CNH Tours - Cultural and Natural Heritage Tours Galapagos
Tuesday February 19, 2019
An exciting news story was broken today by the Minister of the Environment for Ecuador: A female Fernandina island tortoise (Chelonoidis Phantasticus), long feared extinct since the last one was captured in 1906, was found this week. The tortoise was removed from the island and taken to a nearby tortoise breeding centre.
According to IUCN:
The...only Fernandina tortoise ever collected, was found alive in 1906 by Rollo Beck of the California Academy of Sciences. No other Fernandina tortoises have been documented since, but in 1964 helicopter-assisted surveys of remote areas on Fernandina documented several large tortoise scats and a few Opuntia cactus pads with tortoise bite marks at a location 6 km from the shore at an altitude of 360m, and in 2009 an airplane survey of the inaccessible higher-altitude forest habitat surrounding the central volcano cone yielded a possible unconfirmed sighting of a tortoise, while in 2013, during vegetation monitoring, a scat and some footprints were found. These sightings and signs, though needing verification through more extensive surveys, indicate the possibility that the species may remain extant in exceedingly small numbers.
Clearly, IUCN's webpage will need to be updated now.
Fernandina island is the youngest of Galapagos islands, having risen out of the sea due to volcanic activity about 1 million years ago. Most of the island is comprised of near sterile lava fields, but there are some relatively large expanses that are covered with vegetation. Tortoises would have had to colonize this island by having been swept away from another island and drifted to its shores.
Most of the island is covered in sterile lava fields - a member of the expedition.
It's not inconceivable to imagine that sudden tectonic activity would have rapidly pushed an shoreline rich in giant tortoise habitat underwater, resulting in dozens or more giant tortoises floating off. One such massive and rapid shift in the sea bottom in the 1950's resulted in several hectares of new land emerging from the sea overnight - you can walk on this new land at Urbina Bay, a visitor site.
The new find - wondering what all the fuss is about.
Scientists and conservationists have long suspected that the Fernandina island tortoise still survived. The evidence described above was tantalizing and spurred more than one tortoise-finding expedition over the years. The members of this recent expedition get to claim a very much sought-after prize. I can just hear them now at the bar "I was on the expedition that discovered the long lost Fernandina giant tortoise!".
At the centre, Washington (Wacho) Tapia, and 2nd from the right, Wilson Cabrera - some of my former colleagues
There are 12 species of giant tortoise living in Galapagos. Taxonomists have argued amongst themselves over whether or not these were all distinct species, or simply sub-species. The "splitters" won the latest round of that argument (e.g. those who are keen on seeing more distinct species, rather than just many sub-species lumped together under a broad species - a.k.a the "lumpers"). One of the things I learned while working with scientists in Galapagos was that the line between two different species, versus a species and a sub-species was not a scientific one - but rather one of debate. This debate is a graphic illustration of the mutability of life - two different species are not separated by a hard line, but rather, represent the ends of a continuum of intermediary specimens which, at one point, end up blurring the species divisions altogether. Galapagos tortoises are a good example.
The next step will be to determine if the female was not alone, and to see if there is a viable population on this volcanically active island. More good news to follow, we hope!
(photos taken from expedition member FaceBook posts - thank you).
Monday February 18, 2019
Every once in a while we like to post some of the comments we get from our returning guests as a news item. We're always so pleased to received these comments - they make us feel as though we're missing out on all the fun! Here's one from Rebecca Knowles (from Viriginia, USA) who just got back from their trip last week. Typically we use on the the "quotable comments" section, but Rebecca's review deserves to be published at length:
A booby pooped on me, mostly on my hat, thankfully. The crew immediately said that means good luck! Ha! And a special note: Our 28 year old daughter accompanied us at the last minute. She stayed in our room. We were quite comfortable, ok a bit tight but perfectly fine. (Guest Bruce let us store our bags in his extra bunk--very helpful!) Giancarlo offered to give Laura his room, and the captain asked repeatedly if we were ok. That was very thoughtful--that they were so concerned about our comfort.
Tuesday February 12, 2019
(Today, February 12th, is “International Charles Darwin Day”, marking Mr. Darwin’s birthday in 1809. We’re marking this great day to tell the story of the Pinzon Giant Tortoise’s return from the brink, just a few years ago.)
Pinzon is among the smallest of the main islands that make up the Galapagos archipelago. Located just about in the geographical centre of the collection of 12 or so larger islands, Pinzon is 1789 hectares (about 4470 acres) in size – think of a round island that’s about 5 km in diameter (about 3 miles).
Pinzon island - in the centre of the archipelago
But it’s tall for such a small size. With hills reaching 458 metres (1,503 feet), it’s a very rugged place, populated by the infamous “uña de gato” (cat’s claw) tree (xanthoxylum fagara). It’s eponymous thorns seem to reach out to you at all times, just like those of a cat feeling a bit too playful.
I had the “pleasure” of taking a hike on it back in 1998 – we had a team of three machete wielding park staff with us to forge a trail no longer than a few hundred meters – which took a good 30 minutes to create. I was in the company of Dr. Linda Cayot – the woman who played a key role in establishing and operating the highly successful giant tortoise breeding program at the Charles Darwin Research Station / Galapagos National Park Service, starting in the 1980’s. We were there to check on the status of the tortoise population.
Uña de Gato (a.k.a Cat's claw) tree. No explanation required.
Though the cat’s claw makes the going very difficult for humans venturing onto Pinzon, it did nothing to stop Black rats from thriving there. Introduced to Pinzon in the 1800’s (by accident most likely as ships anchored and people moved back and forth to the island), the rats quickly learned to feast on tortoise hatchlings. In no time the rat population skyrocketed, marking the end of the ability of the giant tortoises of Pinzon to successfully raise new generations. Though they kept on laying eggs, by the 1900’s, scientists estimated that zero hatchlings survived the rat predation into adulthood.
