Galapagos News

Toirtoise smugglers unmasked in Peru

Peruvian wildlife authorities found 29 small tortoises (about 3-4 years old based on photographs I've seen) -- two of them dead -- in a cardboard box on a bus on its way from northern Peru to Lima.

Officials made the discovery while working to identify a suspected international wildlife trafficking ring, which has a route from Peru to the European black market.

Galapagos park officials said genetic studies will be necessary to determine the zone of the archipelago they were taken from.  It's not likely they were stolen from any of  the three tortoise breeding centres - where they are carefully monitored.  

The tortoises will shortly be going back to their islands.

On the.... top of the world

Our Active Galapagos "Covington " group was on top of Pichinca Volcano today, just above Quito.  The view looks FABULOUS!  Quito installed a new cable car from the city all the way up to the top of the mountain.  Our city tour, part of our Active Galapagos trip, includes a trip up to the top on clear days (otherwise, it's just not worth it - and on those days, we spend more time focusing on the treasures of the most beautiful capital city in South America).   Today was such a day - that's Quito down below (Quito is at apx. 9,000 feet / 2,800 metres altitude).    The group just arrived yesterday - and today is what we call their "cushion" day, designed to buffer any mishaps in travel logistics getting to Ecuador (e.g. missed connections, lost luggage etc...).  At the crack of dawn tomorrow, these folks will be heading to Galapagos to embark on the Samba for an adventure of a lifetime.  

 

Electoral... results?

Ecuadorians went to the polls last Sunday for the 2nd round of presidential elections.  Former president Correa of the party Alianza Pais (AP), had been in power for 2 terms (under the new constitution) and could not present himself again.  The candidate for AP, Lenin Moreno (a former VP for AP), was just short of the minimum 40% threshold required to win outright during the first round a few weeks ago, and so a 2nd round had to take place.

Correa was a big, charismatic personality - hosting a weekly TV show always held in a different town, showing him interacting with locals and showing off his government's achievements.  Under his government, I saw massive infrastructure investments that transformed at least those parts of the country I know -  but my contacts in Ecuador also tell me there was waste and corruption and a skyrocketing national debt.  

Ecuador counts on oil exports to fund its spending, and the dramatic drop in prices have not made things easy.  One measure imposed to compensate for lost revenue was a hefty import tax that did not please those who are best placed to enjoy imported products.  This also created some inflationary pressures, as prices jumped.    Similarly, there is an export tax on any funds sent out of the country.  

The National Electoral Commission declared Lenin Moreno the victor on Monday - eliciting significant protests from Lasso supporters, who accuse the Commission of having fixed the results.   Apparently, exit polls had been showing Lasso with a measurable lead over Moreno.

As I write this, I don't have a clear sense as to whether the disgruntled voters convinced that their election has been stolen will organize themselves to exert sufficient pressures on the government to respond.   For the time being, I'm sensing frustration, a call to action in some quarters - but no organized response.  

What does this mean for visitors to Galapagos?  Based on my 20 years' experience in Ecuador, the likelihood of any disruptions are small.  I have witnessed the overthrow of a few governments, the running out of the country of a president (with whom I had been meeting in his office 3 days earlier), fishermen uprisings in Galapagos - and rarely has this affected a visitor's itinerary or plans.  

Our local tourism partners in Quito and in Galapagos are used to this kind of thing and know how to handle situations, should any arise.   I would suspect, with all due respect to my disgruntled friends in the country, that notwithstanding a few agitated demonstrations, things will remain quiet as usual. 

NYT - at it again!

It was barely a week ago that the New York Times published a good story on blue footed boobies.  And today, they published another one on giant tortoises, with a focus on the return of the embalmed Lonesome George, and his more successful (on a reproductive basis) cousin, Diego.  A good read for those preparing a trip.   Click here to see it. 

Boobies headlined in the NYT

The beloved blue footed boobies of Galapagos were featured in today's New York Times.  As I cannot think of outdoing NYT reporting and attempt to re-interpret the article here, I've simply made a link to it so that you can have a look for yourself.

Click HERE to see the NYT times article.   Worth a read (for those with a trip to Galapagos still in the future, you'll be able to impress your naturalist guide with the latest quirky knowledge on booby behaviour!). 

 

High Flying Teen Volunteer

David Crowley and his father joined us on an Active Galapagos cruise in 2015.  Of course, they had a trip of a lifetime!  David was so smitten with Galapagos that he got the nature conservation bug.  Being an aficionado of drone based photography, he proceeded to set up his own conservation NGO, Aerial Conservancy (www.aerialconservancy.org).  Pining for a chance to do some work in the islands, he contacted CNH Tours to see if we could help him find a way to do so.   The story below, in his words, explain how that turned out.

           Ever since I was lucky enough to sail the Galápagos Islands with Juan Salcedo on the Samba in the spring of 2015, I was captivated. Thus, as any persistent and determined teenager my age would, I incessantly emailed Heather Blenkiron— who originally booked my previous cruise— for an internship. After frequent correspondence with Heather, and Juan himself, I finally received the news I had been longing for: an invitation to join the Samba crew once again for two weeks over the 2016 summer— circumnavigating the entire archipelago. Being an avid traveler myself, I have been to many places, but with Juan as my guide I could experience more of the Islands than the average tourist— with paddle boarding along a pod of dolphins and spotting a newborn humpback whale calf being the most memorable.

