Galapagos News

Main populated Islands in Galapagos declared free of COVID-19

(Translated and adapted from an article appearing on Ecuavisa.com on 30 May)

The islands Santa Cruz and San Cristóbal, in the Galapagos archipelago, are the first cantons of Ecuador free of COVID-19, according to the vice president of the Republic, Otto Sonnenholzner.

During his visit, Sonnenholzner evaluated the health system and promoted actions for the productive revival of the town. He was at the Oskar Jandl General Hospital in San Cristóbal, where he found that the service is adequately provided to citizens and that the staff has what it takes to continue facing the pandemic. “We have inspected the hospital and we have noted improvements.”

President of Galapagos Governing Council, Norman Wray (left) and national vice-president, Otto Sonnenholzner (2nd from left). 

The vice-president also provided rapid tests, protective equipment, masks, and medications. He stressed that “the health emergency has been adequately managed. San Cristóbal and Santa Cruz are already free of the virus”. Norman Wray, president of the Galapagos Governing Council, for his part, confirmed that "the decisions taken have allowed there to be no community contagion."

Meanwhile, Juan Carlos Zevallos, Minister of Health congratulated the work carried out by doctors and nurses "it is time to think ahead with long-term investment and trained personnel residing in this area, we are going to continue working on this issue."

However, the vice-president explained that "although the impact of the disease is not as great as in other provinces, it does not mean that the emergency is over." In Santa Cruz, they visited the appropriate “El Camote” Isolation Center with 10 beds for outpatients and 6 in ICU. Here, a donation of a biosafety chamber for air and sea transfers was made.

CNH TOURS ADDS:

The community in Galapagos has been torn over the conflicting desires to i) control COVID-19 in this very remote part of the world with poor access to medical services and ii) get back to hosting tourists, the very foundation of the islands' economy.  The success in having controlled COVID-19 is worth celebrating, and will go a long way in reassuring potential tourists that Galapagos is a COVID-19 safe destination.... but what of the tourists themselves?  How can Galapagos residents be sure that the virus will not be re-introduced through infected visitors?  If COVID-19 re-emerges in the islands, all the work done to date may have been wasted.  

It's a tough situation that has no easy answer.  Some are proposing the opening of island airports to international flights (currently only domestic flights serve Galapagos) as a way to avoid exposing incoming visitors to COVID-19 on the continent.   But that does not address the risk of having COVID-19 infected visitors arriving in the islands.    Recent announcements by the national government indicated that any foreign visitor to Ecuador will have to take a specific test for COVID-19 no more than 3 days prior to their arrival in Ecuador, and that the test will need to be negative, for them to be allowed in the country.   Though technically sound (notwithstanding the risk of these people getting COVID-19 after the test and before flying to Ecuador) this may prove to be impossible for most people, given that few have access to such testing facilities with such rapid turn-around in results.   

Clearly, a practical and effective solution to this problem still needs to be found.  For the time bgeing, at the very least, the residents of Santa Cruz and San Cristobal Islands are under less pressure from the disease itself.   

Former guests come together to help the Samba team

JOIN US ON OUR GOFUNDME CAMPAIGN: LEARN MORE HERE

 

COVID-19 has not been good to Galapagos residents. Most of them depend directly or indirectly on tourism for their livelihoods. As of the 17th of March, tourism in Galapagos, like elsewhere, has been non-existent. Though no one knows for sure, and while the tourism businesses and employees cross their collective fingers and hope and prepare for the best case scenario, there is a chance that things will not return to normal for a long time yet.


While the islands have managed to keep the virus under control fairly well with rigorous quarantine and social distancing measures (approximately 100 cases ported, nearly half of which among the crew of the 100 passenger Celebrity Flora), residents face very difficult times ahead. Further compounding their difficulties is the high cost of food in Galapagos. Most of it is imported from the continent. Under these circumstances, people, young and old, will be losing weight in Galapagos in the coming months – that’s how dire things are.


There is an emerging effort to redirect resources to growing food locally, but this is only a partial solution. It will take time and not everyone has access to land. To make matters worse, COVID-19 struck just at the end of the rainy season, too late to seriously consider starting planting anything on a significant enough scale to make a difference for now.

 

Meanwhile, the national government is extremely cash-strapped. Its financial position is among the worst in South America – so much so that civil servant salaries are being slashed, the postal service shut down and embassies closed. Under these circumstances, people cannot rely on government support during hard times.


The Samba operations support 16 families in Galapagos. Those of the 9 crew members, of the 3 principal guides and of the 4 land-based support staff. Those who have embarked on the Samba in the past few years will have met 6 of the crew and a guide (crew members rotate of course, with 6 on board and 3 on leave at any given time). The crew (and guides) all receive nearly perfect reviews from our returning guests (see: Ship’s Crew Receives Near Perfect Score for more information). The 4 land-based support staff, dealing with logistics, administration and purchasing ensure that the operation sails along smoothly. The Samba has been officially recognized by the Galapagos National Park Service for its social responsibility (see this article which illustrates the rationale: NAVEDUCATION: Local Kids go on an Expedition Cruise).


Laura Sebastianelli and her husband Mike Sieracki travelled on the Samba in late 2019. Like just about all Samba guests, they had a trip of a lifetime. They had been very impressed by the dedication and professionalism of the crew and guide. When COVID-19 swept the world, their thoughts turned to the Samba team approached CNH Tours to explore options on how they could help. Together, we created a fund-raising campaign designed to support the 16 Samba team families food costs for up to 1 year.  Mike and Laura made the inaugural contribution of $500.   


That campaign was launched today. We hope to raise $96,000 ($6,000 per family) by June 20th.  We are reaching out to over 1,000 Samba alumni.  If you are a Samba alumnus and are interested in helping out, you can go to the dedicated GoFundMe page here.   Even if you're not, and you're keen on helping Galapagos residents get over this hump - do feel free to join in.  Helping any Galapagos family will help the community as a whole.

On behalf of the Samba team members and their families - thank you so much for your consideration.

Most COVID-19 cases in Galapagos linked to Celebrity Flora Crew

Of the 73 cases of COVID-19 reported in Galapagos (as of 15 April), 48 are among the crew of the 100 passenger Celebrity cruise ship Flora.  Norman Wray, the head of the Galapagos Regional Governing Council made the announcement yesterday.    The Flora is anchored in Galapagos and the crew remains on board.  The ship last hosted passengers in mid-March.  

Of the remaining 25 cases, there have been 2 deaths.   

COVID-19 is turning out to be a major community-strengthening factor in Galapagos.  Galapagos social media posts, usually themselves quite virulent, are uncharacteristically low key and supportive.   There is widespread concern expressed in the community over the fate of 3,000 Galapagos residents who are "marooned" on the continent - a interesting reversal of perspective for people living on small remote islands!   A fund-raising effort is underway to help support those continentally-trapped Galapagos residents.   

 

 

 

Why it pays to book with a specialist travel agent...

An article published in the "Stroud News and Journal" today (Stround is not too far from Bristol in the UK) tells the story of a pair of travellers who "finally made it back home!" last Sunday, after getting caught in Galapagos during the COVID-19 border closings.   

Glad to be home.... 10 days later than anticipated.

We reproduce some of the article below. Clearly, these travellers did not book through an agent specialized in their destination. 

These days, it's a lot easier to book things directly on-line.  A flight, some hotels, even day tours.  But when things go wrong, Expedia will not be sending you WhatsApp messages or emails warning you of impending airport closures.   AirBnB will not be in touch to help you find alternative accommodations at midnight.  Travelocity will not buy you emergency air tickets on the last flight out your behalf, on the assumption that you'll pay them back later.   

There may be a misconception that "I can get a better deal if I do it myself".  Unless you're singularly focused on the cheapest possible accommodations and trips, you may be right - mostly because few travel agents will want you as a client - they do need to make a living after all.

But if you're looking for a trip with a middle-of-the road budget, or more, you'll find that agents will be able to get you the exact same services at the exact same prices while providing expert advice and recommendations along the way.  Why?  Because service providers will reward the agent who brings business to them by giving them a modest commission on the price of the service.  If that same service provider sells to the client directly, that commission is simply kept by the service provider. 

End result? The client pays the same price, but if he/she goes though an experienced agent, that same client will benefit from a professional who will have his/her back should anything go wrong.   

