Photo by Pete Oxford
The Galapagos Islands first really became the Galapagos Islands for most of us sometime around 6 o'clock at night. About then, I was lying on the beach a foot or two away from a female sea lion who just stared in my direction, apparently bored, and blinked her big brown eyes at me.
I looked over the beach, and it seemed the teachers were enjoying similarly transcendent experiences—they walked right up to the creatures, took extreme close up photos, and laughed while they backed away from the more boisterous bulls. They found one right off the beach that had wandered up onto somebody's front porch. There were probably 20 sea lions casually meandering around amongst us on the beach. Their guttural calls bleated out a cacophonous, alien soundtrack.
The whole scene was no doubt a huge factor in one teacher later calling the first few hours in Galapagos 'emotionally profound.'
But it was difficult to enjoy our communion with the lions, knowing that they were currently threatened by black market fishermen who've taken to harvesting their genitals.
I'll explain. We'd just come from attending the first day's events on the island, which featured a lecture about marine conservancy in the Galapagos. Judith Denkinger, a professor at the University of San Fransisco-Quito, led a talk that honed in on the rich biodiversity in marine life—and the overwhelming threats imperiling it.
Galapagos' Marine Problems are the World's Marine Problems
Galapagos is home and nurturing ground for a slew of aquatic plants and animals—including many different species of whales, puffer fish, sea lions, tuna, sharks, sea turtles, and rays. And they're all in danger. For that matter, all of the world's sea life is in trouble.
Deckinger used the Galapagos as a microcosm to explain how overfishing has already caused around 30 percent of the world's aquatic species to go extinct—and that within 50 years, that number could feasibly jump closer to the 100 percent mark.
Illegal operations are of course extremely detrimental—persistent shark finning, fishing in protected waters, and the aforementioned gruesome act of sea lion penis harvesting are all major issues in the Galapagos. (In case you were curious, fishermen kill the males, sever the genitals, and sell them on Asian black markets where they're processed into aphrodisiacs)
But legal practices and the lack of sustainable fishing initiatives around the world are gravely damaging too—Deckinger seems genuinely flustered when she talks about how the fishing industry moved to deep sea operations rather than look for sustainable fishery solutions. And matters are made worse by the fact that the fishing industry's lobby is extremely influential to the Ecuadorian government, which evidently makes little effort to enforce regulations.
The teachers turned the talk towards potential solutions, and discussed the merits of No Take Zones (which have been installed in Galapagos), satellite observance systems, better enforced regulations, and general awareness.
"Be a smart consumer," offered Pete Crites, an AP biology teacher from Maryland. He astutely iterated the importance of being aware of buying endangered and unsustainably caught fish for sale in markets and at restaurants.
And for God's sake, I thought later as my adorable aquatic companion finally waddled away, let's stop cutting the penises off sea lions.
30 of the top teachers in the US are making a trek from the Florida Everglades to the Galapagos Islands in order to engage a series of global conservation issues in the Toyota International Teacher Program. I'm traveling alongside the educators to report on what we discover about the threats and wonders of modern day Galapagos.