            The time that I spent in the islands gave me the opportunity to see the other side of the Samba operation, to see how the crew functions behind the scenes, and to truly see Juan’s expertise first hand in the field. In his opinion “[we] had a fantastic time last summer,” and in my opinion, it was one of the best summers of my life— one that has shaped me in many ways.

            My time aboard the Samba moreover inspired me to further my involvement in the Galápagos National Park by founding the Aerial Conservancy,  ( AerialConservancy.org ), a nonprofit corporation that funds and facilitates wildlife conservation through the use of UAV’s, more commonly own as drones.

            However, none of this would have been possible without Heather, who connected me to Juan originally, and believed in me enough to recommend me for the internship. In her words, “It was a pleasure;” nonetheless, her simple act of trust has shaped my life forever.

 

David Crowley (picture NOT taken in Galapagos, in case you were wondering)

More cargo for the fishes

Times are going to be a bit tougher for Galapagos residents again.   The cargo ship Bartolomé, which does the back and forth between the continent and the islands, bringing every day supplies, food and other goods from the continent, had an accident today as it was leaving the major coastal city of Guayaquil.  By the look of things, it will likely be out of service for a while, if not forever (see picture below).   Galapagos cargo ships seemed to work under an evil spell, as such accidents are frequent.  This is the first in 2-3 years, but at that time, three ships in a 2 year period were wrecked.  

This will likely have a measurable impact on the availability and price of supplies in the islands, as critical imports may be more likely flown in for a while.   

 

 The Bartolomé appears to be in a spot of trouble.  Picture from the FB post of Alfredo Davila Carvajal.

A take on this weekend's national elections

Shamelessly copy/pasted from The Economist.  I once met The Economist's "man in Quito" while working for UNESCO.  I have since been a paid subscriber to this well rounded magazine. 

 

What to expect from Ecuador’s elections

Under Rafael Correa, living standards rose. But he governed with a heavy hand and leaves a lot of problems for his successor

WHEN Rafael Correa first ran for Ecuador’s presidency in 2006, supporters at his rallies brandished belts in homage to their candidate, whose surname means “belt” or “strap”. “Dale correa,” or “give them a whipping,” the crowds roared. It was a demand to punish what they regarded as the corrupt elites who had governed Ecuador since the return of democracy in 1979. Mr Correa promised he would. He won that election and then two more. His presidency brought a rare spell of political stability. Living standards rose and public services improved. But few would say that he kept his promise to clean up government. This year’s national elections, which begin on February 19th, are shrill with accusations of corruption. 

Mr Correa, who has a respectable approval rating of 42%, is not a candidate. He is counting on Lenin Moreno, a former vice-president, and his running mate, Jorge Glas, the current vice-president, to carry on his “citizens’ revolution”. Mr Moreno, who shares his alarming first name with 18,000 other Ecuadoreans, hopes to win in the first round by capturing the bulk of Mr Correa’s support and adding to it. To do that he must get more than half the votes or, failing that, at least 40% with a gap of ten percentage points over his nearest rival.

That may not happen. Although Mr Moreno is ahead in the polls, he has been hurt by revelations that he sought from Ecuador’s government a budget of $1.6m a year during his three-year stint as the UN’s special envoy for disability (he has used a wheelchair since he was mugged in 1998) plus $3.9m in travel expenses while he was vice-president. If Mr Moreno falls short, a president from right of centre could bring a decade of correísmo to an end.

Whatever the outcome, Ecuador’s 16m people face greater uncertainty. The halving since 2014 of the price of oil, the country’s biggest export, has pushed the economy into recession and widened a hole in the budget (see chart). Alianza PAIS, the “movement” Mr Correa created, may retain its legislative majority in the elections, but probably as a weakened force. Ecuador’s next president will not be able to afford Mr Correa’s largesse and may not exercise his unchecked power. Ecuadoreans will find themselves tightening belts rather than waving them.

By the standards of left-wing Latin American leaders, Mr Correa has not fared badly. Some $300bn flowed into government accounts during his presidency from oil revenues, higher taxes and fresh borrowing. He used some of that to build “21st-century socialism”, which in practice meant splashing out on roads, schools, clinics and social housing. Social spending doubled as a share of GDP between 2006 and 2012; the minimum wage went up sharply. Mr Correa did not strangle growth and spur inflation with price controls, as Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro did in Venezuela. Ecuador’s adoption of the dollar in 2000, after its currency collapsed, contained Mr Correa’s radicalism.

Between 2006 and 2011 Ecuador had the world’s most “inclusive” economic growth, according to ODI, a British think-tank; incomes of the poorest 40% of Ecuadoreans grew by eight times the national average. The poverty rate, which started falling in the early 2000s, came down further, from nearly 40% in 2006 to less than 23% in 2016.

