Galapagos News

Government and Indigenous Groups Announce End of Nationwide Strike

Following a 3 hour meeting between the government and leaders of various indigenous groups last night, the head of the United Nations office in Ecuador read out the following statement:

"As a result of the dialogue, a new decree is established that leaves Decree 883 without effect [ed. this decree had imposed belt tightening measures that had led to the strikes and marches]. To this end, a commission will be installed to prepare a new decree, made up of the indigenous movement organizations, participants in this dialogue and the national government, through mediation by the United Nations and the Ecuadorian Episcopal Conference and with the oversight of other government agencies. This agreement ends the mobilizations and de facto measures throughout Ecuador. And we jointly commit ourselves to restoring peace in the country."

CNH Tours expects that this result should lead to the demobilization of the large number of protesters who have been blocking roads throughought the mainland and that things should return to normal very quickly.  There is still work to be done as the negotiating parties have agreed to form a joint commission to come up with an alternative to decree 883, which had, among other things, eliminated fuel subsidies. 

Given that Ecuador faces a crushing debt, and that the International Monetary Fund's conditions for its loan of $4.1B were the imposition of of budgetary constraint measures, it remains to be seen how the government will be able to meet the demands of its people and those of the IMF at the same time.   

But for now, there is breathing room and an opportunity to come up with solutions in a participatory manner.   

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR CNH TOURS GUESTS TRAVELLING TO ECUADOR IN THE NEXT FORTNIGHT?

This is excellent news of course.  We do not anticipate any further problems at this point.  Guests traveling in the coming days and weeks should assume that it will be business as usual.  If, for any reason, we feel that there may be some remaining concerns to be addressed, CNH Tours will get in touch with you on an individual basis.   

We have quite a few guests traveling in the coming weeks and we wish to thank them all for their patience and understanding while the events in Ecuador played themselves out.  We always welcome your emails and calls, but we were surprised by how few of you reached out. 

We had one couple who, despite all the disturbing news, understood that the risk to themselves was minimal and bravely flew to Ecuador yesterday.  While they were in mid-flight to Miamii, we learned that Quito airport had been closed due to the imposition of a curfew in Quito.  On arrival in Miami, upon learning that their connecting flight to Quito had been cancelled, our guests had to decide on the spot if they would either cancel their trip altogether, or take an alternative flight to the coastal city of Guyaquil.   They valiantly opted to carry on, and we were able to make alternative arrangements for a hotel and for their domestic flight to Galapagos at the last minute.  Bravo! 

 

 

 

Disturbances in Ecuador – Positive Step to Defuse Tensions? Update 13 October

By now, you may have heard about the social unrest happening in Ecuador.   Following the announcement of austerity measures on October 2nd, (see our previous articles for more details), many Ecuadorians expressed their disapproval by participating in demonstrations throughout the country.   Several indigenous communities organized marches from the highlands and the Amazon into Quito, blocking various roads leading into the city.   CONAIE, the largest indigenous organization in Ecuador (the majority of Ecuador’s 16 million inhabitants are indigenous) is the main interlocutor in negotiations with the government.

It’s important to note that on the sidelines, there appear to be other groups intent on intensifying chaos.  There has been some looting and vandalism.  Some government offices have been temporarily invaded and in some cases destroyed.   It appears that these groups are operating independently, or in some cases, encouraged or led by supporters of the previous president, Rafael Correa (who currently lives in Belgium) indicating that there are undercurrents of political power plays at work as well.

In response to ongoing disturbances yesterday, the president imposed a curfew in Quito and suburbs (no other parts of the country) and called on the military to maintain order in affected areas.  He called on residents to stay at home.  In his mid-afternoon televised address, the president said:

"Citizens, everything is completely clear to us and to our indigenous brothers.  It’s the drug traffickers, the Latin criminal kings, the correistas who are responsible for the acts of vandalism.  Thankfully, indigenous groups are already detecting them and separating them from their ranks. It is important that this call for dialogue has been welcomed by them and I thank them and congratulate them.  

We are going to restore order throughout Ecuador. We start with the curfew in Quito. I have arranged for the Joint Command of the Armed Forces immediately to take the necessary measures and operations. We will restore order throughout Ecuador. I have arranged for the Armed Forces to apply the curfew in the city of Quito. Citizens, from this we will go out together and may God bless us.”

CONAIE president Jaime Vargas called on the indigenous groups to ignore those who were attempting to divide them, making specific reference to factions that were aligned with the former president, Rafael Correa.  In a statement yesterday, CONAIE agreed to accept the government’s invitation to a dialogue, made on Friday.  The meeting will take place today at 3PM local time.  One of the conditions for this dialogue is the cancellation of the decision on the removal of fuel subsidies, but it is not clear at this time if the government has indicated any willingness to move on this issue.  

CONAIE is keen on ensuring full transparency of the proceedings, requesting that they take place under the supervision of the United Nations, Amnesty International, the Ecuadorian Episcopal Conference.

CONAIE appears to be a mature stakeholder in the ongoing standoff in Ecuador. While it loosely represents a very large part of the Ecuadorian population, and while it has not hesitated to use peaceful pressure tactics in getting its way, it seems to have popular support and the capacity to take a leadership role in helping resolve the situation.   In so doing, it could help sideline and expose the smaller factions that appear to be more intent on exploiting the disruptions caused by the largely peaceful marches for private or political gain.    This acceptance to enter into dialogue with the president should be seen as an important development in helping resolve the current conflict.  

CONAIE’s condition on re-instating the subsidies is a big ask.   These currently cost the government over $1B / year.   Some movement on this point, even if it must be temporary, or partial will likely be required in order for the current government to get things back to normal.   

 

WHAT SHOULD YOU DO? 