Over the past 2-3 weeks, hundreds of thousands, if not millions of travellers around the world have learned this lesson.   Those who had booked their travels with agents experienced in the destination they were visiting were more likely to have received a tremendous amount of help in dealing with the sudden complications.  Those that were winging it, booking a variety of services on a variety of internet platforms were left to fend for themselves - as illustrated in the case below.

Previous news articles posted by CNH Tours illustrated how we were able to get 17 guests (10 of which were on a ship in the remote parts of the archipelago) out of Ecuador in 3 days. This was the time that elapsed between when we heard, through our high level local contacts, that Ecuador would be closing down airports - to just before airports were closed down.  We spent that time rebooking flights, chasing down the ship, arranging for emergency hotel accommodations, arranging for meals (on us) and a lot more.   

Quoting from the newspaper:

The pair found themselves marooned on the archipelago, living in a hotel with no staff, food stocks running low and uncertainty over flights.

All the national parks and beaches were closed and a curfew was in place from 2pm to 5am.

To get back to the UK, Jamie and Abi first had to get to mainland Ecuador - around 800 miles from the Galapagos - and they struggled for two weeks to get on a flight.

But finally, on Friday morning, they secured tickets to Quito, the capital of Ecuador, on one of the last emergency flights available.

“We eventually got saved by our airline- Avianca - that we previously booked an exit flight with,” said Jamie.

After a brief medical check, Jamie and Abi headed for the airport, where they queued with hundreds of other tourists before flying to the mainland.

"We left on the last emergency flight available for some time," said Jamie.

“We then had one night in Quito.

"We wanted to stay by the airport to ensure we could get there quickly to take any potential flights.

“The only option close to the airport was five star hotel, the Wyndham."

Jamie then stayed up until 2.30am, looking for a way home.

“I managed to book a flight to Houston, Texas with United Airlines for the next day, as well as two flights the following day to Newark, New Jersey and then onto London, to eventually arrive on Monday morning,” he said.

“We had a 14 hour layover in Houston but we managed to get a nearby hotel for the night. We shared a room with a girl from Cambridge and a guy from Australia who were trying to get home too.

 

 

Handling COVID-19 as a public health issue in Galapagos

How does a remote archipelago, a province within the borders of a developing nation, handle COVID-19?  Quality medical care is a 1,000km / 600 mile flight away.  Normal transportation between the islands is severely disrupted.   The country has imposed restrictions on travel between provinces.  The social safety net is not as robust as those of the countries most readers of this article are from.   The country has very little leeway in terms of economic support to displaced workers.  

This (Google-translated - with some edits) summary of an interview with the senior political person of Galapagos yesterday (30 March) gives us a glimpse of the situation.   Norman Wray is the appointed head of the Galapagos Regional Governing Council – a “governor” so-to-speak.   He reports directly to the president of the nation.    I have had the opportunity to meet him on a one-on-one basis a couple of times.   He first comes across a little bit as a “surfer dude” – but quickly, one realizes the depth of his engagement and commitment to public service.   

 

This is the summary of the interview with the Governor Norman Wray this morning on Radio Santa Cruz about the actions that have been carried out due to the #coronavirusgalapagos emergency.

On the return to Galapagos

- I underwent a COVID-19 test, because contagion situations occurred at the National COE level. It is a test that we have made several officials for our responsibilities in the National COE.  (Editor:  Norman was on the mainland in the past weeks and increasingly criticized for not returning to the islands). 

- Once the test was negative, I decided that my presence was important in the territory.

- The Provincial COE (Emergency Operations Committee) approved the protocol out of necessity for public officials who have to enter: health, police, army, there are people who have to respond to their responsibilities urgently and be in the province, it is not a privilege and we are the first to comply with the rigor the Ministry of Public Heath's established protocols.

Situation in Galapagos

- Regarding the subject of the new COVID-19 test samples, a total of 8 were sent (to the mainland for analysis).

The Ministry of Public Health must release the results as required by law. These samples are under analysis, we are awaiting results. The delays in the results respond to the congestion that exists in the sampling of the entire country, but we have asked that they be a priority.

- This moment we continue with 4 confirmed cases and continue establishing epidemiological fences

- Yesterday we were in Isabela Island carrying kits for the work of authorities and public officials. We were able to verify that the local population is respecting the "stay home" directive.  People are clearly committed to the measure. They are maintaining isolation.

- You can always improve the work, there are no perfect situations, but what we have taken as a strategy is the one that PAHO (Pan American Health Organization) and WHO (World Health Organization) dictate: and that is to gather clear information to make epidemiological fences.

- People who are under observation at this time have to give us information about where they have been.

- I send my greetings to entire population which is acting as a team.

- We know that Floreana island residents are also taking this seriously (home isolation).

- You always have to work from home, keep your distance, go out only if strictly necessary.

- The Municipality's work is exemplary, giving support with food supply issues.  This is being done by Mayor Yánez and his team, and that is key.

- All the capacity we have to reduce the movement of people to the maximum will allow us to reduce risks

- It is important (for the media) to speak to Ministry of Public Health officials so that they can give more details. We are welcoming suggestions from the health sector.

 

Economic resources

- We have mobilized our own resources; the municipalities are doing the same along with initiatives from the private sector.

- Today I just spoke with Councilwoman Castillo who is organizing a private initiative designed to collect resources in a transparent way, so that these can be provided to various support groups. 

- I welcome constructive initiatives from those who are interested in supporting, building and not destroying. Support for, and not criticism of Councilwoman Castillo's example must be replicated by the rest of the province's authorities.

- I reject the attitude of Assemblyman Washington Paredes who is dedicated to creating castles out of thin air, uses his immunity to insult people and what he is doing is generating anxiety.

- We are not going to allow them to want to fish in a rough river (Editor: expression meaning taking personal advantage of difficult times), if they are not going to help, then they should not interfere. Let's all work and get ahead. To Washington Paredes I say: irresponsible and a liar.

- In the course of today, we already have a legal analysis to be able to manage resources to strengthen the emergency with territorial equity funds.

- There are things that had been planned with our budgets (prior to the COVID-19 outbreak) but  we are going to have to redirect the funds.  This must be done within the framework of the Law – if not, the auditors will declare that things were not done in accordance with what the Law and regulations require. 

- We will proceed once we have this report with the Plenary of the Governing Council that we are going to convene this week. It is part of the objectives that we have and in this way we can take important measures.

- In any case, the Provincial COE is also carrying out work, but regarding certain decisions it is necessary for the Council to meet and that is also one of the reasons why I am here.

 

About the Laboratory donated by the private sector

- We have arranged for it to be the ABG (Biosecurity Agency of Galapagos – usually focused on control of introduced species) laboratory where the equipment is installed and we hope to be able to provide this service, which can be generated even for people who do not have symptoms.

- About the equipment donated by the private sector for the laboratory, as loading and transport sectors around the world know, conditions make it hard to move as fast as we would like, but we are making all the efforts to do it urgently, but we depend on the a reduced transportation system.

- It is important to tell the population that the fact that they do not have symptoms does not imply that they do not have the virus, you may feel in perfect health, but you do not know if you are with COVID or not and these people can be a risk to others. That is why isolation is important, that happens throughout the world, that is why staying at home is essential, because there are asymptomatic populations. The social distance is to deal with those cases that do not look sick but that can be carriers of the virus.

 

About Galapagos residents who are on the mainland

- We send information to people who are on the mainland (we have collected the detail of the places where they are located) and based on that we have prepared a registry and we are in contact issues of concern (and we know important information about them).

- There are three options on how to handle repatriation back to Galapagos:

1) uncontrolled return to Galapagos, establishing the test and quarantine on arrival only.

2) Restricting access to specific cases only, establishing priorities, and

3) Not allowing admission due to contagion levels depending on the contagion risk levels on the continent

- Clear policies must be established with the Ministry of Public Health and a clear position regarding what the National COE says on the issue of restriction of mobilization in the provinces. It is part of what the Provincial COE must discuss to decide how to proceed in the case of Galapagos residents who are on the continent but wish to return.

- This is a decision that we must take in common with all the authorities of the province, it cannot be a return to uninformed decision-making.  We must evaluate what is happening at the continental level before deciding how to proceed.