But Mr Correa’s spree left the economy vulnerable. Government spending doubled to a peak of 44% of GDP in 2014. Public debt has trebled to more than 50% of GDP since the global financial crisis. Having defaulted on its debt, Ecuador pays close to double-digit rates to borrow, largely from Chinese lenders. Mr Correa is trying to replace lost oil revenue with foreign investment but the climate is forbidding. In the World Bank’s ranking of 190 countries by ease of doing business, Ecuador ranks 114th. The recession is beginning to hurt ordinary folk. Employment fell by 244,000 in 2016 and the poverty rate is edging higher.

Ecuadoreans paid a high price for material progress in the form of creeping authoritarianism and continued corruption. Campaigning in 2006 Mr Correa vowed to “depoliticise the courts”. In effect he seized control of them. A commission led by a former interior minister disciplines and often removes judges. Mr Correa made war on a critical press. He set up a regulator that harasses newspapers and radio stations by levying fines, often for such lapses as failing to cover a mayor’s speech.

His building programme produced backhanders and white elephants as well as useful infrastructure. New and rebuilt airports which failed to attract commercial traffic have closed. Odebrecht, a Brazilian construction firm that bribed officials across Latin America, paid $33.5m to Ecuadorean officials between 2007 and 2016, according to the United States Department of Justice. Mr Correa has said that his name, and that of Mr Glas, are likely to appear on the Justice Department’s list of officials bribed by Odebrecht, but insists that is part of an American plot to undermine him.

It is Mr Correa’s failures, not his successes, that are setting the tone for the elections. Voters are most worried about the recession and the rise in unemployment. Much of the heat in the campaign comes from anger at Mr Moreno’s lavish spending and accusations of corruption levelled at Mr Glas. One alleges that he took kickbacks in connection with a hydroelectric-dam project. He denies wrongdoing.

Mr Moreno is promising voters a softer-edged correísmo. He entices them with budget-busting promises to treble a cash benefit for the poor to $150 a month, raise pensions and build “housing for all”. If he fails to win in the first round, the anti-Correa vote, now split among seven candidates, may coalesce around the other survivor of that ballot. The leading contenders have promised to undo much of Mr Correa’s legacy. They agree on the need to restore judicial independence, strengthen human rights and curb the budget deficit.

The likeliest candidate to join Mr Moreno in the second round is Guillermo Lasso, a conservative banker from the coastal city of Guayaquil who was runner-up in the 2013 presidential election. Though his foes brand him an out-of-touch plutocrat, he sees himself as a challenger to old-style business oligarchs from his home town. He has promised to eliminate red tape and to cut taxes by $3bn, which may clash with his plans to shrink the deficit.

His rivals for a second-round spot include Cynthia Viteri, the nominee of the centre-right Social Christian Party, which represents Guayaquil’s elite. The anti-Correa left has united around Paco Moncayo, a former mayor of Quito.

Opposition parties failed to present a unified list in elections to the national assembly, increasing the chances that Alianza PAIS will retain control. That could make it harder for the next president to enact reforms, especially if it is not Mr Moreno. Mr Correa is leaving the scene, at least for now. His belt-brandishing style of politics may not.

World Tour Ends - Lonesome George is Home Again

(from SBS.com.au)

 

Lonesome George being loaded onto the plane in Guayaquil today (17 Feb)

The embalmed body of the giant tortoise known as Lonesome George, the last of its kind, will be returned to the Galapagos Islands, the Ecuadorian archipelago where it lived and died.

An official at the Environment Ministry says George will arrive at Santa Cruz Island this Friday on a plane of the Ecuadorian air force and will be installed in a reserved room until February 23.

From then on it will be exhibited to the public in a newly built gallery where its preservation is guaranteed.

The site has "all the technological mechanisms to keep it in good condition: temperature and humidity controls and special show windows so it doesn't get damaged," the official said.

Lonesome George probably lived more than 100 years, though its exact age at the time of its death remains unknown.

The tortoise was the last specimen of the Chelonoidis abingdoni species, and during it last 40 years became a symbol of the Ecuadorian archipelago, known worldwide for its rich biodiversity.

The chelonian, which died without leaving offspring, was discovered in 1971 and since then until its death was cared for at the Reproduction and Breeding Center of Galapagos National Park (PNG) on Santa Cruz Island.

In June 2012, Lonesome George was found dead of natural causes in its pen by Fausto Llerena, the same park guard that took care of the giant tortoise during its life in captivity.

Up to now, the tortoise's body has been on show at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where it was taken after desiccation, a process that took over a year.

With the place where it will be exhibited almost ready, George returns to his native archipelago, where a Route of the Tortoise has also been created, a path where visitors can learn about Galapagos biodiversity.

The path, which will also be inaugurated this Friday, leads visitors from the park entrance to the gallery where they can observe the iconic chelonian, the Environment Ministry official said.

Election Drought Predicted to be Shortlived

Wanting to be sure that its electorate is in full possession of its reasoning powers during national elections, the government of Ecuador requests that all establishments normally allowed to sell alcoholic beverages in the country (bars, restaurants, supermarkets...) refrain from doing so over a full three day period.  The ban starts nearly 2 full days before the voting booths open and ends a full 16 hours after they close.  One must conclude that the government won't even tolerate voting with a hangover, nor will it tolerate excessive celebrations once the vote is in. 

