Marine debris is a plague that has spread all over the world. And while the Galapagos Islands are a World Heritage Site, the archipelago is just as susceptible to the tide of ocean plastics as anywhere else – as Dr Jo Henley and a team from Falmouth University found out.
“More life, less rubbish”. As slogans go, that’s incredibly resonant. You’d expect it to connect with people in all walks of life – from a harassed office worker trying to battle their way through a pile of meaningless admin, to a litter-picker at Glastonbury, charged with cleaning up after a weekend of hedonism. Yet you might not expect to see it really landing in the Galapagos Islands, Darwin’s dreamscape laboratory of speciation and endemism – and a natural haven that’s more synonymous with giant turtles than with giant trash problems.
Sorry to burst that bubble.
Located in the equatorial Pacific 600 miles from the coast of mainland Ecuador, the Galapagos sit at a spot where a variety of oceanic currents converge. It’s because of the cold-water Humbolt current from the Antarctic, for example, that species such as the Galapagos penguin now inhabit the islands. But these currents bring with them tides of plastic too.
Surprisingly though, recent data has shown that a large proportion of the plastic comes from the islands themselves – thanks to the pressure being placed on waste management systems.
Dr Jo Henley, Senior Lecturer Falmouth University, recently took a group of undergraduates from its BA (Hons) Marine and Natural History Photography degree programme to the Galapagos, on a fact-finding trip for Surfers Against Sewage (SAS).
“The islands’ 30,000 inhabitants are joined every year by 200,000 tourists,” she explains. “And everyone wants the same conveniences as anywhere in the world. That means plastic. A total of 4.5 million plastic bags with handles were being used each year up to 2015, when the GNPD banned them from being brought in.”
It’s an all-too familiar tale, and one without a happy ending for the islands’ 2,900 species, which include marine iguanas, penguins, sea lions and the famous Darwinian finches and giant tortoises. And when you factor in the unique nature of much of the islands’ wildlife – 86 per cent of the islands’ reptiles are endemic, for example – the Galapagos become, perhaps, more important to protect than anywhere else.
Jo’s group spent two weeks exploring an array of delicate volcanic, coastal and marine landscapes, documenting the emerging fight against plastic in the remote Ecuadorean archipelago, to scope out Galapagos as a potential international partner in the SAS Plastic Free Coastlines movement.
“If we can’t solve the problem of plastic here in the jewel of the Pacific, Darwin’s laboratory of evolution and home to some of the world’s most delicate biodiversity, then where else can we?”
“If we can’t solve the problem of plastic here in the jewel of the Pacific, Darwin’s laboratory of evolution and home to some of the world’s most delicate biodiversity, then where else can we?” says Jo. “Our aim was to use our images to motivate a far-flung audience to join the Plastic Free Coastlines movement, aligning with the fight against single use plastic gaining momentum here in the UK.”
Jo describes herself as an ‘ocean optimist’, and is able to reflect on lasting memories of “diving deep within shark nursery grounds, witnessing schools of hammerheads encircling their prey”, and immersing herself in turtle spa lagoons, “where algae is gently cleaned from their shells by shoals of wrasse”.
Yet despite such mindblowing beauty, the enduring message of her trip lay in encounters on dry land, with people like Saimy, an eight-year-old galapagueño, photographed [below/above] proudly displaying the ‘more life less rubbish’ message.
“This snapshot of youthful positivity, oceans apart, gave me such a sense of solidarity,” says Jo. “One water bottle can bring great joy to a child, whose family would otherwise not afford a refillable vessel – despite their best intentions to use one.”
“One water bottle can bring great joy to a child, whose family would otherwise not afford a refillable vessel – despite their best intentions to use one.”
Saimy was enjoying two weeks of ‘happy holiday’ (vacaciones felices) time studying the environment. The Vacaciones Felices program is run by the international conservation charity Ecology Project International, and offers local school children activities such as beach cleans and educational visits to waste treatment facilities. It’s one of several local initiatives designed to help young people develop their own ideas of how to spread awareness of the issues to others in the area. Hence they’ll find themselves making key rings from plastic bottle tops.
Jo believes that sharing stories of success across cultures and generations, as well as such vast distances, is the key to maintaining an optimistic view of the future for our oceans. “We can only now hope the images we brought back are worthy of Saimy’s commitment to the cause of clean seas,” she says.