Naveducation: Local kids go on an expedition cruise

(Adapted from a Google Translated version - originally in Spanish.  Written by Johanna Jimenez and originally published on 18 February 2020 by "Caja Negra" 



How do you love what is not known? That was one of the questions that Valeria Tamayo and her good friend Roberto Pépolas asked themselves while living on Isabela Island, in Galapagos. This concern arose when talking to children in the area they discovered that the boys had never left the island where they lived or were born. The youngsters did not know the other islands that are part of the archipelago, located 1000 km from the Ecuadorian coast.

The set of seven major islands, 14 minor islands, 64 islets and 136 rocks is a fundamental part of tourism promoted by the government administration, travel agencies, airlines, hotels and the rest of the structure determined to capture economic gains for the country, but that perhaps it invests little in its real conservation. The cost of moving about the Galapagos Islands is inaccessible for many Ecuadorians, however, even if the site is among the top wildlife destinations of the planet. In 2018, 275,817 people arrived on the islands according to the data of the Directorate of the Galapagos National Park.

Roberto Pépolas (Roby), is an instructor diver who lived and worked in Galapagos for more than 20 years, where he arrived at the end of 1997. From an Ecuadorian mother and Argentine father, Roberto knew the islands from 16 years of age onwards and was fascinated by the weather and the way of living in them. He worked 12 years for the Charles Darwin Foundation doing underwater research, but he was worried about the future of one of humanity's most famous natural heritage.

“I realized the need and the importance of having a community involved with its environment,” Roberto explained. Indeed, caring for that almost magical environment should be one of the main concerns of the island community. It is logical, given that, as Valeria Tamayo adds, "most of the environmental problems and conservation challenges that exist in the archipelago come from the presence and footprint of humans."

Roby and Valeria - the innovators behind the Naveducando program

“Park rangers never give up. As much as there is and as perfect as the park may be, conservation objectives will never be achieved if the community does not add to the effort, and how will they take care of it if they do not love it? ” Adds Valeria.

Conversations between several friends led to a desire to do something about it "We had talked about this so many times, but we said: 'Let's do it!' Then we came up with a little research and the first thing we did was conduct surveys," says Valeria Tamayo. A questionnaire was designed that was applied to children between 9 and 12 years old in 17 schools of the three largest and most inhabited islands of the archipelago: Isabela, Santa Cruz and Floreana. They asked 432 children: Do they know their islands?

The results confirmed the suspicions and were discouraging: 33% of the children had never left their island, many did not go to the beach, did not know what was around their islands, some did not even know how to swim. Only seven out of ten children knew another island besides the one they lived. They saw the Galapagos with a different look from the tourists who visit them and leave so many dollars to explore and enjoy them. The simple but objective questionnaire confirmed that these were children living in a paradise unknown to them.

Roberto drew up a long-term plan: they had to seek help to get the children to know their natural environment, they had to make sure that the experience marked them to the point of really valuing it, of learning to take care of it. The project, in addition to allowing them to know where they lived, should provide conceptual and practical tools on the care and conservation of the islands.

A name emerged in the planning: Naveducando (Naveducating). With statistics in hand, a concrete navigation plan and another learning and environmental interpretation plan for children, they decided to take more steps. Valeria contacted her friend Juan Manuel Salcedo, owner of a family tourism company that has been operating the Samba yacht for 20+ years. Previously, his eagerness to collaborate with causes that involve the community and public and private institutions had allowed him to donate cruises for children, settlers and people with disabilities on tours to get to know the islands. Pépolas, Tamayo and Salcedo got together and got down to work.

Juan Manuel donated the first five-day cruise for 12 children in full. According to Roberto, this was the most difficult thing to achieve for the monetary value since it included "ship, crew, guides, food and gasoline, a fairly high cost (...) The biggest challenge was precisely to find someone who donates the cruise in full."

Kids learning from the naturalist-guide / master, Juan Manuel Salcedo, whose family owns the Samba (anchored in the background)

The pilot trip with the characteristics of the Naveducando project could cost about USD $ 32,000 commercially according to Juan Manuel's calculations.

It is clear that to sow true awareness in the care of the environment, one must first understand what can affect its natural functioning, which elements are harmful and which are friendly to the environment. The main objective was that the small islanders had to know their environment to love and care for it, to become, from their homes, those who lead care for nature.

The team that was formed advanced another important objective: define who would go on the first trip. And of course they decided to do it with children from low-income families, "who are usually left aside by society," says Valeria.

After a process that involved the schools where the surveys were conducted, it was decided that the first group will be made up of 12 seventh grade (12 years old) children from Isabela Island. Permits and authorizations were then processed at the Ministry of Education so that children could go on this extraordinary excursion. Finally, meetings were held with their parents and the logistics of the entire trip were coordinated.

The content of on-board classes covered topics of natural history and human history. The children learned about ecology, how to use a kayak, swam, scuba diving and saw animals in their habitat. When they visited the beaches, they enjoyed them, for example, they found small pieces of plastic in the sand; Thanks to their guides, they understood that the best way to prevent this material from getting there and even eating it by animals is to reduce the consumption of these elements at home. “It is very exciting and very educational. Now I know that in the islands that it seems that there is no life, there is a lot of life and the fauna is very beautiful ”, shares Selena, one of the girls who made the trip. All this while sailing around several islands such as Rabida, Santa Cruz, Bartolomé and Isabela as well as performing crew work such as handling the yacht or pretending to be a sailor.

Bartolome Island - pretty much "off limits" to the vast majority of Galapagos residents due to the high cost of a visit.  