The ban also applies to drinking alcohol in the privacy of your home (or hotel room) - though one wonders how this can be controlled.   If you must have your happy hour drink, the only option to do so legally is to embark on a cruise - where we've been informed that the ban is not applied (or respected?).

For this very interesting national election (President Correa is stepping down after a fairly long and vigorous 10 years in power), the ban will apply from Friday, 17 February, 12 noon, to Monday, 20 February, 12 noon.    You have been warned.

More guides in the pipeline - will they be good?

Yesterday, the governor of the Province of Galapagos, Eliecer Cruz (an old friend, former boss) tweeted "good luck" to the large number of aspirants taking the entrance exam to the Galapagos Naturalist Guide course. The 350 or so hopefuls (see picture below - a similar exam is being held in each of the three main towns of Galapagos) are pictured below.  All are Galapagos residents. To be a Galapagos Naturalist Guide, the course is mandatory - only those having successfully completed it are certified and can be hired by cruise ships and tourism companies.

In the early days (e.g. until 1998), just about anybody on the planet could consider becoming a Galapagos Naturalist Guide.  Many passionate and well educated young adults were hired - both Ecuadorian (an old Quito friend of mine passed the course - but never guided.  She is now a doctor in Quito;  another is the Darwin Station director - a mainland Ecuadorian).   As a result, a good many of the older guides are from the mainland or from overseas - I know several American and British naturalist guides, for example. But the youngest of that crop is about 47 these days.

As of 1998, with the passing of the first "Special Law for Galapagos", the islands were given a special status, in which jobs could only be offered to Galapagos residents, and only in the case where no resident could be found, could a job be offered to a mainland Ecuadorian. This spelled the end of foreign, and even mainland naturalist guides.

It has been several years since a Naturalist Guide course has been held. Various forces have delayed the holding of a new one - mainly, the 1,000 or so existing guides who don't like to see new, young competition joining their ranks. But other forces have been lobbying for the course - namely the aspiring young Galapagos residents hoping to join the rather elite ranks of "certified Galapagos Naturalist Guides". Being a guide in Galapagos (for the hard working, good ones) can be a ticket to a good job with a decent salary in a place where these can be scarce.

As for the ship owners - they can be ambivalent. While they are keen on new guides, they are not so keen on just a whole bunch of low quality new guides. They would like to see the guide's course opened up to mainland Ecuadorians - but politically, and under the Special Law for Galapagos, this is very difficult to do. The locals want to keep this opportunity to themselves, reducing the competition from the much larger pool of mainlanders.

Indeed, a quick assessment of the pool of potential guides in Galapagos shows that it is very shallow. The last census of the islands (published in November 2016) indicated a total population of 25,244 (in 2015). The population distribution (many children) the comparatively low level of post secondary education, and the overall absence of English language skills alone likely reduces this pool to a very small number of potentially good guides.

Though good for Galapagos residents, this formula presents a challenge to the tourism interests in the islands.  Too many mediocre candidates risk being admitted, weakening the overall quality of the Naturalist Guides pool.  

At CNH Tours, we emphasize the importance of having a top quality guide as part of your cruise experience.  When considering cruise options for our guests, one of our main concerns is the reputation of the guides that a particular ship owner hires.  You can be on the most luxurious ship with the greatest itinerary, but if your guide is dispassionate, your trip will be tainted. 

Though we are sure that many very good guides will emerge from this course, we remain concerned that the new crop of top guides won't be able to keep up with the natural attrition of excellent guides currently considering retirement.   We would very much like to see the guides course opened up to mainland Ecuadorians as well.    

 

 


Tortoise hit by car

In what appears to be a first for Galapagos, a giant tortoise was hit and killed by a car on Thursday (26 January) on Santa Cruz Island, outside the town of Puerto Ayora.  This sad "first" is no doubt linked to increasing population in the islands, along with the increasing number of vehicles plying its roads.   Even though the importation of vehicles from the continent is strictly controlled, the numbers are going up significantly.  

Not a big fan of land based tourism, I can't help but make the link between the fact that the number of land based visitors to the islands has gone from as little as 5,000 per year in the early 1990's, to nearly 200,000 per year today - and this incident.   Land based tourism has been driving a frenzy of hotel / restaurant / hostel construction - giving Galapagos an "El Dorado" glow, attracting people from the continent and increasing overall activity.   By contrast, shipped based tourism has remained flat (it has even dropped by 1% in the past 5 years according to Galapagos tourism statistics). 

There has been a vociferous "anti-speeding" outcry on Facebook on the part of Galapagos residents following this incident - an encouraging sign that people there recognize the meaning of this event and that they recognize the value of their wildlife.  

Lava Java Coffee - now on our agenda

We've known Scott Henderson and Maria Elena Guerra for years - since 1998.  They were both colleagues of ours at the Charles Darwin Research Station back then.   Since, Scott has taken up the job of VP for Conservation International's Latin America Marine program, and Maria Elena is the Chief Administrative Officer for World Wildlife Fund Ecuador.  