- Let's also wait for the issue of access to tests and request for rapid tests to be able to support citizens.

- The protocol must be strictly rigorous in any case. It is not my decision exclusively but of the set of authorities for an analysis of the risk that implies and to close to the maximum the levels of contagion.

- Allow us to have those answers in a concrete way this week to establish a criterion assuming this decision in the whole authorities.

- In order for us to have a Galapagueño doctor here, we had to carry out very complex administrative and logistical procedures.  There are no regularly scheduled flights – even supply shipments are not allowing for the transport of people at this time.

- There are strict protocols, we have to establish clear criteria. It is not that there are primary and secondary priorities.  If doctors need to be mobilized due to the nature of the work, we have a responsibility do mobilize them.

- This is not a political campaign, it is a national emergency. I welcome all those who want to join the fight.

- We have supported a local family who lost a family member on the continent.  That is the risk and it is one of the reasons why we have put restrictions on entering the province. To try to curb vulnerability in the province.

- What we ask for is co-responsibility, do not generate disinformation, allow the Ministry of Public Health to do its job.

On the identity of the patients

- We have not lied to people and we will continue to support their work, it is an emergency that is happening in the world, not only in Galapagos.

- We have to protect the identity of the patients – it’s a legal requirement, it is an issue that is handled by the Ministry of Public Health risk management system, I have been very clear. I cannot put patient tests into the public eye. We cannot do it, it is part of the protocols that the WHO clearly establishes.

- Isabela's patient has recovered very well, but he must follow the protocols of the Ministry of Public Health and maintain his quarantine, after which a new test needs to be done to show that he no longer has the active virus.

UPDATE: Cancellation policies going forward in the time of COVID-19

These past two weeks have been like a whirlwind in the travel industry all over the world.  While COVID-19 was certainly on our radar screen, the speed with which it overtook things came as a complete surprise.

You may have seen in a previous news item that CNH Tours has been very busy taking care of guests caught up in very rapidly changing travel environment in the days prior to global travel lockdown.  We were able to get 17 guests out of Ecuador (10 of which were on a ship in the far reaches of the archipelago) within a few short days, just in time before the airports closed.   Many tourists were caught off guard and nearly 10 days later, a good number are still in Galapagos and Ecuador desperately trying to find a way out.  May this be a lesson learned:  It pays to book with an agent specialized in the destination they serve.

With that emergency taken care of, we turned our attention to those guests who had paid their full trip balances and were about to head off to the islands in the coming days and weeks, along with those travelling by early July.  We're just now reaching out to those who were scheduled to travel in July and August this year. 

Please be assured that well before any final balance is owed, we will be in touch to inform you on the situation and on any possible changes in the terms and conditions of the trip.  Our intention is to give you as full a picture as possible of the situation so that you may be in a position to make the most informed decision on how to proceed.   

Ship owners and other service providers recognize that the times call for a more flexible approach.  In the past ten days, they have been frantically developing new policies designed to mitigate the misfortunes to which our guests have been subjected.  These revised policies will vary in detail, but generally, they consist of the option to postpone a trip into the future.   How far into the future, and wether a modest surcharge is applied or not varies from ship to ship. 

At this point, we suggest you take a "wait and see" approach.   We will be in touch with more information specific to your particular ship well before your balance is owed.

Thank you for your understanding. 

 

 

 

Under the Wire: Getting out of Galapagos in the time of COVID-19

These have been "exciting" times recently.  Though we all saw COVID-19 looming on the distant horizon and anticipated that it would eventually begin to gradually cause problems to tourism in the Americas, the next thing we knew, it had ambushed us.   

Alarm bells really first began to ring in earnest during the week of March 8th.   Another giant cruise ship off the coast of California reported COVID-19 cases, and governments began emitting advisories against going on cruises; the USA started banning flights from Europe and the Canadian government was urging all Canadians to strongly consider canceling any out-of-country travel.  The government of Ecuador later imposed a 14-day quarantine on all arrivals from a constantly expanding list of countries as well as some U.S. states (California, New York, Washington).   We had to inform some guests on the day of their planned flight to Ecuador that under these new rules, they would not be able to join their respective cruises.   

We already had ten guests on the Samba in Galapagos, along with three in the islands doing some post cruise land-based exploration.   We had 4 other guests who had been on the mainland for several days already and were just about to fly to the islands to embark. 

By Saturday 14 March, though no formal announcements had been made, we were hearing rumours from our well-placed contacts in Ecuador that a complete travel ban would be imposed in a matter of days - barring any incoming foreigners from arriving into the country.  It was clear that commercial air traffic would soon be very disrupted even for guests already inside the country wanting to go home after their trip.  

We decided that it was time to pull the plug and do what we could to get all our guests out of the country and back home as soon as possible.  The ship was in the far reaches of the archipelago and we ordered it to make its way to the airport – Monday (16th) being the soonest it could be there for outgoing flights to the continent.  We had our other three guests on land in Galapagos - and assumed that for them, as they were already booked to fly out of Galapagos and Ecuador on Monday the 16th, all would be good.  

In the meantime, we started to frantically work at finding exit flights for our group.  From Saturday (14thMarch)  to Tuesday (17th March), for just about all waking hours, our team was on the phone, WhatsApp, email, texting and skyping to the ship owner, the naturalist guide on the ship, airline companies, our guests on the ship and our guests on the mainland.  We were very relieved to find flights to Miami for all ten of them out of Quito on the Monday night.

On Sunday, it became official.  Ecuador would be closed to all incoming foreigners by Monday the 16th at midnight, although foreigners would not be prevented from departing after that date we knew that flights out would be scarce.  We felt so fortunate having found the Monday night flights. 

Things began to unravel in earnest on Monday (16th).  At 6:30AM, we received a call:  Our land-based guests in Galapagos informed us that their international flights out to Dallas out of Quito that night had been cancelled – they didn’t know what to do.  We activated our network again, and were able to secure tickets to for them on a Tuesday morning flight to Dallas out of Guayaquil.  So far, so good.

But we also needed to get everybody to Quito on that Monday (16th) – the same day many were evacuating Galapagos.   With the help of our local partners, we had purchased flights for our cruise-based guests as our land- based Galapagos guests were already scheduled to fly to Quito that day – they had tickets. 

It was bedlam at the airport – people where milling about hoping to catch flights which in turn had been very overbooked.  Flights were delayed significantly.  Tempers flared – it was very hot.  Then, both the cruise-based and land-based guests were told that their tickets would only take them as far as Guayaquil, while the international connections we had secured for them the previous day were out of Quito that night and the next morning.   Five guests (subsequently known as the “Quito-5”, or Q-5) managed to make this flight, while the other 8 (the Guayaquil-8) were bumped off and forced to scramble for space on a later flight out that day.  In both cases, it was patently clear that the chances of catching the international flight out of Quito that night were slim to non-existent.    

On arrival in Guayaquil, the Q-5 managed to find a connecting flight to Quito.  But knowing that the international connection out of Quito would likely be missed, we had been frantically looking for alternatives.   We could only find a flight out of Guayaquil leaving the next afternoon and booked it (Tuesday 17th).  We called to inform the Q-5, and to tell them to stay put in Guayaquil – not to fly on to Quito.  But we reached them as they were settling on to their flight to Quito.  Frustration all around. They would have to spend the night in Quito and fly right back to Guayaquil the next morning, before the Quito airport was scheduled to close at 2PM. 

We arranged to have a guide waiting for the Q-5 on their arrival in Quito, accompanying them to the hotel.  We’d figure out their flight back to Guayaquil shortly – but we had to turn our attention to the G-8 and how to get them out of Ecuador.

Back in Galapagos, the G-8 ended up on a late flight out but could only make it to Guayaquil and no further that evening.  We found them a hotel, arranged for a private transfer and they settled in for the night.  Before the lights went out, we came back to them with some good news – we had secured flights out to Dallas and to Miami the next morning, out of Guayaquil!  But while doing so, we also learned that the flight to Miami that afternoon had been cancelled!  What to do with our Q-5, stuck in Quito, for whom we had booked flights back to Guayaquil??  They seemed to be set for a long stay in Quito… 

The G-8 group got a 3AM wake-up call and headed off to the airport to catch their early morning flights…. While our three guests headed off to Dallas succeeded in boarding (and critically, taking off), our Miami-bound guests’ hopes were once again dashed.  Their flight out was cancelled…. But wait.. good news!  The late afternoon flight had been reinstated and they were re-booked onto that one.   At our end, we (Heather) was up very early looking for decently-priced medium term accommodations in Quito, as it appeared they would be destined to spend several days, if not longer, in that city.   She received a text message from one of the G-8 guests informing her that while their morning flight out of Guayaquil had been cancelled, they had been re-booked on the late afternoon flight – which was on after all!