In Galapagos, things remain calm.   Nor airports nor tourists are the target of protesters.   As we suggested in an earlier post, for our guests who are preparing for their upcoming trip to Ecuador, we recommend the following:

If your travel date is further than 12 days into the future, we suggest that you monitor the situation and plan on things coming back to normal in time for your trip. There is no need to cancel anything.   See:  https://ec.usembassy.gov/news-events/

If your travel date is within the next 12 days, CNH Tours will contact you directly to start a discussion on options, and to plan for the possibility of a need to modify your itinerary or to cancel your trip if this is considered necessary.

Unrest in Ecuador: Message to our guests travelling soon to Ecuador

Background

You will likely have heard by now that there is some social unrest in Ecuador.   Facing significant budget shortfalls, the nation was compelled to take a loan from the International Monetary Fund a few months ago ($4 billion).  One of the conditions for the loan was the adoption of spending reduction measures.  

On 3 October, president Moreno announced that fuel subsidies would be eliminated.   This sparked widespread protests, as reported earlier on this platform.   Roads have been blocked in many places throughout the country, and indigenous groups have marched into Quito, at times accompanied by violent acts and vandalism.   Tear gas is being used in an attempt to control the situation.   The government has moved its executive to the coastal city of Guayaquil, also the country’s economic capital (Galapagos remains calm with no reports of any significant disturbances).

This kind of situation is not new to Ecuador.   In 2000, following the dollarization of the economy, similar protests took place.   Again in 2005, a president was forcefully ousted from office under threat of violence.   In the past, this kind of unrest lasted several days, and up to two weeks.   Typically, after a show of force has been made (such as we are seeing these days), the government will enter into talks with various representatives and an agreement would be reached.    Still, given the political powerplays that often accompany such demonstrations, it’s not impossible to consider that this government might be toppled. 

Either way, it has been our experience that such unrest lasts for several days to two weeks, after which time things very quickly revert back to normal.   In the meantime, it is still completely possible to fly to Quito (or Guayaquil) and catch a continuing flight to Galapagos.   The Quito airport is located 20 miles / 32 km out of town and has not been the target of disturbances.   The Guayaquil airport is similarly quiet.  

This is not to say that things may not briefly flare up, or that the airports may be the target of demonstrations.  It can happen that airlines will cancel flights to / from Ecuador.  Under such circumstances, you will either be prevented from flying there, or may be left stranded in country for a short while.   Last week, some US airlines did cancel flights for 1 day.  

WHAT YOU NEED TO DO

For our guests who are preparing for their upcoming trip to Ecuador, we recommend the following:

  • If your travel date is further than 12 days into the future, we suggest that you monitor the situation and plan on things coming back to normal in time for your trip. There is no need to cancel anything.   See:  https://ec.usembassy.gov/news-events/
  • If your travel date is within the next 12 days, CNH Tours will contact you directly to start a discussion on options, and to plan for the possibility of a need to modify your itinerary or to cancel your trip if this is considered necessary.

Streets blocked by protesters on the mainland

Following the announcement of economic measures by the president 2 days ago, there were widespread disturbances in the streets throughout the country yesterday (only in Galapagos does it appear that it was "business as usual").    Among other measures, President Moreno announced the end to subsidies on the price of gasoline, resulting in 20-30% increase in the prices at the pump.  In response, taxis and private buses went on strike, and many people took to the streets - resulting in difficulties moving about the city.   There were clashes, with teargas being fired on one side, in response to stones being thrown on the other.    

The head of the taxi group who had been encouraging the manifestations was taken in by police, according to our local sources.  Today, the streets are very quiet.  "It feels like a Sunday" our colleague in Quito, Mercedes Murgueytio indicated.    

We hope that this issue will be resolved soon and to the satisfaction of all parties.  A rise in fuel prices does affect the poorer segment of Ecuadorian society - but the government is trying to deal with significant national budgetary challenges.   To us, it sounds like the old "rock and a hard place" scenario. 

CNH Tours is in touch with guests who are travelling in the next few days, ensuring that, if necessary, alternative plans could be put into place.    

President announces belt tightening economic measures

On national televesion, the president of Ecuador, Lenin Moreno, announced a series of measures aimed at improving the government's finances.   Over the past 10-15 years, the country took on a lot of debt, in large part guaranteed by future oil sales, in exchange for rapid improvement on national infrastructure, and social spending (teachers' salaries were improved for example).  As a result, it's currently finding itself in a bit of an ecoonic bind, forcing it to announce measures that will likely not be too popular.

Here is a Google Translate (with edits) of an article that appeared in yesterday's "El Comercio" daily newspaper, for those who are interested in reading more about it. 

EL COMERCIO, 1 OCTOBER 2019

On a national network, President Lenín Moreno informed the population of the economic measures that will be in force on Tuesday, October 1, 2019. He began by mentioning that he will not raise the value added tax (VAT), which remains at the current rate of 12%.

Lenino Moreno, president of Ecuador

"Those of us who are going to ask for an additional effort are those who have the most," Moreno said and then said that those companies that receive income for more than 10 million dollars a year will pay a special contribution for three years. In this way, more than USD 300 million is expected, money that, he said, will be used exclusively for safety, education and health. Fuel subsidies are eliminated.

Through an Executive Decree, Moreno eliminated subsidies on diesel and extra gasoline. The Government spends around USD 1.3 billion in subsidies to these products. With the argument of “protecting those who could be affected by the measure”, he informed that 300,000 families will be added to the different social support programs managed by the State gives an will should will receive an additional USD 15 per month.

For the productive sector, the government offered to eliminate or reduce tariffs for machinery, equipment and raw materials and allow for automatic tax refunds for exporters. In addition, paying income tax in advance will be eliminated.

Also, import taxes on technological devices, such as cell phones, computers, tablets, etc. will be abolished.  Regarding labor measures, without delving into details Moreno indicated that a allowances will be provided for those who start a business, while measures will be but in place to in support of maternity and paternity leave, telecommuters and people on short term contracts. He clarified that the new hiring modalities will apply to new employees, while those who currently have an employment relationship will maintain their existing benefits.  