But after working hours, they are "walking the talk" and have set up their own organic coffee plantation in the highlands of Santa Cruz island.  I had the pleasure of visiting it for the first time back in November and was so impressed, Heather and I decided to modify the Active Galapagos itinerary to include a stop here instead of at the El Trapiche farm we used to visit. 

And now, I just came across a wonderful little article on the Lava Java estate.  You can click on the link at the end of this article for a great story about them.  

Lava Java coffee is a bit pricier than the usual industrial brew that is shipped in from the continent.   When I asked the manager of a high end ship in Galapagos "Do you use locally grown coffee?", his response was: "You have to realize that people drink a lot of coffee, and it all adds up - so no, we don't - it's too expensive.  We import our coffee".    Yet the owner of the Samba, the small, tourist-superior ship we use for our Active Galapagos trips uses Lava Java coffee exclusively.  The Samba prides itself on working as closely with the local community as possible.  THAT is the difference between supporting the local economy and not caring very much about it.  

https://munchies.vice.com/en/articles/inside-the-galapagos-islands-first-organic-coffee-farm

 

 

A Tale of Two Cities

Shall I fly through Quito or Guayaquil?

We often get this question from guests planning their international travel route to and from Ecuador.   The answer we provide is not simple – and assumes that you agree that arriving at least 2 days prior to your cruise start date is a wise move, giving you a buffer against any travel problems (missed connections, delays, lost luggage etc…).   Your ship will not wait for you, even if you’re just an hour late.  

International arrival gateway:  Quito 

If you plan on spending any time on mainland Ecuador, it is generally understood that Quito is a better place to be.   It’s a World Heritage site, considered the prettiest capital city in all South America with plenty of fascinating things to keep you engaged and active.  Beyond the multiple attractions of the city, nearby points of interest include the cloud forest, Andean hot springs, Otavalo market and more for those planning on spending more than one day there.

International departure gateway:

  1. Guayaquil: If you don’t plan on spending any extra time on the continent after you leave Galapagos, and if your airline can accommodate you, it’s easier to transit out of Ecuador via Guayaquil. Flights out of Galapagos all stop in Guayaquil before continuing to Quito.   This means that you could be in your hotel by 3:30PM in Guayaquil, instead of at 5:30PM in Quito, resulting in a more relaxed afternoon and evening.     Also, there is a good selection of hotels within a 10-minute drive from the airport.
  2. Quito: If for any reason it’s better for you to transit out of Quito, and if you need accommodation, it is better book a room in a nearby airport hotel, saving you the hour-long ride into Quito city proper. The most practical hotel is the Wyndham hotel – located just a 2-minute taxi ride from the airport.   The Wyndham is a new business style hotel with spacious rooms facing away from the airport.  It has a great breakfast buffet.   For those who prefer to book directly, click here for the website.   Another option is the Rincon de Puembo, a very charming and well managed colonial style hotel full of cachet, located 15-20 minutes away by taxi. Click here for details.  

Day rooms

International departures are often near midnight – or in the morning.  Arriving either mid or late afternoon at Guayaquil or Quito airports can leave you with many hours to while away (mostly night time hours) – and the option of a day room at a nearby comfortable hotel can be attractive. 

Christmas 2017 comes early...

Our two 2017 Christmas Active Galapagos trips on the Samba sold out a while back already, to the frustration of many people.  In an effort to provide a similar "Active Galapagos" experience, we've secured the Beagle for an additional Active Galapagos trip from the 17th - 29th December 2017 (NW itinerary). 

The Beagle is similar to the Samba in terms of design and feel - if only a little more spacious, with more deck space.  It is owned by old friends, Agusto and Georgina Cruz and managed by their son Sebastian.  Agusto's brother Felipe was my colleague when I worked in Galapagos, and his other brother, Eliecer, is our friend the Governor of the Province of Galapagos.   For more information on the Beagle, you can see its e-brochure here.

The Beagle is slightly more expensive than the Samba.  The Christmas season price for the 13 day Active Galapagos itinerary is US$5,665.  For those available only for the cruise, the price is $5,520 (3 nights hotel, domestic flight, transfers, 7 night cruise). 

Contact us for more details. 

 

Collecting Evolution...

A great new addition to Galapagos literature - for the Darwin diehards amongst us.  Matt James is an old acquaintance from the days we lived in Galapagos. 

"In 1905, eight men from the California Academy of Sciences set sail from San Francisco for a scientific collection expedition in the Galapagos Islands, and by the time they were finished in 1906, they had completed one of the most important expeditions in the history of both evolutionary and conservation science. These scientists collected over 78,000 specimens during their time on the islands, validating the work of Charles Darwin and laying the groundwork for foundational evolution texts like Darwin's Finches. Despite its significance, almost nothing has been written on this voyage, lost amongst discussion of Darwin's trip on the Beagle and the writing of David Lack.

