Galápagos census looks at impacts on turtles during and after COVID lockdown

  • The suspension of tourism activities around the world as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic gave researchers the chance to answer an important question: What impact does tourism have on wildlife populations?
  • In Ecuador’s famed Galápagos Islands, researchers have for more than a year now been carrying out a turtle census on Tortuga Bay, a beach popular with tourists, but which was off-limits during lockdown.
  • With tourists now returning, the researchers have been able to record tangible changes in the number and behavior of the turtles on the beach, although a full analysis is only expected to begin in December.

It’s six in the morning and the beach is empty. The tide has erased the footprints from the sand, and the surface is a blank slate of white and perfectly smooth sand. On this cloudy morning, the only visitors to Tortuga Bay, one of the most popular beaches on the island of Santa Cruz, are three researchers from the Charles Darwin Foundation.

The plan is to fly a drone over the bay to count the sea turtles that are there at this quiet time. Later, when the visitors arrive, they will do the same thing. Their goal is to answer one question: What is the impact of tourism on the turtle populations that feed and rest here?

The question arose during the lockdown imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, when wild animals started roaming the empty streets of cities around the world. What happened in the famed Galápagos Islands off Ecuador? Were there also more animals reclaiming the spaces here?

Researchers from the Charles Darwin Foundation monitor the number of sea turtles and their locations using a drone. Image by Michelle Carrere.

Because movement restrictions prevented fieldwork in remote places where researchers would typically carry out species censuses, the researchers from the Charles Darwin Foundation, together with Galápagos National Park and funded by the National Geographic Society, decided to see what was happening at Tortuga Bay. It’s an easily accessible beach from the nearby town of Puerto Ayora.

While the study is still ongoing, the researchers have observed great differences between the numbers of turtles recorded during the time when the beach was closed and now, with tourists starting to return to the area again.

Thousands of photographs

It’s 7 a.m. The sea is completely calm, a mirror where turtles rest and eat. There’s a solitary swimmer. The rest of the beach is for the iguanas basking in the sporadic rays of sunshine that burst through the thick clouds and the intermittent rain.

Byron Delgado, a geographer, flies the drone to the end of the bay, 40 meters (130 feet) above the water. The machine is programmed to take a picture every three seconds as it flies. Each one is geotagged, and every time the team comes back to Tortuga Bay, the drone repeats the same route and photographs the exact same spots.

Down below, volunteer Alan Jacome measures the water temperature and biologist Diana Loyola writes down what she sees. Tourists: one, the lone swimmer. Kayaks and speedboats: zero. Sky: cloudy. Water temperature: 23º Celsius (73.4° Fahrenheit). Wind: calm. Tide: high.

After 40 minutes of drone flight and a thousand photographs captured, Delgado brings the drone back down to land. The researchers have noted that the turtles are clustered at the end of the bay; but they’ve also seen a group of oceanic whitetip sharks resting, close to the shore, next to the mangroves.

Three hours later, at 10 a.m., the landscape changes. Tourists start to arrive, most of them walking along the path that starts close to town. Some rent kayaks, and two speedboats enter the bay slowly, bringing in more visitors.

Delgado and Jacome fly the drone again, repeating their previous path, and Loyola again notes the numbers of tourists and watercraft, the weather conditions, the water temperature, and the tide height.

Since June 2020, the researchers have been carrying out the same monitoring in Tortuga Bay once a week, and they’ll keep doing it until the first week of December. At the end of the exercise, they’ll have thousands of photographs collected over more than a year, which they’ll analyze to create a map that shows how the dynamics of turtle distribution change when there are tourists present, says Macarena Parra, coordinator of the Charles Darwin Foundation’s sea turtle project.

They’ll also analyze the environmental information collected by Loyola and feed it into their computational models. “These models allow us to read the variables, in this case the presence of people, the presence of boats, the presence of kayaks, the height of the tide and the water temperature,” Parra says. “And the model tells me which of the variables is the one causing the biggest effect on turtle abundance.”

