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The Galapagos has a unique, but fragile ecosystem

Before getting into the heavy stuff, let me say this: Ecuador is to be saluted for what it has done to preserve the Galapagos Islands. Very few countries in the world have managed to do what Ecuador has, and when you consider that this emerging market country has been in political turmoil for quite a bit of the last few decades, you have to be even more impressed with what's been accomplished.

That said, the islands have a long and storied history that illustrates just how much negative impact humankind can have on an ecosystem.

The Galapagos Islands were probably discovered by the Incas, perhaps as far back as 1400. Officially, the date is set at 1535 during the height of the Spanish march through South America.

The name comes from the original designation "Insulae de los Galopegos" (Islands of the Tortoises). Another name was used unofficially: Las Islas Encantadas (The Enchanted Islands). Note that the namers didn't mean that in a positive way—a group of renegade sailors thought the islands bewitched, as they are stark looking and sometimes inaccessible shorelines, while the strange, swirling currents seemed to take control of their boats, making it impossible for them to land.

The first human assault on the Galapagos ecosystem likely began with British Buccaneers chasing Spanish treasure ships leaving South America. The position of the islands made them a natural hiding place, and, as it turned out, the islands had probably the world's biggest stock of sailor friendly meat: just stick 500 or more tortoises in your hold and slaughter one when you need fresh meat. Since the tortoise had adapted to survive without food and water for long periods of time, they were the perfect food source for long expeditions.

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Whalers discovered this, too. Sea turtles also congregated in the islands, and provided useful food. Plus it didn't help that fur seals were in demand for their insulating skins and were present in large numbers, as well. With several hundred boats in operation in the area, it's not hard to guess the outcome. By the time Darwin landed in 1835, the tortoise population was already partially decimated and small civilizations had popped up on some of the islands. With man came rats, and rats preyed on tortoise eggs. Slowly but surely, dogs, cats, goats, pigs, and even donkeys were introduced to the islands, many of which were left to their own devices and became feral. Entire islands were purged of tortoises, and, thus, the humans moved to another island, moving the destruction with them. Perhaps as many as a quarter of a million tortoises disappeared in less than two centuries, and the once ubiquitous fur seals were made nearly extinct. This first human assault almost rid the islands of what was to eventually become their primary asset: the animals.

Tourism probably saved the remaining animal populations, though it took quite some time before tangible actions began reversing the previously destruction. The publication of William Beebe's Galapagos: World's End [affiliate link; As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.] in 1924 was the catalyst. Basically a description of a scientific expedition sponsored by the New York Zoological Society, the book turned into a best seller, and soon a few wealthy individuals went to see for themselves the strange land described in the book (it didn't hurt that the Panama Canal made getting there a little easier for those on the East Coast or from Europe).

Nevertheless, it wasn't until the 100th anniversary of Darwin's visit that Ecuador got around to passing legislation to protect the islands. In 1934 wildlife sanctuaries were established on some of the islands, though this really didn't mean much. War soon put all thoughts of conservation aside. (Yes, we American's also have to fess up to our share of the damage: the site of the American military base on Isabela is one with feral cats introduced by the soldiers, and the main military establishment on Baltra pretty much eradicated all but the shore-based wildlife there, including an entire population of land iguanas.)

It was the centennial of the publication of The Origin of Species [affiliate link; As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.] in 1959 when the reversal of fortunes for the wildlife really began. Coincident with that event, Ecuador did several remarkable things:

  • All land not settled was declared a National Park.

  • National Park regulations were established that were strict and enforced.
  • The Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galapagos Islands was formed as a research entity.

Within a few years, the Charles Darwin Station was built in Puerto Ayora, a park service was formed, and researchers began studying the remaining animals, with the intent of preserving them. Besides breeding programs and pure research, the Station also produced programs for eradicating the introduced (and now feral) animals on the islands. Even more astonishing is that the park service made several additional, brilliant moves:

  • Only select sites were allowed to be visited by tourists (with these sites being occasionally rotated).
  • Every tourist group of 16 people had to be accompanied by a Darwin Station-trained naturalist guide.
  • No overnight stays would be permitted (originally there was one permit-based exception on the volcano Alcedo, and there are a couple of exceptions that have been granted recently).
  • The park was extended to 15 nautical miles offshore!