In Collecting Evolution, author Matthew James finally tells the story of the 1905 Galapagos expedition. James follows these eight young men aboard the Academy to the Galapagos and back, and reveals the reasons behind the groundbreaking success they had. A current Fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, James uses his access to unpublished writings and photographs to provide unprecedented insight into the expedition. We learn the voyagers' personal stories, and how, for all the scientific progress that was made, just as much intense personal drama unfolded on the trip. This book shares a watershed moment in scientific history, crossed with a maritime adventure. There are four tangential suicides and controversies over credit and fame. Collecting Evolution also explores the personal lives and scientific context that preceded this voyage, including what brought Darwin to the Galapagos on the Beagle voyage seventy years earlier. James discusses how these men thought of themselves as "collectors" before they thought of themselves as scientists, and the implications this had on their approach and their results.

In the end, the voyage of the Academy proved to be crucial in the development of evolutionary science as we know it. It is the longest expedition in Galapagos history, and played a critical role in cementing Darwin's legacy. Collecting Evolution brings this extraordinary story of eight scientists and their journey to life."

Okavango - 2018

CNH Tours takes pride in the fact that Galapagos "is our only destination".   We focus only on Galapagos simply because it's a place we know very well, first hand and where we maintain close ties (last month, I had one-on-one meetings with the governor of Galapagos, the National Park director, his chief of tourism, the Darwin Foundation director, many guides and ship owners...).  

But...

Over the years, we have had many inquiries from very happy guests asking what else we could offer them.   Always, we've said "nothing - sorry!"  We've given this some thought and, thanks to a bit of serendipity, we've decided to develop a custom designed trip to Botswana's Okavango Delta and surrounding areas.  

Why?

Because while we were living in Nairobi in 2014/2015, we met Karen Ross, a wildlife biologist with a long experience in Kenya and Botswana.  It turned out that Karen would be the CNH Tours avatar for the Okavango.  

Karen knows the Okavango like we know Galapagos.   Thanks to her lifelong work and professionalism (she wrote the award winning TV series and companion book Okavango, Jewel of the Kalahari and subsequently spent thirteen years working for Conservation International – founding and directing its Okavango Programme), it was to her that the government of Botswana turned to lead the development of the UNESCO World Heritage Site nomination project.  Over the course of 5 years, Karen traveled throughout the region, met up with a very wide range of stakeholders, from government ministers to local communities, to the tourism sector, in order to pull together all the elements required in a formal submission for World Heritage status.  She was successful - the Okavango was inscribed onto UNESCO's World Heritage list in 2014.  While Galapagos was the first WH site, Okavango was the 1,000th (great bookends!). 

It is not unreasonable to conclude that few people know the Okavango as well as Karen Ross does.  

We asked her to pull together the "ideal" itinerary for a 14 day trip to the region and to suggest the ideal time of year to go.  She recently completed this task with the help of a local travel expert.   It turns out that late April, early May is her recommendation - just after the rains end and before the heat starts.

We are also very fortunate in that Karen is available to be the tour leader for this trip.   We expect the price (we are still working on details) to come at about $8,500 per person, from Cape Town, South Africa.

We'll be posting more news shortly, sending a note out to our Galapagos alumni.  If you want to be our our "first to contact list" when we are ready to take bookings, you can send me an email:  mpatry@cnhtours.com 

 

Karen Ross - CNH Tours avatar in the Okavango Delta, Botswana

 

 

Darwin Station Stashing Hyundai Secrets

While attending the Charles Darwin Foundation's annual general meeting 2 weeks ago, I noticed some shroud covered vehicles tucked away behind the new (and very well done) interpretation centre there.   A few casual inquiries, and I learned that underneath lay resting several new 100% electric cars.  Hyundai CEO was on hand, as were many senior company officials and plenty of media - ready for the global launch of these new vehicles.   I learned that the Darwin Station CEO and one of its major donors were planning on "button-holing" the CEO on the evening of the launch to argue for some solid Galapagos conservation support.  Let's hope something materializes! 

 

Below - unveiling of the new electric vehicles at the Darwin station.

CNH Tours Galapagos Business Trip Report

I went to Galapagos and Quito on November 9 for a two-week visit.  My objectives were to:

  1. participate in the Charles Darwin Foundation's Annual General Meeting (I'm a governing / voting member)
  2. inspect some ships so that we may be better positioned to comment on them;
  3. meet with our service providers to ensure all was running smoothly and to identify ways to improve the experience for our guests and;
  4. see our old friends and acquaintances, to strengthen our personal bonds with the islands and the community there.  

For posterity, and for those who might be interested, here is a short report on the trip.

  1. Charles Darwin Foundation’s Annual General Meeting

This was my first AGM as a voting member of the governing council.   The CDF is emerging from a financial straightjacket.   A few years ago, several large projects were coming to an end, and the CDF was faced with a severe cash flow shortage.  Due to new labour laws, the cost of laying off staff had skyrocketed, resulting in a downward spiral in terms of cash flow issues.   Thankfully, a last-minute donor kicked in several hundreds of thousands of dollars to help with the costs of laying off staff.   Over the next 2 years, the CDF was able to get back on to its feet, and as of this financial year, it is back in the typical NGO financial situation – budgeting for $4M worth of activities in 2017, but with a pretty much guaranteed income of $3.3M – hoping to raise additional funds along the way.  