The not yet "giant", giant tortoise makes for a great rat snack
It wasn’t until 1965 (just when the Galapagos National Park was being created, along with the Charles Darwin Research Station), that efforts were made to do something about it. By then, Pinzon island was populated only by middle aged and geriatric tortoises. There were few tortoises younger than nearly 70 years. Scientists gathered eggs before they hatched and took them to the newly created tortoise breeding / egg hatching centre on Santa Cruz Island, at the Darwin Station and Park headquarters.
In 1970, 20 juvenile tortoises, now big enough to be able to resist attacks from rats, were returned to Pinzon island. In that year, scientists estimated the total population of island-born tortoises on Pinzon at only 150 – 200. By 1990, that number had dropped to 80-100 - the Pinzon giant tortoise had been racing towards extinction. Thankfully, the off-island breeding and repatriation program was well established by then, with a total of 268 off-island juveniles having been taken back to the island.
Still, the on-going presence of rats meant that should the ability of the park and Darwin Station to keep on “seeding” the island with juveniles ever wane, the tortoises would eventually be doomed. Getting rid of the rats was the ultimate end goal – but the task was daunting. The first attempt took place in 1988. A team of about 45 people spent over two weeks planting rat poison and traps throughout the island in an effort to kill every single rat there. The attempt ultimately failed for lack of resources to maintain a continuous effort, and for the inability to effectively cover every part of the island.
It was only in 2012 that a large scale systematic eradication effort was once again attempted. With the help of GPS technology, the team (Park, Darwin Station, Island Conservation and others) was able to disperse rat poison uniformly throughout the island, leaving no area safe to rats. By December of that year, all indications pointed to the complete absence of rats. It was in December 2014 that the first baby tortoises, born naturally on Pinzon, were spotted – a first in over 100 years. To be safe, the team returned regularly to check for the presence of rats. On each visit, they found no trace of any rat, allowing them to declare the island “RAT FREE” in early 2015. The great conservation news story was shared around the world.
As we noted in a news items a few weeks ago (click here for details), the same effort is being made today on North Seymour island. Home to many bird colonies, North Seymour also has plenty of rats that wreak havoc on eggs and nestlings. This time, drone technology is being used to disperse the rat poison uniformly throughout this small, flat island (this one is flat and only 190 hectares – 470 acres). After Pinzon, this should be a walk in the park for the people carrying out the work. It’s expected to be completed just about now – fingers crossed!
Thursday February 7, 2019
Plastic bottles were banned from the municipality of Santa Cruz (which covers the entire island of the same name and includes the main Galapagos town of Puerto Ayora) last week. The municipality passed a regulation banning all plastic bottles containing carbonated drinks, effective February 26th.
It's good to remember that all manufactured goods in Galapagos are brought in from the continent, from toilet paper to roofing tiles, and all waste generated in Galapagos stays in Galapagos. A visit to the local landfill is an eye opener.
Though this will affect a small part of the whole, it's a good first step - but it remains a first step, in reducing the amount of waste being stockpiled in these fragile islands, and in reducing the amount of plastic ending up in oceans.
Now, let's hope the regulation will be applied. There have been instances of wishful regulating before.
Text of the regulation (in Spanish)
Tuesday February 5, 2019
The New York Times published an article on land based tourism today. It gives a perfunctory overview of the issues around the absence of any caps on growth (20% increase in land based tourism between 2017 and 2018) but does not even mention the link between people and the introduction of harmful non-native species (e.g. "alien" species, like rats, weeds, diseases, insects).
Alien species are the most serious threat to Galapagos wildlife. The hard-to-shake link between the movement of people and goods between Galapagos and the continent, and the arrival and dispersal of alien species is at the root of just about all concerns over the long term health of unique Galapagos animals and plants.
I found the article more of a story telling exercise as opposed to hard journalism. It provides a few haphazard snapshots of what land-based tourism looks like, bringing in a few people to give it the human interest side of things.
If you're keen on a more technical discussion, see the previous news item on the CNH Tours website here. It was published 2 days ago and has more recent numbers than those you'll find in the NYT article.
To see the NYT article, click here.
Friday February 1, 2019
The Galapagos Park and the Galapagos Tourism Observatory released the tourism numbers for 2018 yesterday. The numbers show the entrenchment of very high, most likely unsustainable land based tourism growth in the islands. In 2018, a total of 275,817 people travelled to the Galapagos islands as tourists, up 14% from 2017.
It’s important to note that there are two tourism models in Galapagos:
i) Land-based, whereby visitors stay in hotels/hostals/B&Bs/camping sites and
ii) Ship-based, whereby visitors live on an expedition cruise ship during their stay.
Some interesting results:
• Ship-based tourism has been flat / slightly declining since 2007 (apx. 72,000 / year)
• Between 2009 (after the recession) to 2018, land-based tourism has been growing by an annual rate of 16.7%. Between 2017 and 2018, land-based tourism has grown by a whopping 20%
• For the first time in 2010, the number of land-based visitors surpassed the number of ship-based visitors.
• By 2018, there were almost three times as many land-based visitors as there were ship-based visitors.
• With this kind of growth, there would be over 1,000,000 land based-visitors to Galapagos in little more than 20 years.
Until 2015, the statistics were gathered for both ship- and land-based numbers. For an unknown reason, the Park stopped making the differentiation in 2016. But by extrapolating from data between 2007 and 2015, we’ve made the conservative assumption that annual ship-based visitation from 2016 to 2018 has remained flat at 72,000 (see chart below).
Land-based tourism was virtually non-existent until the mid 1990’s. It took off with the support of information sharing over the internet. The few land based tourism pioneers who first blindly ventured to the islands started sharing their information for the whole world to see, posting on various on-line traveller discussion forums. “Doing Galapagos on the Cheap” and “Galapagos Islands – Detailed Guide for Land Based Travellers” have been two of the most active discussion groups on the TripAdvisor Galapagos Islands forum. It became very easy to get all the answers to your questions when considering a land-based visit – and the numbers took off.
