El Niño signals.....?

I generally refrain from reporting on the latest American NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) reports on El Niño predictions, as these tend to be misconstrued when applied to Galapagos. But..... between what NOAA is saying now ("far above average water temperatures for June, July, August in the Eastern tropical Pacific"), and what I'm hearing from my friends in the islands ("we could feel it!"), and a scientist friend currently doing research in the Cocos Islands - about 1000km NE of Galapagos, in reaction to a rare spawning aggregation of pelagic crabs, seen during the 1997-98 El Niño - see picture below ("A signal of a strong El Niño developing? Water here in Cocos is crazy hot - diving without wetsuits to below 100 ft.... ") for the first time since 1997-98, I would say that it looks like an El Niño of some intensity is manifesting itself about now. May is the month that water temperatures go down, while during an El Niño, they don't. Let's see what happens in the coming months.

A strong El Niño spells great times for terrestrial ecosystems (more and prolonged rains, warm temperatures) but very harsh conditions for marine ecosystems (very warm waters drive away fish, the food source that keeps all marine animals going, from sea birds, penguins, to sea lions etc...).   Visiting Galapagos during an El Niño provides a rare opportunity to witness ecosystems reacting to drastic changes in the usual conditions.   El Niño events over the millenia have certainly driven evolutionary processes there. 

 

Below: latest NOAA predictions.  Galapagos lies on the Equator, just off the South American coast, where the greatest deviation from normal temperatures are expected.  Cocos Island lies to the North East.Nino

 

Marine biologist Alex Hearn marvels at the rare spawning aggregation of this off shore (pelagic) crab in the abnormally hot waters around Cocos Island (Costa Rica) a few days ago and wonders if this is an indication of an El Niño to come. Picture by Ian Kellett.

 

Crabs

 

 

 

We booked 0.4% of all cruise ship visitors in 2014!

The Galapagos National Park figures confirm our unofficial motto:   "We may not be big, but we're small!".  

Yesterday, the  Park published the 2014 tourism numbers.

According to the analysis, a total of 215,691 visitors came to Galapagos during 2014, up 6% compared to 2013. Of these, 70% (149,997) were from abroad. 

By nationality, the proportions are:

  • Ecuadorians 30%
  • American 26%
  • British 6%
  • Germany, Canada and Australia, 4% each
  • Argentina, 3%;
  • All other nationalities (153 in total!): 23%

The park indicated that 35% embark on a cruise with an average 7 day length while 65% did a land based visit, staying an average of 5 days.  The data is obtained from the Transit Control Card, which must be filled out by all visitors to the island. 

Based on these numbers, CNH Tours can proudly boast that we sent 0.4% of all cruise ship visitors to Galapagos!

Not too long ago, the vast majority of visitors to Galapagos embarked on a cruise.  But over the past 15 years, the rising prices of cruises and the growing popularity of Galapagos has led to a boom in land based visitors on island hopping tours.  There has also been a bit of a boom in visitors from mainland Ecuador over to the island for a quick peak, staying for just 2 or 3 nights.  

We are very pleased that the government of Ecuador has resisted opening up the number and sizes of cruise ships, despite the pressure to do so.  Ten years ago, an experiment was permitted, in which a 500 passenger ship was allowed to transit through the islands and visit.  It was an unmitigated disaster.   As a result, the ship based visitor experience is still very good.  

 

Friend and former colleague appointed governor

Eliecer Cruz, former Galapagos National Park director and former head of World Wildlife Fund operations in Galapagos has just been appointed by the president of Ecuador as governor of the province of Galapagos and president of its governing council.

CNH Tours had the chance to get to know Eliecer when we lived in the Galapagos - he was working at the park director in those days.  We knew him as an intelligent, solid and very personable man.   We kept in touch over the years, and are pleased to see that the president of Ecuador has recognized his skills, personal attributes and credibility in the Galapagos community. 

Eliecer is one of, perhaps up to 12 brothers and sisters born at home in the tiny, isolated community on Florana island.  His siblings include Marylin Cruz, a Galapagos veterinary doctor, Felipe, a Galapagos visionary and conservationist, Lenin, a ship captain, Augusto, owner of the Beagle cruise ship, and another, whose name escapes me, who remained in Floreana tend the family farm.

