Galapagos News

An Affair to Remember .... Even 80 Years Later

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. 

Born free.... Galapagos style (e.g. reptiles, not lions)

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)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The first time I saw a man in drag in Quito…

 

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!

 

Don't go to Galapagos for the fireworks

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...

This Ship Isn’t Sinking, but the Rats are Going Regardless

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.   

 

Evolution, Galapagos and Climate Change...

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

Picture from the New York Times article

Interested in the Okavango Delta?

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:  hblenkiron@cnhtours.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.

 

 

Solar panels for air conditioning?

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)

 

Halloween...in Galapagos?

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!

"The captain helped me to the bottom of the ocean"

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."

Falklands war battle fleet commander on our ship

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.

Ship's crew receives near perfect score

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.

 

 

Volcano Post Mortem (or just a reprieve?)

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.   

123 baby tortoises go missing

The Galapagos National Park Service noticed the absence of 123 baby tortoises from its tortoise breeding center in Villamil (Isabela island) last week.   The "Arnaldo Tupiza" tortoise breeding center was established 20 years ago with the objective of helping expand the wild tortoise population on Isabela island. 

It's not the first time that tortoise are stolen.   Last year, 17 baby Galapagos tortoises were discovered in Peru.  They were subsequently repatriated to Galapagos.   

There are three breeding centers in Galapagos, one at Villamil, one at Puerto Ayora (at the Charles Darwin Research Station) and another in San Cristobal close to the park offices there.   The Villamil breeding center is the most isolated, located approximately 1 mile (1.6 km) from town, surrounded by forest.  This makes the center more vulnerable to furtive activities.   

Newly hatched tortoises are about the size of an apricot and within two years can grow to the size of a tennis ball.  At four years, they are the size of a grapefruit - large enough to fend for themselves (e.g. mostly protect themselves from introduced rats) and are usually returned to their native habitats.  

This newborn is the size of an apricot...

In centuries past, tortoises were a highly sought food source.  Once it became known that this archipelago, located near rich whale hunting waters contained a plentiful supply of giant tortoises, it became the local "meat counter" for whaling ships, and any other ship passing through.  The tortoises were relatively easy to capture and transport to the ships - where they could survive for months before being butchered for dinner.   

Female tortoises were favoured for their smaller size - and ease of transport. Though the practice of eating tortoise largely died out 100 years ago, to this day, in some parts of the archipelago, there are still populations with a disproportionate number of males over females.

The Galapagos National Park Service has repatriated upwards of 2,500 tortoises over the years, with their most notable success being at Española island.  Here, in the 1970's, only a handful of tortoises remained after earlier depredations by humans, followed by the destruction of the habitat by introduced goats, and the predation by rats of all baby tortoises.  The Park, with technical help from the Charles Darwin Research Station was able to eradicate the goats and the rats, and to develop a way to breed the tortoises in captivity.  Española island is now more or less back to what is was like before humans came along. 

 

 

 

Answer: ICONIC nightly show with ties to Galapagos – Question: What is Jeopardy!, Alex?!

This week on the show Jeopardy! there was an entire category dedicated to our favourite Ecuadorian archipelago – Galapagos!

Jeopardy!, an iconic televised game show in the USA now in its 35th season, quizzes its contestants with answers and they have to provide the questions to win money. For example, in the category of “Islands” you might have the host, Alex Trebek, say, “Answer: An archipelago located 1000km (600 miles) off the coast of Ecuador”. The correct way to answer would be, “What is the Galapagos, Alex?” Fun fact: Alex Trebek is Canadian! 

 

The Galapagos category was part of the first round and we must say, quite the challenge! Some of the answers were about swallowed tailed gulls, ocean-diving mammals (sea lions), a type of plant found on many beaches of Galapagos that changes to bright green throughout the seasons (a type of succulent), and a clip of a “Clue Crew” member working to crush sugar cane in the highlands of Santa Cruz – with the help of a donkey too!