But has it been too much of a good thing? If not, then can it become too much of a good thing? At which point? When we’ve reached that point, will the authorities be able to control further growth? All these are good questions to which few good answers have been provided by the powers in charge of Galapagos conservation and tourism.
The World Heritage Commitment
A bit of context: At the request of the government of Ecuador, Galapagos was added to the UNESCO World Heritage (WH) list in 1978 (the first ever WH site) in recognition of its unique wildlife and how it helped illustrate biological evolution in action. Under the terms of the WH Convention, Ecuador committed itself before the community of nations to conserving that wildlife in perpetuity for the benefit of humanity (that’s the purpose of the WH Convention). The concern is that unlimited tourism growth will eventually conflict in a serious way with wildlife conservation.
Beyond habitat destruction, the main threat is the introduction of alien species, which prey on native species, compete with them or bring in new diseases or parasites. The more you have people living in the islands and having people and cargo moving back and forth between them and the continent, the greater the risk of bringing in destructive alien species. What would Galapagos be without the giant tortoise, the marine iguana, or Darwin’s famous finches?
UNESCO’s WH Committee (a group of 21 countries who act as de facto “bouncers” for the WH club) has been monitoring Galapagos, as it does all WH sites (I led that monitoring effort from 2003 – 2012). Already in 2007, it expressed concern over the rapid growth of tourism and the absence of any clear tourism management plan. It reiterated its concern in 2016 when it saw that numbers kept on growing relentlessly. It asked the Government of Ecuador to report back on what it was doing to deal with the issue. The Committee reviewed the situation again in 2018. Last June, in the absence of any tangible progress on the matter, it continued to express its concerns over the apparent absence of a tourism management plan. It has asked the Government of Ecuador to report back by the end of 2019 on the matter.
Residents feel they are losing out
Ironically, a review of local Galapagos Facebook group discussions shows that residents believe land- based tourism is down – that very little money is staying in the community. The most vocal participants in the FaceBook groups promote the illusion that ship-based tourism scoops up all the tourism dollars, leaving none for the community (when in fact, it can be shown that nearly 10% of the working age population of Galapagos is closely linked to the ship-based tourism sector as employees, owners, service providers etc.).
Part of the reason that some locals are still feeling out of the loop is that a large proportion of land- based visitors are low to very low budget travellers, looking for the $5 meal, the $20 bed, the last minute day trip at reduced prices and seeking out the activities that have no cost (e.g. beach, swimming holes, hiking). While a ship based visit might cost $500 to $1000 per person / day, a land based visit can be had for $50/day if one is singularly focused on thrift. The average ship-based visitor likely leaves more money in the local community in the form of well paid jobs (and tips – don’t forget to tip well for good service…) and profits to owners than perhaps 10 land-based visitors.
Meanwhile, in anticipation of great profits to be made from land-based tourism, one may be forgiven in concluding that that every resident in Galapagos has opened up a t-shirt shop, a travel agency, a rooming house or a snack bar – the vast majority of the “mom & pop” variety. The Ministry of Tourism reported an increase in the number of hotel/rooming house type establishments from 73 in 2007, to 291 in 2015.
Besides the formal establishments, a brief visit to Booking.com or Airbnb.com gives one the impression that everybody is renting out rooms in their homes for tourists. A good number of our friends in the islands are certainly dipping their paddle into that stream – how can you blame them? But there is obviously an oversupply, driving prices down. It’s no surprise that the reported occupancy is in the 30% range – meaning most people likely don’t get a big return on their investment (no matter how small). It’s also no surprise that these people are pushing for yet more land-based tourists in order to fill their establishments.
Mom & Pop tourist trinket shop in Galapagos - very low margins - impossible to get ahead
Political pressure for more visitors
The local political pressure to keep tourism numbers growing is strong. Any initiative that might be seen as putting a damper on land-based tourism is resisted. The park entrance fee has been $100 since the late 1980's. At that time, $100 was about 10% of the price of the average 1 week cruise. Today, $100 is about 1.5% - 2% of that price (significantly less than what one is expected to leave in tips!). Since 2015, responsibility for setting the park fee was transferred to the Galapagos governing council. Though there is every technical justification to at least double, if not triple it, the political consequences of doing so are considered very unfavourable – and hence it remains at $100.
Ship-based tourism = steady state
While land-based tourism takes place in a bit of a “wild west” regulatory environment (particularly in regards to controlling numbers) ship based tourism is highly regulated (the Government of Ecuador receives many well deserved compliments over its work on managing ship based tourism). The total number of ship-based beds has been capped for over 20 years. No new ship is allowed to operate in Galapagos unless a ship of similar size is retired. This model has contributed to a healthy ship-based tourism industry in many regards:
• Environmental impacts are understood and managed. Improved regulations have actually reduced the impact over the years.
• Visitor experience quality is maintained - no crowding at visitor sites, wildlife is not driven away.
• Overall quality and maintenance of ships is significantly improved.
• Skills and professionalism of ship crew have improved over the years.
• Steady, well paid jobs are provided for many Galapagos residents.
• Ship servicing sector in Galapagos is robust (maintenance, food supply logistics, bookkeeping…).
Today, you’re a lot less likely to share you bed with cockroaches, to have staff making passes at female passengers, to suffer through engine breakdowns or to have gastro-intestinal problems than was the case 20-30 years ago.
A limit on the number of park entrance permits?
Though land-based tourism can offer a good and more budget friendly alternative approach to seeing the Galapagos, it remains very poorly managed. Too many locals are chasing too few dollars from too many low end visitors. False expectations are created, and the cycle continues as nothing is done to put a cap on numbers. More people get in on the action, further over-supplying it.