We contacted our travel partner in Quito (it was 5AM and she was on-line) to confirm the veracity of the afternoon flight, and on learning that it looked good, we checked the Q-5 onto it, emitting their boarding passes.  We next got tickets for all of our Q-5 people out of Quito and into Guayaquil.  It was one of the last regularly scheduled flights out of Quito airport – which was closing at 2:30PM that same day. 

 

Out in the nick of time: The Q-5 with the G-8 (minus our three guests who had made their flight to Dallas), just before boarding their flight out of Guayaquil to Miami on Tuesday, March 17th.  They look surprisingly relaxed - but they had just lived through a very harrowing 48 hours. 

The Q-5 met up with the remaining G-8 guests in Guayaquil early on the afternoon of the 17th.  The airport was shutting down, shops were closed.  They had the chance to take the group picture (above) before boarding, and taking off.   It was in the nick-of-time.

Miami was not the final destination for any of our guests.  They all had to find their way home to different part of the USA, Canada and Bermuda.   Our Bermuda guest was the last one to make it - emailing us just Thursday evening (19 March) that she had made it home, safe and sound.  

Every day, as we monitor the press on Galapagos related matters, we are still seeing stories of tourists who continue to be stuck in Galapagos (even domestic flights are now very restricted, as is land transportation within the country) or on the mainland.  It may be many days, if not longer, before they manage to get home.   When we see these stories, we are reassured that we made the right call last week.   

PS:  A big thanks to our local team:  Part-time fixer Adriana who also happens to work for an international airline (that came in very handy) and our full-time Quito-base colleague, Mercedes whose 20+ years in the business showed its value.   Heather Blenkiron coordinated efforts from Canada - ceaselessly and tirelessly. Valeria and Juan whose family owned the ship, Giancarlo, our naturalist guide on the ship, and Eddie, another naturalist guide and fixer at the Galapagos airport.  There was Eufemia of the Mansion del Angel hotel, Paula who works for a larger cruise company, Fernando, who stood by our guests at Guayaquil airport, Shirley and Silvia from Galapagos Experience travel company, and Kelsey who has the thankless task of helping all our guest whose travel plans have been disrupted, and many more all helped make this happen. 

A note to fellow Galapagueños

Juan Salcedo, who, with brother and sister and mother, owns and operates the 14 passenger expedition cruise ship SAMBA.   He was on a first ever family holiday to Europe with his wife and 2 young daughters when they were forced to evacuate just before the COVID-19 curtain was lowered.  They made it back home last week, and are now self-quarantining in Quito, after which time they hope to go back to Galapagos.  

Social media in Galapagos is always a chaotic place, with all kinds of outrageous statements, cheap politics, conspiracy theories and hyperbole.  In this climate of COVID-19 induced uncertainty and under lock-down conditions, things are even worse.  

Having witnessed the invective and disinformation, Juan, always a cool head, attempts to pour a little oil on the troubled waters in this post, published today.  

The 14 passenger Samba at anchor between North and South Plazas islands

This is a long note, but now we can't complain that we don't have time to read. Many of us spend a lot of time on social media - so I urge you to read this.

The most difficult days are still far away. The good news has been hiding behind the chaos of misinformation and uncertainty. Those desires and positive advances have been hampered by the chaotic irresponsibility of social networks, which are fueled with the force and speed of recklessness and ignorance of many. These people write to feel important, they write to criticize, undermine, to generate rejection and discourage common sense. Please STOP.

I have remained silent so as not to contribute to a discussion that is increasing in tone and has the intention of generating a digital pandemic, causing despair to gain ground faster than hope. Now that we have confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Galapagos, it is time to intervene, to call for empathy, generosity and social responsibility. Unity and solidarity PLEASE.

We are a family of 4 and we have almost all of our relatives on the islands. Our home and our work is in Galapagos. We have mothers and fathers in vulnerable situations. This reality also worries us and we are sure that harder days will come even when our health and economic situation are good at the moment. For now we are taking one day at a time, with a lot of patience and a desire to collaborate.  We’re currently in self-quarantine in Quito so that we can return to Galapagos soon.

When COVID-19 was a distant thing, when it was already known but, it was China's problem, we traveled abroad for a month. We left Quito on February 19 and flew to New York where there was no case yet (more than 35,000 now in the USA).  Our only concern was over the eventual spread of the virus. My daughters are 9 and 11 years old and in those days, it was still unclear who was most vulnerable. We were responsible and meticulous in taking precautions even since we left the Islands. Gel, alcohol and masks were part of the luggage.

We arrived in Europe just as the virus began its dizzying advance. It almost seemed to follow us from destination to destination. Madrid and Barcelona presented the first cases and both authorities and people were very casual and indifferent, tourism numbers were high due to an unusually warm winter. We spent a week in Spain and did not see evidence of any preventive measures,  even when the situation was already catastrophic in Italy.

When we left for Paris, Spain was still asleep. In early March the French and their government still did not react. On their own initiative, the Louvre employees decided to close and were harshly criticized by tourists.  The government reopened the museum, dismissing the virus. France has more than 16,000 confirmed cases and nearly 650 deaths at the moment.

We continued to travel very cautiously, disinfecting everything. You will understand that with two young girls the level of stress and vigilance as parents was enormous. Although we always enjoy the trip and the activities we were aware of the danger and our hygiene protocols were at the highest level. Our last stop was Switzerland and upon arrival the holiday mood was normal. For this it is important to say that we always travel by train, metro and bus. At no time was anything disinfected, nor was there any hygiene or preventive protocol to reduce infections. Europe lived a climate of tranquility and denial.

Only on March 13, they remember that Friday the 13th, there was a reaction to the WHO PANDEMIC statement. Switzerland still did not take rigorous actions even though it already had more than 500 cases (today they exceed 7,000 and are among the 10 countries with the highest number of infections).

Ecuador took more effective measures and did so more quickly than Europe. For that reason we were hardly able to return to our own country. I am not a supporter of any politician, current or former, but I understand that they are authoritative and must take measures to reduce the spread of the virus. They are not perfect, yet they have shown more prudence, common sense and commitment than the authorities of developed countries. The rest is citizen responsibility, the rest we have to do. Upon returning to Ecuador we follow the protocols requested by the Government. We are still in Mandatory Preventive Isolation here in Quito and, although we have not presented symptoms, we have been very meticulous and compliant so as not to be asymptomatic transmitters of the virus.  It will be another 5 days before we can be sure that we’re not carrying the virus and perhaps it will be longer before we can actually return home to the islands.   

I would like to shout: Stop making a mess of things! But that won’t help much (a little humor after having to read this spiel). I prefer to say: nobody is to blame, let's understand that this is a WORLD problem. That goodwill and the desire to collaborate will be the essential ingredients to get out of this enormous health and economic CRISIS.

Today more than ever we contribute in a positive way, silencing the EGO and activating the best sides of ourselves.

See you soon family, friends, neighbors, acquaintances.

Galapagos: Closed until further notice

This afternoon, the vice-president of Ecuador announced a series of measures with the objective of slowing down the spread of COVID-19 in the country.   Though there are fewer than 30 cases in the country, he has indicated that it would be better to apply these heavy-handed measures now to avoid greater disruptions later.

As of midnight, Sunday night (15 March), foreigners will no longer be permitted entry into the country (even Ecuadorian nationals have until midnight on the 16th of March to return!).  Should any arrive after that date, they will be forced to purchase an air ticket on the spot and return to whence they came.  

All ships operating in Galapagos are closing shop.  One large ship operated by National Geographic turned away several dozen passengers just as they were arriving in Galapagos today.  They had to turn around and head right back home.

Countries are urging their citizens to head back home as soon as possible before it becomes very nearly impossible to do so:  Commercial airlines, faced with a dramatic drop in passengers, are cancelling many flights and some routes may no longer have service.  