The measures are also aimed at the public sector. In order to reduce the wage bill, Moreno indicated that the short term contracts will be renewed with a 20% less pay. In addition, vacation time will be reduced from 30 to 15 days. “The decisions I have made should have put in place decades ago. Many of my opponents, critics, and future candidates are not going to say it in public – but in private, they agree, ”concluded the President.

FURTHER NOTES FROM CNH TOURS

We've already seen negative reactions on Galapagos social media - particularly in regards to the elimination of fuel subsidies.  It's important to note that subsidies for tourist ships had been eliminated 10 years ago.   It's not clear if this will affect the bottom line of companies operaing just one or two small expedition cruise ships very much - we calculate that their annual sales are likely well below the $10 million cut-off for higher taxes.  Companies operating ships carrying 50 or more passengers are more likely to surpass that threshold - though it's not clear if this would apply only to $10 million in sales or in net profit before taxes.  In the latter case, they will likely not be affected either.

 

Tortoise thief placed in preventive detention

(Google translated, with some edits, from a Spanish language version published in El Comercio, on 29 September 2019)

A judge of the Judicial Unit of Santa Cruz, in Galapagos, ruled for the preventive detention against the accused (whose name is witheld from publication) for his alleged participation in the theft of 123 baby giant tortoises.

The crime took place in September 2018. The offspring were extracted from a breeding center in the Galapagos Islands, which is also a protected area of ​​the country. For the alleged crime against protected flora and fauna, stipulated in article 247 of the Comprehensive Organic Criminal Code (COIP), the judge ruled on the morning of this Saturday, September 28, 2019, preventive detention against the person involved and initiated fiscal instruction for 90 days .

CNH TOURS ADDS

Ecuador has changed a lot in the past 15 years in regards to the prosecution of environmental crimes.  News stories on our CNH Tours news site over the past many years illustrate how, on several occasions, both nationals and foreigners have been charged and have served (or continue to serve) jail sentences for illegal fishing, or smuggling of wildlife.   

One of our old friends Hugo Echeverria, has been championing stronger wildlife and environmental laws and has almost singlehandedly helped propel Ecuadorion jurisprudence to this new level.   We're very pleased to see these changes.    

See: 

CNH Tours got the scoop 1 month before the New York Times

On 23 August, we published a story on how the authorities in charge of the Galapagos National Park fee would likely be increasing it by the end of the year (the new fee would be applied 12 months after the decision was taken).   See our article "Park fee increase for January 2021?"

Today (26 September), the New York Times published an article "Sharp Inrease in Visitor Park Fees Proposed for the Galapagos".  We're titillated by having beaten this world-renowned newspaper on the story! 

I was involved in providing information for the journalist, Adam Popescu.

CNH Tours fully supports an increase.   The rate of $100 has been the same for nearly 30 years.  Back then, you were charge a variety of fees by a variety of local authorities, all adding up to $100.   This chaotic approach was consolidated into a single fee in 1998, paid on arrival.   

A higher fee should have three positive outcomes. It should: 

  • Encourage casual travellers to think twice before embarking on a trip to this globally unique, iconic wildlife destination.   People should be clear on why they want to go there, and understand the outstanding nature of the destination and they should be motivated by a strong conviction.  A higher fee will encourage people to pause for a moment and consider how important it is for them to visit.

  • Discourage the lowest of the low end travellers who are driven to visit places at the lowest possible cost, leaving very few dollars in the local economy, while contributing to negative impacts (I saw one blogger boast about having spent 7 days in Galapagos for a total of $271.  $5 for rice and beans, $18 for a bed...).

  • Provide additional resources to the Galapagos National Park Service so that it may better do its job.  

As a member of the International Galapagos Tour Operators' Association, I have pressed IGTOA's president to write a letter of support to the Galapagos Governing Council on a fee increase.   We will be sending them one shortly.   The letter will include a note indicating that the additional funds genenerated by an increased fee needs to translate into additional resources available to the Galapagos National Park Service.    There is always a risk that such funds end up in general government coffers.

We feel that those of us who can even consider a trip to the Galapagos are already part of a very priviliged few on this planet.  We owe it to the others who can't make it to treat this destination will the respect it deserves, and to ensure that our visit doesn't contribute to the erosion of its values.   It's a special place, and we should all feel very lucky and humbled to have the chance to visit it.  We do hope that an increase in park fees, after a 30 year freeze, will be well-received.  

If you're travelling in 2020, the fee will remain at $100.  But it will most likely go up by 2021.  We hope you understand that it's for a good cause.   

 

Park director under pressure to resign

Jorge Carrion, Galapagos National Park direct since March 2018, is under pressure to tender his resignation.   Based on information gathered from friends and following recent Galapagos community FaceBook posts, it seems that there is a lot of pressure from an international cruise ship company to bend some rules so that two smaller ships it operates can be combined into a single larger ship.  In an effort to ensure that the ship fleet does not all get concentrated into a small number of big ships owned/operated by a few owners, regulations/policy has long prevented this kind of consolidation from taking place. 

Today, a member of a Galapagos family that owns one of the smaller ship in Galapagos (none other than the Samba) posted an entreaty on his FaceBook page, asking Jorge Carrion not to resign.  At the Galapagos National Park headquarters in Puerto Ayora today, people have assembled in support of his continued role as park director (see pictur below). 

Park staff, guides, community members encourage Jorge Carrion (back to the camera, khaki shirt) to stay on the job

I provide a slightly edited Google Translate version of Juan’s comment, along with that of another Galapagueño who first started to raise the alarm.  With this, I'm hoping to give readers a glimpse of the kinds of things that go in Galapagos, behind the idyllic scenes of a typical expedition cruise.  There's a lot at stake in the cruise ship business - with large companies hoping to elbow themselves into the fray.   

In Juan Salcedo’s words:

Jorge Carrión do not go. Please reconsider, don't quit. You are the banner of generational change in our institutions. You are a galapagueño prepared, capable and worried about doing things well for the benefit of nature and for the well-being of the people who live here.