Restricting the number of land-based visitors (as has been successfully done for ship-based visitors) along with establishing policies promoting local ownership would help tighten the market and support the local economy. Prices would go up, resulting in more money to invest in staff, training, infrastructure and more.
The authorities are currently trying to restrict land-based tourism by insisting that anyone arriving in the islands must show proof of accommodations. They want to discourage the happy-go-lucky “I’ll-sleep-on-a-couch / find-me-a-cheap-last-minute-deal” type of visitor. This approach, technically in place for the past few months, is not yet being enforced. Even if enforced, smart folks on internet travel forums are already advising on how to get around such restrictions (you book a place on booking.com, you print your reservation, you cancel the booking - presto! You have evidence to show that you've pre-booked a hotel).
It’s time for the Park to seriously consider putting a cap on the total number of park entrance permits sold each year. 275,000 permits were sold in 2018. If the cap could be set at a point that doesn’t cause an instant local rebellion, while at the same time clearly identifying an end point to growth, good things could happen.
The Park could ensure a more even distribution of visitors throughout the year (no more high season panic, low season famine). It would need to work with hotel / ship owners / tour operators to establish a fair system of entrance permit quotas. A secondary market to ensure fluidity / flexibility could be encouraged. It would be complicated, but with some concerted effort, and consultation with the interested / affected parties, a sophisticated system could be established. The objective would be to at once set a limit on the total number of visitors while allowing for a healthy entrepreneurial environment to flourish. Under these conditions, we could expect a gradual improvement in overall quality of infrastructure and service. As the market tightened, prices would increase, and capital for investment in staff, training an facilities became more readily available.
What do we really really want?
The final goal would be the establishment of a healthy, quality land based tourism industry from which all determined participants (employees and owners) could have expectations of a reasonable living, while at the same time keeping an eye on the long term conservation of this iconic World Heritage site.
Monday January 28, 2019
OK - so we I may stretch the truth a wee bit to get your attention. But an old colleague of mine, Maria Fernanda Espinosa, was elected as president of the UN General Assembly last September. I worked with her when she was the head of IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) South American office, and again when she was the Ecuadorian Minister for Heritage.
She's not the kind of friend I'd feel comfortable calling on when I'm next in New York, expecting her to drop everything to see me - but we did work on conservation and World Heritage issues together back when she was still en Ecuador, and when I was with UNESCO, and we did enjoy a tête-à-tête together at a fine Quito restaurant once.
Her career has been quite stellar in the past decade. She has a Ph.D. in environmental geography from the USA. In 2007, she left her senior IUCN job to take up a position as Minister of Foreign Affairs (quite a leap!). She was also minister of National Defense, her country's permanent representative to the UN in New York AND Geneva. She's also a recognized poet, having been awarded a national prize for her work. She's currently once again the Minister of Foreign Affairs for Ecuador. The role of President of the UN General Assembly is a temporary one, and consists largely of overseeing the management of the UN General Assembly meetings over the period of 1 year. It's considered a high honour for a country to hold this position - and is usually conferred to countries whose representatives are well respected among their peers. Bravo Maria Fernanda!
Saturday January 12, 2019
Intrigue, love triangles, jealousy… these are the usual fare of romantic dramas. But in Galapagos, you need to throw in a bit of food poisoning, extreme thirst, a donkey, some gentleman scientists and yes, mysterious disappearances and a pair of dead bodies on a remote beach to give romance a bit of spice.
The Ecuadorian embassy in Ottawa invited the CNH Tours team to a screening of the 2013 documentary film “The Galapagos Affair – When Satan Came to Eden” last week. We extended that invitation to our guests living in the region. We had meant to see this film for a long time now and were glad to have the chance to do so with our friends at the embassy.
The tale is a well-known one in Galapagos. During our time there, we’d certainly heard about the racy story of the first settlers on Floreana Island, in the mid-1930’s. The cast included a pair of German donkey-loving toothless (literally) Nietzsche-reading vegetarian divorcés searching for a garden of Eden; a self-proclaimed Austrian/French baroness, her male attendant and her slave-lover on the lookout for the ideal place to build her “Hotel Paraiso” and all too happy to entertain visiting scientists; and finally, the Baronesses’ neighbours, another German couple who just wanted to tend to their garden.
It was a mix that led to high tensions and ultimately catastrophe of one sort or another for all but the garden tending Germans (whose descendants we know personally and who own the Tip Top expedition cruise ships in Galapagos).
At a little over 2 hours, the documentary could come across as long for those not particularly keen or interested in Galapagos. But if you are a fan of the islands, if you’re planning a trip there, or if you’ve been, you are more likely to appreciate it.
I was very impressed by the quantity of video footage of the group (thanks to the visiting scientists who brought the equipment with them), and quality pictures of the protagonists. Voiceovers (from Diane Kruger, Kate Blanchett, among others) are used to related the lives of the settlers, with the text taken from their own writings. The film manages a good mix of old footage, pictures and voiceovers with modern interviews of current Galapagos residents who are old enough to remember life in the islands in those days and also of some of the protagonists descendants and family members.
Overall it was a very well done job at relating the elements of the story. We were happy to see some of our old friends in the film – namely Daniel Fitter (with whom we used to have the occasional gin & tonic at our home, or with him and his wife at his home), Tui de Roy – a colleague from the Darwin Foundation General Assembly and famous wildlife photographer and her mother Jacqueline (recently deceased). It was also good to see Claudio Cruz, the brother of my close colleague while in the islands, the late Felipe Cruz.
We recommend this film to those considering a trip to the islands. It will give you an additional perspective on the archipelago and its early days. It’s not a wildlife film at all – beyond a few cameo appearances from some of the usual suspects, the film focuses exclusively on the human history there. Just don’t let yourselves get lured into moving to Floreana in search of your personal paradise… the outcome might be gruesome.