CNH Tours congratulates Eliecer and wishes all the best to him and to his family.

Eliecer Cruz

Eliecer Cruz2

Small cruise ship runs aground

The 16 passenger Tip Top II ran aground in the early morning of Friday, April 24th.  All 16 passengers and crew were safefly evacuated.  A passenger on the ship reported to CNH Tours that one person suffered a broken arm and another a dislocated shoulder.  It ran aground as it was approaching Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, just near Tortuga Bay beach.  The authorities are now hoping to extract the ship from the shallows to avoid any fuel spills. 

Cruise ships in the Galapagos are required to meet strict standards in terms of on-board technology (GPS, depth monitors etc...) rendering any such accident less likely one of navigational error, and more one of human error - though we have not heard anything on the cause of the accident.

I strongly recommend anyone who is booked to go on the Tip Top II in the next 12 months to contact your travel agent to ensure your interests are taken into consideration, as the Tip Top II's owners seek to re-assign booked clients on other ships.

This is the first cruise ship loss in several years.  Generally, the record has been very good in Galapagos - considering that there are at least 60 ships plying its waters just about 365 days a year, day and night,navigating around an archipelago of over 100 islands and islets.   

The Tip Top II is owned and operated by Rolf Wittmer Tours.  The late Rolf Wittmer  (deceased 2011) was the first person to be born on Floreana Island (1 January 1933), in cave that together with a tent served as the family’s first dwelling.   His parents had emigriated from Germany just 4 months earlier - what pioneers!  I had the pleasure of working with Rolf's children while in Galapagos.  Rolf Wittmer Tours also runs the Tip Top III and IV. 

 

Tip Top II On The Rocks

Galapagos celebrates Earth Day

To commemorate Earth Day in Galapagos, the National Park Service distributed seedlings of native plants to households in the inhabited islands.   In so doing, the Park is continuing in its efforts to sensitize the local population on the threat that non-native, invasive species (plants, insects, animals...) present to the islands' unique biodiversity.

The islands arose out of the ocean starting 6-7 million years ago, and were devoid of life.  Only life forms that succeeded in making the 1,000 km journey from the mainland, over millions of years, and survive, were on the islands when the first recorded visit, in 1535, was made.   Since then, humans have been bringing over species from all over the world, on purpose (dogs, goats, pigs, agricultural plants), or by accident (parasitic flies, rats...).  

These introduced, or "alien" species are recognized as the single biggest threat to Galapagos native plants and animals, as many of them outcompete the locals for food, nesting sites, or cause diseases in them (such as canine distemper - brought to the islands via infected dogs).  

The biggest challenge to the authorities is to control the arrival, establishment and spread of alien species.  As a visitor, you will be screened on your way to the islands and upon arrival.  All cargo sent to the islands is also screened.  But no system is perfect - and Galapagos conservationists have to be constantly vigilant in spotting new introductions so that they may be removed before they spread.

When we lived in Galapagos, my husband was setting up the largest ever such alien species eradication project ever attempted on earth - targeting goats on Isabela island, the largest of the Galapagos islands.  It was ultimately successful - with over 150,000 goats "removed".  

Planing A Seedling

Special Law for Galapagos - 2nd reading tomorrow

The president of Ecuador’s National Assembly convened the Plenary Session No. 323 for Thursday April 23, at 09:30, in order carry out the second reading the draft revised Special Law on Galápagos. 

The first special law was passed in March 1998, and set out far-reaching changes in how the islands had been managed until then.  It officially recognized that Galapagos is a unique place for which conservation and sustainable development must be a priority.  Most dramatically, the 1998 Special Law restricted the movement of people, even Ecuadorians, between the mainland and the islands – establishing a status of “resident” and “non-resident” Galapagueños.  This was in response to the rapid immigration of people from the continent to the islands, overwhelming their environmental carrying capacity (imagine the USA preventing mainlanders from moving to Hawaii!). 

