Galapagos News

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.      

 

  

 

Abducted by aliens, prodded by scientists, local hero goes home after 50 years!

(suggested sound track to accompany this article, click here)

 

He was kidnapped by aliens 50 years ago, imprisoned and subjected to scientific experiments.  He ended up rescuing his compatriots from total obliteration and, as the story ends, he makes it back home, safe and sound.   

No, this isn't the latest Hollywood timetraveling blockbuster sci-fi thriller - but the story of Diego, a giant tortoise from Española island.  

All was well for the Española tortoises... until humans arrived on the scene.  About 200 years ago, whalers and explorers started stopping in at Española to replenish food stocks - and giant tortoises was what they were after.  Tender of flesh, surviving for months in ships' holds, Española island tortoises were easy (the island is relatively flat) and sought-after prey.   When the first census was carried out by scientists, they counted only a handful of them remaining, including 2 males, of which Diego. 

Hapless Diego was transported back to the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island, along with another male and 12 females.  Together, they helped restore Española's giant tortoise population to over 2,000 individuals today.  

For the two years that we lived at the Charles Darwin Research Station, Diego was our neighbour, happily doing his duty in the giant tortoise pens just a 2 minute walk from our front door.   

The Galapagos National Park Service declared that the Española giant tortoise was now out of harm's way, and that the tortoise restoration work carried out by it and by the Darwin Station would come to an end.   His duty done, Diego will be returned to his native island in March.   

Chocolate Dolphins, Tortoises, Fish and Penguins Oh My!

Yesterday we received a big package in the mail.  While we receive a lot of mail at CNH Tours (most of our guests pay simply by popping a cheque in the mail), we rarely receive a package.  Was someone paying in cash, using small bills only? 

Keen to find out, we opened it right away and found a box of Galapagos themed chocolates!  They were sent by the owners of the Theory, the Origin and the Letty.  

We've worked closely with these ships (and their predecessors) for nearly 20 years now.  We helped a group of friends charter the luxury 20 passenger Origin last year, and sent several other happy guests on its other ships.  It's so nice to be working with ships in which we have absolute confidence.  We know that whoever books on one of those ships will have a trip of a lifetime.  

Kelsey and Heather (L-R) about to partake in some Galapagos choco-wildlife

Thank you to our colleagues in Florida and Quito (Santiago, Doris, Maria Fernanda, Paulina, Iliana). 

Alive and Kicking - penguin defies life expectency

 (The following story was translated and adapted from an article that appeared in El Universo, an Ecuadorian newspaper, on 2nd January 2020).

The oldest Galapagos penguin found to date is a nearly 18 year-old female.  She was recently recaptured by scientists from the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) and the Galapagos National Park Directorate (DPNG) on Isabela Island.  She was first captured in 2004 when she was approximately two years old, an age at which the plumage is very characteristic for these birds.

"In 2016 it was recaptured, and with that event,  all previously generated knowledge on Galapagos penguins was set aside because it was thought that this endemic species lived an average of about 11 years. These new findings about its life expectancy allows scientists to suggest new conservation strategies" the CDF says in a statement.

The Galapagos penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus) is the only species of penguin that lives in tropical areas, above the equator. The presence of this species in the Galapagos is made possible by the complex system of cold sea currents, which are very productive.  For this reason, it is known that penguins depend on upwelling areas that facilitate cold currents because typically, cooler waters are higher in oxygen and sustain more life on which the penguins depend for food. 

This is why penguins are very sensitive to changes in water temperature.   Strong El Niño events can be devastating to Galapagos penguin populations.   The last such events were in 1982-83 and again in 1997-98.   Warmer waters sustain less life, and penguins can starve to death.

During these two El Niño events, scientists estimated that penguin populations fell by about 60%.. At present, although the population numbers of the penguins in Galapagos have increased, numbers have not yet reached the levels surveyed in 1970.  

This species faces other important threats that affect its long-term conservation, such as invasive species (rats and cats) that feed on their chicks, pathogens, parasites and heavy metal contamination that affect their health, and negative human interaction caused by some drifting fishing nets in which they get caught.

The continuation of the long-term research of these birds by the CDF contributes to a better understanding of their current state and provides information that help develop smart conservation actions. 

During the penguin population monitoring campaigns between 2001 to 2018, a total of 1,822 individuals were tagged, of which 1,011 were recaptured. Of these, the oldest individuals who are 14, 13 and 12 years old, respectively, were first captured when they were chicks in 2004 and 2005.

Penguins are attentive parents, spending a long time helping their young grow into independent individuals.  This leads to low reproduction rates.  Thankfully, their long lifespans helps balance things out, ensuring the overall survival of the species.