You have demonstrated immense humility and dedication to service by joining the efforts of other public institutions to work in coordination, something that may sound simple and logical but that many who went through your job did not do so due to lack of will and ego.

Jorge don't go. Your leadership is indispensable to stop the abuses of the economic maelstrom of our archipelago / home. Do not leave because you leave the door open for institutional pressure and compromise the uncomfortable decisions that only you made.

Jorge don't go. Stay and help us continue to lead a future in which the residents of the islands work together so that our children and grandchildren are the ones who inherit the well-being of playing in this paradise.

Juan Salcedo’s posting echoed an posting yesterday by another concerned citizen, Gilson Cordova

This is something that the galapagueña community should know about the sudden resignation of Jorge Carrión to the position of Director.

The Galapagos National Park was run by a young professional from Galapagos who demonstrated at all times his ethics and his commitment to the institution and his land, but by political pressures he decided to step aside.

Unfortunately, certain authorities in large ministries called "Sectorial Authorities", for their personal and political interests, intend to urge or persuade professionals of our land at their convenience, that is, they try to manage them at will, conditioning a job in exchange for attending to their personal interests.

New authorities of the Ministry of Environment, take issue with the strict and correct Galapagos conservation regulation compliance. 

The new Deputy Minister of Environment is linked to the legal part of some tour operators who intend to obtain approval of environmental permits.  Park technicians and the Director want to comply with rigorous procedures, but are receiving political pressure to ignore legal procedures and favor certain tour operators.

Galapagueños, do not let them impose on us another Director at the convenience of the Vice Minister, we support Jorge Carrión and the park, they surely want to place another Director that DOES allow these acts of corruption. Authorities take into account that the Park is being asked to approve these licenses in exchange for the approval of administrative procedures essential for the park.

The Galapagos National Park is the institution to which we have entrusted the conservation of our islands and therefore must be respected ...

We ask that the Park be an independent institution that can manage honestly and does not have to fulfill political favors to Ministers and Vice Ministers.

With Galapagos you do NOT play!

5 SEPTEMBER UPDATE!

As expected, the park director, Jorge Carrion DID resign from his post on the 4th of September - but during the night of the 4th and 5th, following discussions with his superiors, he rescinded his resignation and is back in his job.   This is considered excellent news for the champions of good governance and conservation in Galapagos.   

Peruvian fishing vessels apprehended in Galapagos waters

(translated from an article in El Comercio, and Ecuadorian newspaper – published on 28 August 2019)

The ships of the Naval Squadron of the Navy of Ecuador captured four foreign fishing vessels, within the Galapagos Exclusive Economic Zone, at a distance of 188 nautical miles from the baseline of the Galapagos Islands, in fishing operations considered illegal.

This was reported by the Institution on Wednesday, August 28, 2019. The capture was made the morning of this Wednesday, during patrol operations for the control of maritime spaces in the Galapagos Region.

The vessels inspected and captured are Peruvian.  They include the:

  • Juan Carlos II – in which 30 sharks with fins cut were discovered. Seven citizens of Peruvian nationality were aboard the vessel.
  • María Bonita I, with 17 shark fins cut and fishing gear in the water. Six citizens of Peruvian nationality were on board.
  • Dove I :, with a ton of fishing, 35 headless sharks and black rays with eight Peruvian citizens and a Venezuelan on board.
  • Angela with fishing equipment in the water.

The Navy also informed that it will maintain its naval means to exercise sovereignty rights in the country's jurisdictional waters, protect marine resources and counteract illegal activities at sea.

CNH TOURS ADDS: 

While the Eastern Pacific waters are very heavily (over?) fished for tuna and other species by vessels from around the world, the Galapagos Marine reserve remains a refuge for pelagic (deep sea) species (sharks, tuna, bill fish…).   Galapagos-based fishermen are given exclusive access to these waters, in exchange for agreeing to limit their ship size and fishing technologies.  The result is a reasonably luctrative fishing industry in Galapagos, serving all the local needs along with some export, while maintaining rich intact marine ecosystems in the reserve.   

Fresh caught tuna for sale at the fisherman's wharf in Puerto Ayora, Galapagos

Park fee increase for January 2021? Perhaps...

In a press release published yesterday, the Governing Council of Galapagos indicated that it had started a process for the revision of the Galapagos Park entrance fee.    It explained that they established a deadline of 31 January 2019 for coming up with a new fee and that the new fee would come into effect a year after having been agreed to (e.g. 1 January 2021 at the latest).

The current fee for entering the Galapagos is $100 for adults and $50 for children under 12.   Ecuadorians and residents of Ecuador (e.g. expats living in Ecuador) pay $6 and $3 respectively, while residents of the Andean and Mercosur Community of nations pay $50 and $25 respectively.

The fee is distributed as follows:

 

The park entrance fee is used for financing conservation and management activities of the protected area under the responsibility of the Park, as well as for sustainable development activities carried out by municipal governments in the islands (e.g. improvement of basic services, education projects, sports, health, environmental sanitation, provision of environmental services and services directly related to tourism. 

The fee has been $100 since the early 1990’s.   Back then, an 8 day cruise could go for $1,000 or less (granted, most of the ships back then tended to be poorly converted fishing vessels where everyone had to share one bathroom, and a shower was available only when rain fell from the sky).  Today, an 8 day cruise ranges in price from $3,000 (low end) to as much as $8,000 or more.   During that time, the number of visitors has increased from about 10,000 / year to about 265,000 in 2018 (nearly 200,000 of which are land based).   Moreover, the Galapagos population has increased from perhaps 12,000 to 30,000 or more. 

Growth in visitation and in population has led to greater demands on the part of the Galapagos National Park Service to manage tourism, carry out conservation activities and ensure that regulations are respected.  The argument for an increase in fees is a pretty strong one. 