Over the past several weeks, we have tried hard to keep abreast of the developments.   It seemed that each day brought a new policy decision on the part of Galapagos authorities, Ecuadorian authorities, the World Health Organization, various governments.   It has been very hard to try to get clarity at times, and to translate that into practical, accionable advice for our guests. 

As of this morning, we had 4 determined guests from Canada - willing to embark on a ship this coming Tuesday.   Despite our warnings that things could change, they were keen.   They were already in Ecuador and would have been eligible to fly to Galapagos.   But sadly, by this afternoon, everything changed (once again) and now, instead of swimming with penguins, they will be on a flight home this Thursday.

It's not clear how long these measures will be in place.   Some ships in Galapagos have the temerity to declare that they will be resuming operations in 1 month.   But frankly, I don't know the basis on which they make these decisions.  It could be much longer.    

In the days and weeks ahead, we will monitor the situation.  We have many friends in Galapagos who keep us posted on conditions there (it won't be easy, as most people there make a living from tourism and already, I have reports that it's a ghost town in Puerto Ayora).  We'll be posting updates here if there are any developments of substance to report.

In the meantime, hang on to your dream.  Perhaps giving Galapagos a little breather might be a good thing for the wildlife and the visitor experience when things get going again.

In the meantime, for the keeners out there, CNH Tours is offering some very favourable booking conditions to those who are keen on booking something now for a future date.  We'll offer a discount, and we'll let you change the date of your sailing should COVID-19 remain an issue at that time.   Contact us for details.   

Update on COVID-19 and Galapagos / Our recommendations

Update 14 March:  The following countries / states have been added to the "mandatory 14 day quarantine on arrival" list:  USA states of Washington, New York, Massachusetts and California, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the Netherlands.  Applicable as of March 15.

FURTHER CHANGES IN EFFECT AS OF 14 MARCH:  Any person arriving in Ecuador, having started their trip to Ecuador on the 14th of March and having spent some time in any of the countries listed above within the 14 days prior to their arrival will be detained at the airport and requested to leave the country by the same means, at his/her own expense, unless they can demonstrate that they have confirmed accommodations for a 14 day self quarantine.  

 

ORIGINAL MARCH 13 NEWS ITEM FOLLOWS: 

While the number of confirmed cases in Ecuador remains very low as this note is written (fewer than 20), and while none of these has occurred in Galapagos, the Government of Ecuador has implemented widespread pro-active measures in an effort to reduce the incidence of the virus and the speed of its transmission.   CNH Tours approves of these measures as it’s better to slow down the spread of the virus at the outset than to start dealing with a grass fire only when it’s already out of control.    We are confident that these measures will contribute to reducing the overall impact of the virus on the Ecuadorian people and the Ecuadorian economy.

However, these measures may have a negative effect on those whose trip to Ecuador is coming up soon.   On Tuesday this week, the government imposed mandatory 14 day quarantine on all travellers (both visitors and nationals) arriving into the country and who will have travelled in France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Iran, South Korea and China in the 14 days prior to their arrival.    These measures come into effect today (13 March) but we’re not sure how rigorous the process will be.   To confirm how such policies were being implemented, we spoke with our close colleague who works with Avianca Airlines.  She is in very close touch with airport personnel and procedures.  We expect to get updates from the airport terminal presently. 

Regardless, all arriving passengers will be asked to fill in a general “state of health” questionnaire in flight, prior to arrival (see sample below).   You will be screened for a fever and other signs of COVID-19 before passing through immigration.  If there is no reason to believe the passenger may have the virus, he/she will proceed as normal.   If any COVID-related symptoms are detected, you will be taken for closer examination.  A similar health check takes place prior to embarking on your flight to Galapagos.

 

If, over the 14 days prior to your arrival in Ecuador, you will have spent time in the countries noted above, we suggest that you prepare to reconsider your travel plans.   In the meantime, you may want to contact your airline to see about refunds or re-bookings.  You may want to consult your insurance policy to see if you might be eligible for compensation.  

For others, no one knows at this point if and when Ecuador might add to that list of countries noted above.  At one point, should the virus begin to spread more widely within the country, such measures might prove to be moot and might be dropped altogether.  But for the time being, Ecuador is trying to limit the arrival of carriers into the country.  

On the positive side, these measures will reduce the chances of the virus spreading among people, and they will contribute to making a trip to the Galapagos less risky.  CNH Tours remains confident that the chances of contracting the virus in Ecuador remain very slim.   In a previous news item, we made our case on why we think that travel by ship in Galapagos is less risky that embarking on a multi-thousand passenger mega-cruise ship elsewhere (see here).

Despite these stringent measures and despite our confidence in the continued safety of a Galapagos cruise, regulations are changing rapidly.  It might be possible that you are prevented from travelling not because of the health risk, but because of Government of Ecuador decisions, or even due to flight cancellations on the part of your airline – or even re-entry conditions imposed by your own government.

We recommend that you keep a close eye on developments.  Review your insurance policies to see if/how they might apply should you be asked to spend 14 days in quarantine, or should your airline cancel your flights, or if your own government imposes regulations that prevent you from travelling.  

As for CNH Tours, we are doing all we can to help those caught in the middle of this.   We re-iterate that, for the time being and notwithstanding all of the regulatory concerns noted above, we feel that a Galapagos cruise remains a very low health risk travel proposition.  All of our expedition ship partners have indicated to us that they are operating normally.   

Galapagos entry procedures call for good health

In cooperation with the national government and the tourism industry, yesterday the Galapagos Governing Council published the latest resolution relating to health-related Galapagos entry procedures.  Earlier resolutions dealing with this issue were canceled.   

The latest procedures call for a rapid health check of all travellers to Galapagos, at the Quito or Guayaquil aiports, before boarding. Carried out by health professionals, if the health check reveals no reason for concern, boarding will be allowed.   If symptoms of COVID-19 are detected, boarding may be denied.  

Travellers to Galapagos may wish to reconsider their trip if at the time of departure, they are showing signs typically associated with COVID-19 (fever, cough).  If you have an underlying, non-communicable condition with symptoms that could be confused with those of COVID-19, you may wish to obtain a medical certificate explaining the situation.  There remains a risk that boarding will be denied regardless.  

 

COVID-19: Should Galapagos bound travellers be concerned?

COVID-19 is making more headlines.  After Italy reported a big number of cases a week ago and with the headline-making news of the stock market correction, the disease seems to have finally captured popular attention in Europe and the Americas.  

So, what's the story re: traveling to Galapagos?  What's the risk?  

To help understand that risk, we attach the infographic below.   It shows the relative impact of COVID-19 in the USA as of a few days ago, compared to the impact of the flu (influenza).  The infographic is published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.  It's already a bit dated, as the numbers for COVID-19 will certanily change in the days ahead.   

But unless things change in a massive way, the infographic's message is very clear:  "Be much more concerned about the flu than about COVID-19".   Even in China, after 2.5 months, COVID-19 numbers (cases of the disease and mortality) are absolutely dwarfed by the USA influenza numbers.  

Another development involves the reporting of the first cases of COVID-19 in Ecuador. It's clear that the virus continues to spread and that most countries reporting no cases so far either have undetected cases, or will soon be detecting some.   

The government of Ecuador is reporting that detection measures are being implemented at airports (both for international arrivals and for arrivals in Galapagos), using hand-held monitors of high body temperature.  While CNH Tours applauds this measure, we also realize that not all carriers show symptoms and for that reason, this measure will only help spot potential cases in which symptoms have developped.   But it shows that the government is taking things seriously.  

In conclusion, based on the information provided above, and for the foreseeable future, the risks of contracting the disease remains very small.  At CNH Tours, we recommend the following course of action:  "Keep calm, wash your hands, and carry on!".   We recommend taking along a bottle of hand sanitizer as a precautionary measure.  These bottles have been around ever since the SARS outbreak in 2003 - it remains good practice to use them.  

 

Better than the best cup of coffee: Comments from returning guests

Jonas and Julia were on our Active Galapagos trip earlier in February, which includes an 8 day cruise on the 14 passenger Samba.  Jonas just sent us this note yesterday - we've copy-pasted it below - unadulterated.  This is the kind of thing that really makes our day - it's the caffeine in our coffee, the bubbles in our champagne....  the booby of our blue feet? (ok - maybe we're overdoing it in the metaphor department...).    Thank you Jonas and Julia.