A quick skim of the draft text reveals some points worth noting

  • There is no mention of the "Galapagos National Park Service", but rather, the term "decentralized adminitrative unit in charge of protected areas".  This may or may not be significant - we wonder why "Galapagos National Park Service" is not referred to. 
  • Maritime traffic monitoring will be carried out by the ministry of defence - the Park Service has a control room where it track via satellite, the movement of fishing vessels around the marine reserve - it can easily see when such vessels enter the reserve (they are not allowed to do so).  We are not sure if this represents a significant change - but it appears as though the park will need to depend on another agency for information on possible infractions.  This may make it harder for it to be responsive to illegal fishing in the reserve.
  • Whereas the current law fixes the park entrance fee (for non-Ecuadorians) at $100 (since 1998), the new proposed law does not stipulate a fee, but gives the responsibility for doing so to the governing councile (comprised of representative from different government and Galapagos stakeholders).   It proposes that "at least 50%" ofthe park entrance fee should be assigned to the "National environmental authorit through its decentralized administrative unit in charge of protected areas" (the Park Service, we assume).   This is appears to be a modest increase from the current law, which assigns 45% to the park and marine reserve. 
  • The law recommends that a new park fee will likely vary according to the following criteria:
    • How long you expect to stay (there has been talk of a higher cost for very short (e.g. 3 days) visits
    • What kind of tourism (ship, land)
    • Age range and physical disability
    • Ecuadorian vs non-Ecuadorian

CNH Tours will keep track of this draft law and report on any pertinent developments.

 

 

Sierra Negra volcano showing signs of activity

The Institute of Geophysics (IG) of Ecuador confirmed yesterday the increased activity, increased flow fumaroles and sulfur odor in the Sierra Negra volcano, located on Isabela Island in the Galapagos.  The IG indicated that these signals could lead to an increase volcanic activity, located in one of the most active areas of the world. 

The Galapagos, like the Hawaiian Islands, sit atop a “hot spot” over the Earth’s mantle, and are frequently subjected to volcanic activity. 

According to the IG, the deformation in the walls of the mountain is due to magma rising to the surface. 

From early April, there has been a recorded increased in the daily number of earthquakes around the volcano – which hosts the largest caldera in the islands.  Visitors can walk right up to fumaroles, can see bright yellow sulfur deposits, and take in the sulfur odor when on a hike to the volcano’s rim.  The last major eruption here was in 2005.  Eruptions here are like those of other typical shield volcanoes, such as in Hawaii.  They are generally not violent, emitting jets of lava for a few days, which make their way downhill, before things get quiet again. 

I was very fortunate to have witnessed an eruption shortly after my arrival in Galapagos in 1998. With two others, we chartered a small plane which took us right over the flowing lava – a sight I will never forget. 

A spectacular cloudless view of Sierra Negra volcano - a popular visitor site.  Sierra Negra

 

High spring tides... or rising sea levels?

Spring tides are usually a bit higher than the usual - but this time around, they exaggerate.  Many shoreline properties in the main town of Puerto Ayora, on Santa Cruz Island (where the Darwin Station is located) were under a few centimetres of water yesterday morning...  

 

High Tide

Galapagos for Families - website launched

I'm happy to announce that my new website www.galapagosforfamilies.com was launched this week. 

A family vacation in Galapagos is truly a trip of a lifetime - it's a brilliant opportunity for the children to do some independent discoveries and for the parents to re-engage their sense of wonder.

The new website goes over the advantages of a family cruise, and discusses health and safety issues, family dedicated cruises and family charters.  

Family With Iguanas

Darwin Station Director Interview on Tourism

Swen Lorenz is the first non-scientist to have been appointed as director of the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) and Research Station.   Though it's important to know about science when you're running a research station, the CDF has learned the value added of also appointing someone who knows how to manage an organization.

CNH Tours is proud to know Swen (and several other previous directors) on a first hand basis.  This interview gives a very good glimpse of the challenges and unique nature of the islands.  If you're considering a trip, we highly recommend it.

Click HERE to read the article. 

 Swen