 

 

 

Their population in the wild, which are quite fluctuating and small, is estimated to be less than 2,000 individuals, making them one of the rarest and most vulnerable bird species on the planet.  

 

Small barge capsizes, spilling diesel

A small barge used to ferry containers between cargo ships and a local dock capsized yesterday as the crane used to load a container-sized generator tipped onto in.  It happened on the very northern end of the aptly called “Wreck Bay” in which the town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno lies (San Cristobal Island).   

Authorities reported that a  total of 600 gallons / 2,500 litres of diesel fuel (i.e. 2.5 cubic metres – or about the volume of 1 large sized kitchen refrigerator) were spilled.    The government of Ecuador immediately activated its emergency response team to try to mop up as much of the mess as possible.

The town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno is host to a large sea lion colony – one of the main attractions of the town’s waterfront.   Though the volume of diesel spilled is not particularly big, and the colony is located a fair distance from the spill, it could have serious effects on the sealions if they happened to swim into the spill area.    Mopping up the floating diesel slick as soon as possible is the best approach to dealing with the mess.   Typically, towel sized sponges are throwing into the slick and removed.   It’s not very high tech – and likely does not clean everything up, but thankfully, the warm waters and tropical sun help with the evaporation of most of what would not have been scooped up within 24-48 hours.   Despite the small size of the spill and its relatively short term duration, localized impacts on the immediate shoreline ecosystems (e.g. crabs and such) will be felt.   

This spill should not have any effect whatsoever on visitor experiences in Galapagos, though it’s a reminder of how easily these things can happen.   Puerto Baquerizo Moreno has witnessed a few larger shipwrecks in recent years, as cargo vessels have been prone to run aground on the shoals just outside of town.   See our 2015 news item on one such incident here.

For a video of this dramatic event, click here.   

Delivering a letter to the park director

I’m in Galapagos these days.   I’m “gathering intelligence” – ensuring that we maintain close ties to the community here – both the tourism one, and that of our old friends and colleagues.   One of the tasks I had on my list was to deliver a letter from the director of the International Galapagos Tour Operators’ Association – IGTOA -  (Matt Kareus) to the Galapagos National Park director (Jorge Carrion).

I’m on the IGTOA board of directors.   IGTOA represents many tour operators that together, send thousands of people to Galapagos every year.   IGTOA’s mission is to:  “preserve the Galápagos Islands as a unique and priceless world heritage that will provide enjoyment, education, adventure and inspiration to present and future generations of travelers.”

We learned recently (see our news item posted on the 23rd of August this year) that the Park and the Governing Council of Galapagos were considering an increase in the national park entrance fee.  It has effectively been at $100 for 30 years now.   Raising the park fee seems like a no-brainer for local Galapagos interests.  In fact, some local stakeholders are opposed to it. 

Out of control growth of mostly low-end land-based tourism in Galapagos (18% growth between 2017 and 2018) has lead to the proliferation of informal tourism service providers catering to budget visitors (one blogger boasted that he was able to spend 7 days here for $251, all inclusive).   In a race to the bottom, quality of service is suffering.   What we end up with is a proliferation of informal, opportunistic businesses that are destined to limp along indefinitely, if not struggle and fail.  They have no surplus with which to invest in ensuring quality service, infrastructure and staff.    These same service providers feel that raising the park fee will discourage these low end visitors from coming to the islands and are not happy with the proposal. 

But not all service providers in Galapagos are against the park fee increase.  I have had the opportunity to meet dedicated hotel, restaurant and ship owners who are invested in their businesses and who lament the very rapid growth of land-based tourism here.  They are caught up in the race to the bottom, making it difficult for them to compete with the black market, or with those that are more willing to cut safety, security and quality corners.   Locals also lament the growing crowds that squeeze them out of their beaches, swimming holes and parks.    

IGTOA believes that raising the park fee to a level commensurate with the unique, iconic status of this World Heritage site will contribute to strengthening the ability of the Galapagos National Park Service to do its work.  CNH Tours adds that raising the fee will also encourage prospective visitors to pause and to reflect on the undertlying motivations that are driving them to visit the islands.  We are confident that those who have been dreaming about visiting Galapagos for a long time will not be discouraged.  At the end of the day, only a small number of people on this planet have the right combination of means and passion to consider exploring these islands and it's important that we understand the privilege to be in such a position.   Visiting the Galapagos islands should also be commensurate with the promotion of a healthy, locally owned businesses that provide services that generate enough revenue to support owners, their families and the community, with enough surplus to reinvest in improving overall quality. 

