Sharks Win Appeal in Ecuadorian Court

(CNH Tours has taken this story directly from the Sea Shepherd Society's website.  Our editorial comments appear at the end of the article.)

Earlier this month, on November 6, 2015, an appeal hearing took place in the notorious Fer Mary case.

This case dates back to 2011 , when the Ecuadorian Navy and rangers of the Galapagos Marine Reserve (GMR) apprehended the industrial longline-fishing vessel, Fer Mary, some 20 nautical miles inside the protected GMR. A staggering 357 sharks were found onboard this Ecuadorian vessel.

In July 2015, an Ecuadorian Penal Tribunal found the captain and crew of the fishing vessel guilty of poaching sharks in Galapagos, a protected area and a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage Site. It was the first judicial conviction of its kind in 17 years, since the taking effect of legislation adopted to protect the Galapagos archipelago. The captain and crew filed their appeal in August.

According to the website of the National Judicial Authority of Ecuador, upon appeal the case was re-examined and it was determined that both the infraction and the responsibility of the defendants had been duly proven at trial. Hence, on November 6, 2015, the Appeal Chamber unanimously denied the appeal and subsequently confirmed the guilty verdict and prison sentences of two years for the captain, and one year for the crew. The verdict also ordered the destruction of the Fer Mary, which has already occurred.

According to the law, the appeal decision may yet be challenged through an extraordinary judicial recourse at the Supreme Court of Justice. Nevertheless, this outcome is an important step in concluding the second phase of litigation.

Sea Shepherd congratulates the Prosecutors Office of Ecuador and the Galapagos National Park for their efforts that have reached this historic verdict and granted justice to the sharks. Sea Shepherd also salutes the civil society of Galapagos and the local community for their long-standing and valid concerns in this important case.

CNH Tours adds:  We have been following this case closely.  Marc Patry at CNH Tours since June, was formerly with the UNESCO World Heritage Centre and monitored the application of environmental laws in the islands.   It has not been easy to convince local judges to prosecute their countrymen for fishing sharks - a species that does not attract much sympathy from the courts.  After several years of sensitizing the judiciary in Ecuador on the importance of these laws, including training sessions, the Sea Sheperd Society has shown that sharks CAN be protected in Galapagos waters by fully applying the law.  It's nice to see that all the effort put into patrolling the waters by the Galapagos National Park Service, with national government funding, funds from the tourist entry fees, and from international donors, are having an effect.  Congratulations to all, and to Hugo Echeverria Ilegal advisor in Galapagos) and Alex Cornelissen (captain and CEO) - our friends at the Sea Shepherd Society.  Well done - and let's keep Galapagos waters free from industrial and sports fishing.


Picture:  Fer Mary's shark catch when she was apprehended in 2011 (credit Sea Shepherd Society)

Fer Mary I shark catch

Teetering on the edge of a massive El Niño

The latest sea surface temperature (SST) readings in the Eastern tropical Pacific show a dramatic El Niño (e.g. SSTs much higher than usual) along the equator in the central Pacific (the horizontal centre line of the figure below - sorry for the poor resolution!), but somehow, the warm temperatures show up further north as you approach the South American coast. Southern Mexico and Central America are witnessing very warm coastal waters, but not Ecuador, nor lands further south.  The recent SSTs corroborate similar observations made by our friend Geert Jan van Oldenborgh of the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (see CNH Tours news, 29 October 2015).  

The figure below (Galapagos is circled), showing SSTs into the 30C range (orange-red) in much of the Pacific, reveal that the Galapagos waters are in the 22-24C range - just a bit warmer than normal for this time of year (green) - but just on the cusp of being bathed in the much warmer waters further north.   

Unusually warm waters are the death knell for ocean dependent species in Galapagos - from marine iguanas, to penguins to sea lions, to flightless cormorants and other sea birds.   With warmer waters, algae disappear and so do much of the food fish on which other animals depend.  Though many visitors are reluctant to visit during an el Niño, we would argue that it's a very interesting time to witness how climate changes serve to "force" biological evolution.  

So far, Galapagos has avoided strong El Niño effects.   The cold Humboldt current, coming in from the south (blue), along the South American coastline, appears to be holding back the warm waters furhter north.  