Monday January 7, 2019
The Galapagos National Park is releasing over 1,000 land iguanas onto Santiago Island these days. Land iguanas used to thrive here, until people brought over some pigs in the 1800's. The pigs thrived and liked to eat iguana, giant tortoise and sea turtle eggs - they were experts at finding them. From the 1970's on-wards, the National Park Service sent hunters to this otherwise uninhabited island to shoot pigs. They would shoot hundreds and hundreds of them every year, but pigs being pigs, they would reproduce vigorously, negating all the efforts of the National Park Service. As a result, the island had no more iguanas, and only had very old giant tortoises lumbering about.
When I started working in Galapagos in 1998, we adopted a new approach to pig eradication. We used new GPS technology, and systematic poison baiting to ensure that every square meter of this 35,000 hectare island (nearly 100,000 acres) became vulnerable to the Park's efforts. By the early 2000's, pigs had finally been eradicated. We monitored the entire island for any trace of pigs for 18 months - and found none. It was a huge conservation milestone. Giant tortoises eggs would finally be allowed to hatch, and baby giant tortoises could reach adulthood for the first time in over 100 years.
It's another major milestone to have the Park Service re-introduce land iguanas to Santiago. They are sourcing them from North Seymour island - which in itself is a great news story. The North Seymour land iguanas were the last holdouts following their decimation on South Seymour (a.k.a. Baltra island, site of a US naval / air base in the 2nd world war and where the main Galapagos airport is located today). With the Charles Darwin Research Station, the Park Service has set up a very successful breeding program - good enough to start sending some of the new iguana generations to Santiago island.
(all pictures from the Galapagos National Park Service)
Monday December 31, 2018
With all the wonderfully varied traditions and holiday activities all over the world, I would say that it’s hard to come across one that truly surprises you anymore. With the rise of online media and digital storytelling from all the corners of this great Planet, we have the ability to see intimate moments and celebrations anywhere, no matter where we’re from.
Ecuador is no exception to this rich variety of holiday traditions. As mentioned in a previous blog piece (found here), the baking and celebrating of the Day of the Dead is lovely and something I look forward to each year.
But the man in drag… It was my first time in Ecuador and having never travelled by myself before, I was a bit anxious and I would certainly define it as “on edge” as well. I had a long day of travel and arrived into Quito at about midnight. At the time I also didn’t speak Spanish, but instead thought to myself (as most Canadians do, I am sure), “I speak French, how hard could it be to understand Spanish?” Well, when approached by a man dressed in drag at the airport in Quito with a container of coins, there was no French to Spanish translation that was going to help me in that moment.
It turns out that it was New Year’s eve and traditionally in Ecuador men dress up as women – pretending to be widows – they go around asking for spare change.
Men participating in Quito. (Photo credit El Comercio.)
While I am not clear on the administrative backing of this, it is said that the money is for charity in the end. There are usually local competitions and in 2017-18 in Puerto Ayora, a pageant of sorts happened during the New Year’s Eve celebrations where several men competed for the prize of “Best Widow”. (The one that brought the doll and cried very convincingly, but also danced well, won.)
So, if travelling in Ecuador around New Year’s there’s no need to feel flabbergasted to have men dressed as woman approach you asking for change. If you’re feeling adventurous, ask them for their story before dropping a coin or two into their container!
Saturday December 29, 2018
Humans may get thrills from noisy fireworks displays, but wildlife tends to pooh-pooh such forms of entertainment. The Galapagos Regional government just banned fireworks in recognition of the incompatibility between these noisy explosions and the wildlife that attracts over 250,000 visitors a year from around the world.
Our friends in the islands have been asking for a ban for many years. We thought that the local politicians would never go for it, given the mass popular appeal of both large displays of the kind that are held for New Year's eve and other major events, and for the smaller private fireworks that folks put on to celebrate more personal events.
But the Galapagos government went through with it just earlier this week - imposing the ban as of yesterday, 28 December. So, if you were hoping to catch fireworks in Galapagos this New Year's eve, it looks like you may be disappointed. There is an exception to the rule however - if your fireworks don't make any noise, you can proceed.
A wonderful and more meaningful alternative to loud bursts of light is the "año viejo" (old year) tradition in Ecuador. During the day on the 31st of December, people will construct papier maché effigies of events or people that have caused them grief over the past year. At midnight, the effigies are set alight and burn to the ground - a kind of expunging of bad vibes, clearing the air for a good start to the new year.
Año viejos representing sports personalities and politicians, about to go up in flames...
Thursday December 20, 2018
The Galapagos National Park, in cooperation with Island Conservation, will be carrying out a rat eradication campaign on North Seymour island in January / early February. North Seymour island is located just a few hundred yards/meters north of Baltra island, the main airport island in Galapagos. It’s a popular “last visitor site” for expedition cruises, typically seen on an early morning before then proceeding to the airport for the flight back to the continent.
Rats (Norway rats) arrived in Galapagos not long after the first humans arrived established themselves, likely nearly 250 years ago. All over the world, when non-native rats arrive in island ecosystems, they cause a huge amount of damage. Typically, they prey on bird eggs and in Galapagos, will also eat hatchling tortoises and sea turtles.
North Seymour - the small island with the red pointer
North Seymour close up, with Baltra island and the main airport in Galapagos. Mosquera island is the tiny strip of land between the two. A favourite for sunbathing sea lions.
The Park has already carried out successful rat eradication campaigns on other small islands in the archipelago. In this case, drones will be used to drop off rat poison throughout the island. As the poison is specific only to mammals, and as there are no native mammals on the island, there is no risk to other of North Seymour’s inhabitants – the most noteworthy being the frigate birds and blue footed boobies, both of whom for which the island is a popular nesting area.