Every year or so, Alex Trebek and some of his film crew and “Clue Crew Members” go to Galapagos. They film questions there while being hosted by one of the higher end ships. During their 2017 trip, CNH Tours’ own Kelsey Bradley (then working for the Darwin Research Station) went onboard to give a talk about the work of the Station. She fully themed her talk to match the style of Jeopardy! and as a thank you, Jimmy McGuire, one of Jeopardy’s “Clue Crew” members (a presenter on the show) gave her a Jeopardy hat and a special thanks. (See awkwardly funny photo below!)

 

During the episode this week, there was also a “Double Jeopardy” question included in the Galapagos category – answering correctly the contestant would have doubled their wager. The question involved beautiful video footage of two large birds doing their mating dance, and as Alex said from Espanola island, “a waved type of these”. Unfortunately, the contestant didn’t answer correctly, but if you’ve done your research on Galapagos – or if you’re lucky enough to have been – you’ll know that the answer was the “Waved Albatross”.

We always love to see Galapagos pop up out of the blue – even if we spend our days (and nights!) talking about it!

 

This week on the show "Jeopardy!" there was an entire category dedicated to our favourite Ecuadorian archipelago – Galapagos!

#1 for 40 years - Happy World Heritage Birthday!

Galapagos is marking it's 40th anniversary as a World Heritage site.  On the 8th of September 1978, the intergovernmental World Heritage Committee met in Washington D.C. and approved the inscription of the Galapagos Islands onto the World Heritage list.   As it was the first dossier to be studied and considered, it was given the prestigious "#1".  In  contrast, the most recent World Heritage site to be inscribed onto the list (Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains in South Africa, July of this year) was numbered #1,575.

The World Heritage Convention was designed as an international instrument to encourage countries to take note of their cultural and natural heritage.  Countries were further encouraged to invest in conserving their heritage for current and future generations, and to identify and propose, for international recognition, those cultural and natural heritage sites they might consider to be of global significance.   

Sites proposed for recognition would be studied by arm's length technical bodies. These technical bodies would share their recommendations as to the validity of the proposals to the World Heritage Committee, which, in turn, would inscribe these sites onto the World Heritage list if it agreed.

It is not surprising that Galapagos was the first ever site to be inscribed.  Along with perhaps 3 or 4 other places on earth, it sits at the top of the pyramid with regard to places were we can go to observe wildlife so easily and feel completely awed by the spectacle. 

It was no coincidence either that the first meeting of the World Heritage Committee took place in Washington D.C.  The USA had taken a leadership role in the creation of the World Heritage Convention, holding a conference on the matter in the actual White House, in 1965.  In the following years, it invested a good deal of effort to bring the countries of the world together to develop this international instrument.  It wasn't until 1976 that it was formally adopted.  

The result has been successful beyond the expectations of the early proponents.  The World Heritage Convention is arguably one of the best news stories coming out of the United Nations, and likely one of the most widely recognized United Nations conventions.  

Happy World Heritage inscription day Galapagos!

 

Long-Lost Message in a Bottle - An Historic Find in Galapagos!

 

What’s the next best thing to going on Shackleton’s Expedition to Antarctica? Well, sailing through the Galapagos Archipelago of course!

A nearly century-old message in a bottle from sailor Hugh Craggs was recently discovered in Galapagos by 26-year-old Toronto student Grant Peters. It was found buried in the sand on Floreana Island and what Peters later found out, it was written by Craggs during his voyage around the world (this being after missing out on Shackleton’s expedition).

Craggs’s note was dated August 1, 1924 and according to the Daily Mail it read, “Hugh Craggs, Yacht St George RTYC. Will any finder please enclose message bearing date, name of finder, of ship, destination, do a rebury and send a postcard to Hugh Craggs 50 Ruskin Ave Manor Park London E12.”[i]

 

How fitting it was that of all locations in Galapagos, this bottle was found in Post Office Bay on Floreana Island! This location is where for centuries everyone from buccaneers, to whalers to the first inhabitants of Galapagos had sent off their mail. Technically, it is merely a barrel on the shore of Post Office Bay on Floreana Island. Tens of thousands of visitors now visit this site annually as well, which is one of the oldest pieces of human history in Galapagos.