Hello Heather,

my wife and I are back from our fantastic trip from the Galapagos and Ecuador and we had a wonderful time!

Jonas in Julia (no, this is not Galapagos, but Greenland)

The Galapagos cruise on the Samba was for sure our highlight. We are very very happy to have chosen the Samba and are already thinking about coming back to also sail the south east route. The reason why we choose the Samba and what made this trip so great was that is was about doing and seeing as much as possible.

Coming to the Galapagos we don't care about having cocktails on deck in the sun. We want to see and experience the wildlife and nature and that is what we got. As you already pointed out on your website the key to this is finding the right guide and crew and we totally agree. So because we are planning on coming back and to help you keep the Samba as amazing as it is I just wanted to give you some feedback of the guys.

In conclusion I can already say it is all positive. Jimmy Patino did a perfect job. Julia and I had many guides throughout all of our travels and he was one of the best if not the best. He did a great job. He knows very much and if he didn't know something he grabbed a book and tried to find out. His energy is unlimited and contagious.

Every morning he was in a good mood and energetic. This excitement was transferred to the group and we always started the days keen to go on adventures. His energy didn't fade away during the day and we all finished the days with happy faces and excitement for what will happen the next day. I genuinely admire his energy. Even during downtime during the sailings he was up making postcards or editing small videos from the day. He could have slept or relaxed on deck.

Jimmy Patinño:  A "real" naturalist guide doesn't need shoes to walk on sharp lava fields apparently!

His job is hard, he is doing so many activities and has to take care of all the guest, i would be drained if I did his job. I think everyone on board appreciated that and we would have granted him some downtime. But through his on motivation he did edit those videos, made the post cards and so on. He really did a great job.

When it comes to guiding qualities he is fantastic as well. He has a very good feel for the group and can read people very well. He knew when we just wanted to sit there watch the wildlife awake during sunrise and enjoy. He kept quiet and gave us time to absorb during those moments. However he also knew without being told when the group was eager for some information and then he explained to us whatever we wanted to know. This great feel for the group was constant through the cruise.

Never have we felt rushed and he was super flexible and gave us much time when he saw that something interested us even if that meant he had to adjust his plan. We had other guides before that stuck to their plan and rushed us away from unexpected sightings we wanted to inspect. Not Jimmy, he read the group and lead us though the cruise and a very dynamic and skilful way. That is a great quality.

Also he was very funny and kept joking around, we felt as a group of friends instead of with a strict guide, yet he always made sure the national park rules are respected. He managed his responsibilities and job as a tour guide to keep us happy in a very balanced way as it should be. Here's another example of what makes him great. I once randomly asked about the el nino effects on the Galapagos and I got a whole speech with videos and pictures about it during sailing. That was great and he immediately realized that the whole group was interested in that topic and the spontaneous lecture was well received. After our cruise my wife said she wants to come back and if we do so she wants to pick a week when Jimmy is the guide if if this means changing our schedule and I agree with her. This says it all i guess.

The rest of the crew also did a wonderful job. All of them were very polite, funny, in a good mood, organised, punctual and so on. I don't have a single complaint about the crew. They all seemed to enjoy their jobs very much and were great at spotting wildlife from the pangas, help us with our gear, gave us snorkel advise and so on. Captain Jose Caicedo was great. When we spotted things during sailing we went there. Our convenience and safety seemed his priorities and it made the cruise very enjoyable. When we come on the Samba again and we sail with the exact same crew we would be delighted!

Regards,

Jonas and Julia 

Coronavirus (a.k.a. COVID-19) and Galapagos

While this disease is getting a lot of attention and while its immediate health effects are almost all being felt in China, people in the travel industry, and travellers themselves, should be keeping a steady eye on things.   In this regard, at CNH Tours, we are regularly monitoring the reports from the World Health Organization (WHO).  The WHO has a dedicated information page here:

https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019

On this page, regular updates on the spread of the disease are posted – see: 

https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/situation-reports/

 

Neither of the USA, UK, Canada, Australia and other countries have emitted emitted any advisories in relation to travel to Ecuador in regards to this virus.  Such advisories have been emitted in varying levels of concern for travel to China, South Korea, Iran, Italy, Japan and Hong Kong.  

CNH Tours is monitoring the status of the virus and how it might impact a decision to travel to Galapagos.   We remain confident that there is no reason to be concerned based on the information presnted above.   

 

 

Naveducation: Local kids go on an expedition cruise

(Adapted from a Google Translated version - originally in Spanish.  Written by Johanna Jimenez and originally published on 18 February 2020 by "Caja Negra" http://lacajanegra.com.ec/). 

 

A GALAPAGOS FOR THE GALAPAGUEÑOS

How do you love what is not known? That was one of the questions that Valeria Tamayo and her good friend Roberto Pépolas asked themselves while living on Isabela Island, in Galapagos. This concern arose when talking to children in the area they discovered that the boys had never left the island where they lived or were born. The youngsters did not know the other islands that are part of the archipelago, located 1000 km from the Ecuadorian coast.

The set of seven major islands, 14 minor islands, 64 islets and 136 rocks is a fundamental part of tourism promoted by the government administration, travel agencies, airlines, hotels and the rest of the structure determined to capture economic gains for the country, but that perhaps it invests little in its real conservation. The cost of moving about the Galapagos Islands is inaccessible for many Ecuadorians, however, even if the site is among the top wildlife destinations of the planet. In 2018, 275,817 people arrived on the islands according to the data of the Directorate of the Galapagos National Park.

Roberto Pépolas (Roby), is an instructor diver who lived and worked in Galapagos for more than 20 years, where he arrived at the end of 1997. From an Ecuadorian mother and Argentine father, Roberto knew the islands from 16 years of age onwards and was fascinated by the weather and the way of living in them. He worked 12 years for the Charles Darwin Foundation doing underwater research, but he was worried about the future of one of humanity's most famous natural heritage.

“I realized the need and the importance of having a community involved with its environment,” Roberto explained. Indeed, caring for that almost magical environment should be one of the main concerns of the island community. It is logical, given that, as Valeria Tamayo adds, "most of the environmental problems and conservation challenges that exist in the archipelago come from the presence and footprint of humans."

Roby and Valeria - the innovators behind the Naveducando program

“Park rangers never give up. As much as there is and as perfect as the park may be, conservation objectives will never be achieved if the community does not add to the effort, and how will they take care of it if they do not love it? ” Adds Valeria.

Conversations between several friends led to a desire to do something about it "We had talked about this so many times, but we said: 'Let's do it!' Then we came up with a little research and the first thing we did was conduct surveys," says Valeria Tamayo. A questionnaire was designed that was applied to children between 9 and 12 years old in 17 schools of the three largest and most inhabited islands of the archipelago: Isabela, Santa Cruz and Floreana. They asked 432 children: Do they know their islands?

The results confirmed the suspicions and were discouraging: 33% of the children had never left their island, many did not go to the beach, did not know what was around their islands, some did not even know how to swim. Only seven out of ten children knew another island besides the one they lived. They saw the Galapagos with a different look from the tourists who visit them and leave so many dollars to explore and enjoy them. The simple but objective questionnaire confirmed that these were children living in a paradise unknown to them.

Roberto drew up a long-term plan: they had to seek help to get the children to know their natural environment, they had to make sure that the experience marked them to the point of really valuing it, of learning to take care of it. The project, in addition to allowing them to know where they lived, should provide conceptual and practical tools on the care and conservation of the islands.

A name emerged in the planning: Naveducando (Naveducating). With statistics in hand, a concrete navigation plan and another learning and environmental interpretation plan for children, they decided to take more steps. Valeria contacted her friend Juan Manuel Salcedo, owner of a family tourism company that has been operating the Samba yacht for 20+ years. Previously, his eagerness to collaborate with causes that involve the community and public and private institutions had allowed him to donate cruises for children, settlers and people with disabilities on tours to get to know the islands. Pépolas, Tamayo and Salcedo got together and got down to work.