North Seymour island will be closed to visitors during the eradication campaign. If your itinerary had you slotted for a visit there, you’ll be taken to another nearby site – possibly Black Tortoise Cove, Mosquera Island, or even Cerro Dragon – all very good alternatives.
Wednesday December 19, 2018
I provide below a link to a nice, succinct photo/video article that was published in the New York Times today. It's a good read and helps to illustrate how climate change might affect Galapagos wildlife.
The article cites several scientists, many of whom are old friends of ours - Martin Wikelski (the most charming herpetologist we know), Heinke Jaeger (who makes her own tonic water from local plants) and David Anderson. It also cites UNESCO (my former employer), and warnings on how some Galapagos species might be particularly vulnerable to climate change; I was directly involved in the UNESCO work on climate change and World Heritage.
During regular years, impacts from climate change are minimal. Rather, it's how climate change might affect the severity and frequency of El Nino events (during which time Galapagos ecosystems are highly disturbed) that matters.
The last severe El Nino occurred in 1997-98, the year we arrived in the islands. It was HOT and HUMID. Ocean water felt like bath water. We saw marine iguana skeletons littering the shores. Visiting during an El Nino event gives you a very interesting perspective on how the forces of nature push species to adapt, where only those that can survive unusually harsh conditions can pass along their genes to the next generation. Galapagos wildlife has evolved over millions of years under these conditions - but there are limits beyond which even the most resilient and adaptable of species cannot survive. The Galapagos penguin might be the first to disappear should El Nino events become more frequent and more severe.
Click HERE to access the New York Times article. It's not very long, but has several very nice pictures and short videos, taken using a drone (it's very hard to get permission to use a drone in Galapagos - don't even think about it. The New York Times journalists were lucky - they must have had some strings available for pulling).
Picture from the New York Times article
Monday December 10, 2018
We are partnering with the eminent (and charming) wildlife ecologist and conservationist, Dr. Karen Ross, in offering 2 trips to the Okavango Delta in Botswana in 2020 (May and September). Karen is THE expert in the region and will lead the trips. After 25 years of research and conservation work in the region, she was approached by the government of Botswana to lead their effort in preparing the Okavango Delta's application for World Heritage status (for further details, see the end of this news item).
We met Karen during the time we were living in Nairobi. We became friends and have kept in touch. We asked her to put together the elements of what she considers would be the best way to experience the Okavango and surrounding region. We asked her to suggest the best time of year to go there. This trip is a result of her work. Though Galapagos has always been our only destination (because we know the islands intimately), we are comfortable offering this unique trip only because it has been designed and will be led by someone who knows the area extremely well - it has been Karen's "backyard" for nearly 30 years. Anyone can visit the Okavango, but very few will visit in the company of Karen Ross.
This 14 day itinerary will have you start at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, head over to the Okavango panhandle (where the rainy season waters flow through), to the Tsodilo Hills World Heritage site, into the heart of the Okavango - a vast floodplain that attracts wildlife from far away, to the Kalahari desert, with a final stay in Cape Town (South Africa).
We will be using very comfortable lodgings in all stays - including luxury tent camps while in wilderness areas. The trip will combine some rugged outdoor exploration with very relaxing down time after the day's activities. Though the price is still being finalized, it should come to about US$11,800 / person, double occupancy, starting in Victoria Falls, and ending in Cape Town.
We are now setting up a list of tentatively interested participants (16 per trip). If you'd like to receive advance notice when the trip details are finalized and when we will be ready to accept deposits, please let us know: email@example.com
KAREN ROSS BIO:
Karen was born and raised in Africa. She has a doctorate in wildlife ecology from Edinburgh University and has spent most of her career working in Africa, mainly in the Okavango Delta. She is author of Okavango: Jewel of the Kalahari, which was first published as a companion to a BBC three part documentary of the same title. Karen’s subsequent work in the Okavango Delta was part of some critical conservation activities in Botswana, including the protection of the Okavango Delta from mining threats and upstream water withdrawals from Namibia... She led the NGO pressure to curtail the proliferation of fences in the Okavango region and was co-founder of the ad hoc Committee on Fences which was the first time Botswana created a forum between different government Ministries and between government and civil society.
From 2007 she collaborated with the government of Botswana, Okavango communities and numerous stakeholders and some authorities in Namibia and Angola, to motivate for the listing of the Okavango Delta as a UNESCO World Heritage site. She was chief editor of the Nomination Dossier and in 2014 the Okavango Delta was inscribed by UNESCO as the 1,000th World Heritage Site. You would be hard pressed to find a better travel companion to the Okavango and Kalahari regions.
Wednesday December 5, 2018
I tried hard to find a catchy title for this new item - I don't think I succeeded.
I am shamelessly copy-pasting a short item that appeared in renews.biz this week, and include a few editorial comments at the end:
"Siemens has inaugurated a hybrid solar and energy storage system on the Galapagos island of Isabela in the Pacific Ocean.
The 952kW photovoltaic plant combined with a 660kW battery facility is remotely monitored by the Siemens-Mindsphere application centres in Munich, Germany, and Austin, Texas.
Siemens was awarded a contract for the project, which supplies power to 900 households on the largest Galapagos island, by the Ministry of Electricity and Renewable Energy of Ecuador.
The plant is operated by the local energy supplier Elecgalapagos.
German development bank KfW supported the project financially, while Lahmeyer International was project consultant.
Siemens head of distributed energy systems John Kovach said: “We are proud to contribute to the protection of the Galapagos Islands with our climate-neutral technology.
“We have delivered the first local energy system of its kind, enabling our customer to achieve important long-term environmental goals.”
The Ecuadorian government has set up a programme called Zero Fossil Fuels on the Galapagos Islands to switch the UNESCO World Heritage Site away from fossil fuel-based generation.
It aims for the Galapagos to be 100% supplied by renewable energy, including wind and solar.
Oil produced by the native plant Jatropha Curcas is also planned to be used as a biofuel."