Again, I can't stress how unusual all these moves were for a relatively poor country like Ecuador. It would have been far easier to succumb to a full-on development of tourist facilities (hotels, resorts, etc.), which would have pulled more money to everyone's pockets in the short term. Many of America's so-called conservation programs look pallid compared to what Ecuador has done.

But this brings us to the second assault on the islands: tourism. The programs of the national park worked. Species were bred and reintroduced to a few islands. Feral animals were eradicated on others. For a long time no new development occurred other than in the three small cities that were scattered though the islands. And tourists came to see what all the fuss was about. For quite some time, the few folk that lived in the Galapagos didn't mind, as tourism brought with it money, and the Darwin Station did yet another astonishing thing when they built training programs that turned local residents into naturalist guides.

The number of tourists that came to the islands rocketed. Even by 1990, when I first visited, the number was estimated at 50,000 a year. (Galapagos visitation figures are somewhat suspect. Because hard quotas were set several times and almost certainly exceeded, the government's published figures are sometimes optimistically low. At other times, during travel recessions, they seem over-inflated, perhaps so as not to overly worry those that depend upon the tourism industry.) Remember, all these folk are moving between sites in boats, so over the years the boats tended to get bigger and fancier. Originally, the boats weren't even required to have fire detectors and other safety features (this has thankfully been corrected, but not before a few disasters). But they also weren't required to have waste management systems or pollution-free propulsion systems. Even as recently as 1992 I noticed overt practices such as throwing garbage overboard and emptying oil directly into the ocean (these days, a few boats still practice such things covertly).

Don't underestimate the impact a little waste thrown in the wrong place can have. For example, one wonderful visitation site used to be the Alcedo volcano climb, a six-mile, 3700 vertical foot (1130m) trudge straight up the side of the cone to get to the caldera, where several hundred giant tortoise live. Because of the time it took to get up there, the park service used to allow a small number of folk to camp there overnight. Unfortunately, garbage left behind by some of those campers attracted the feral goats, a bad thing for the tortoises. The site is now closed to visitation, a real shame.

But the bigger problem is simply the number of people milling around the animals. The economics of boat travel led to the introduction of several large vessels (the largest at my last visit was the 240-foot, 96-passenger National Geographic Endeavour II). Imagine 96 passengers hitting a single visitation site (even if it is in carefully timed waves to minimize impact). The park service recognized this problem early and restricted large boats to only a handful of sites, but that still wasn't enough. At times I've seen as many as a half dozen 16-passenger boats tied up at the same location, which is nearly the same problem. Again, the park service changed regulations and required every boat to submit its itinerary far in advance of tours. More important, based upon the size, each boat was only able to hit certain sites only so many times within a given time period (e.g., the same boat couldn't necessarily go to, say, Plaza Island on every tour they made; instead, they could visit the island perhaps once every month, or once every four tours). The result was that impact was spread more evenly across sites, but the new problem was that the limited number of sites really couldn't support much of an increase in tourism above current levels without site restrictions being eased. 

The park service changed policies again a few years ago, though, making it easier for boats to run regular tours of specific sites. Most boats now have fixed itineraries that are predictable as to which sites they visit. Still, to get the "full" experience of the widest variety of visitation sites, you need to be on one of the smaller boats and a longer than seven-day tour, which should get you to virtually all the islands and a wide variety of visitation sites. (This is the way I run my photo workshops in the Galapagos: fixed 14-day itinerary that encompasses almost all the islands, and with only 14 students.)

Galapagos Route

In 2014 there were 84 boats regularly touring the islands. Most of these were 16-passenger boats. That number has fluctuated up and down over the years, with the current trend being more towards larger, more luxurious 20-96 passenger boats, and fewer 8-16 smaller yachts. I believe the actual touring capacity on any given day is currently still something below 2500 people, which is spread around approximately 69 terrestrial sites, which means that the average load per site on any given day is about 30+ people. In practice, it can be higher for the more popular sites, less for the more remote sites. I believe that the park service has an absolute limit of 192 people for many of the animal sites on any given day (e.g. six 16-person groups, twice a day).

Site visitation is pretty closely monitored. The fine for a boat not being where it’s supposed to be (short of a real excuse, such as engine failure), is US$4000 for the Captain of the boat, US$4000 for the Naturalist on the boat. Boats have location devices on them so that the park service can monitor where they’re at, much like an air traffic control system. 