Juan Manuel donated the first five-day cruise for 12 children in full. According to Roberto, this was the most difficult thing to achieve for the monetary value since it included "ship, crew, guides, food and gasoline, a fairly high cost (...) The biggest challenge was precisely to find someone who donates the cruise in full."

Kids learning from the naturalist-guide / master, Juan Manuel Salcedo, whose family owns the Samba (anchored in the background)

The pilot trip with the characteristics of the Naveducando project could cost about USD $ 32,000 commercially according to Juan Manuel's calculations.

It is clear that to sow true awareness in the care of the environment, one must first understand what can affect its natural functioning, which elements are harmful and which are friendly to the environment. The main objective was that the small islanders had to know their environment to love and care for it, to become, from their homes, those who lead care for nature.

The team that was formed advanced another important objective: define who would go on the first trip. And of course they decided to do it with children from low-income families, "who are usually left aside by society," says Valeria.

After a process that involved the schools where the surveys were conducted, it was decided that the first group will be made up of 12 seventh grade (12 years old) children from Isabela Island. Permits and authorizations were then processed at the Ministry of Education so that children could go on this extraordinary excursion. Finally, meetings were held with their parents and the logistics of the entire trip were coordinated.

The content of on-board classes covered topics of natural history and human history. The children learned about ecology, how to use a kayak, swam, scuba diving and saw animals in their habitat. When they visited the beaches, they enjoyed them, for example, they found small pieces of plastic in the sand; Thanks to their guides, they understood that the best way to prevent this material from getting there and even eating it by animals is to reduce the consumption of these elements at home. “It is very exciting and very educational. Now I know that in the islands that it seems that there is no life, there is a lot of life and the fauna is very beautiful ”, shares Selena, one of the girls who made the trip. All this while sailing around several islands such as Rabida, Santa Cruz, Bartolomé and Isabela as well as performing crew work such as handling the yacht or pretending to be a sailor.

Bartolome Island - pretty much "off limits" to the vast majority of Galapagos residents due to the high cost of a visit.  

 According to the 2018 annual report of the Directorate of the Galapagos National Park, the percentage of visitors that year increased by 14%, which ensures that tourism is a source of jobs in Galapagos, but it should be managed responsibly and in this task the efforts of the public sector and private enterprise must be focused.

“The idea is to generate a close relationship with the sea, sensitize the people who are going to have the islands under their care,” says Roby. His dream is that all the children of the Galapagos schools make this trip at the end of the primary school as the boys of the continent do.

For Juan Manuel, "if we do not allow people to know, appreciate, value and protect, we will not have Galapagos to show the world." The goal is for children to return with something to share with their family, to identify and become aware of the threats to their environment.

The yacht departed from Puerto Ayora on November 23, 2018. Ok, Juan Manuel and a complete team accompanied the little ones. Roby could not travel with them because of a health problem, but he left everything ready so that the long-awaited trip could take place. In addition, the video experience was documented. That same first day, the boys made their first diving practice with instructors and learned to sail with sail. They embarked in the afternoon and traveled at night.

On Saturday 24 they traveled to the Santa Fe and Plazas Islands. The biggest surprise was that early in the day they were received by a family of killer whales and a hawk, the largest predators of water and land. This opportunity was used by the guides who explained characteristics of these mammals, which to everyone's surprise traveled as a family. Welcome to the cruise could not be more appropriate.

On Monday 26 he continued the trip to Puerto Egas and Rábida. This last island has a type of red sand due to the high iron content of lava. As part of the activities of the children, games were prepared that took place on the beaches of each island, so Valeria reminds us that when arriving at Rabida one of the challenges was to make the stones jump over the water, “an old hobby with the that Juan Manuel organized a competition so that the boys take back simple, but fun games in the water since that simplicity is being lost a little in the game with things that you find in nature like flat stones.”

A learning moment with a land iguna

The visit to North Seymour already announced the farewell of the cruise. Then they took the opportunity to evaluate the knowledge imparted and talk about what they wanted to do for the planet. This part is essential because all the awareness and motivation that accompanied the children were welcomed as they remembered much of what they learned, but above all they enjoyed and loved the experience of living the sun, water and animals near them.

Part of the curriculum that was designed wanted to present the way of life of the people who work at sea, so the boys helped with the tasks inside the Samba. Acting as a sailor or a machinist, for example, allowed them to learn that the ship's electricity works by burning diesel. In the islands it works the same way, electricity is generated only with diesel and every time a light is left on, this fuel is burning so that the air quality is ruined and our planet is affected. “We try to make all the links inside the ship that have to do with life on the islands,” says Valeria.

For all, the islands were new. Inside the water they saw a variety of fish such as flute fish, parrotfish, surgeon fish, among others. They also saw turtles, echinoderms like the sea dollar and the starfish. They found eggs of various types of birds, saw frigates and boobies fly, enjoyed nature and their smiles and faces of amazement accompanied the entire trip. They observed, shared, played and connected with nature and with daily life on the islands. With an easy comparison the guides and tutors helped to understand the little ones that as well as in the boat the resources are limited (light, water, food) the same happens in the planet. Hence the importance of taking care of resources and being more assertive when using them.

The Sacalesia Foundation and Ecology Project International donated resources for the first day's breakfast and lunch, t-shirts with the Naveducando logo and the remuneration to the diving and sailing instructors. The teaching material could also be used thanks to this collaboration.

At 10 years old, in the middle of the sea and next to the Samba, Doménika Yépez felt real confidence to give her first strokes and swam. His mother, Gioconda Véliz, confesses that at first he was a little hesitant that his daughter travel alone on the cruise, but then agreed because she knew she could not pay what they offered: navigate the islands for five days with everything paid and live a unique life experience. Then, he only packed in his daughter's backpack a sun-blocker, a bathing suit and several changes of clothes. The cell phone was prohibited since the purpose was to establish a connection with nature. He acknowledges that his daughter “came back with a mental change and met several animals. Now he talks about conservation in the house and learned to swim. ” Doménika is amazed that she met animals she had never seen as manta rays, frigates, killer whales and even a starfish with black dots "that looks like a chocolate chip cookie," he laughs. Paradoxically, one of the things that cost him the most to learn, but that he values ​​a lot, is to spend the day without his cell phone. When he arrived home he told his mother that he saw some boobies dancing to attract females, that had never seen him and that image remained in his memory to accompany her as part of the memories that the sea breeze and waves they will leave her and now share with her mother. Doménika and some of her travel companions learned to swim, this will surely mark her life forever.

Twelve students from Isabela Island in Galapagos already know something more about the wonder environment that surrounds them. Roby, Juan Manuel, Vale and all the team that was formed expect this first group to begin a tradition in the islands and that all the seventh-grade Basic Education boys make this trip at the end of the elementary school and before entering high school. “We need the support of all tour operators, the dream is not just a dream; It is workable, we need a lot of [people like] Juan Manuel, ”says Roby and Vale adds“ And a lot of Sambas ”. "The commitment of organizations that want to contribute with the value of the trip" is required. At the moment we are talking with an NGO that is interested in supporting this initiative and they are waiting for good news.

The Galapagos Islands, with one of the largest marine reserves on the planet, is surrounded by a dynamic fauna with more than 3,500 species of which 23% is endemic. It is undoubtedly a privileged place in the world and where the dream of these good Ecuadorians could come true.

Gadiel, Kerli, Itha, Naidaly, Daisy, Joshua, Emily, Selena, Erika, Soña, Érick and Doménika were part of a dream and also fulfilled theirs. The challenge today is that the experience be replicated and all children living in Galapagos can live the experience of knowing their home, their islands, and then love them and work with conviction and fortitude in their true conservation.

Tourism in Galapagos: Down

The Galapagos National Park Service and the Ecuadorian Ministry of the Environment released the 2019 report on tourism in the islands a few days ago.  The numbers show a (modest) drop from the previous year.   Overall, they record the arrival of 271,238 visitors in 2019, down from 275,817 in 2018 (a 1.7% drop).   The drop is largely attributable to reduced number of Ecuadorians coming in from the mainland.  33% of visitors to Galapagos are Ecuadorian.  Numbers show a 5% reduction in their number. Foreign visitors increased by 0.3%.  