Despite that, one might be surprised that locally, there is a fair degree of opposition.   There is a fear among mom & pop tourism related services that increasing the fee will discourage visitors from coming to the islands.   When the fee represents 1-2% of the price of a Galapagos expedition cruise vacation (international travel, all associated costs), one could argue that doubling it will not pose a major hurdle for those considering such a trip.   Even for land based visitors whose budget is not overly restrictive, a $100 fee currently represents perhaps 2.5% – 3% of the cost of their 8 days in the islands.   Of course, for the low end backpackers (remember those days? I do…), $100 can currently represent up to 10% or more (even over 34% of in-situ costs in the case of one intrepid backpacker who boasted of having spent $291 for 7 days in Galapagos![1]).

Though a higher fee may indeed discourage the very lowest spenders, at the end of the day, these people don’t leave much beyond crumbs for the local community.  $291 in 7 days, or barely $40 / day, less the cost of goods sold / overhead, likely results in a net gain of $15 / day for the locals (divided among a back alley restaurant, the local shop owner, and the flop house owner).  Will Galapagos miss this kind of visitor?

Galapagos is unique on the planet.  There is no other place on Earth where one can swim with penguins, sharks, sea turtles, sea lions, walk among giant tortoises, shoo away finches as they try to steal a grain of rice from your plate, watch a 1,000 dolphins leaping out of the water, and get close to the state of mind reached by Charles Darwin, back in 1835, when he started thinking about the origin of species.  

A higher park entrance fee is justified and overdue.    

 

[1] See http://kictravels.com/2018/05/22/backpacking-galapagos/

What does a Galapagos snake have for Breakfast?

Galapagos snakes are a discrete lot.  I lived in the islands for 4 years and never saw a single specimen.   Considered as “racers” (a general term given to fast moving non venomous snakes found in the Americas), they evolved from a common mainland ancestor into 9 distinct species in Galapagos – an excellent illustration of adaptive radiation (a mechanism of biological evolution - look it up before going on your trip). 

A recent BBC documentary captures the thrill of the chase as they try to feast on a marine iguana – see the 2 minute video here (“That was more intense than any scene from any action movie ever!” commented one viewer). 

But besides very young marine iguanas, what do they eat?  Scientists studying the snakes just published an article on this very topic.   Briefly, they obtained 79 faecal samples (you’ll have to read their paper to find out how they obtained them) and after analyzing their contents, the found, in order of importance, traces/remains of:

  • Lava lizards
  • Leaf toed geckos
  • Small insects (ants, beetles, centipedes – though the authors admit that these could have been in the guts of the eaten lava lizards and geckos)
  • Birds
  • Eggs

Coffee or tea with that lava lizard?

Besides the results of their field work, the scientists also directly observed snakes eating marine iguana hatchlings (both live and dead).   They also include a review existing reports on the subject matter.  These reports indicate that snakes will also eat land iguana hatchlings, and Galapagos painted locusts (a large colourful grasshopper) and even small coastal fish. 

Galapagos snakes are one of many reptilian species in these islands – one of the only places on earth where reptiles continue to dominate the landscape – just like in the age of the dinosaurs.   You might get lucky and spot a few – ask your naturalist guide to help. 

See the full scientific paper here (it's only 3-4 pages long).

New Ship, the Celebrity ….XCeption?

In Galapagos, Celebrity Cruises appears to be sailing into piranha infested waters.  

This international cruise ship company is better known for its large high capacity (2,000 – 3,600 passenger) ships with several  pools, hair salons, gift shops, movie theatres and more.   However, in its fleet, three ships stand out for their diminutive size – the Celebrity XPloration (16 passengers) the Celebrity XPerience (48 passengers) and the Celebrity XPedition (92 passengers) - all based in Galapagos.   They’re small because the Galapagos National Park regulations (rightly) don’t allow ships bigger than 100 passengers in an effort to reduce the visitor impact on the fragile ecosystems in the islands (we tend to think that the maximum size should be 32….). 

Of the 65 or so ships that ply Galapagos waters, only 3 or 4 carry 90 to 100 passengers.  Another half dozen will carry 48 – 80 passengers, while the vast majority of ships carry 20 or fewer passengers.  

Until two years ago, Celebrity ran only the 92 passenger XPedition.  In 2017, it entered into an agreement with a local company to take over the operation of that company’s two smaller ships, the Athala (16 passengers – rebranded as the XPloration) and the Eclipse (48 passengers – rebranded as the XPerience). 

 

But this was just a temporary measure.  Celebrity’s real objective was to do away with the small ships and replace them with a larger ship, the 100 passenger Flora, set to start operating in the islands in July.

In order to carry out this juggling act, the permit for the Celebrity XPedition had to be transferred to the Flora, and the permits for the two smaller ships had to be combined into a larger ship permit, which would be applied to the XPedition.   With that, the smaller ships would be retired from Galapagos service, and Celebrity would only need to manage 2 large ships instead of 1 large one and 2 smaller ones – ensuring greater cost effectiveness of their operations.  

A decree published on 19 June indicated that these permit transfers had been authorized by the Galapagos Regional Government and the Ministry of the Environment (they are jointly in charge of such things).  

But it didn’t take long for a loud outcry to be heard.  The push-back among Galapagos residents and local cruise ship stakeholders was so immediate and so strong that these same authorities published a letter on 20 June indicating that:  “given the concerns raised by the citizens of Galapagos… we have decided to suspend the authorization … and will review the process through which it was initially permitted”. 

Locals have always been suspicious of a perceived favouritism  given to the large companies over smaller, locally owned and operated companies (real or imagined – Galapagos is also rich in conspiracy theorists!).  They feel that exceptions are made to the powerful big boys, while the locals follow the established rules.   Galapagos social media posts are showing many cries of “foul” and “back-room deals” around this particular transfer of permits.    Some decry the concentration of cruise ship permits into fewer hands, and into international corporate control.  Others complain that large ships with their on-board shops discourage visitors from spending their money in small land based shops when visiting there. 

From what I understand, the Celebrity fleet of ships in Galapagos is in a bit of a bind for the time being.  If you are booked on any of these ships, it would be a good idea to contact your agent to confirm your bookings. 