 

As it was reported in the Daily Mail, once back home in Toronto Peters used Reddit to find out more about Craggs. As it turned out, Craggs had been sailing around the world from London, looking for treasure and adventure. He did this aboard the Malaya, a 90-tonne schooner.

 

If you’re ever in Post Office Bay on Floreana Island, be sure to partake in the post card tradition of placing a postcard in the barrel and selecting one already in the barrel to deliver to a recipient near your home. Once there, you can ask your Naturalist Guide all about it. Just make sure to put your postcard in the barrel and not buried in the sand – not only do we discourage littering, it also might not be found for a century!

 

[i] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-6046567/100-year-old-message-bottle-discovery-reveals-epic-tale-Londoners-quest-adventure.html

Alleged reason for medical insurance requirement: Venezuela

Over the past 12 months, there have been several aborted attempts by the government of Ecuador to impose a mandatory medical insurance requirement for all people visiting Ecuador.   There has been a push-back on the part of the national tourism sector.   The result has been an on-going on-again/off-again status for the requirement, with the government announcing a date on which visitors will be required to show evidence of insurance on arrival, only to have that date postponed by several months just a few weeks before the requirement was set to kick-in.  Readers of the CNH Tours news section will have followed this saga through a few stories published here.

We've been hearing that the motivation behind this requirement lies with the country's efforts to deal with an increasing number of Venezuelan migrants - most of which are leaving their home country in search of economic opportunities.    Over 500,000 are reported to have arrived in Ecuador so far this year alone (that's a whopping 3% of the total Ecuadorian population).   The reasoning linking the medical insurance requirement to the Venezuelan migrants proposes that the Ecuadorian government must be dealing with an important rise in demand for medical services from this group - while most arriving Venezuelans are not properly insured, or not insured at all.   This leaves the Ecuadorian tax payer footing the bill. 

The Guardian newspaper (out of the UK) does a good job illustrating the plight of the Venezuelans and the impact on Ecuador in its paper today.   To see the article, click here.  

 

 

 

Drinking from the Giant Tortoise Pericardium?

Back in October 2017, Anthony Pearson, a cardiologist from St. Louis took the plunge and booked a trip for himself and his family on an August 2018 Active Galapagos trip on the Samba.  It turns out that Anthony is an avid blogger, maintaining a rich blog site called "The Skeptical Cardiologist" (my father, a general practitioner, would certainly enjoy this blog).  

In preparation for his trip, he started a blog on the upcoming adventure.  To date, he's posted two articles - one entitled:  "We are soon Bound for the Galapagos Islands in search of Darwin, the Giant Tortoise and Dangerous Ideas".   

His second post, just out this week, is entitled: "Drinking from the Giant Tortoise Pericardium".

Clearly, Anthony has a gift for headlines!   To follow his blog, click here.

Get your iguanas straight! Choose an expert Galapagos travel agent.

My wife Heather Blenkiron has been answering questions as the TripAdvisor "Destination Expert" for Galapagos for many years (she's answered nearly 3,500 questions so far).   

People often turn to the TripAdvisor Galapagos forum for advice, or for recommendations on this or that travel agency.   Heather's answer is invariably "no matter what agency you choose, just be sure they are Galapagos specialists, that they know what they are talking about".   

We are working out of our Victoria, British Columbia "office" these days (visiting family) and we were amused by the large bus shelter posters around town advertising a Galapagos trip, sponsored by a travel company that sells trips all over the world.   They send a lot of people to Galapagos every year.  But the picture on their poster is of an iguana not found in Galapagos.  Clearly, this company, one we like to call "the IKEA of travel agencies", cannot be considered a Galapagos expert.  

Below, the bus shelter advertisement showing a mundane, run-of-the-mill, dime-a-dozen green iguana, found from Mexico to Brazil (but NOT in Galapagos)

 

And now, below, the magnificent Galapagos Marine Iguana, found ONLY in Galapagos 

 

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