Those interested in a scuba diving expedition to Wolf and Darwin islands, apx. 250km north of the main Galapagos island group, would be entering the very warm waters.  Recent reports from divers having been there indicate the relative absence of the iconic whale sharks there - usually a guaranteed encounter.  

El Nino Nov 15 

Alien reptile found

(based on a report from El Colono, the Galapagos daily newspaper)

Yesterday, near the Puerto Ayora gas station, someone spotted a reptile.  This is not unusual in Galapagos – the land of the reptiles – but this was a non native reptile.  The 1 metre long snake (a little over 3 feet) was captured by the biosecurity agency in Galapagos and identified as a boa constrictor, a mainland native.   Most likely illegally brought in as a pet, it either escaped or was released.  The biosecurity agency carried out an extensive search in the vicinity of where this snake was found, in case others might also have escaped or been released. 

Marilyn Cruz – my former colleague at the Charles Darwin Research Station, and now the director of the biosecurity agency noted:  “these kinds of events are a constant risk in Galapagos, and that’s why it’s important for the community to be on guard and to report any strange animals in the islands”.  

Introduced species are a massive threat to Galapagos wildlife.  Brought over by cargo ships, or in planes, accidentally, or furtively, they can easily disrupt ecosystems and drive native species to extinction.   The brown tree snake, native of mainland Asia, was accidentally introduced on the island of Guam in the Pacific, and it has nearly wiped out all the birds there.    We don’t want this happening in Galapagos.



Marine Iguanas breathe easy: 2015 El Niño not so bad

The different faces of El Niño

Geert Jan van Oldenborgh, KNMI

(note from CNH Tours: Geert Jan "GJ" van Oldenborgh, of the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute -KNMI-, is a dear old friend of ours.   Elementary particle physicist turned climatologist, GJ is a well published climate scientist, and a contributor to the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  He graciously accepted our invitation to write a short piece on the current El Niño, and how it compares to the severe one of 1997-98).

Originally, fishermen in northern Peru used the term “El Niño” to denote a seasonal warming of the seawater around Christmas. This reduced the amount of fish and their catches. Later, it was used to describe the warming in years in which it was particularly strong. In the 1950s, the Dutch scientist Berlage realised that these years were often the same years in which it was exceptionally dry on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, in Indonesia. This was part of the world-wide “Southern Oscillation”, discovered half a century earlier by scientists searching for patterns in worldwide climate anomalies like droughts and floods.

El Niño and the Southern Oscillation turned out to be two aspects of one climate oscillation, which scientists now call ENSO. Well, almost: the ocean temperature most closely associated with the Southern Oscillation is a warming along the equator of the Pacific Ocean, from the date line eastward. Often this coincides with warming along the coast, but this is not always the case. Unfortunately, the name El Niño came to be used for this warming as well, it caught on more than “Southern Oscillation”. We are therefore stuck with one name for two related, but distinct warming events: along the coast and along the equator. (There is third part of ocean where a warm year is called El Niño, along the coast of Chili, but that is totally unrelated to these two and I will ignore it.)

In 1997 El Niño was very strong in both senses. Temperatures near the coast of South America and the Galapagos Island were around four degrees Celsius warmer than normal for months at a time and reached three degrees above normal along the equator towards the date line. The coastal El Niño had large negative impacts on the sea life in the region, with the fish disappearing and larger animals struggling to survive. The islands and coast also got much more rain than normal. The heating along the equator caused worldwide disruptions of the weather, such as severe drought in Indonesia with huge forest fires.

The smaller El Niño of 2010 was very different, as there was virtually no warming along the coast, only far out in the ocean. It had worldwide effects, but for the Galapagos Islands and the coasts of Ecuador and northern Peru it did not exist. In contrast, in the summer of 2014 there was a coastal El Niño that did not extend to the ocean at large.

This year, 2015, the equatorial Pacific is at the same temperature as in 1997, and similar worldwide effects are developing or forecast. However, the coastal warming of seawater is less intense than it was 18 years ago, with temperatures only two to three degrees Celsius above normal so far. We therefore expect the local effects on the Galapagos Islands and the coast of Ecuador and northern Peru to be less severe than in 1997/1998.


Figures: maps of the deviations of sea surface temperature from normal in September 1997 and 2015. Source NCEP/NOAA.

