Rolex Supports Mission Blue in Conducting Scientific Research Across the Galápagos Islands

Legendary marine explorer Sylvia Earle identifies both challenges and opportunities for future conservation efforts. 
Sylvia Earle, Rolex Testimonee and founder of Mission Blue, dives among the reef wonders of the Galápagos Islands Hope Spot. (Photo: Courtesy of Rolex)

“We only protect the things we love, and we only love the things we know about. And if we don’t know about them, we’re not going to protect them. So we’re just trying to speak for the creatures in the ocean that cannot speak for themselves.” Salomé Buglass, a marine scientist engaged in several applied research projects supporting the management of the Galápagos Marine Reserve explains why she’s so passionate about saving the ocean. 

What’s so special about the Galápagos Islands? A place like no other, this island is located west of continental Ecuador and their waters are amongst the most biodiverse regions in the world, due to the meeting of major ocean currents. When Sylvia Earle, legendary oceanographer, Rolex Testimonee, and founder of non-profit Mission Blue first visited the archipelago in 1966, she mentioned that beneath the waves it was “the sharkiest, fishiest place” she has ever been. Yet, this is the exact reason why this island is so vulnerable. As more people noticed many species of plants and animals in this place, local resources came under pressure. Invasive species were introduced and unethical fishing practices caused damage to the marine ecosystem.

Aerial view of Darwin Island in the Galápagos. The Galápagos Islands are an archipelago of 21 volcanic islands in the Eastern Pacific Ocean and a Mission Blue Hope Spot. (Photo: Courtesy of Rolex)

Though Ecuador established the Galápagos Marine Reserve in 1998 to protect an area covering 133,000 km2 of the islands’ waters, there is still a limited amount of space and resources for a growing population. More work assessment needs to be done. In 2010, Earle designated the waters of the Galápagos as one of the first “Hope Spots,” a place critical to the ocean’s health. Now, nearly 25 years later, it’s time to assess the impacts of these protections. Conducted with the support of Rolex, Earle led a multi-institutional team of scientists on a two-week expedition across the Hope Spot to identify both challenges and opportunities for future conservation efforts. 

A large part of this quest is to search for hidden diversity in the waters that provide value to the ecosystem’s health, to be tracked by future surveys. This is only possible by using cutting-edge technology such as environmental DNA (eDNA) and underwater video systems. All animals leave a trace of DNA in the environment and through DNA extraction, the team can uncover significant data for understudied animals such as seahorses and endemic slipper lobsters. Besides that, by isolating and sequencing DNA found in the environment, “most of our sequences do not match any public database” Diana Pazmiño, a conservation geneticist at the Galápagos Science Center mentions. This means that “not many things have been sequenced from the Galápagos, or there are things that are new to science that we have not identified yet.” These discoveries and data allow the Galápagos National Park to protect specific places better. 

A green sea turtle is surrounded by fish in the abundant waters of Wolf Island. In 2022 Ecuador expanded the Galápagos Marine Reserve to the water boundaries of Costa Rica. (Photo: Courtesy of Rolex)

Kelp is usually found in colder water regions, but Earle and Buglass of the Charles Darwin Foundation discovered a new species deep under the surface in Galápagos’ tropical waters a few years ago. To follow up during the 2022 expedition, the two scientists boarded the “DeepSee” submersible to look for more of these lush forests underwater. “Kelp forests in other parts of the world have a critical role in supporting biodiversity, and maybe we have found that piece of the puzzle that explains why biodiversity and biomass are so amazingly rich in the Galápagos,” explained Buglass. 

A Galápagos shark patrols the reefs of the Galápagos Islands Hope Spot. (Photo: Courtesy of Rolex)

Another exciting study done during the expedition was the team looking into the transoceanic movement of marine animals. This is done by setting up networks that allow them to detect animals when other people tag their receivers. The team gathers data on a range of shark species, surveys turtle habitats, map the foraging grounds of penguin colonies and measures levels of microplastics. There are no boundaries to exploration under the waves. As Earle puts it, “Think like the ocean.” In 2021, Ecuador, Panama, Colombia and Costa Rica announced the creation of the Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor initiative which helps to create a fishing-free “swimway”. This is critical for sharks, turtles, rays, and whales in their migratory route. Yet, Earle says that more swimways need to be created globally. 

Salome Buglass and colleagues deploy a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) in search of deep sea kelp that may be new to science, during the Mission Blue Galápagos expedition in 2022. (Photo: Courtesy of Rolex)

“Our existence is a shared responsibility, but it takes everybody pulling together,” Earle says about passing the torch to the next generation. Pazmiño mentions, “Every time I take a kid to do snorkelling somewhere in Galápagos, they get amazed by the sharks, turtles, and dolphins. All they want to do is protect them. That gives me so much hope.” The team works with residents and young people to love and inspire their home and educate them on a thriving ecosystem as this allows them to preserve and make it better. Marine biologist and co-Hope Spot Champion Alex Hearn adds, “The more time you spend in the water and under the water, you stop seeing the ocean as a resource, and you start seeing it for what it is: a life-giver.”