IGTOA surveyed its member companies to confirm that we were all on board.  The companies overwhelmingly supported an increase.   Though this may seem contrary to our commercial interests, at the end of the day, we recognize that these funds will support conservation and management efforts of the national park. 

Asked what we thought might be a reasonable amount, the weighted average of the IGTOA member responses came to $280.  

Based on this survey of member companies, IGTOA’s executive director (our only employee, and half-time at that – we like to run a lean operation…) penned a letter of support for the park director, sharing the sentiment of Galapagos tour operators with him.  As I had already been planning to travel to Galapagos to attend the Charles Darwin Foundation’s annual general meeting (I’m on the governing body there), I was tasked to deliver the IGTOA letter directly to the park director. 

This afternoon, it was my pleasure to hand the letter over to Jorge Carrion.  I told Jorge he had one of the most distinct jobs on the planet – director of the iconic Galapagos national park, the first ever site to be inscribed onto the World Heritage list.  

 

Yet more international money for renewables in Galapagos

Published today in the El Telegrafo newspaper in Ecuador

The Government of Ecuador has allocated, thanks to the support of international cooperation, more than 55 million dollars in the construction of renewable energy projects in the Galapagos Islands, with the aim of promoting wind and solar.

This was reported on Monday, October 28, by the Ministry of Energy and Non-Renewable Natural Resources.   The investment seeks to encourage the production of renewable energy for electricity generation in Galapagos, particularly in the islands of Santa Cruz, Baltra, San Cristobal, Isabela and Floreana (those islands with a permanent human population) with the replacement update use of fossil fuels, benefiting more than 25,000 thousand inhabitants.

The initiative is promoted by the Ministry of Energy and Non-Renewable Natural Resources, through the electricity company ELECGALAPAGOS, with the aim of eradicating the use of petroleum-derived fuels and the emission of CO2 into the environment. According to the document, it is expected that by 2025 the islands of San Cristóbal, Santa Cruz, Isabela and Floreana will be able to count on 9.1 MW, 15 MW, 1.8 MW and 0.17 MW, respectively, of renewable energy such as wind and solar.

In 2018, the total energy generated in the archipelago was 56,897.64 MWh / year, of which 16 percent corresponded to renewable sources. In 2018, the Government of Ecuador inaugurated the Isabela Hybrid project, which today consumes 34 percent less fuel than the old thermal power plant, saving 1,400 tons of CO2 per year. Also, through cooperation with the Government of Korea, a 1.0 MWp photovoltaic project was carried out in San Cristóbal, which will have a 2.2 MWh storage system.

NOTE FROM CNH TOURS:   We've written about other such grants in the past:

The Galapagos islands receive a disproportionate share of international cooperation funds for the development of renewable energy.  The iconic archipelago appears to be a draw for marketing purposes and/or as a pretext for a visit by those involved in the projects.   While the islanders are lucky to be the recipients of such support, those that invest funds in providing renewable energy projects could be encouraged to provide additional funds for energy conservation work as well.  While living in Galapagos, we were always impressed by buildings not designed to be cooled by air conditioning (e.g. the complete absence of any insulation in the buildings, about as air tight as a screened-in porch) while being fitted with multiple air conditioners operating almost constantly in the hot season.  

Investing $10 million in helping retrofit these buildings would like reduce the consumption of electricity by an amount close to what will be generated from these $55 milllion solar and wind powered plants.   

Government and Indigenous Groups Announce End of Nationwide Strike

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

WHAT SHOULD YOU DO? 

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

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

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

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

Background

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

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

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

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

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

WHAT YOU NEED TO DO

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

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

Streets blocked by protesters on the mainland

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

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

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

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

President announces belt tightening economic measures

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

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

EL COMERCIO, 1 OCTOBER 2019

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

Lenino Moreno, president of Ecuador

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

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

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

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

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

FURTHER NOTES FROM CNH TOURS

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

 

Tortoise thief placed in preventive detention

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

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

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

CNH TOURS ADDS

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

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

See: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Park director under pressure to resign

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

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

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

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

In Juan Salcedo’s words:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With Galapagos you do NOT play!

5 SEPTEMBER UPDATE!

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

Peruvian fishing vessels apprehended in Galapagos waters

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

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

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

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

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

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

CNH TOURS ADDS: 

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

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

Park fee increase for January 2021? Perhaps...

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

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

The fee is distributed as follows:

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

A higher park entrance fee is justified and overdue.    

 

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

What does a Galapagos snake have for Breakfast?

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

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

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

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

Coffee or tea with that lava lizard?

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

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

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

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