 According to the 2018 annual report of the Directorate of the Galapagos National Park, the percentage of visitors that year increased by 14%, which ensures that tourism is a source of jobs in Galapagos, but it should be managed responsibly and in this task the efforts of the public sector and private enterprise must be focused.

“The idea is to generate a close relationship with the sea, sensitize the people who are going to have the islands under their care,” says Roby. His dream is that all the children of the Galapagos schools make this trip at the end of the primary school as the boys of the continent do.

For Juan Manuel, "if we do not allow people to know, appreciate, value and protect, we will not have Galapagos to show the world." The goal is for children to return with something to share with their family, to identify and become aware of the threats to their environment.

The yacht departed from Puerto Ayora on November 23, 2018. Ok, Juan Manuel and a complete team accompanied the little ones. Roby could not travel with them because of a health problem, but he left everything ready so that the long-awaited trip could take place. In addition, the video experience was documented. That same first day, the boys made their first diving practice with instructors and learned to sail with sail. They embarked in the afternoon and traveled at night.

On Saturday 24 they traveled to the Santa Fe and Plazas Islands. The biggest surprise was that early in the day they were received by a family of killer whales and a hawk, the largest predators of water and land. This opportunity was used by the guides who explained characteristics of these mammals, which to everyone's surprise traveled as a family. Welcome to the cruise could not be more appropriate.

On Monday 26 he continued the trip to Puerto Egas and Rábida. This last island has a type of red sand due to the high iron content of lava. As part of the activities of the children, games were prepared that took place on the beaches of each island, so Valeria reminds us that when arriving at Rabida one of the challenges was to make the stones jump over the water, “an old hobby with the that Juan Manuel organized a competition so that the boys take back simple, but fun games in the water since that simplicity is being lost a little in the game with things that you find in nature like flat stones.”

A learning moment with a land iguna

The visit to North Seymour already announced the farewell of the cruise. Then they took the opportunity to evaluate the knowledge imparted and talk about what they wanted to do for the planet. This part is essential because all the awareness and motivation that accompanied the children were welcomed as they remembered much of what they learned, but above all they enjoyed and loved the experience of living the sun, water and animals near them.

Part of the curriculum that was designed wanted to present the way of life of the people who work at sea, so the boys helped with the tasks inside the Samba. Acting as a sailor or a machinist, for example, allowed them to learn that the ship's electricity works by burning diesel. In the islands it works the same way, electricity is generated only with diesel and every time a light is left on, this fuel is burning so that the air quality is ruined and our planet is affected. “We try to make all the links inside the ship that have to do with life on the islands,” says Valeria.

For all, the islands were new. Inside the water they saw a variety of fish such as flute fish, parrotfish, surgeon fish, among others. They also saw turtles, echinoderms like the sea dollar and the starfish. They found eggs of various types of birds, saw frigates and boobies fly, enjoyed nature and their smiles and faces of amazement accompanied the entire trip. They observed, shared, played and connected with nature and with daily life on the islands. With an easy comparison the guides and tutors helped to understand the little ones that as well as in the boat the resources are limited (light, water, food) the same happens in the planet. Hence the importance of taking care of resources and being more assertive when using them.

The Sacalesia Foundation and Ecology Project International donated resources for the first day's breakfast and lunch, t-shirts with the Naveducando logo and the remuneration to the diving and sailing instructors. The teaching material could also be used thanks to this collaboration.

At 10 years old, in the middle of the sea and next to the Samba, Doménika Yépez felt real confidence to give her first strokes and swam. His mother, Gioconda Véliz, confesses that at first he was a little hesitant that his daughter travel alone on the cruise, but then agreed because she knew she could not pay what they offered: navigate the islands for five days with everything paid and live a unique life experience. Then, he only packed in his daughter's backpack a sun-blocker, a bathing suit and several changes of clothes. The cell phone was prohibited since the purpose was to establish a connection with nature. He acknowledges that his daughter “came back with a mental change and met several animals. Now he talks about conservation in the house and learned to swim. ” Doménika is amazed that she met animals she had never seen as manta rays, frigates, killer whales and even a starfish with black dots "that looks like a chocolate chip cookie," he laughs. Paradoxically, one of the things that cost him the most to learn, but that he values ​​a lot, is to spend the day without his cell phone. When he arrived home he told his mother that he saw some boobies dancing to attract females, that had never seen him and that image remained in his memory to accompany her as part of the memories that the sea breeze and waves they will leave her and now share with her mother. Doménika and some of her travel companions learned to swim, this will surely mark her life forever.

Twelve students from Isabela Island in Galapagos already know something more about the wonder environment that surrounds them. Roby, Juan Manuel, Vale and all the team that was formed expect this first group to begin a tradition in the islands and that all the seventh-grade Basic Education boys make this trip at the end of the elementary school and before entering high school. “We need the support of all tour operators, the dream is not just a dream; It is workable, we need a lot of [people like] Juan Manuel, ”says Roby and Vale adds“ And a lot of Sambas ”. "The commitment of organizations that want to contribute with the value of the trip" is required. At the moment we are talking with an NGO that is interested in supporting this initiative and they are waiting for good news.

The Galapagos Islands, with one of the largest marine reserves on the planet, is surrounded by a dynamic fauna with more than 3,500 species of which 23% is endemic. It is undoubtedly a privileged place in the world and where the dream of these good Ecuadorians could come true.

Gadiel, Kerli, Itha, Naidaly, Daisy, Joshua, Emily, Selena, Erika, Soña, Érick and Doménika were part of a dream and also fulfilled theirs. The challenge today is that the experience be replicated and all children living in Galapagos can live the experience of knowing their home, their islands, and then love them and work with conviction and fortitude in their true conservation.