(note from CNH Tours:  The Galapagos islands can be spotted in the deepest red zone in the 1997 map below, and in a much less intense yellowish zone in the 2015 map)





Naturalist Guides Course: View from the inside

CNH Tours has contracted Paula Tagle, a naturalist guide and budding journalist, to produce monthly news items for us.  We've asked her to write about topics that might interest future visitors to the islands.   This month, she writes about the refresher naturalist guides' course she recently attended in the mainland city of Guayaquil.

Every two years the Galapagos naturalist guides attend a course to renew their licenses. It’s a happy occasion to meet old friends, and remember the days when “The Encantadas” seemed to be a pretty manageable archipelago.

However, as daily presentations by scientists are made at the guides’ course, the observations we have made over the years are corroborated.   For example, at least 11 out of 25 of the land bird species in the islands are in decline. A 2014-2015 bird census took place in 20 previously identified vermillion flycatcher territories on Santa Cruz island, and only 4 nests were found, none having any young birds.  On San Cristobal Island – no evidence of the flycatcher was noted. 

As for the always rare Mangrove Finch, found only in one small (30 hectare / 75 acre) area on the western shores of Isabela Island, there are only between 80 to 100 individuals remaining.  Meanwhile, the Floreana mockingbirds number no more than 500! The causes are: diseases, predation by introduced animals, habitat loss due to land use change in the inhabited islands, and probably the worst, low breeding success due to the introduced fly, Philornis downsi.

Philornis is outpacing the work done by the National Park Service and Charles Darwin Research Station to try to slow down its impacts.  The fly lays its eggs in bird nests, and when hatched, its larvae feed on chicks and nestlings.  Experts claim that the fly is responsible for 69% of the death of mangrove finch fledglings, and 100% of the vermillion flycatcher fledglings of Santa Cruz Island.

But it isn’t all bad news.

Wacho Tapia, former technical director of the Galapagos National Park Service (editor's note: Wacho is a former colleague and good friend of CNH Tours Heather Blenkiron & Marc Patry) lectures about the Galapagos giants. 150 years ago the Santa Fe tortoise became extinct. As part of a feasibility study to restore the Santa Fe ecosystem, Yale University scientists analyzed the DNA of sub fossilized Santa Fe tortoise bones, collected by the California Academy of Science, and learned that it belonged within the genetic group of the Pinta-Española-San Cristobal tortoises.  These results led to the decision to introduce Española Island tortoises to Santa Fe Island.   On June 27th this year, for the first time in 150 years, tortoises once again roamed Santa Fe, as 201 juveniles raised in the National Park Breeding Center were set free.

The Galapagos Science Center has been conducting applied science and has published a total of 30 papers in the last four years. A plethora of studies ranges from the diet of black rats in San Cristobal, to the foraging behavior of sea lions, while genome studies suggest we could be talking about 17 instead of the 14 species of Darwin’s finches.

We watched a video showing how people risk their lives hanging from tall, thin trees to collect the delicate mangrove finch nests.  The Park and the Charles Darwin Research Station have managed to raise 15 birds in 2014 and 8 in 2015, a total of approximately 20% of the world population of mangrove finches.

I perceived a lot of enthusiasm for Patricia Jaramillo’s, Charles Darwin Research Station plan specialist (editor's note: Wacho Tapia’s wife, and another CNH Tours former colleague) presentation about “Galapagos Verde 2050”, a multi-institutional project for ecological restoration and sustainable agriculture. Seedlings of different species have been rooted at South Plaza, Baltra, Floreana and Santa Cruz islands. This is done through techniques that result in a 90% reduction in normal water requirements, while vegetation grows at a faster rate; Opuntias planted in South Plaza develop five times quicker than in normal conditions

Most naturalists were motivated by Patricia and have volunteered for future campaigns. The course has refreshed our awareness about this delicate environment and about the many who work hard for its better future; it’s been inspirational.

We have been reminded that there is only one source, and there is only one solution, and that is us!

Guide Course









Judges go to nature conservation school

A real time, virtual course on the application of the World Heritage Convention designed for prosecutors and judges took place last week, organized by the Galapagos Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, the Judicial Council of Ecuador and the UNESCO office in Quito.  

The training targeted judges, prosecutors, public defenders, clerks and police forces responsible for the application of environmental protection laws in Galapagos.  Its objective was to help them better understand the conceptual and practical application of the Convention as a binding legal instrument in support of their work.  The course gave participants the chance to hear the voice of experts in the field, with case studies on how to apply the Convention in the administration of justice.