The 2-day AGM ended with a feeling that things were back to normal after having run a painful cash flow gauntlet.  This doesn’t mean that the sailing will be smooth, but only that legacy issues, the proverbial albatross around its neck, had been successfully dealt with.   CNH Tours is a strong supporter of the CDF and wholeheartedly encourages others to support its good work as well.   Of note this year was the on-going effort at finding a solution to the invasive fly (Philornis downsii) which lays its eggs in the nests of native birds, resulting in a huge mortality.   Our old friend Charlotte Causton is leading an international effort at dealing with this extinction threat.  

 

  1. Ship Inspections

I boarded and inspected 9 ships (I could have inspected more – but after 9, things start to blur and it is hard to maintain a clear impression on one ship over another).  The following ships were on my list:  Nemo I, Nemo II, Passion, Integrity, Majestic, Origin, Grace, Tip Top II, Tip Top III.  I would have no problems recommending any of these ships – as long as expectations and ship amenities / budgets were matched.   Some of things that were highlights:  Nemo I:  Small, cozy and intimate – good for small groups; getting into the cabins requires a certain physical dexterity.   The Origin’s captain showed me around his ship – Pablo Salas.  His regular job is 2nd officer on one of the 5,000 passenger Celebrity cruise ships – but as he is a Galapagos resident, he likes to captain the Origin from time to time.   The Passion is the lowest capacity (12 passenger) luxury vessel in the islands – and recently partnered with the international conservation organization Wild Aid – Fiddi Angermeyer, the owner and an old acquaintance, was on board supervising some refurbishments.  I was taken by the Integrity, well recommended by an old friend of mine – and we are considering it for a future “comfort + Active Galapagos” package.   The Majestic had wonderful floor to ceiling windows in its top deck cabins.  I could go on.

 

  1. Meeting with service providers

The owner of the Samba, Juan Manuel Salcedo (with his family), the ship we have been chartering for over 10 years, invited me out on a sport fishing outing (run by his brother-in-law, Nicolas Schiess on the Tesoro ship) with Scott Henderson, and old friend who is currently vice-president for Latin America at Conservation International, based in Galapagos.   We talked non-stop for a few hours while Nicolas and his crew piloted the ship, managed fishing lines and caught a dolphin fish (mahi-mahi).   We proceeded to a cove for some snorkeling (there were at least 50 turtles with us, and a dozen white tipped reef sharks, sea lions and more) and to eat our fish.  This was a great opportunity to get updated on island and national politics, trends in the tourism industry and conservation issues in the islands.  I met up with Juan and his wife Erika again later in the week, and we reviewed our work together, suggesting improvement for the highlands tour, and increasing efficiencies in terms of invoicing etc.  

I also met with the owner of the Hotel Fernandina to discuss improvements.  This family run hotel, started in the 1970’s by don Fernando, has grown from 4 to 26 rooms.  We’ve been using it for 12 years or so.  It is a simple hotel, no frills, but well managed and very reasonably priced – ensuring that we can keep the price under control for our signature “Active Galapagos” trip, which includes 2 nights in Galapagos after the cruise.   Don Fernando was kind enough to host me for the 9 nights I stayed in the islands.  This gave me the opportunity to inspect the hotel and its operations.  I left them with a list of suggested improvements – which we discussed.  Don Fernando is 70 years old, and remains the owner of the hotel, though his 3 children are now running it.  I noted some challenges ahead in terms of the succession and we’ll be keeping an eye on things there.   I visited a few other hotels to enhance our personal knowledge of other accommodations opportunities in the islands.

I had a long chat with Paulina, the niece of the Mansion del Angel’s owner (who has no children of his own).  We reviewed our business relationship and came up with minor improvements to what we concluded was a very good relationship.  The Mansion del Angel is a unique hotel – chock-a-block full of early 20th century charm – an historic mansion in Quito, with lovely grounds in the back (and a spa – book your massage).   The location is not ideal in the sense that a taxi is required to get anywhere – but it’s a small price to pay for such a memorable hotel experience.  The food is also very nicely prepared and presented. 

I visited two hotels near the Quito airport.  We will be recommending a hotel for those people spending just one night in Quito, and not wanting to take the 45 minute (or more) journey from the airport down in the valley, up to Quito city.   I visited the airport Wyndham hotel – quite new, and a very decent business type hotel, almost a walking distance from the airport ($3 by airport taxi).  All the rooms are facing away from the airport – ensuring that you are not bothered by the noise (I stayed one night).  I also visited Rincon de Puembo (15-20 minutes’ drive from the airport).  Though further than the Wyndham, it makes up for it 10 times over for the charm and coziness.   This is an old country estate, turned into a modern 35 or so room hotel, fully respecting all the architectural niceties.   The ideal hotel would be to have the Rincon de Puembo located where the Wyndham his – but you can’t have it all I’ve been told.