PROMISED EDITORIAL: While one has to welcome and encourage low/zero carbon emission renewable energy anywhere it makes sense (including Galapagos), I've also suspected that companies installing these in Galapagos are doing it more for publicity reasons than for the maximum effectiveness of an investment. The fact that the German Development Bank is supporting the project means that on economic grounds, it may not stand up by itself. I suspect Siemens will be liberally referring to this "Galapagos project" in their marketing materials to attract interest in its products now that it has completed the work.
A similar installation on the mainland would have had much lower installation costs and would have had the same impact in terms of reducing fossil fuel emissions. If reducing emissions were a big concern in Galapagos, more investment would be made in improving construction standards of houses and office buildings there. These are almost all poorly conceived in terms of passive cooling design and have little if any insulation which, with the regular increase in the use of air conditioning, ends up raising the demand for electricity beyond the capacity of solar panels to supply.
The Siemens solar power plant outside of Villamil, on Isabela Island (picture by Siemens)
Wednesday October 31, 2018
In the last few years, the holiday of Halloween as we in North America know it, has started to emerge in Galapagos. This, we are sure, is primarily due to the influence of North American tourists on the islands and the main bars and restaurants beginning to celebrate the day as well. However, what started to happen was that young parents started dressing up their littles ones to go out trick-or-treating. Little bumble bees, devils, ballerinas, and the sort now go from restaurant to restaurant along the main street of Puerto Ayora to ask for candy – quite a sight to see on a rock in the middle of the Pacific!
However, there is a different celebration that goes on around the same time of year in Ecuador and out on the Islands of Galapagos. On the 1st and 2nd of November, Ecuadorians (along with many Latin Americans from various countries) celebrate the Day of the Dead and All Saints Day. The added holiday in Ecuador is November 3rd, which is the Independence Day for the city of Cuenca. There are different traditions in each province and city in Ecuador for these days, but in general it’s to honour and remember relatives that have passed away. These days are national holidays, spent with family. As with most holidays worldwide, there is of course delicious food and drink that goes along with it as well…
Towards the end of October, many in Galapagos, including local establishments, start making “colada morada”; a thick and drink made of pineapple, corn, Andean blueberries, oats, and sugar. Purple, warm, and perfect for the cool evenings in the Islands at that time of year! The accompanying food item for these holidays is a “pan de wawa”. “Wawa”, or “guagua”, meaning baby in the Ecuadorian indigenous language of Quechua, is bread in the shape of a baby or doll, decorated and filled with something sweet – my favourite being dulce de leche (cue the drooling now…) Combined with colada morada it’s a delicious holiday treat!
Image from Laylita.com
If you’d like to try your hand at making these treats, or any other Ecuadorian dish or item, I strongly recommend visiting the page Laylita.com. She has fantastically easy recipes to make (or at least try to make) various Ecuadorian food, including pan de wawa and colarada morada – give ‘em a try and buen provecho!
Tuesday October 30, 2018
I have copy-pasted, below the review provided by Jane Hartman of Maryland (who just turned 60 this year). She completed our Active Galapagos trip last Friday. I received these comments just now and thought I would share them as a "news" item. We survey all of our returning guests on a variety of indicators. For the question "What was your overall impression of your Active Galapagos trip?", 92% give us a 5 out of 5, 7% give us a 4 out of 5, and 1% give us a 3 out of 5.
Here are Jane's comments:
"Experiencing the Galapagos by way of the Samba was outstanding. Everything was done to maximize time experiencing the wildlife at its best. At nearly all sights, we were the only tour group there, arriving when the wildlife was at its most active and before other groups arrived.
The small size of the boat along with the Flexibility of the crew, meant we could change course when opportunities presented themselves: such as seeing orcas & dolphins or checking out volcanic activity. Our guide Jimmy, with his great enthusiasm and love for the islands, was fluent in his knowledge and with his explanations.
We felt pampered and well cared for by the crew of the Samba. There was always a helpful hand ready, even before we asked. Chef Angel served up fantastic meals artfully presented. Captain Jose was a gracious host, interacting with us in so many ways. He came with us on every snorkel trip, and helped me to the bottom of the ocean so I could get a good look at a shark, or an octopus, or a scorpion fish.
As the title indicated, the tour was ACTIVE. We arrived home exhausted, but completely exhilarated and thoroughly happy we went. The pre-trip planning and arrangements made by CNH Tours was exemplary and made everything run very smoothly. Heather reached out to us many times to see if we had any questions. Materials proved (itinerary, packing list, etc.) were extremely well done. With this excellent preparation we were very well prepared for our trip. We were supplied with contacts for help both before and during the trip. This all resulted in a very stress free trip."
Wednesday October 24, 2018
Over the years, we’ve hosted people with all kinds of backgrounds on our charter cruises. One of them came to mind recently and I decided to write a little note about him. This British gentleman was part of a group of 16 friends from around London (UK), one of our very first charters, back in 2001. The tour’s leader was the father of a good friend of ours, who had joined us an earlier “Friends Cruise”.
We had arranged to meet up with the group after their cruise for a cocktail at our Galapagos residence. While chit-chatting with the group, we learned that one of them, Sandy (an unusual name for a man it seemed to me), had been a submarine captain in the British navy years back. The group joked about how he had been the most comfortable of all passengers in the lower decks of the ship.
Ten years later, I happened to pick up a book on the history of the British navy (To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World). The book concluded with a chapter on the 1982 Falklands war. I was reading about the critical role the British navy had played, and how the fleet’s battle group commander, Sandy Woodward, had carried out his responsibilities as he commanded the Hermes aircraft carrier group .
“Sandy?!? Could it be the same?”. I found his email address from our archives and fired a note off to him, asking if indeed he had been the same admiral of the Falklands war fleet. Turns out it had been him. We had a delightful exchange. I asked if he had written about his experiences in the Falklands, and indeed he had. He published “One Hundred Days: The Memoirs of the Falklands Battle Group Commander” in 2003. I promptly purchased it and enjoyed it thoroughly.
