Research & Conservation

The Galapagos: A case study on plastic pollution

The Galapagos: Islands that depend entirely on the ocean are fighting for their lives.

Located over 960 km away from inhabited land, the Galapagos islands are truly paradise. They sit off the coast of Ecuador, and given their distance from human life, the islands have thrived as a hotspot for our marine life and birds alike. Basically, anything that you see on these islands is exactly as it was when the islands formed some three to five million years ago. The 19 islands give us a snapshot of how the natural world was before we arrived, and also enable us to compare inhabited lands to uninhabited lands, which are hard to access for humans.

Paradise in the Galapagos islands

Discovered  in 1535, they are dubbed the islands of tortoises, and perhaps their most famous inhabitants are iguanas, who bask in the glorious Pacific sunshine on the black volcanic rock. What was discovered back then is pretty much what meets the eye today, and the biodiversity of life on the islands is so diverse, they became the base for Sir Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution – the basis of life and evolution.

I write the words pretty much above in italics, as now we are not only greeted by a huge range of interesting and different species, but we are also greeted by plastic – and a huge range of it too, coming from all over the world. Yes, even at 960 km away from Ecuador, the Galapagos are today polluted so badly, sites of birds picking food from litter are not uncommon, and the struggle here is real.

Remote, yet still damaged by human pollution.

How is it possible to have such a low human population but enough plastic to fill a city? Only 25,000 people live on the islands, but there’s enough plastic amongst them to cause concerns – and perhaps even more frighteningly, it is not their pollution or litter.

The harsh reality facing ALL humans and the natural world is that we can only see 1% of plastic pollution in the sea. The other 99% is missing, but certainly still present. It has become microplastic, and will eventually end up on our plates – yes, we are indeed consuming plastic, accidentally and while bio-degradable straws like the ones we have at the Malta National Aquarium help, the world needs to do more.

Paradise lost

The problem with plastic, is it just keeps coming. And it won’t stop. The Galapagos case study proves that everything is interconnected.

The islands have not changed through development, but just plastic pollution. Plastic NEVER disappears – it can’t be destroyed, it just becomes microplastic which is impossible to clean – we eventually end up eating it ourselves as mentioned above.

97% of the islands are completely off limits to humans – but still humans have littered it, and do so continually. Even out here on this remote island, animals are suffering due to human greed, even indirectly and this is a cruel reality.

We are today overwhelmed by plastic and here is an example. Think of your daily toothbrushes. We should change them every three months, so how many have you used in all your life? Well… you might have clean teeth, which is important, but it has come at a cost… every single toothbrush you have owned is still somewhere. In a landfill, in the garbage, or sadly in the ocean… or even washed up on a beach on a far away land. The same goes for all our shampoo bottles, water bottles, soft drinks etc…they are just not destroyed. Basically, by the time you reach 30 years old you can have used over 100 toothbrushes. Let that sink in…

We can flip the perspective

We all share this common problem, but we have solutions and we must shift the perspective to focus on the solutions – something we at the Malta Aquarium do already.

Scientists on these beautiful islands have come up with a solution – they need to track and map the plastic present,  then study it to see where it comes from. Once they know the source they can tackle the problem from the route. Plastic identification is the method being used here, so for example, if it is fishing pollution they must speak to the industry leaders to help them change their attitudes and alter their methods. Think of it like a human body. When a doctor says “you are sick” it is one thing, but it is easier to target the problem if your doctor tells you “you have a throat infection leading to a cough”. The more data we have on the issue, the faster and easier it gets to deal with it.  

Since the islands are so wild and inaccessible technology comes in and plays her part. Drones are used to automatically log and track the plastic, and it is marked out in map then documented in a large database.

We need to know where the plastic comes from first and who is responsible for the plastic waste. Most of the sources of plastic come from plastic bottles. Using weather charts and ocean current cycles the scientists can then predict the travelling path of a certain bottle and ultimately they track its journey and find out can see where the plastic will end up, or its source. Effectively find out who is guilty from the source. Some plastic has floated all the way from China, and that highlights the fact that plastic is a global problem.

Clean ups which local communities like ours are a good part of the fight, but it is simply not enough, so scientists in Galapagos are doing their best to track the source to find the cure. Prevention is the best cure in life and this applies to all problems, including environmental ones

The Malta National Aquarium’s flip in perspective

This shift focused on education, and our educational programs here at the Malta National Aquarium aim to educate and inform our children about the sensitive planet we live on. We will make better kids for the world, and therefore they will make the world a better place for their kids, and the positive cycle of change continues. We also organise several clean ups around the island and set up other campaigns throughout the year to spread the main message. We also encourage people to collect plastic and exchange it for awesome prizes as seen below. The aim here is always to target children and the younger generations as we feel they are going to be the key to saving our planet.

A message of support from Sir David Attenborough

The legendary Sir David Attenborough is 92 years young and he still continues to fight for us and the natural world. He feels the world is under attack and that “what we do in the next 20 years will determine the future for all life on Earth”.

He offered his support for our younger generation and credits younger people for their activity. He took time out of his busy schedule to praise the youth for cleaning up after the older generation. The kids are the ones who will suffer so keep up your hard work and keep applying pressure on our global politician. Keep doing what you are doing – you are making a difference and being recognised by one of the world’s greatest fighters for our planet.  

He is launching an eight-year partnership with Netflix to showcase our natural world, and pointed out that if we do not change the next 20 years, we will ruin the entire planet “and every mouthful of food, and every lungful of air” forever. “It is tempting and understandable to ignore the evidence and carry on as usual or to be filled with doom and gloom. … We need to move beyond guilt or blame and get on with the practical tasks at hand.” he continued.

“The Garden of Eden is no more” he added, and that we must continue to fight. He too wants to flip the perspective and hunt for solutions, and his own programs including the latest series “Our Planet” will help us flip the perspective too.

Work with us: We’re looking for a Senior Aquarist

If you have a passion for the natural world, then you have found a home. We are currently on the look out for a Senior Aquarist to join our team of nature – lovers here at the Malta National Aquarium. Please send an email to to get in touch!

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