Changing Planet

Impact of plastic garbage reaches the Galapagos Islands

A loud bang as the generator came on, the splashing of the waves against the side of the small blue-and-white fishing boat, and our expedition began. A team of 15 set sail due north on the night of the 20thof February, 2018. We had embarked upon a coastal clean-up trip for a week to Genovesa, Marchena, Pinta, and Santiago Islands, under the leadership of the Galapagos National Park. What a journey of contrasting emotions it was going to be.

Goose barnacles living on another plastic bottle. (Photo © Sofia Green)

We arrived at the first island on the morning of the 21st; a beautiful rainbow to our right, arching over the ocean, and Genovesa in front of the bow, growing larger as we approached. Half of the clean-up team headed to the southeastern tip of the island and the rest of us were dropped off at the tourist site, “Darwin’s Beach”. Initially, we found almost no plastic. But we did encounter beautiful red-footed booby colonies with their chicks changing feathers, and sea lion groups with their playful several-month-old pups having fun in the tidal pools.

It was almost too perfect, yet it made sense: Tourist sites are well taken care of by the naturalist guides that lead tourists along the paths daily. But the minute we stepped off of the well-travelled paths and onto the cliffside, the scenery changed. There was garbage covering the entire area; over the surface and trapped between the lava rocks.

Initially we had thought we wouldn’t even fill one of the six large sacks we had been given, but after only three hours they were all full. The other team had picked up a similar amount. In the afternoon, we all headed to the third clean-up site, the two teams together.  We took more sacks with us this time. Once again, we filled them all.

Third site at Genovesa Island. (Photo© Sofia Green)

The rest of the days went by in a similar manner. We walked several miles through lava fields, sandy beaches, cobbled beaches, mangrove fields; enjoying the spectacular sights, as we collected all the garbage we could find: hundreds of plastic bottles, oil containers, plastic takeaway containers, plastic cutlery, glass bottles, metal tanks, fishing nets and traps, and so much plastic-fiber rope.

We were accompanied by playful bottle-nose dolphins during our approach to Marchena Island, escorted through the ocean by several species of sharks, and kept company on land by oystercatchers, Galapagos hawks, marine iguanas, and several colonies of Galapagos sea lions, always guarded by their alpha males barking at us to keep a safe distance. We also found special beaches with marine iguana and green sea turtle nests, which show how important the islands are for these vulnerable species.

Marchena Island after the clean-up. (Photo © Sofia Green)

Pod of bottlenose dolphins accompanying us upon arrival at Marchena.  (Photo © Sofia Green)

Every afternoon on the boat, the team would pour out all the sacks we had filled on the islands and we would classify the garbage by type of plastic, record the number of each recognizable label, and weigh it all after the classification. It was exhausting, but we were always well compensated by a swim in the ocean, a delicious meal, and getting to spend the night navigating the archipelago beneath a sea of stars.

The team classifying the garbage at the end of the day. (Photo © Sofia Green)

Moreover, as part of the trip we also managed to experience life on a fisherman’s boat. That meant sleeping in a small room that fit 9 people on very tight bunk beds, plus one more on the floor. It meant showering in the ocean and using the same cups we use to drink our beverages to rinse ourselves with the little bit of sweet water we had on board, brushing our teeth while admiring our surroundings (I have to say there was something very relaxing about that last bit, almost like mediation), flushing the small toilet with buckets of ocean water, and learning a lot from everyone on board. The diverse backgrounds of the team made the experience all the better, and I learned that one should never underestimate how much you can learn from a fisherman.

Our home for the week: fishermen’s boat, Yualka II (Photo © Sofia Green)

At the end of our seven full days of coastal clean-up, we had collected around 300 large sacks filled with garbage — which amounted to 1.6 tons of human-caused pollution. It felt like a small success, but it is not enough for us to just “pick-up” the waste we have generated. If we humans don’t change our lifestyles and reduce our use of disposable plastic, we are soon going to be drowning in our own trash. We are already reaching a point where it’s too much for us to be able to “clean-up,” and it is not only affecting ourselves, but affecting the lives of so many marine animals and destroying beautiful areas of our planet. As Jacques-Yves Cousteau said, “Water and air, the two essential fluids on which all life depends, have become global garbage cans.” Yet together we can change this.

Plastic death trap. Galapagos lava lizards and centipedes trapped and died inside a plastic bottle.

The team unloading the sacks on the last day of the trip. (Photo © Sofia Green)

The clean-up crew was comprised of three members of the Galapagos National Park Service, two fishermen, two local municipality workers, two volunteers from the Charles Darwin Foundation (including myself), one member of Conservation International, an international exchange student from the Universidad San Francisco de Quito–and the boat team (the marine, the chef, the chief officer and the captain) complemented our heterogynous group.

Most of the team gathered before boarding the boat. (Photo © Galapagos National Park)

Meet the Author:

Sofía M. Green Iturralde grew up alternating between life in the Galapagos and on mainland Ecuador. She is a graduate in Conservation Biology and Equine Sciences and is volunteering for some time in the Galapagos Islands before continuing postgraduate studies in Marine Biology. She is currently working with the Marine Invasive Species Team at the Charles Darwin Research Station.

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