"Thank you" is magnified by 6 month reminder

We just received a hand written letter from Florence Keiser Romanov, who lives in Wilton Connecticut (USA).  Florence (she is 75 years old) joined her good friend Wendy on a trip that Wendy won by participating the the National Public Radio (Boston) fundraising drive.   In partnership with the Samba owner, CNH Tours had offered 2 free Active Galapagos trips on the Samba as a prize (we are keen on public radio and happy to support it).   

Florence so enjoyed herself on the trip and retained such fond memories of her experience that she felt compelled to say "THANK YOU" once again, 6 months after the fact, to the wonderful crew and guide.  Her letter included a cheque for $350.  She is asking us to ensure the funds get to them.   

"... it has taken me a long time to write to you and thank you for a magnificent trip to the Galapagos Islands on board 'the Samba' in January 2019.  I thought the islands were beautiful and full of mystery ligthened up a bit by those blue footed boobies.  They were fun!" she writes.

"The crew was absolutely wonderful - they couldn't have been nicer and more helpful.  I take my hat off to them!  Jimmy was a very good guide too.... I am also very grateful to José the 'capitán'  for helping me to snorkel - he took my hand and was so comforting!".

This is the first time, after 20 years in the business, that we get such a hearty and belated thank you directed to the crew of the ship.  It's a true expression of gratitude.  We feel that this gesture magnifies the meaning of her "thank you".   

This is not to belittle the regular paroxysms of "wows!" and over-the-top "thank you so much" emails and written letters we get on a regular basis.   We just wanted to highlight the fact that Florence continued to feel a strong sense of gratitude after 6 months - a true sign that the crew and guide were exceptional. 

 

A Dog's Life in Galapagos

Dogs are mammals.  Mammals were not very successful in colonizing the Galapagos archipelago.  Remember, these islands appeared out of the sea over a hot spot in the Earth’s crust.  They first emerged as molten lava and over a few million years, they grew into a collection of islands.   So, in the very beginning, the Galapagos was a sterile area with absolutely no life on them, not even microbes.  

Rounding up the usual suspects (screen shot from It's a Dog's Life video)

As things cooled down, it became possible for life to at least stop for a visit.  No doubt sea birds were the first to set foot on them – and maybe even find some nesting sites.   Long distance seabirds might even have brought a few seeds of robust plants from the mainland in their guts (or stuck to some feathers), and lo, plant life would have first appeared.  Mangrove seeds, carried by ocean currents, would have show up too, leading to coastal mangrove forests.   Then, over thousands of years, maybe some insects, blown high into the atmosphere, drifted over; and even a few land birds would have established themselves, blown off course during sudden tropical storms.   

Larger, non-airborne animals would have had a tougher time getting there.  1000km/600 miles is a long way to swim.   The only way for most of them to have made it would have been by floating on vegetation rafts – the kinds that are built up after tropical rainstorms flood coastal plains, causing landslides and pushing trees and bushes into rivers, which end up floating out to sea.   But the long crossing would have also severely tested their ability to go without food and water.    In the best case scenario, it would be a journey of several weeks.  

Thin-skinned amphibians couldn’t handle the salt water – and over millions of years, none every made it to Galapagos (until accidentally brought over by humans about 25 years ago).   Reptiles were well equipped for such a crossing – they can go without water and food for long periods.   This is why Galapagos remains the only place on the planet (besides Aldabra Atoll in the Seychelles) whose ecosystems are dominated by reptiles (just like in the age of dinosaurs).   Mammals can’t go without food or water for that long and the distance to the islands proved to be an insurmountable barrier for them – except for bats (no need to explain how they crossed) and rats.   One can imagine some rats being marooned on particularly large rafts of vegetation, and managing to survive on rain and what food source they would have found.   Galapagos rats today (Rice rats) are smaller and cuter than their mainland cousins. 

All this to say that dogs were not part of the original cast in Galapagos.

They had it easy.  They arrived on boaths with humans and quickly established themselves.   As dogs do, they quickly multiplied and many became feral – running loose in town and beyond.   They started feeding on native animals who had evolved over millions of years in the absence of any dog-like predators.  Marine and land iguanas were particularly vulnerable.    Dogs also carry the canine distemper virus which can be transmitted to sea lions – an additional concern.   Clearly, dogs posed a problem. 

Feral dogs snacking on a marine iguana (Galapagos Park Service)

Over the years, as the human population grew in Galapagos, so did the dog population – and so did the dog problem.   Efforts to control dogs were first made in the 1990’s by the Galapagos National Park Service – focusing on feral dogs in the park areas.    But until town dogs were controlled, it would be a never ending battle.    Today, the three main towns in Galapagos try to do something about it, but they rely quite a bit on help from NGOs, who in turn rely on the kindness of people for financial support.  

The focus is on responsible dog ownership – ensuring that dogs are under control, taken care of and critically, sterilized.   But work needs to be done convincing locals that a sterilized dog is just as good as a non-sterilized one – an uphill battle.    When people talk about the need to develop a distinct “island culture”, one of the components of that is a general understanding on the relationship between pet ownership and sustainability, and an assumption of the responsibilities that go with pet ownership.   Some hope that an island culture will eventually lead to an acceptance that pets such as dogs (and bird eating cats) have no place at all in the islands and that these will become a thing of the past.  

Volunteer vets doing the deed on a dog (screen shot from It's a Dog's Life video)

Perhaps that day will come, but in the meantime, there remains an immediate problem to contend with.  One of the NGOs operating vet clinics in Puerto Ayora (Darwin Animal Doctors) is featured in this very well done, amusing and entertaining 7 minute video.  Several young and dedicated international vet volunteers are interviewed, and plenty of dogs are featured.  It’s produced by our good friend Michael Bliemsrieder, my old office mate and recent candidate to the mayor’s office in town (alas, unsuccessful).  

Click HERE to see the video. 

Should anyone wish to support Darwin Animal Doctors – please let us know and we’ll put you in touch with the right people. 