Spearheaded in large part by the United States, the World Heritage Convention was adopted by the United Nations (UNESCO) in 1972, and Galapagos was the first ever site to have been official recognized as being “World Heritage” in 1978.   Countries that have ratified the convention (191 of them) are legally bound by international treaty to protect the World Heritage sites they submitted to UNESCO for official recognition.   This simple fact gives the legal community in each country a strong tool when trying to prosecute people who have been caught destroying the values for which a World Heritage site is recognized – such as illegal fishermen, or unscrupulous developers, and when national legislation is not necessarily up to the task.

According to Sea Shepherd, this is the first ever such course to have been organized, globally.   

CNH Tours is proud to say that we are good friends with both Dr. Hugo Echeverria, the head of the criminal law project at the Galapagos Sea Shepherd Society office, who spearheaded this initiative, as well as with Alcira Sandoval Ruiz, the culture specialist in charge of World Heritage issues, at the UNESCO office in Quito, which supported it and participated in it. 

Congratulations Hugo and Alcira for this great initiative!  We hope this work can be replicated for the legal protectors of World Heritage sites around the world!

Oct 6-21: Galapagos photo exhibit in Quito

Our old friend (and creator of the CNH Tours website art) Magno Bennett has informed us that on the 6th of October, at the presidential gallery in Quito, a photo exhibit "Galagpos from the Inside", created by Galapagos youth, with the support of Diego Bermeo, will be launched (7PM).   The exhibit will be open to the public, and free of charge, until the 21st of October.   

If you happen to be in Quito during that time, why not go over and have a look?

Foto Event

Former Darwin station director on the role of science

Swen Lorenz, former executive director of the Charles Darwin Foundation, has just penned this piece on the relationship between a scientific institution in Galapagos, conservation, and politics.   This is a good read for people heading to the islands, and wanting to know a little more about the "behind the scenes" politics in the islands.

The original story appears in GKILLCITY, a blog on Ecuadorian current events and can be accessed here:

We reproduce it below:

I worked as Executive Director of the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) from July 2011 to May 2015, representing a cause that I love. The CDF carries out scientific work that is designed to support the long-term conservation of the Galapagos, a place where it has operated the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS) since 1964. The organisation does this work under a mandate provided by the Government of Ecuador, and acting as an advisor to governmental agencies, primarily of course the Galapagos National Park. 

CDF is an unusual organisation. Legally domiciled in Belgium, it carries out virtually all of its activities in Ecuador, and employing about 85% Ecuadorian staff. It has a network of 150 scientists from abroad that come to the islands as so-called visiting scientists. The network that has grown over the decades, and its world-famous brand name helps to find and mobilise expertise in instances where the right skill-sets for solving a problem cannot be found in Galapagos or mainland Ecuador. Its international role is reflected in its legal status, with the CDF operating in Ecuador as so-called “International Organisation”, rather than as an “NGO”. Among its founders were the Government of Ecuador, as well as UNESCO, which is the scientific and educational arm of the United Nations.

CDF plays another, possibly less obvious, role that I believe is crucial for the conservation of the Galapagos Islands. It carries information about Galapagos to the world, and creates transparency about what is happening in a group of islands that is important for all of humanity. No other organisation can mobilise quite the same level of attention and credibility when speaking to an international audience about Galapagos, as does the CDF. When the CDF speaks, the world listens.

Following recent changes in Ecuador, however, I am not sure it can continue to live up to its role. Is the CDF still the international observer that the world sees it as and would like it to be, and can it operate in a way that ensures its successful operation as scientific advisor? 

During my tenure, I was known as the world-travelling Executive Director of the Charles Darwin Foundation, the first ever non-scientist to be responsible for the organisation. The biggest part of my work was to drum up additional financial support for conservation-related science in the Galapagos Islands, and I literally had to travel far and wide to find such supporters. I regularly spoke to groups as diverse as school children in England, billionaires in Hong Kong, government officials in Japan, and university professors in the US. To these audiences, I explained and stressed the importance of science and conservation in protecting the Enchanted Islands.