 This is a welcome respite to otherwise very rapid growth in visitation.   Over the past 10 years, total numbers have grown on average by 6.3%, with 173,000 visitors in 2010 and 271,000 in 2019.   Given that ship-based tourism is strictly capped (numbers more or less steady at 73,000 / year), growth (or reductions) is almost exclusively related to land-based tourism.

Rapid land-based tourism growth poses a challenge for the transport sector.

If the ship-based numbers are removed from the calculation, growth in the past 10 years has averaged at 8.2% / year (see graph below).   At this rate, one can project that the 1,000,000 visitor mark will be reached in only 19 years.   

Unbridled tourism growth in Galapagos has raised concerns from the UNESCO World Heritage Committee.  It first raised concerns in 2006, and despite repeated requests for a clear way forward regarding tourism growth management in this World Heritage site (the first ever to be put on the list), very little evidence of any action on the part of the government is visible.   

Los Kioskos - cheap fast-food in Galapagos for land-based visitors.

The increase in the movement of people and goods from the continent to the islands makes it more likely that species not native to Galapagos (alien species) will be introduced to the islands, causing potential havoc with the native wildlife.  Alien species are already present in Galapagos and a lot of work is carried out to try to reduce their impact / eliminate them.  Well-known alien species include goats, rats, mice and frogs.  Perhaps even more concerning is the introduction of insects and diseases affecting wildlife.

For those on a ship-based visit, the growth in tourism numbers is thankfully barely noticeable.  The Galapagos National Park  Service has done an exemplary job in ensuring that the experience for ship-based visitors remains exceptional.    Most visitor sites are dispersed throughout the archipelago and not accessible to land-based visitors.  Ship itineraries are carefully crafted to ensure little overlap between different ships at the same visitor site.  

Remote visitor sites are accessible only by expedition cruise ship. 

 

More interesting numbers:

 

Lost tortoise cousins found on remote volcano

On January 31st, my former colleague, Wilson Cabrera, returned from a successful 9 day field trip to the northwestern flanks of Wolf Volcano, located at the top end of Isabela Island.   Here are some of his excellent pictures. 

Standing on an A'a' lava flow, just about straddling the equatorial line - looking southwest towards Ecuador volcano. 

 

Location of pictures taken.  

Wilson was part of a 45 member trip to the island, searching for giant tortoises that might be related to relatives from other Galapagos islands that have gone extinct.    The team found 30 tortoises of mixed origin.   The ultimate objective of the trip is to contribute to restoration efforts.   The plan is to re-populate islands that lost their tortoise populations due to human hunting and predation with giant tortoises as closely related to the species originally inhabiting that island roam free again. 

Hiking over A'a' lava - also known as "boot eating lava".  Sharp like broken glass.  NW slopes of Wolf Volcano.

 

A cousin of Floreana or Pinta island tortoises perhaps.   This fellow (and his friends in the photo below) is possibly having his (or her) first encounter ever with humans.

Back in the 1700’s and 1800’s, tortoises were routinely collected by whalers, pirates and other seafarers as a handy food source (e.g. 1700’s, 1800’s).  They could be easily stored on ships and survived for months without food or water.   The story goes that some ships, for one reason or another, would have collected tortoises for Floreana and Pinta Islands, only to have left them on the northern part of Isabela Island.  This could have been due to ship wrecks on Isabela’s shores, or for unknown reasons, the tortoises were dropped off or tossed overboard near the island and managed to make their way ashore (giant tortoises can easily spend weeks floating in the sea). 

Playful or Lazy? Dolphins Ride the Bow Wave

One of the most delightful spectacles while on an expedition cruise in Galapagos is watching dolphins ride your ship’s bow wave.   The dolphins will actually seek it out.  If there’s a group of dolphins in the vicinity of you ship, you’ll often see them change course and make a beeline for the boat.   Clearly, the boat is not a source of stress for them.   

Bow-riding dolphins hardly have to exert themselves to move forward.  As the ship advances, it creates a pressure wave at its bow – a bit like having a strong tail wind while you’re on a bicycle.   While in that wave, dolphins have little more to do than just navigate to ensure they’re going in the right direction.   There is little need to flap their tails for propulsion.    Dolphins fitted with heart rate monitors helped scientists conclude that while bow-riding, the dolphin heart rates can be up to 70% slower than when they’re swimming in open waters.  

You’ll likely have half a dozen of more of them surfing the wave as close as 1 meter (3 feet) from the ship’s bow, usually very near the surface.   While they’re doing this, you can spot them turning sideways and, apparently, looking up at you as well.   You can also hear their whistles and chirps – it seems that while bow riding, they’re still communicating.  What might they be saying?

The fine details of their bodies can be observed, including tell-tale scratches along their dorsal area, typically resulting from playing nibbling between individuals.   It’s also a good opportunity to watch their behaviour and how they interact.  Dolphins are very social animals and are constantly touching / nudging each other. 

I’ve not been on a cruise where I’ve not had the chance to see some bow-riding dolphins.  It’s always a pleasure.   You can sense that these animals are having fun, that they’re playing with the wave and with each other, and you do feel that they’re also looking at you, perhaps wondering about those funny looking creatures on the boat, and maybe feeling a bit sad that we’re not able to jump in and enjoy the fun with them. 

 

The new 100 passenger Silversea ship emerges from its construction yard in the Netherlands last week.  Though this ship is likely to be one of the most luxuriious in Galapagos, its naval architects somehow didn't factor in a way to faciliate the observation of bow-riding dolphins.   The bow projects well forward of the waterline, the deck is a good 8 meters above and the railing is angled in such a way as to make it very difficult to look over the edge and down to the bow. 

 

The 16 passenger tourist superior class Angelito is perfectly adapted to watching bow-riding dolphins.  The deck is only 1-2 meters above the water line, the railing is near-vertical and the bow is nearly directly below the the railing.   

If you’re keen on watching bow-riding dolphins, it’s important to note that not all ships are designed to allow for easy observation.  Typically, smaller ships (e.g. 20 or fewer passengers) can have you go to the very front of the deck, and look over the railing to the spot where the bow is plowing through the waves – often just  3-4 meters below (9-12 feet).   Larger ships usually don’t allow for that kind of observation – on those ships, watching bow-riding dolphins may not be an option.  If you're keen on choosing a ship that allows for easy observation of bow-riding dolphins, let us know. 

To see a short a video I made of my son (10 years old at the time) watching a bunch of dolphins having a great time on our ship’s bow wave, nearly arm’s length away, click here

Our very own Heather featured as a trailblazer

Heather Blenkiron, the woman at the other end of the CNH Tours email / telephone since 2003 (until she was joined by Kelsey Bradley in 2018) was invited to be featured in AS Pioneer's "Women Trailblazers of 2019" on-line magazine.   The magazine was looking for women who had followed a passion and turned it into a business.   

For many years Heather has been singularly focused on making sure all of our guests receive her undivided attention to the fullest of her abilities.   It has paid off - as our business grew and grew in the absence of any advertising budget at all.   Since we organized our first trip in 2000, we've helped nearly 4,500 people plan and enjoy their Galapagos trip of a lifetime.  

Bravo Heather!  

To see the full article, click here.  

Rivers of lava flowing down Fernandina

The most volcanically active island in Galapagos is at it again.   Several wide rivers of lava began flowing down its upper slopes yesterday - as shown in the Galapagos National Park Service photo below.   Fernandina most recently and dramatically erupted in June 2018, with lava flows making it all the way to the sea, resulting in fantastic displays of steam and lightning.  

Located on the western edge of the archipelago, this 642 km2 (248 sq mi),1,476 m (4,843 ft) tall island is among the most pristine such islands in the world.   Humans visit only one designated site (accessible by expedition cruise only), while scientists occasionally venture in other parts. 

Most recently, Galapagos park staff and scientists carried out expeditions to the upper slopes in search of the lost Fernandina Giant Tortoise.  Last seen many decades ago, occasional signs of a surviving population are spotted.   The expidition in fact concluded that there were still Fernandina Giant Tortoises living on the island.   Chances are that this latest eruption would not wipe them out, as the affected area would likely represent a relatively small fraction of the entire island's surface. 

Those fortunate enough to be scheduled for a cruise in the next few days, and having an itinerary taking them to this part of the archipelago, should be in for a nice show.   But hurry - such eruptions in Galapagos typically don't last for more than a few days, or at best, a week or two.      

 

  

 

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