U.S.A. Anti Narcotics Operations to use Galapagos Airport

The Ecuadorian Minister of Defense, Oswaldo Jarrín, announced today at a press conference that the San Cristobal airport in Galapagos would be enlarged and improved to accommodate U.S. aircraft engaged in anti-narcotic operations in the region.  The works would be financed by the U.S. and would allow for Orion P3 and AWAC aircraft to fly in and out of Galapagos for refuelling and re-supplying. 

"I have mentioned that Galapagos can be considered as an aircraft carrier for Ecuador, it is our natural aircraft carrier, because, it assures us permanence, replenishment, interception facilities and it’s located 1,000 kilometers from our coasts" explained the Minister. 

“The United States is going to take charge of improving the conditions (of the airport), especially in terms of refueling infrastructure, and we will see in the future what else we can establish, so that the arrival is improved – something we are still discussing – but it will be payed for by the United States, and not by Ecuador” he continued.

The coastal waters along between Peru and moving up to Mexico are heavily used by drug traffickers – often disguised as fishing vessels.   They move drugs north to Colombia, Central America or Mexico from production areas in the south.  Authorities regularly apprehend traffickers and their cargo. 

"Eight tons (captured) in ten missions in two or three months is the benefit we have obtained from the agreement with the United States" the Minister said.

The minister mentioned that in view of the added pressure being placed on ship-based traffickers, there has been a recent increase in trafficking on board small planes.   

He further assured his fellow Ecuadorians that this was not going to be a U.S. military base, but only a improvement in the airport facilities which would allow for cooperative missions between Ecuador and the U.S.A. to take place, with clear protocols ensuring that all missions would be accompanied by Ecuadorian military personnel. 

San Cristobal airport is one of two airports in Galapagos that connect the islands to the mainland.  It is located just a 15 minute walk from the town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno.  Both the airport and the town are second in importance compared to the Baltra airport, where most visitors to Galapagos arrive, and Puerto Ayora, which has about three times as many residents.

During World War II, the U.S.A. established a large military base on Baltra Island with the intention of patrolling the eastern tropical Pacific ocean against possible attacks by the Japanese - with an eye on protecting the Panama Canal.   Many vestiges of that military base can still be seen today on Baltra Island. 

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CNH Tours Acquires a Mercedes...

 CNH Tours is very happy to welcome Mercedes Murgueytio on board as our full-time Quito based “extension specialist”.   Mercedes will be our go-to woman for all matters related to pre- or post-cruise extensions in mainland Ecuador and beyond.  If you're planning such an extension (highly recommended - mainland Ecuador is a real gem), you'll get a chance to work with Mercedes.   In peak times, Mercedes will also help our guests find the ideal Galapagos cruise.  

Mercedes overlooking the Quilotoa Volcano, about 80km/50miles south of Quito

We first got to know Mercedes about 15 years ago when she was working with one of the original Galapagos tour companies at their Quito office.  Mercedes was one of their sales representatives back then.  While there, Mercedes was first asked to help with Galapagos cruise sales – something she did for many years.   Later, she was given the responsibility to develop the land based extension portfolio for that company.   She travelled extensively in Ecuador, developing an intimate first-hand knowledge of many of the country’s diverse regions, hotels, attractions and more.  

She stepped back from her Quito job in 2014.  Being from the Valley (below Quito), she decided that the heavy traffic and the long daily commute to and from the city was getting too stressful.  Mercedes took a part time “work-from-home” job with a small agency.  When we learned that she was available to give us a hand, we seized the opportunity, having her help us as well on a part-time basis. 

Since 2014, Mercedes has become an increasingly important part of our team.  Our positive relationship and the mutual bonds of trust that we’ve developed over the years gave both of us the necessary confidence to take the final step – having her join us as a full-time colleague (after having passed the Travel Industry Council of Ontario exam for travel counsellors).   Besides helping our guests assemble the elements of an ideal continental land extension program most suited to their interests, Mercedes will also represent CNH Tours at any pertinent Quito events while also lending a helping hand when a guest might need assistance.     

Mercedes’ own words:

I was born and raised in Quito, Ecuador.  I have been lucky to live all my life in the Valley, located a 45 minute drive from the Quito.  I grew up surrounded by nature and away from the noise of a big city, and at a lower elevation, where the climate is very pleasant.

Since I was girl, my uncle would speak to me in English; this was of great help to get familiar with the language.  I studied English all through my schooling, including at the university level.  I also have fond memories of the few summers I spent attending English Summer classes at St. Joseph University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 

When I graduated from high school, I was keen on helping foreigners see the beauty of my country.  This led me to enroll in a Tourism Administration program at university.  After finishing my studies, I quickly found a job with one of the largest tour companies in Ecuador – giving my first opportunity to work with visitors coming to Ecuador. 

Luxury ship Majestic Explorer Runs Aground – and Sinks

Yesterday, the 16 passenger Majestic Explorer ran aground in shallow waters off the northern coast of Santiago Island.   Reports indicate that it happened at 3:30AM.   The ship didn’t immediately sink.   Reports explain that passengers and crew were removed with the help of the Ecuadorian navy.  But it took on water and eventually keeled over.   It’s not clear at this time if the ship is salvageable - but given the remote location of the accident, and by the picture below, it doesn't look good.  Wave action does wonders for tearing a ship apart if it's not secured soon after a grounding.  

The Majestic Explorer is a fairly new ship, built in 2013.   It had very large picture windows on all top deck cabins.  Formerly called Majestic, it had been operating naturalist cruises only.  CNH Tours has booked very few guests on this ship over the years - only 4, the last of which had cruised in May 2017.  Our guests had reported being sick on the ship, and we decided to give the ship a pass for a while, to give it time to improve its service before recommending it again.   Earlier this year, it began alternating between naturalist cruises one week, and scuba diving cruises another week.  It changed its name to Majestic Explorer to mark the new operation model.