In all of my talks around the planet, I have always praised the Government of Ecuador and the Ecuadorian people. All the current challenges aside, the Galapagos Islands are an incredible success story. In 1959, when Ecuador decided to set aside 97% of the land mass of a major archipelago, it took a decision to prioritise the conservation of the islands over the relentless exploitation of natural resources. Thanks to this landmark decision, the ecosystem of the Galapagos archipelago is in better shape than most any other ecosystem on the inhabited parts of the planet. Ecuador, its past and current governments, as well as its people, has every reason to be proud. I always urged my audiences to visit, but to visit responsibly. 

I, in turn, always took pride in the fact that CDF played a significant role in this success. CDF is the oldest and biggest scientific organisation operating in the islands, and solely focussed on the Galapagos. A few years ago, it had reputational issues, with critics arguing that the organisation was carrying out science for the sake of science, instead of science for conservation. During my time at the helm, I refocused the portfolio of scientific activities of the organization; by 2014, no less than 100% of CDF’s projects directly supported Galapagos conservation priorities as identified by the Government of Ecuador. The foundation does this work with funding made up of donations from the US, Europe, and elsewhere. It has never regularly received Ecuadorian government funding.

For the sake of transparency and informed public debate, scientific research organisations are most effective when their work is available to the public, and when they have the ability share their scientifically grounded facts and opinions on matters relating to their work. The ability for scientific research organisations to find answers to problems, and to contribute positively to the public discourse on matters relating to their work is seriously undermined in a climate of outright censorship, or even in one where intimidation leads to self-censorship.  

Sadly, the CDF of today operates in such a self-censoring environment, where its voice is muted. Strict media publishing regulations and either censorship or self-censoring are virtually daily occurrences. Political interference, and a desire not to upset its host country for concerns over possible administrative repercussions, means that CDF increasingly can no longer freely publish the results of its scientific research and its opinion about what actions should be taken. This has been the case for years, but it worsened during recent times. I was there, and I saw it happen.

During my tenure, no other case illustrates this problem quite as vividly as the fate of Fernanda the Silky Shark.

In 2014, the CDF and several partner organisations, including the Galapagos National Park and OCEARCH, attached satellite tags to sharks in the Galapagos Marine Reserve in order to collect data that helps to better protect the marine reserve. Fernanda, as she was named, was a 7 foot / 215cm adult female shark that belonged to a heavily exploited shark species that is fished in the Eastern Tropical Pacific and is classified by IUCN as “vulnerable”. Sadly, as the satellite tag's data revealed, Fernanda ended up in the fish market of Puerto Ayora —the small town where the Charles Darwin Research Station resides. Fernanda was unfortunately part of the by-catch of fishermen using long-lining, one of the most detrimental methods for fishing because of the large number of unwanted species it catches. 

Is Fernanda the Galapagos' very own case of Cecil the Lion? The world should have learned about the satellite findings, and it should have been used to rally support for the islands, its species, and the organisations working to protect them. Instead, Fernanda's demise led to a lengthy discussion with authorities about whether or not to publish a press release about the story, how to phrase it to not sound “alarmist”, and how to ensure that such news doesn't damage the Galapagos' reputation or affect the number of tourist arrivals. After a delay of four months, one of the organisations residing outside of Ecuador did finally publish the story. CDF, by contrast, stayed quiet (as did the Galapagos National Park Service). Feeling intimidated, CDF effectively self-censored itself by simply never publishing the press release.  

The case of Fernanda is just one example of many such cases in Galapagos where facts have been censored, an important message has been toned down, or doesn't get delivered at all. CDF once had to argue with the authorities over describing the Mangrove Finch as “critically endangered”, which is this exceedingly rare species' official classification in the Endangered Species register of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), but which was deemed to sound alarmist. In this matter, following much discussion, the CDF finally went ahead and published the dreaded truth.

Scientific information and the institutional opinion of a non-governmental organisation on matters in which it is mandated to work should never be subject to such restraints and hurdles. Not the least, in this particular case, because no matter what happens in the Galapagos Islands, the world is watching. Galapagos, after all, is no ordinary place.

In 1978, the Galapagos Islands were declared a Natural World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Not just any World Heritage Site, but the one with registration number 001 – meaning that it was the first ever World Heritage site to be officially recognised. Of all the World Heritage Sites, is there any more iconic than Galapagos? 

The 1972 “Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage”, ratified by 191 countries, is one of the most universally adopted international conventions ever developed. Ecuador is a signatory to the convention, and today has five World Heritage sites within its national boundaries. Having World Heritage status for the Galapagos has been a boon for Ecuador. It helps develop tourism, raise international support, and create awareness.