A third assault also occurs on the fragile ecosystem. Ecuador is not only a developing nation—poor compared to fully developed nations—but for much of the past decade was in near constant political turmoil (five governments in five years is not exactly stable, is it?). Constant changes in government, rampant inflation, imprudent military spending, rapid changes in crude oil prices, bribery scandals, and a whole host of other problems have had their toll. But even in tourism's off years, the folk on the Galapagos were still earning decent livings, and the payment of tips in US dollars by many tourists helped ease the sting of inflation for many. 

While there were many signs of impending trouble, the first really nasty squabble came in 1992 when coastal fisherman discovered that the Japanese would pay a premium price for sea cucumbers, and the Galapagos Islands had zillions of these ugly little suckers. In a very short time, fishing camps popped up all over the park, and angry confrontations between conservationists and fisherman became the norm. By the time the government managed to mollify the fisherman (by allowing a more modest sea cucumber harvest for three months a year), they had decimated the sea cucumber population. Still, the standard of living of the Galapagos Island residents far exceeds that of the coastal Ecuadorians, and the fishing is still good there (of course it is, it's a protected National Park!), so the islands today find themselves with a constant inflow of development and resource extraction-minded folk. It's not uncommon to see large Chinese fishing vessels just at the boundaries of the preserved area, for instance.

Puerto Ayora has grown significantly in population (now over 20,000 residents), as has every other settlement on the islands, and now it is not uncommon to see outright defiance of park regulations by native Ecuadorians. Indeed, things got so nasty that at one point the Charles Darwin Station was torched, and researchers held as hostages. The island of Santa Cruz where the Station is located now has two "tourist resorts" on it, and one opens up development in an area that previously wasn't previously built on.

If that wasn't enough, in 2001 a tanker ran aground on San Cristobal at Shipwreck Bay (!), and an oil spill threatened the park. Later reports indicated that almost two-thirds of the tanker's diesel fuel load emptied into the ocean, though much of this was swept away from the islands by the prevailing currents. For a short time, visitor sites on both San Cristobal and Sante Fe were closed while animal cleanups and damage assessment were performed. Since the wreck could not be removed, Ecuador decided to sink it in place to form a new reef. While the oil spill turned out to be a minor crisis instead of the ecological disaster that was feared, it still points out how vulnerable these islands are. Even the brief closings of several sites required changes to many boat schedules, and substantially increased the visitor traffic on North Seymour, for example.

The question on everyone's mind is whether Ecuador's government can continue to assert itself and enforce strict conservationist policies. Can tourism be held to a manageable number (recently estimated at well over 160,000+ visitors a year, though I can't find reliable figures for any year past 1996, and I don’t believe the infrastructure to be quite that large for so many park visitations)? 

Despite the threats to the park, Galapagos Islands is still a premiere ecotourism destination. But it won't stay that way unless we all do our part to help. Therefore, I make the following recommendations to island travelers:

  • Try to book on boats that carry only 16 or fewer passengers. The big boats tend to be more like cruise ships and have a big impact everywhere they pull up. Some 20-passenger boats split their groups into two 10-person groups when onshore, which is acceptable.
  • Support the Charles Darwin Station with a donation when you're there. Ask what you can do to further help the conservation and preservation causes.
  • Pack out what you bring. That includes exhausted batteries and any other waste you generate. Everything you leave behind at best gets incinerated, at worst gets dumped into the ocean clandestinely.
  • Follow every park regulation, even if it means missing a photo opportunity. That means that you don't use flash photography, unfortunately. It also means that you stay 2m (6 feet) away from the animals. Plus if your naturalist guide tells you to do (or not do) something, please comply.
  • Make sure that your luggage and clothing are absolutely uncontaminated before getting on the plane to the islands. That means you clean the soles of your shoes and make sure you haven't dragged along any seeds or dirt in the cracks of your luggage. Your luggage will be x-rayed and possibly inspected for potential problematic things, but take charge of this before you leave on your trip.
  • Never bring food onto the visitation sites. Misplaced crumbs add up to a big bonanza for feral rats, etc. It’s also illegal and punishable by fine.
  • Never do anything that puts an animal in jeopardy. Watch closely for signs that an animal is nervous about your approach.
  • After your visit, make it a point to write a polite letter to the Ecuadorian president (and the Ecuadorian ambassador to your country). Thank his country for doing what they have in preserving the islands, and encouraging him to continue the course of strict conservation in the future.
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