 

  1. Old friends and acquaintances

In Quito, I dined with Adriana Vallejos, our long-time CNH Tours agent there.  We first met her in 2000, when she helped book a jungle logde for our first ever Galapagos charter.  She is a ball of energy, our “eyes and ears” in Quito.  When we want something done, nothing will stop her.   Adriana is both a friend and part-time employee.  We reviewed how things were going and agreed on some minor improvements.  

Eliecer Cruz:  Governor of the province of Galapagos.  Eliecer had been my boss when I worked in the islands – Park director at the time.  He then took up the job of head of the WWF office, and then was appointed governor by the president of Ecuador.   We had the opportunity to chat during the Darwin Foundation AGM.

Walter Bustos:  Park director – I was invited to his office for a courtesy visit.   We had met a few years earlier while I was still working at UNESCO and he was an assistant to the minister of the environment.   When I mentioned that I was working a lot with the Samba, he exclaimed that it was a good ship – that the Park had given it an award recently for service to the community.

Veronica Santamaria:  Galapagos National Park tourism and public use director.  I just wanted to say hello, to let her know of our concerns over the uncontrolled growth of the land based tourism in the islands.  She was new to the job – it was a good chance to have her hear from cruise agencies such as ours.  

Mathias Espinoza:  This handsome green-eyed Ecuadorian-German Galapagueño, and his wife Maria Agusta, are old friends from my Darwin days.   He owns the Scuba Iguana dive shop and his wife, a marine biologist, is now raising 2 boys and helping with the dive business and with their newly opened hostal (La Casa de Mathias) – very nice and located on a quiet dead end street next to the park boundary.  

Gaby Bohorquez:  Gaby is a naturalist guide, based in the UK, where, with her husband Paul McFarling (also a guide) they are raising their children.  Gaby continues to guide, and I caught up with her as she disembarked from the Endeavour.  She and Paul are our old friends – we visited them last summer in the UK, and they dropped in on us frequently when we lived in the Paris area.  They also run a hostal, the "Cactus Pad", just near to Mathias' place.

Ivonne Torres:  A naturalist guide, now working for Puerto Ayora city hall, she’s in charge of sustainable development issues.  It was her birthday, and I was invited to celebrate with her and friends on the rooftop of a newly built hotel in the far end of Puerto Ayora.  Good to  catch up on what the town is doing these days.

Scott Henderson and Maria Elena Guerra (MEG): Former Darwin station colleagues and friends, they now live on their 40 acre farm in the highlands above Puerto Ayora.  Scott is now the VP for Latin America at Conservation International, and MEG is the administrative officer for WWF Ecuador.   They have 10,000 coffee plants and produce the delicious Lava Java coffee of Galapagos.    I’ve asked them to receive our Active Galapagos guests during their highland visits – we are working on the details.  They have a fascinating life story – Scott was born and raised in Ohio but ended up on a coffee farm in Galapagos!

Charlotte Causton and Heinke Jagr: My old Darwin Station colleagues continue to carry the torch.  Heinke lives in a charmingly dilapidated A-frame house on the shores of Academy Bay.  She invited Charlotte and I for a dinner on the concrete platform by the sea, under the stars, for dinner, where we discussed the latest goings-on and conservation challenges. 

Godfrey Merlen:  He also looks like Merlin the magician – Godfrey is the Godfather of behind the scenes marine conservation work in Galapagos.  He landed there in the 1970’s I believe and over time, burnished his reputation as an action oriented can-do mariner.  Hired to carry out sperm whale research, to help oversee the construction of Park ships and to run the Wild Aid office, Godfrey is a fixture in the islands with an unusual wit and a sharp eye.  It’s always great to catch up.

Arturo Izurieta:  The Charles Darwin Research Station director – we had some good chats on the health of the Foundation, and how CNH Tours could help.  Arturo had been park director on two occasions prior to taking up this latest post, where he has his hands full. 

Over the course of my 9 days in the islands, I ran into so many other old friends and colleagues:  Wilson Cabrera, one of the lead hunters in the goat eradication project I help develop; Karl Campbell, one of the masterminds of the goat eradication strategy; Macarena Iturralde, who runs her own Latin American tour agency; Cristina Paz and Champi, her husband:  both guides, Champi often guides on our Active Galapagos trips and Cristina is currently helping me develop a ratings system for visitor sites; Paola Diaz, in charge of public relations at the Station; Hugo Echeverria, a lawyer who worked with the Sea Shepherd Society and who almost singlehandedly helped change the attitude of the Ecuadorian legal community in regards to environmental crimes; Jose Gallardo, the owner of the best hardware store in town (Bodega Blanca) and so many more.   All of these people make up our home away from home in Galapagos. 

Of snakes and iguanas

I just returned from a 10 day visit to Galapagos - and everywhere I turned, people there were in agreement.  The footage captured by the BBC was simply extraordinary.   I lived in the islands for 4 years and have been on a few cruises. Never have I seen a snake.   It turns out that the rocks, particularly on Fernandina island, are slithering with them.   All they need is a little temptation to coax them out.   See the footage here: 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B3OjfK0t1XM

 

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