GCT’s 25th Anniversary Blog Series – Part 1

This year, Galapagos Conservation Trust (GCT) celebrated its 25th anniversary. To mark this historic occasion, we decided to ask some of our founders, ex-trustees and partners, as well as long-term members, supporters and volunteers about their experiences of GCT, the Islands and to get their thoughts on their hopes for GCT in the future. Below you can find part one of our interview series.

  1. What was Galapagos like 25 years ago, or when you first visited, and how has it changed since? 

Julian Fitter, GCT’s Inaugural Chair:  

I first arrived in Galapagos in May 1964, in the same way as Charles Darwin, on a boat called Beagle. Ours, however, was not HMS Beagle, but the more modest Brigantine Beagle, a converted Cornish fishing boat purchased by the Charles Darwin Foundation to help its work on the Islands. At the time, there were no boats permanently anchored in Academy Bay, and the only permanent electricity in the ‘town’ was at the Charles Darwin Research Station. A very different picture from 2020. 

Diana Alexandra Pazmiño Jaramillo, Galapagos Science Center and GCT’s Connecting With Nature Programme: 

I was born and grew up on Isabela island. The isolation at the time (25 years ago) is something hard to imagine today. Not only because of the massive improvements in transportation but also because of the connecting technology we have access to now. Despite this, and the many challenges of island life 25 years ago, Galapagos has always been a magical place! Surrounded by unique flora and fauna and full of breath-taking landscapes wherever you look. Many things have changed in the past decades, some for good, some not so much. But I am confident our efforts will help preserve this paradise for future generations. 

Gillian Green, Ex-Trustee and member of GCT: 

I first went to Galapagos in 1989. It was my first visit to South America – the first of many as I fell in love with it! There were fewer tourists then, and virtually no land-based tours. Our vessel was a converted wooden fishing boat – fairly basic but with a wonderful crew. The Islands were sleepier in 1989; controls were also less strict. We climbed the Alcedo Volcano on Isabela, camping near the top. Giant tortoises roamed the craters,  but the tree cover was limited. The goat eradication programme was just beginning. Today the tree cover on Isabela has recovered after goats were removed. 

I’ve been lucky enough to visit twice more, and have seen several changes. There are improvements such as increased and improved science, including the fascinating Galapagos Giant Tortoise Movement Ecology Programme and the work on Philornis downsi. There is now a Marine Reserve (though ideally this needs extending and joining up with other protected zones). There is better biosecurity and improved education for local children. But there are also far more people, both locals and tourists – more than the Islands’ current infrastructure can cope with.  

Galapagos tortoise from Alcedo Volcano at the edge of the crater © Surya Castillo, CDF
Galapagos tortoise from Alcedo Volcano, where Gillian Green saw giant tortoises roaming on her first visit to Galapagos © Surya Castillo, CDF
  1. What are the origins of GCT?

Julian Fitter, GCT’s Inaugural Chair: 

As the inaugural Chair of the Trust, I was there at the start. Initially, it was just an idea. I had spent 15 years in Galapagos and had then become involved in the Falkland Islands, helping set up Falklands Conservation as, initially, an external organisation to promote and support conservation on the Falkland Islands. It was, therefore, a logical extension to think of doing something similar for Galapagos. The Charles Darwin Foundation had already set up a support organisation in the US (now Galapagos Conservancy), so they were keen to support a similar organisation in Europe. I was put in touch with Jennifer Stone, and we put together a board of Trustees, with important help from the Latsis family.

  1. When did you first get involved with GCT and why? 

Alan Chapman, GCT Guardian member and long-term volunteer: 

I joined GCT soon after it began in 1995, having visited Galapagos in 1992 and seeing the wonderful wildlife. I thought it was a worthwhile charity to support, and the motivation was the same in 2013 when I became a volunteer for GCT.  

Diana Alexandra Pazmiño Jaramillo, Galapagos Science Center and GCT’s Connecting With Nature Programme: 

I came back to Galapagos after finishing my doctorate degree in 2017 and started working at Universidad San Francisco de Quito and the Galapagos Science Center (GSC) almost immediately. Both the GSC (where I work), and GCT hold a strong collaboration to support education and conservation in Galapagos. I had the opportunity to meet the GCT team in May 2018, during a plastics workshop as part of the Plastic Pollution Free Galapagos programme, and it was wonderful to see the commitment of everyone in the team. We have worked together since.

Akemi Yokoyama, GCT member and long-term volunteer:

When I returned from my first Galapagos trip in 1995, I wanted to know more about the Galapagos Islands, so I jumped at the opportunity to attend a lecture given by the late Nigel Sitwell at the Zoological Society of London. He said that a charitable organisation to protect Galapagos was to be launched. I walked straight to him after the lecture and offered my help. The rest is history. 

Gillian Green, Ex-Trustee and member of GCT: 

I joined as a GCT member early on and began going to events. Then, in 2003, I won the GCT raffle and took my mother to Ecuador and Galapagos for her 80th birthday. When I was then asked to join the Board, I couldn’t refuse! By then, I also had experience in conservation charities, including being treasurer of the London Wildlife Trust. Many of the issues in British based conservation charities are very similar to those in Galapagos. Tensions over land use, the benefits and pressures linked to tourism, pollution, including plastics, fishing quotas in marine reserves, and the role of education.

