Home Galápagos Islands Q & A: Galápagos Program Professor Alex Hearn

Q & A: Galápagos Program Professor Alex Hearn

by AIFS Study Abroad

We are thrilled to be launching a new January Term Program in the Galápagos Islands this winter. Students begin in Quito, Ecuador, travel to the Galápagos, and finish their program on Santa Cruz Island with a visit to the Darwin Research Station. Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ) Professor Alex Hearn has already had an incredibly distinguished career as a Marine Biologist and Conservation Scientist, and spent almost six years working at the Darwin Research Station. We had the chance to ask him about his work, his experience in the Galápagos, and his plans for the course he will be teaching, Ecosystems and Biodiversity in the Galápagos; needless to say his answers will make you want to get on the next plane to Ecuador! Read on:

You have a PhD in Marine Biology, what made you decide to pursue this career?

I grew up in Madrid, about as far away from the sea as possible in Spain, but was always fascinated by the sea and would devour the Cousteau documentaries and any other marine documentaries that came on TV. I decided to apply to study marine biology after a field trip to the north coast of Spain. We spent a week along the coast learning different marine science techniques. I knew instantly this was what I wanted to do, so I applied to Southampton University to study Oceanography and Marine Biology. I never really looked back from there.

Much of your work has to do with Conservation Science – what is this and why do you think it’s important?

Conservation Science is a multidisciplinary science aimed at the protection of biodiversity. As such, it incorporates different disciplines, such as in my case, oceanography, physics, biology and ecology. I could go on for ages about the importance of maintaining a balance between human activity and nature, both due to the intrinsic services that nature provide us, but also through a sense of stewardship and preservation of our biological heritage for future generations, but I think that most people nowadays get it.

The Galápagos Islands are a very exotic and remote locale! Having lived and taught there, what should students expect? Why is it such a special place?

Galápagos is a very special place. It is unique for having played a key role in the development of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, and for having changed the way we think about our origins and our place in the living world forever.

As an oceanic archipelago only discovered relatively recently in human history, it retains much of its pristine nature. I think one of the main characteristics of wildlife here is their lack of fear of humans. This means we can get up close and personal with the local fauna. However, with several flights a day, several cargo ships a week, and a growing resident population and tourism influx, Galápagos is less remote now than ever. I think students will appreciate the vulnerable nature of the islands, and how in reality, they are under constant threat from excessive use of their limited resources and invasive species that can cause havoc in local biological communities.

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The Flightless Cormorant

The Galápagos are home to many famous species of animals: the tortoises, the finches, the blue footed booby, the Galápagos penguin, the flightless cormorant – if you had to pick a favorite, which would it be?

My favorite endemic species is the flightless cormorant. It is an icon of island evolution – having arrived in Galápagos, and finding a good place to live without predators, it gradually lost the ability to fly in exchange for better diving ability. It’s startling blue eyes reflect the ocean at dawn in the Bolivar Channel, the heart of Galápagos, and it’s core habitat. It is a romantic species – the male will constantly bring gifts to the female in the nest.

You worked at the Charles Darwin Foundation in the Galápagos for several years – what kind of work is done there and what will students be learning there?

The Charles Darwin Foundation is the oldest international organization based here in Galápagos, and has a special agreement with the Ecuadorian Government that sets it apart from all other NGOs. CDF carries out science for the conservation of Galápagos. I worked there in the marine department (called Biomar) from 2002 to 2008. At that time, it was a vibrant department of over 30 staff and students. We worked on a baseline of marine biodiversity for the newly created marine reserve, and my own job was to assess the local fisheries and provide advice for their sustainable management. CDF have played a key role in bringing back endemic species from the brink of extinction, and for eradication and control of invasive species, and continue to do so into the 21st century. While visiting the CDF, the students will learn about some of the historical conservation successes and get a feel for some of the ongoing projects that CDF is running at the moment.

Some of your research has dealt with shark movement in the Galápagos – what kinds of sharks are found there? Why are sharks important to the ecosystem? What is your favorite shark? Least favorite shark?

There are about 40 species of sharks found in Galápagos, although having said that, we are still discovering new species here. Sharks are part of an ancient line of fish that differ from bony fish in that their skeletons are made of cartilage. They are often among the top predators in marine communities and as such they drive natural selection and can be viewed as an indicator of the health of their particular community. My favorite shark is the scalloped hammerhead – it has such an improbable body shape, yet at the same time is so graceful in the water. To free dive among schools of up to a hundred hammerheads is one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had. They are heavily fished and highly vulnerable. I hope in the future my daughters will have the same opportunity. Least favorite shark? The loan shark!

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The Scalloped Hammerhead

You will be featured in United Sharks of America on Nat Geo TV this summer for Shark Fest! Give us a sneak peek of what you will be talking about.

If I remember rightly, I spoke about the California Driftnet Fishery. This is the last driftnet fishery operating on the west coast, and is one of the dirtiest fisheries in the USA. It was originally a thresher shark fishery, but now focuses mainly on swordfish, although thresher sharks are still part of the catch. The problem is the by-catch – over 65% of the catch is non-marketable and simply discarded overboard, and 21% of the catch is made up of threatened or endangered species which are on the IUCN red list. It is a declining fishery, with only around around 16 active boats, and is becoming a drain on the California economy. My previous organization, Turtle Island Restoration Network, together with a coalition of environmental groups, is calling for a phasing out of this fishery altogether.

Tell us a little about the course (Ecosystems and Biodiversity in the Galápagos) you will be teaching this January at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito and its extension campus on San Cristóbal: what will students be learning? What do you hope they will take away? How is it relevant beyond the Galápagos?

In a broad sense, the students will learn about some of the key habitats and endemic species present in the Galapagos Islands, gain some insight into how these island processes occur, and then we will take a look at the human history of the islands, and how this has affected the local biodiversity. Finally, we will focus on the efforts to find solutions so that humans can live within the biodiversity framework of the islands as we move from a “frontier community” mentality to more of an “island community.” A lot of the lessons learned from the successes and failures in Galapagos can be applied to island communities throughout the world. However, it is a privilege and a great opportunity for the students to come here, to the cradle of evolution and one of the best preserved oceanic island groups in the world. Galápagos has a funny way of changing you forever… so watch out!

We could not be more excited to launch this program in January! Find out more about studying abroad in the Galápagos here on our website.

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South Plaza Island, Galapagos

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