The aerial photographs captured by drone in Tortuga Bay allow scientists to count turtles in the bay. Image courtesy of the Charles Darwin Foundation and National Geographic Society.

The goal is to advise environmental authorities on how to manage the site so that tourism doesn’t have a negative impact on the turtles.

For example, “If we see there’s a particular area where turtles are feeding, it would be good to ban kayaks or snorkeling because that means that there’ll be people following the turtles with cameras [to take pictures],” Parra says. “We can recommend this kind of thing.”

This kind of information “could be extrapolated to other places in the archipelago like Isabela Island, where there’s an incredible amount of turtles,” Parra says. “The idea is to find balance [between conservation and tourism] so that we can all live together.”

Preliminary results

The research isn’t over year, but already the team has been able to observe some distinct results from the photographs they download after each monitoring session to count the number of turtles at each reference point. “There was quite a dramatic change in the number of turtles we saw when the beach was closed and there were no tourists or boats,” Parra says. Surveys during that period counted around 300 turtles on the beach. “Incredible! I had not seen that number in a long time,” Parra says.

In addition, “the turtles were much more spread out in the bay,” she says. With the tourists back, the turtles now tend to cluster at the far end of the beach. The reason could probably be that the tourists have taken over the shoreline.

A sea turtle. Image by Octavio Aburto.

Parra says other studies already describe the impacts of tourism on the behavior of various species. Dolphins, for instance, use different areas for different purposes, Parra says, and “some studies show that interfering or disturbing dolphins when they are in areas where they interact [socialize] is harmful for the dynamics of the population and creates displacement of the animals to other areas.”

The ongoing study in Tortuga Bay could determine for the first time if something similar happens with turtles.

Responsible tourism

The human population of the Galápagos is around 30,000, but the islands used to receive some 250,000 tourists every year before the pandemic. After the lull of the lockdown, there’s been a gradual reopening and tourist numbers are slowly going up, though they’re still far from the pre-pandemic highs.

The economy of the Galápagos is built around tourism. Galápagos National Park’s yearly budget, as well as the revenue of traders, fishers, farmers and transportation operators, depends on a thriving tourism industry. “It doesn’t matter if you sell meat or you own a taxi,” says Mariuxi Farías, a WWF representative in the Galápagos. “If there are no tourists, your economy will be affected.”

Tortuga Bay is one of the most popular tourist beaches in the Galápagos Islands. Image by Michelle Carrere.

For the same reason, although everyone is waiting for things to return to normal, many agree on the need to use this moment to reassess the islands’ economic reliance on tourism. “We realized that we need to think of other activities that can happen in the Galápagos,” Farías says. “For example, give some added value to fishing products.”

At the same time, although locals agree on the need to revive tourism, they’re also asking what kind of tourism they want. “Instead of having mass tourism, we’d rather have tourism that can appreciate the value of the natural heritage and that has a higher purchasing power,” Farías says.

“We need to see tourism as a conservation tool. It brings many benefits to communities but if it isn’t planned well, managed well, its impacts can be very negative,” she adds.

Galápagos National Park now has a management plan governing the activities that take place in the land and marine protected areas. One of the aspects regulated by this plan is the number of tourist groups that can be in a specific area at the same time.

Researchers from the Charles Darwin Foundation monitor the number of turtles and their location in Tortuga Bay with a drone. Image by Michelle Carrere.

The problem, Farías says, is that places close to urban areas, like Tortuga Bay, “aren’t protected as strictly as those that are further, which are more pristine and only accessible by boat. You can’t tell people not to go to the beach.”

Parra says the model of tourism in the islands changed over the past 10 years. “Before, the dominant type of tourism in the Galápagos were navigable cruises,” she says. “But now tourists are coming straight from the ports.” She says this implies that places like Tortuga Bay, which are easily accessible for free, will continue to become increasingly crowded. “It’s possible that the situation is fine now, but we need to get ready for the coming years and see what to do, how to improve and increase protection so that these sites are kept in the best way possible.”


Banner image of a sea turtle by Andrés Cruz.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on Nov. 1, 2021.