for news and updates on the book.

Happy World Penguin Day!

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Chasing Penguins

By Midge Raymond,

As soon as I met my first penguins (chinstraps, Adélies, and gentoos) in Antarctica more than twelve years ago, I fell in love with these incredible animals. Two years later, when I had the opportunity to help the University of Washington’s Dee Boersma with a Magellanic penguin census in Patagonia two years later, I (along with my husband) pounced on the opportunity — not only to help with the amazing research Dee is doing but to learn about, and spend time with, another species of penguin; Dee has been studying the Magellanic penguins since 1982.

And when, a decade after our Patagonia penguin adventure, we learned that Dee would be a naturalist on board an expedition to the Galápagos Islands — home of the rare and endangered Galápagos penguin —  we jumped again at the chance to meet yet another species with the world’s leading penguin expert.

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Even Darwin didn’t see penguins on his visit to the Galápagos Islands, and to this day no one knows how many penguins now exist there (the estimate is between 1,500 and 4,700 — about half the numbers that existed when Dee began studying these birds in the 1970s).

When we arrived in the Galápagos, Dee advised us that we would have one chance to see Galápagos penguins on this journey, around the waters of Floreana Island. At first we were discouraged by the crystal clear (albeit gorgeous) waters, which are not ideal for the penguins’ fishing. We didn’t see a single penguin during an hour-long panga ride — but then, as we swam and snorkeled off Post Office Bay, a penguin popped its head above water to take a breath before diving back under to continue hunting.

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At first, as I was snorkeling, I saw only one penguin, diving for fish, swimming under and all around me (while they are comically slow and awkward on land, penguins are utterly graceful underwater), and then I saw another, about twenty feet below me, trying to snatch food from the other’s beak. Every time a school of fish changed direction and sped away, one of these two penguins was in close pursuit.

A short time later, back in our panga, we saw several more penguins, this time fishing in a group of four. Galápagos penguins look similar to Magellanic penguins, with the dark band around their white chests, but they are much smaller (though their beaks are roughly the same size, making this species look a bit big-nosed).

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As we watched the penguins, they began to fish with blue-footed boobies. In the photo below, you’ll see the boobies in the background; they dive for fish from high in the air, while the penguins work underwater.

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We observed this animated feeding frenzy for about forty-five minutes before the birds began to disperse, looking quite well fed. While we’d have been thrilled to get merely a glimpse of the Galápagos penguins, it was an extraordinary experience to see so many of them (about five or six, the naturalists believe, in all) swimming and porpoising and diving all around us.

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Our expedition group left Dee in Ecuador, where she was next headed to Isabela and Fernandina Islands to check on the nests she and other researchers have built to help the penguins’ breeding efforts.

And, shortly after we returned home, the University of Washington, where Dee holds the Wadsworth Endowed Chair in Conservation Science, announced that Dee is one of six finalists for the prestigious Indianapolis Prize for conservation — the highest honor for animal conservationists, which has been awarded every other year since 2006. The winner will be announced in the spring of this year; click here to learn more about the work that has earned Dee this honor.

I’m looking forward to news from Dee’s time on the other Galápagos islands. To learn more about Dee’s work, visit Penguin Sentinels — and to see more of the elusive Galápagos penguins, visit www.iGalápagos.org.