Curious Galapagos sea lions - Marcel Gross
A sea lion pup and its parent, checking out a snorkeller – just like Alan Chapman experienced back in 1992 © Marcel Gross
  1. When did you first visit Galapagos, and what sticks out in your memory? 

Alan Chapman, GCT Guardian member and long-term volunteer: 

My only visit to Galapagos was in November 1992, part of a three-week trip to Ecuador. The one-week cruise was on the boat, Tip Top, with Rolf Wittmer as Captain. One memory was having dinner with his mother, Margret, one of the original settlers on Floreana island, at her house near Post Office Bay. Another memory is of the great variety of wildlife and its fearlessness of humans. For example, I was snorkelling in shallow water off a beach, and an inquisitive sea lion pup popped up to look into my goggles at this strange creature.  

Akemi Yokoyama, GCT member and long-term volunteer: 

In 1995. Everything about the trip was stunning. We cruised for seven days, visited so many islands, including going as far as Genovesa. It was shocking to witness many dying blue-footed booby chicks pushed out of the nest, but the next minute we were all sitting around a female sea lion observing her giving birth. It was a difficult birth; she was in agony. When the baby was finally born it wasn’t moving, and I still remember her sadness and screams while she was trying to resuscitate the baby. Maybe because she was flapping the baby so hard it miraculously came alive. There were 20 odd people all sitting on the ground around her, all crying. The trip opened my eyes and taught me how important it is to protect a place like Galapagos. 

Julian Fitter, GCT’s Inaugural Chair: 

One particular memory from 1964 was meeting HRH The Duke of Edinburgh on the RY Britannia ship. He stopped by for three days on route to Australia. We met Britannia in Genovesa, and Carl Angermeyer, who was our skipper on the Beagle boat, went aboard Britannia to act as pilot and guide. We immediately headed south under the command of Carl’s brother Fritz, rendezvousing with Britannia in Española two or three days later. Carl had organised for us to get some diesel from Britannia, which was delivered in five-gallon jerrycans and, by the time we had finished, Richard Foster (our engineer) and I were pretty oily! We were then invited onboard Britannia for tea, but because we were so mucky, we were offered a hot bath first! Rather surreal as neither of us had had a hot bath since we left Plymouth nearly a year earlier! 

Anne Guezou, GCT’s Education and Outreach Coordinator: 

I came to Galapagos for the first time in September 1989 to attend a naturalist guide course led by the Galapagos National Park Directorate. At the time, live-aboard was the only kind of tourism; there was no land-based tourism. In the two previous years, I had been living and working on mainland Ecuador as a marine biologist for a shrimp hatchery. However, this activity did not align whatsoever with my approach to the natural environment and conservation. That’s how I came to find a job in Galapagos.

I was surprised by how grey and chilly it was in September when I arrived. Puerto Ayora was a village, and we pretty much knew everyone in town. There were very few two or more-storey buildings; the streets were unpaved and either dust or mud. There were very few motor vehicles – a couple of old buses that would make the round trip to the Itabaca canal for the one flight of the day arriving in Baltra and some small pick-up style trucks. We either walked or biked around. As there was no phone service, we used radios for communication. Electricity was turned off every night at midnight. Once a month, a cargo ship would bring supplies. Meanwhile, we had to make do with what was available. 

Richard Robinson, Ex-Chair and Ex-Trustee of GCT: 

On my first visit in 1989, our tour group divided into two groups to fly to different islands and meet different boats. I ended up on San Cristobal. There was no boat when we arrived, so we were met and taken on an unscheduled tour of the highlands. It was very cloudy. We were excited about the endemic birds. We saw and recorded two female vermilion flycatchers – not the highlight for us, as we thought we had seen them on the Ecuadorian mainland. It wasn’t until many years later that I discovered that the San Cristobal vermillion flycatcher (Pyrocehalus dubius) was a distinct endemic species, separate even from the little vermilion flycatcher (Pyrocephalus nanus), which we later saw on Santa Cruz and Isabela, and is now rare and at risk.

Vermilion Flycatcher - Gammon Koval

The little vermilion flycatcher, whose extinct relative, the San Cristobal flycatcher, Richard Robinson saw back in 1989, is also in decline © Gammon Koval

Sadly, the San Cristobal birds, which were only described in 2016, were already extinct by then, and are said to have been last seen in the wild in 1987. So not only had we seen a very rare species shortly before it went extinct, but we saw it in 1989, two years after the last official record! Indeed, this is the only recorded Galapagos bird species to have gone extinct in recent times. I could be excited, but feel mostly sad. It is all the more important to save the Little Vermilion Flycatcher, which is hanging on in Santa Cruz and Isabela, threatened by introduced species and habitat loss. 

Ways to get involved

In our 25th year, the conservation of the Islands has never been more vital, as this unique Archipelago faces pressures from invasive species, plastic pollution, overfishing, climate change and habitat degradation. Why not become a member today for as little as £3 a month, and help to preserve these Islands for years to come? Or head over to our shop to purchase a Galapagos themed gift.