But World Heritage status comes with obligations. Ecuador must regularly report to UNESCO about the conservation status of Galapagos. Having been inside the system, I had an idea how information fed to UNESCO got “filtered” by the Galapagos National Park. Which, truth be told, is what happens in many countries with World Heritage site inscriptions —it is not altogether surprising that, when asked to report on their conservation efforts, countries tend to paint a rosy picture.

This, however, is one of the many areas where the balancing influence of an independent, strong and confident Charles Darwin Foundation used to come into play. In 2006, the CDF’s reports on conservation matters were shared with UNESCO. These contributed to UNESCO’s annual review of the state of conservation of the World Heritage site, and eventually led to the temporary inscription of Galapagos onto the list of World Heritage sites “in danger” The “danger” list  is a Convention mechanism designed to draw additional national and international support in dealing with acute conservation challenges —it's not a punishment, but a call to action! The CDF’s part in this process is one that, frankly, virtually anyone in the world concerned with Galapagos would want the CDF to play. This is true today, too. IUCN, in its 2014 World Heritage Outlook, highlighted “significant concern” for the well-being of the Galapagos.

During the past few months, the list of reasons for having significant concerns about the future of the islands seems to have grown longer. Following the changes to the Special Law, the Galapagos sea cucumber fisheries in Galapagos were opened again despite technic studies didn’t recommend it, ending a four year moratorium. Galapagos sea cucumbers are officially classified as “endangered” by IUCN, and should not be fished at all. CDF was the organisation everyone expected to speak up, not the least as it carried out much of the original sea cucumber research in the 1990s. But the organisation remained silent. 

One scientist was quoted in an article in Galapagos Digital: “This would deal a blow to a resource that in itself should not be exploited. Even after four years of closure, the fishery should not open even for another 15 years.” 

To no one's surprise, this scientist "wished to remain anonymous". Scientists live in a constant fear of repercussions if they assert inconvenient truths.

The presence of a dedicated, independent NGO makes a critical difference in long-term conservation. The Galapagos needs the long-term commitment of the international community, via the World Heritage Convention, to help with funding and expertise; in turn, the global community wants to be reassured that conservation challenges in this, and in any other World Heritage site, are recognised and reported, so that they can be effectively addressed. After all, why donate funds to support work in the islands if results and conclusions cannot be freely discussed, shared and published? 

CDF is now an organisation that has lost the will even to defend itself against the use of its own brand name by a few roadside vendors that are counterfeiting its products. The photo shows counterfeit products sold in Galapagos, a matter which CDF at the time was not able to pursue further because of the fear of political repercussions and the CDF board's opinion that laws cannot be enforced in Ecuador. Surely the international community wants a self-confident CDF that can stand up to for what is right? Even though there are numerous NGOs based outside of Ecuador that supposedly represent the interests of Galapagos, none of them stand for more than five decades of scientific excellence and are quite as closely related with the fate of Galapagos as the CDF. 

One can be tempted to easily discount my view, for I am now seen by some as a “disgruntled” ex-employee. On May 20th I was fired from my position of Executive Director over the phone, just before boarding a plane to meet billionaire philanthropists from China who wanted to financially support the CDF's efforts to protect the islands. I have not been back to Galapagos since, and have only cursory knowledge of the developments since then. 

Today, the CDF is led by the same person who, when employed as Director of the Galapagos National Park, didn't want “alarmist” news about Fernanda to be published.  It's possible that the new Executive Director, Dr. Arturo Izurieta, finds a way for the CDF to operate with fewer restrictions. However, based on what I experienced in the position at the time, I see a need for increased attention from the outside world.

None of which is to say that the staff and scientists of the CDRS won‘t continue to do an incredibly valuable job. They are the unsung heroes of Galapagos conservation, working under challenging conditions and achieving important results against the odds. 

Other unsung heroes are the many donors of the CDF, who are contributing private money to fill in gaps where government funding isn't available to deal with urgent issues. During my tenure, I had the Park directors turn up at my office asking for help with funding for a diverse number of urgent matters such as gravel for the Park's visitor site, field equipment for its staff, and repair costs for its patrolling boats. Evidently, funding support from the international donor community is still required in Galapagos. The gravel was needed to pretty up an area near the tortoise breeding centre for a high-ranking governmental visit.

