Real World: Galapagos


At the Charles Darwin Research Station (from left to right): Juan Mayorga, Smadar Levy, Alexandra Vasquez, Jesse Goldstein, and Vanessa Perkins, with National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, and client, Dr. Enric Sala.

Guest blogger: Vanessa Perkins (MESM 2016)


  1. (Noun) Group of five Bren students that lived and worked together for two months in Puerto Ayora, Galapagos, Ecuador.
  2. (Adjective) Colloquialism to describe unique situations resulting from five Bren students living and working together all summer in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

As one of the few groups in Bren History to all live and intern abroad together, I am proud that not only did we survive, but of what we accomplished in a land of unfamiliar weather, animals, language (for some members), and politics. Working as a team, we were able to obtain decades of ecological, fishing, and tourism information crucial to our master’s thesis, which we were told, in Galapagos, can take years (or is simply impossible).

Famous for inspiring Darwin’s theory of evolution and boasting the world’s highest level of endemic species (a species unique to one geographic region), the Galapagos draws over 200,000 visitors each year. While this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a hotspot for biodiversity and tourism, we found out it is also a hotspot for managerial and scientific disagreements. Thousands of scientific studies on tourism and fishing are conducted here, but the raw data from these studies is often highly guarded or inaccessible.  Since our project was to perform a bio-economic analysis of the marine reserve, we had to identify not only what data would be applicable, but  how to get it.

E-mails and phone calls were not going to cut it here.  Galapagos has little to no wifi, many conflicting stakeholders, and operates on “island time”, which, despite connotations of beach relaxation and hammocks, contributed to the need for very strategic teamwork.  We needed in-person communication with people in the private, non-profit, and government sectors of Ecuador to find our data.  Enter Galapafamilia.

Galapafamilia became a strategic tool of data collection, as we divided and conquered in our quest for data.  By knocking on doors, catching people walking to cafes, waiting outside offices, and eventually getting to know much of the Puerto Ayora community, we not only succeeded, but made some great friends while we were at it. 

Navigating the political waters of Galapagos couldn’t have been possible without our Bren School connections, support, and our shared passion for the beauty of the islands. Expressing this – sometimes in terrible Spanish – to the community members we met guided us through our internship, our Galapafamilia adventures, and also let us see some of the most incredible wildlife in the world.

UPDATE: End of Fall Quarter 2015

Back at Bren, we are now swimming in Excel spreadsheets and data visualizations (instead of the turquoise water of the eastern Pacific).  The Galapagos Marine Reserve is being rezoned this December, and our group project analysis is helping to inform the process.  We are providing a framework to estimate trade-offs between conservation and fishing in some of most important marine tourism sites.

Want a sneak peek of what we found predicted a marine location’s value? SHARKS.  The more sharks in an area, the higher number of visitors.   The more visitors, the higher the value to the country.

We are excited for our client, Enric Sala, to take our analyses back to Galapagos this month.  Stay tuned for more updates on our project by visiting our website: or attending our Public Presentation in the Spring of 2016.

Vanessa Perkins is a second year MESM student (2016) who had the pleasure to live in Galapagos this summer with her master’s thesis project group. She is interested in promoting conservation through ecosystem service frameworks and renewable energy development via corporate-NGO partnerships.

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