The Galapagos Islands have been part of Gustavo Andrade’s life for as long as he can remember. Raised by a father who worked as a Galapagos tour boat captain for many years, Gustavo’s childhood was spent sailing the seas. The islands were his summer playground, the sea lions and marine turtles, his playmates. He says becoming a naturalist guide was a path he was destined to take.
World Wildlife Fund: How did your love of the Galapagos as a child result in your wanting to become a Nat Hab guide?
Gustavo Andrade: Since the age of seven I spent every summer on a boat with my father—two and a half months on the seas discovering the Galapagos. When I was older I worked as an industrial engineer for many years, but I really missed being in nature. My father was talking about retiring from his position as a captain and it was like a signal went off in my head. I couldn’t imagine not spending summers in the Galapagos with him and I realized that if I wanted to be on board a boat, then I had to find my own ticket. So I decided to do something different. That was seven years ago and I’ve been working with Nat Hab ever since. I’ve always loved nature and I specifically wanted to work with Nat Hab because I knew they were very aware of the environmental impact our activities can have on the islands. I also liked the fact that they were involved with WWF. I knew this was the team I wanted to be part of.
I have the best office in the world. Getting the chance to see birds passing by or the sun setting is amazing. I knew I would regret not making this decision at some point in my life if I didn’t take this opportunity.
WWF: You say that silence is golden when you give a tour. Can you explain why?
GA: I always try to provide my guests with moments of silence. Part of the tour is telling them stories and repeating information, but it’s also providing experiences and part of those experiences are moments of silence with nature. On different trails I stop talking and kindly ask them to just watch what’s around them, remain quiet and feel the experience of being here.
WWF: What’s the best part of your job?
GA: It’s those moments when you see people’s faces literally change. Watching when they get out of whatever thoughts they are having and they start to be one with the whole landscape. It’s amazing. You see them watching a booby dive and they get overwhelmed or maybe a sea lion comes close to them and you see their faces take on a childlike smile. They start to admire nature. Seeing this is priceless. You know the Galapagos has touched them in that minute.
WWF: How have you seen the islands change overtime?
GA: Migration of people from the mainland coming to live on the Galapgos islands has had a negative effect. In the 80s, I remember walking the streets of Santa Cruz and there were no cars. The islands used to be a different place. We only had electricity for part of the day and running water was limited. Now, things have improved so more people are finding it easier to live here. But there are some who want to reestablish the same lifestyle they had back in the cities. It’s a different type of environment here. People may have to sacrifice some of the luxuries they had on the mainland because the increase in population is taking a toll on the islands' ecosystems.
WWF: How do you try to weave the importance of conservation into your trips?
GA: We are ambassadors of the Galapagos Islands. We know we have only one opportunity with every person we meet on our trips, so we try to provide them not just the best insight into the islands, but also try to spread a global concept, which is conserving what we have and that conservation can be done. We try hard to make sure that everybody who comes to the Galapagos is aware of how fragile our ecosystems are. We educate people on the effect of our operations on the locations we visit. We try to reuse as many resources as we can. We limit plastic use—we use glasses on the ship and aluminum water bottles on our tours and we have recycling on board. I want tourists to walk away from a trip here seeing how humans can be part of the ecosystem. We are not separate. We live together with wildlife and take good care of the environment. If you plant the right seeds in people’s minds they will be aware and so when they go back to their home they will see what we do here and say ok, it is possible.
WWF: 160,000 tourists visit the islands every year. What are some important things they can do to help preserve this fragile ecosystem?
GA: Most of the local economy is based on tourism. Tourists don’t realize that their participation in the economy is crucial to supporting the local people. If we don’t contribute, local citizens will find other ways to make a living and some of those ways could involve illegal activities like illegal fishing which puts the entire ecosystem in jeopardy. Awhile back on the island of Isabela, we had fishermen who were participating in shark finning. Then, they realized that the shark was worth many times more alive than dead. When it’s alive, tourists can experience seeing them underwater as part of their memorable diving or snorkel adventure. They realized that activities involving sharks could actually provide them with income that didn’t negatively impact the environment.
WWF: Why is safeguarding a pristine Galapagos so important to you?
GA: For me, conservation is a symbol of respect—respect for nature, respect for animals. It is important because this is what I would like to give as a legacy to the next generation. I grew up hearing stories from my grandmother and father about a Galapagos that today would seem unbelievable. It was something out of a fairytale – that was the Galapagos back in the 40s and 60s. I want the next generations to have their own fairytales and I want them to be able to dream about a place where they can jump in the water and share their time with penguins, sea lions and turtles. I want my children to have the same opportunities I had.
WWF: You’ve spent your whole life here. What’s your favorite memory?
GA: I was snorkeling with my father one day and we found a piece of balsa wood. He decided to build me a toy sailboat out of that wood. He carved it with his own hands. I used to snorkel every single day with it tied to my hip. I had a piece of rope attached to it and that wood was like my little pet. Wherever the sailboat took me in the water, I would follow. The fact that a simple toy can be created with things we find in nature that can be recycled is amazing—it’s the best toy I ever had in my life and even though the sailboat is now gone, the boat is always with me in my memories.