Battle Group commander Sandy Woodward, not long before the Falklands war
I still can’t imagine the irony in having hosted a British war fleet commander on a simple, modest little ship, captained by a local resident. I wonder if he’d inadvertently kept a watch over the activity on the bridge and would have loved hear his remarks on the ship.
Tuesday October 23, 2018
We first offered an "Active" trip back in 2003 - chartering a ship twice a year. In 2005, we moved from our original ship to the Samba, booking 4 charters that year. In 2020, we've booked 30 charters with the Samba. This growth is entirely attributable to word of mouth, along with the growing on-line recognition that the Samba is one of the best, if not THE best value for money ship in the Galapagos. We've done no advertising, bought no Google ads... nothing.
Value for money can be measured in many ways. One of the Samba's several defining characteristics, one that sets it apart from the majority of ships in Galapagos, even the highest end ships, is the extent to which its crew is engaged and pro-actively helpful.
The cook works wonders in the galley; the captain is in the water, accompanying snorkelers who appreciate a helping hand; the crew is on the constant watch for how they can make things better for guests. The all do this while sharing a bit of fun with the guests, engaging in some convivial laughter.
The ship's owner recognizes that an engaged crew contributes to a successful operation. One of the ways he gets his crew "on board" is to offer them and their families a cruise of their own, once a year. This gives them a chance to share their life, and the wonders of Galapagos, with their loved ones. In Galapagos very few residents ever get a chance to see what the hoopla is all about. The owner has even organized a trip to the Amazon for his crew and their family, in an effort to help them appreciate the reason why so many foreigners come to their country.
CNH Tours regularly surveys its returning guests on the quality of their experience. Their overall trip receives very high scores - but no other element of the survey receives quite as high a score as the quality of the Samba's crew (though many come close). Below is the result of the survey of returning guests from March to June this year. 1 out of 122 respondents rated the crew as just "very good", 1 rated them "absolutely terrible" (we have to think that was a typo/mistake on the respondent's part), while all the others rated them as "excellent / couldn't possibly be better".
We are very proud of the Samba and how it's managed. The numbers, both in terms of people approaching us to join an Active Galapagos trip, and in terms of survey results, speak for themselves.
A FEW"CUT AND PASTE" COMMENTS FROM OUR GUESTS
1. We found the crew of the Samba truly exceptional and felt very safe and taken-care-of with each one of them. They were unfailingly friendly and helpful. What we especially appreciated is that there were always several crew members coming along on the snorkeling adventures (even captain Oswaldo at times) to unobtrusively keep an eye on our safety. The entire ship was kept spick and span. I should also mention that the crew was always so quiet, no unnecessary noise ever.
2. WHAT A PHENOMENAL, ATTENTIVE, KIND, PROFESSIONAL CREW!
3. Everyone did their jobs so well, and were always there to help or make us more comfortable. The captain really excelled, especially when we were snorkeling by making sure we all got the maximum from the experience.
4. Great guys all worked well together. They were always laughing and joking with us and really seemed to enjoy their work. Worked well as a team They were all amazing loved our captain.
5. Crew went out of their way to help in any way possible. They were friendly, knowledgeable. They worked as a team, helping each other and us. They had fun with us.
Wednesday October 17, 2018
After many months of rumblings, and as predicted in this news column, Sierra Negra volcano on Isabela island burst into eruption on 26 June this year. It was one of the most violent eruptions in Galapagos in the past few decades. The Ecuadorian Geophysical Institute released its final assessment on the eruption recently – information in this article is gathered from that report.
Below: Sierra Negra volcano at the peak of its eruption - late June
The eruption was characterized by the continuous emission of lava flows along 5 eruptive fissures located on the north and north-western flanks of the volcano. The apx. 1,500 residents of Isabela live mostly on the southern flank of the volcano, with most concentrated in the town of Villamil, where the southern flank meets the sea.
The volcano was most violent on its first day, with lava spewing out from 5 distinct fissures (see figure 1 below), flowing as much as 7 km downhill (though no flows reached the sea that day). The flows continued until 23 August, mostly concentrated around fissure #4. On July 6th, a lava flow reached the sea, resulting in an increase in the island’s surface area of 1.5 km squared (apx. 370 acres). A total of 30.6 km squared of new lava fields were deposited (apx. 7,560 acres).
Figure 1: Location of fissures and extent of lava flows (Geophysical Institute of Ecuador)
Though Sierra Negra has always been and will continue to be considered an active volcano it’s likely that the volcano will enter into a longer period of very much reduced activity. There is a chance that a second eruption might occur in the coming months should another pulse of magma emerge from the earth's depths.
The northern slopes of Sierra Negra volcano are generally covered by fairly recent lava flows (e.g. mostly less than a thousand years). The image in figure 1 above clearly illustrates the vast black lava fields on that side of the caldera. There is relatively little wildlife on this part of the island and very sparse vegetation. On the geologic and even on evolutionary biology scales, volcanic eruptions and lava flows are normal in Galapagos. These islands rose out of the sea some 5 million years ago thanks to these volcanoes. It's only because there are islands here that the ancestors of the unique species we see in Galapagos today were able to colonize them. only to be pushed and squeezed into new life forms thanks to the forces of natural selection. So, while eruptions might wipe out a particular population of plants or animals, or even drive a species to extinction, the forces at play that led to their creation in the first place plod on, and over time, will lead to the creation of yet new species (should humans not interfere too much...).
Witnessing a volcanic eruption is a rare privilege – leaving images and sensations seared (figuratively!) into one’s memory for the rest on one’s life. Eruptions in Galapagos occur fairly regularly (every few years) and fortunate are those who happen to be at the right place at the right time.