Despite all that, does CDF play a vital role in the Galapagos? Of course it does. Conservation in Galapagos needs science to support it. 

Do its hard-working employees contribute as much as they possibly can, even if circumstances are against them? No doubt.

Does the world, including the Ecuadorian public and Ecuador's younger generation, realise how CDF's character, role, and possibilities have changed in recent years? That I very much question.

Let’s imagine for a moment that the CDF didn't exist and had yet to be founded. Would the international community back the establishment of an organisation without anything but iron-clad assurances that it can operate in an environment that fosters critical discussion and unhindered publication of scientific results? The freedom to publish evidence-based information and to express opinions based on scientific research mustn't be limited, or else the CDF as an organisation loses credibility and with it, the ability to raise the necessary funds for its survival.

The perfect opportunity for clarifying these and other points, beckons during the remainder of this year. In February 2016, CDF's current contract to operate in Ecuador expires. It was last extended in 1991, and it will be extended automatically by five years if neither party hands in notice. The latter seems unlikely though, as there is a real need for updating the existing, now quite dated, agreement.

Where the new leadership of CDF will take these negotiations remains to be seen. The only public record of Dr. Izurieta's thinking in this regard dates from late 2014. In his former role as Director of the Galapagos National Park he gave an interview statement to local radio channel, where he essentially called for the gradual transfer of the Charles Darwin Research Station to the Government of Ecuador. The entire interview remains available on the internet using this link (a back-up copy has been stored on this link); listen to the part between 1h 00min 15sec and 1h 03min 10sec.

The role that the CDF’s Board envisions for the organisation, and the future that its General Assembly (as CDF's highest authority) and the Government of Ecuador (as the host of CDF's operational arm, CDRS) see for it, currently remain a mystery for the public. It's also not known if this Board and General Assembly are prepared to take a corrective stance on the censorship-related issues that I point out so critically.

In this moment, all parties involved have a wonderful opportunity to clarify the role CDF should or shouldn’t play, and the use of donations in furthering the organization's mission. It's a clarification that the world is eagerly awaiting. 

For CDF, if it dares to speak its mind, it will be a golden opportunity to state needs, concerns and questions.

Ecuador, in turn, has an opportunity to recognize and embrace the contributions that have helped turn Galapagos into such a success story. All this in the lead-up to the Galapagos’ 40th anniversary as the world's first World Heritage Site —a milestone that is to be celebrated in September 2018. Ahead of the anniversary, the world's eyes will be on Galapagos all the more.

During my four years in Galapagos, I have seen a chaotic, tumultuous, and politicised world. Despite these critical observations and recommendations, which are primarily based on the facts I gathered up to May 2015, I still have confidence that, in the end, both Ecuador and the CDF will successfully address these issues. They have always so done during the more than fifty years of collaboration, and they will hopefully succeed yet again.

- See more at:

Dolphin soup on the Samba...

My son had the wonderful fortune of being invited to join a 2 week photography cruise on the Samba in July.   Among the wonderful photo and video material he brought home, here is his "dolphin soup".  Cruising on a stretch of the Pacific, one of the crew members shouted out "delfines!  Muchos delfines!" and in no time, the Samba was in the midst of a super-pod of dolphins, numbering in the several hundreds.   This is not too unusual in Galapagos - but sadly, you can't expect to see them on each cruise.   "Let's get in there with them!" shouted Juan Manuel Salcedo - the naturalist guide.   In no time, my son had doned a go-pro generously lent to him by one of the other guests, and this is what he captured - Dolphin Soup!

Dolphin Soup



Great media attention

I helped Diana Wegner book a trip on the Samba earlier this year, along with her friends and family.   She wrote this short article for the Vancouver sun - it appeared on Thursday this past week.  After a careful analysis of the new law  to which Diana refer, passed a few months ago, CNH Tours believes the "easing of protections" is actually not the case.  

Vancouver Sun, 4 September 2015 (click here to see original story on the newspaper's website)

Galapagos: A paradise lost in time

UNESCO World Heritage Site in danger as government eases protections

Prickly pear, the spiky backs of iguanas, lava mosaics, sleek sea snakes, patrolling frigate birds, mating boobies looking like dancing clowns, water cities of sea stars, the Southern Cross with its upside-down Big Dipper, a showy Milky Way, the red glow of a volcano. The magic of the Galapagos.

