Why this sea lion is a symbol of the plastic pollution threat to the Galápagos Islands

Tom Clarke

Former Science Editor

ITV News Science Editor Tom Clarke gains rare access to the unseen side of the Galápagos Islands to investigate how the world is threatening Charles Darwin's paradise - and what is being done to stop it.

I’m standing on a beach where only a very few humans have ever walked, watching a sea lion playing with a torn plastic bottle.

It’s a moment that sums up the depressing reality of plastic pollution arriving at the Galápagos Islands on every ebbing tide.

Since the middle of the last century, this archipelago 600 miles from the coast of Ecuador has been protected from the excesses of human influence.

Around 97% of the islands are off limits to humans.

Tourists, even locals, have to be supervised when visiting areas within the National Park itself.

Scientists and our team remained under supervision throughout our visit.

The area's hundreds of endemic species are found nowhere else on Earth.

Their unique adaptations to this volcanic wilderness are pivotal in Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

But the adaptations Galápagos is bearing witness to now would make Darwin spin in his grave.

The Galápagos Islands are 600 miles from the coast of the South American country of Ecuador. Credit: Bing Maps
Hermit crabs are seeking shelter in plastic bottle caps over abandoned shells. Credit: ITV News

Seals are using bottles as toys.

The Galápagos finches named after Darwin himself are weaving plastic fibres into their nests.

Hermit crabs have been found moving into plastic bottle caps instead of shells.

The rest of the world’s throwaway culture is fast becoming Galápagos’ problem.

A Darwin’s finch nest with plastic weaved throughout. Credit: ITV News

But Galápagos has decided to fight back.

We were given exclusive access to an international research project between local experts and specialists in studying marine plastics at the University of Exeter.

The project is hoping to be the first to analyse the total impact of plastic on Galápagos and its unique wildlife; but also establish how to hold back the tide of plastic trash.

The researchers, funded by the RGS-IBG grants programme, are counting large pieces of plastic on Galápagos’ beaches as well as sifting the sand for microplastics — fragments smaller than 5mm — that may pose the most harm to wildlife.

They’re also surveying currents, and tide patterns, to model where plastics are coming from.

Early hints are that most of the plastic coming to Galápagos is from mainland South America, or from the great Pacific itself.

Most is being washed up on the islands' windward beaches. Now clean-up efforts are being focused there.

The single most common item is the plastic drinks bottle. Many of them feature Asian writing.

It’s suspected that the bottles couldn’t have come all the way from Asia and still be intact, hinting they may be discarded from passing fishing or commercial vessels.

Some conservationists believe it is time to review regulations in ports that charge high fees for disposing of foreign vessels’ waste. This fact alone may be encouraging dumping at sea.

For its part Galápagos has persuaded the Ecuadorian government to back its move to phase out single-use plastic. They’ve banned plastic bags and straws on the islands.

The impact of man on the Galápagos islands is threatening the near-pristine island. Credit: ITV News

Now they want to do the same for styrofoam cups and trays and, ultimately, a return scheme for plastic bottles themselves.

Even just a few days in Galápagos like we have had leaves you in no doubt this place is truly special. It is a model of how humans and a near-pristine environment can coexist.

Maybe those of us in the rest of the world should follow Galápagos’ example and think about cleaning up our act.

This work is supported in the UK by the Galápagos Conservation Trust.