The Galapagos is a group of 13 major islands, six minor islands and 42 islets, located off the Ecuadorian coast. They also served as Charles Darwin’s inspiration for the theory of evolution by natural selection.1
Due to its lack of contact with continental South America and colonization, the Islands’ endemic, or native, species have evolved into what we celebrate today.
The Galapagos was declared a World Heritage Site in 1978 by UNESCO. Tourism is the chief form of income on the archipelago, which receives around 200,000 visitors annually.
Along with warmly welcoming the large number of tourists, a focus on improving the sustainability of its tourism has been declared of vital importance.
One of these efforts is the Naturalist Guides of the Galapagos Islands program, which trains a small number of locals on how to educate tourists about natural history, ecosystem conservation and how to respect established standards. This allows visitors to have a pleasant experience while minimizing negative effects to wildlife.
All tourist groups that visit the protected areas of Galapagos must be accompanied by a Naturalist Guide officially accredited by the Directorate of the Galapagos National Park.
Categories of Naturalist Guides
Training topics include:
EARTH’s first graduate from the Galapagos – Micaela Solís (‘14, Ecuador) and Roberta Schiess (‘16, Ecuador) – successfully completed the exam, thus earning the distinction of Naturalist Guide and reaffirming their commitment to the preservation of the unique place they call home.
We had the opportunity to converse with both of them and learn a little more about their experience. This is an excerpt from the interview:
Why did you take the exam to be a Naturalist Guide?
Micaela: Where I live, tourism has always been prevalent. I viewed the exam as the perfect opportunity to learn more about the Galapagos and feel more committed to the archipelago. The environment here inspires you to want to take care of nature, to communicate what we have and to try to conserve it by living a different lifestyle.
Roberta: Before I graduated, I learned that a new Naturalist Guides course was going to be offered. Since the last one was eight years ago, I did not want to miss this opportunity.
Did growing up in an eco-touristic environment inspire you to study for a career in agronomy or the environment?
Micaela: Without a doubt, especially because our food supply is a huge issue. Agronomy fit me well and interested me. Since I graduated, my commitment has been to return to the Galapagos to contribute all I can.
What did you do after graduating from EARTH?
Micaela: I had the opportunity to work in the Ministry of Agriculture of the Galapagos, on Santa Cruz Island. I also had my year of experience working with the government. I worked in Costa Rica for a time in a garden-design company, and it was very enriching. Any opportunity to work outside of the country is always a great experience.
After I returned to the Galapagos, I did the Guide course and now work for the Charles Darwin Association, with a project in the agricultural division.
Are you interested in earning the rest of the Naturalist Guide categories?
Micaela: One of the things that EARTH instills in you is to never stop achieving. My goal is not to stop now and settle for type I guidance. I want to continue advancing and developing. I hope there is time and life for that.
Roberta: Yes, I am very interested in earning the other distinctions.
What topics did you study during training?
Micaela: Training was quite broad. We learned about conservation issues, endemism of flora and fauna, the evolutionary behavior of species and the ecological value of each. At the time of our internship, we had to develop the ability to interpret and explain things clearly to others, especially about such complex issues as evolution.
Roberta: All the sciences having to do with the Galapagos – geology, evolution, botany, ornithology, oceanography, ecology, environmental interpretation, group management, first aid in wild areas and working aboard tourism boats.
Why is the Galapagos so selective about the people who visit its national park?
Micaela: It is more of a conservation and control strategy. There are many places where, when you go with a Naturalist Guide, you have the interpretation at hand. You can learn about the species and their importance, especially those you may believe to be insignificant. Apart from this, our type of tourism encourages the people who visit us to come wanting to learn.
Roberta: The Galapagos, as well as being a national park, is also a natural World Heritage Site, a biosphere reserve, and a marine reserve and sanctuary. It is our duty, as galapagueños (residents of the Galapagos) and Ecuadorians, to take care of it because it belongs not only to us but also to the entire world.
How many Naturalist Guides are there?
Roberta: The Galapagos National Park has trained around 1,000 Naturalist Guides since 1970, about 500 being active at this time.
Do you feel the training was thorough?
Roberta: We were given a lot of information during the classes, as well as extra study material. However, my daily experiences and constant research will keep me updated and make me a better Guide.
Why is it important to protect the natural resources of the Galapagos?
Micaela: Because its natural resources are, in many cases, nonrenewable. We are full of fascinating species, and, as I mentioned, we need to preserve and conserve what we have. The Galapagos plays an important ecological role in the world. It’s also the place that has seen me grow, so I feel a commitment to protect it as much as possible.
Roberta: The Galapagos is a living laboratory of evolution where important studies are carried out, with answers that can’t be found anywhere else in the world. We must take care of it and protect it, so future generations can have the same opportunities.
What is your outlook on increased ecotourism?
Micaela: I am trying to involve myself in many areas – working as an agronomist and Guide, conducting experiments and research – because ecotourism is growing. The Galapagos, not having self-sufficiency, requires a high level of inputs, making it more susceptible to foreign species introduction. Recognizing this weakness and that tourism will grow, I believe those of us who live here need to step up first.
Roberta: Now that I have had the opportunity to travel around the Galapagos, I see more clearly the importance of applying my agronomical knowledge to the conservation and sustainable development of the Islands.