And I had seven days of it, aboard a 78-foot motor-yacht called the Samba, which sailed us through the “southern” Galapagos, visiting 10 islands.

We were seven couples and our guide Nicolas, each with our own tiny cabin below deck, with a crew of six who slept in a cabin in the bow of the boat. They fed us well, helped us in and out of wetsuits and kayaks, and snorkelled with us through schools of myriad fish species, manta rays, and sea turtles gliding like birds. They invited us to join in the play of sea lions, led us into the quiet world of sharks, and sent us off over a metropolis of starfish of every colour and design thick on the ocean floor. We floated through grottos and tunnels filled with both light and darkness.

We woke at five each morning to be ready for Nicolas’ muster bell that meant we should be dinghy-ready. We sat in the wood-panelled dining room drinking coffee and waiting for the signal, having been prepped the night before for either a wet or dry landing. At six we lowered ourselves into dinghies and set out for a walk on one of the beaches that permitted a landing, each island featuring its own unique Galapagos ecology.

Eerie walks over painterly patterns of lava-flow from a century ago, through colonies of albatrosses, blue-footed boobies, frigatebirds, pelicans, flamingos, lava lizards, iguanas, Galapagos sea lions — and the ever-present Galapagos mockingbird.

We were back on the Samba for breakfast at eight, then into a dinghy at 9:30 a.m. for a snorkelling experience. We splashed into the water with Go-Pro cameras at hand, Nicolas leading the way with his camera attached to a selfie stick. For over an hour we swam, silently mesmerized by the exotic life under the sea, returning reluctantly to the world above for lunch, quiet and spellbound.

By two in the afternoon we were in our kayaks for a shoreline tour of sea lions, boobies, marine iguanas, and maybe a glimpse of the endangered Galapagos penguin.

On board by five, we could opt to rest aboard ship or, as most of us chose, a sunset hike up a beach or over the hump of a small island.

Dinner at 6:30 p.m. was spent recounting the day’s wonders, then drifting out onto the deck under darkening skies.

Overnight the captain would steer us to another island or reef.

We weren’t alone. Other boats were also anchored here, some much larger than the Samba. Huge tour ships hung back just outside tiny harbours, spawning dinghy after dinghy of tourists off to a reef or an island.

A National Geographic tour boat twice anchored beside the Samba, its occupants laden with cameras and diving equipment.

The harbour at Puerto Ayora was swarming with visitors who, like us, loaded up on wine and beer at the general store before embarking. So it shouldn’t have surprised us to see so many of them out in the pristine, protected wilderness of the Galapagos — though, once out there, it did.

It made us acutely aware how embedded the fragile Galapagos archipelago is in a busy tourist industry.

Nicolas, who was born and raised on San Cristobal, the most populous island, structured the tour and provided detailed accounts of how each island developed its own ecology and species of life over successive volcanic eruptions. He answered our endless questions, but also shared his anxieties about the rapid pace of tourism and the new disturbing legislation passed in June that could cancel some of the protections of the Galapagos and its diverse, unique species of life.

The legislation eases regulations and leaves it up to local authorities whether or not to apply said regulations, which could lead to the construction of new highrise hotels, the creation of berths for cruise ships, granting oil tankers passage through the islands, fostering undersea oil exploration, and building new airports.

As an oil-rich country, Ecuador has thrived in recent decades. As the price of oil has plummeted, the government is casting about for alternatives to buoy the economy. Now it has set its eyes on the Galapagos.

The islands are on the UNESCO World Heritage in Danger list. Visitors have left more than footprints — there are about 900 introduced plant species in the Galapagos. Oil barons and developers are lurking in the wings, and the river of tourism is turning into a deluge. In 1980 there was 17,445 visitors to the Galapagos; in 2014 there were 214,691.

We pondered these developments just as we thrilled to our experience of the islands. Then, after seven nights on the Samba, we were spirited away, back to the ferry and the Island of Baltra, where the airport resides.

Still wanting to linger under the spell of the Galapagos, we spent a few days in the capital city of Quito. Our Quito visit gave us a chance to decompress from the heady otherworldliness of the Galapagos. Yet every now and then we would sway on our feet, still partly in thrall to the rocking Samba, and, for a moment, we would wait to hear the muster bell.