At any given time, there are up to 65 expedition ships sailing the Galapagos waters.  When operating at full capacity, they can be carrying a combined apx. 1,400 people or so.   Ships operating on average 48 weeks per year (they take time off for annual maintenance).   This kind of accident does happen on occasion.  We have seen perhaps a 6-8 or so such incidents in 20 years.  Very rarely are there any injuries and even more rarely are there any deaths.   But accidents do happen and it's important for anyone considering a cruise to the Galapagos (or anywhere else for that matter - see the river cruise accident in Hungary last week) to understand the risks, no matter how small they may be. 

Given the quality of digital maps and the use of modern instruments these days, one is hard pressed to understand how this could have happened, beyond some type of human error or negligence.  Alarms can be set to go off when a ship’s trajectory will have it encounter shallow waters or land.  We'll have to wait and see what the investigation into the accident will reveal.  

Sharks Win Supreme Court Case

In our 13 September 2017 news item, we asked an Ecuadorian environmental lawyer, Hugo Echeverria, to detail the case for us.  He reported on the seizure of a Chinese fishing vessel full of shark carcasses, sailing through Galapagos marine reserve waters.   Though it was not proven that the sharks had been fished in the reserve, authorities arrested the ship's crew and impounded the ship solely on the basis that it was transporting endangered species in Ecuador - an illegal act there.

The Chinese fishing company contested the decision and appealed lower court rulings.  The case finally made it to the Ecuadorian Supreme Court - and its ruling was made earlier this week.   

It ruled that lower court decisions were to be upheld.   The ship remains confiscated and the captain and crew received prison sentences from 1 to 4 years.    

When this case went to court, many believed that a combination of Chinese pressure and a malleable judiciary would have resulted in the ship and crew being released in exchange for a small penalty.  But in recent years, the court system has been strengthened, and perhaps its resolve was also boosted by the unprecedented public manifestations of outrage and anger at what was widely perceived as an outrageous affront to Ecuador.   

The take away:  Ecuadorian law in regards to the protection of endangered species has teeth and will be upheld at the highest level.  Don't get caught transporting protected species.  

The Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999

 

 

Over 6,000 shark carcasses, mostly endangered species, were discovered in the ship's hold

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Man's life is changed

Every now and again we post a review we receive from recently returned guests.  We just received this one from Murray McComb, a former manager at Parks Canada.  He was on our Active Galapagos trip, visiting the South Eastern islands of the archipelago in late April / early May.   He travelled with is wife and another couple. 

"The Samba experience was educational, engaging, challenging, incredibly fun, and very rewarding. I could say it was even life changing, to have the opportunity to travel and "live" for over a week in one of the most incredible environments on earth and learn first hand about the natural and human history, management issues and creative solutions, and especially to experience both terrestrial and marine wildlife in such a close up and personal way. A week immersed in the Galapagos environment and mostly away from internet, email, world news, and other normal daily diversions was therapeutic, and beneficial. The trip was worth every dollar and more."

On a personal note, Murray added the following:

"Heather and Marc, we four were thrilled with the trip, and the bonus "World Heritage" dinner and ride from the airport to Quito. Thank you so much. We were totally impressed with the whole Galapagos package. It exceeded our expectations. As a small example, a couple of times just when we were wondering what we might do for lunch (on travel days), the guide would pass out box lunches that we had totally forgotten about. We felt so well cared for, and appreciated. We will all be strongly recommending CNH Tours to friends who might wish to take on the Galapagos experience."

 

 

Murray, 2nd from left.

 

 

Destination wedding like no other

We were honoured to have hosted the McAlister family from Ottawa for a Galapagos cruise last December (parents, two sons and a significant other).  After the usual initial exchange of emails, they approached us about the possibility of having their son and his girlfriend/fiancée get married in the islands.   That was a challenge we got excited about.  

The family was scheduled to sail on the Samba - the ship we charter frequently and with whose owners (a Galapagos family) we've developed a very close relationship over the past 15+ years.   We contacted the Samba and the immediate answer was "No problems!  We'd love to do something on board!".  

Apparently, the couple in question was not disappointed.   On their return home, the happy parents effused over the magical aspect of the experience.   They showed us pictures and shared with us how the ship's crew had literally gone "overboard" to make it a special event.    We asked them to write up a short description for our news page.   Here it is:

 

The Wedding Story

“You want to get married where?”, asked the incredulous parents. They were delighted about the event, although a little unsure that a small island in the Galapagos was the right location. But it was not just right. It was perfect.

At 5 p.m. on a sunny December afternoon, we gathered on the magnificent crescent beach on Bartolome Island with the dramatic Pinnacle Rock in the background. There could not have been a more ideal setting for the wedding of our son, Nicholas, and his beautiful bride, Lindsay.

Captain Jose of the Samba performed the ceremony with great poise and dignity, accompanied by the entire crew-- all resplendent in their crisp white uniforms. Juan, our amazing naturalist, drove the wedding Zodiac, delivering the wedding party safely to the beach. As it was a wet landing, footwear was greatly simplified-- bare feet in the soft sand. The wedding was witnessed by sea lions and the other seven enthusiastic passengers on the Samba. After the ceremony, Juan piloted the happy couple on a cruise around the bay as the sun was setting.

The crew played its part - dressed in whites and at attention. 

Sunset on Bartolome beach with the iconic pinnacle rock..No need to spend anything on fancy shoes 

No wedding ceremony would be complete without champagne toasts. The front deck of the Samba provided a unique backdrop, as the disappearing sun coloured the sky a bright crimson. Accompanied by the gentle sound of the waves, the wedding waltz was lit with soft rays from the moon and stars in the southern sky.  

"Galapagos limo ride" (this being a national park, the bouquet is actually made of plastic flowers...) 

There followed an exquisite wedding feast complete with a cake designed and baked by the brilliant chef, Angel, in the Samba’s galley. A fitting end to a perfect wedding day.

A Samba special wedding cake baked on board

Andrew and Bente McAlister

December 2018

 

 

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